A Year in the Life: Week 3 – Letter to a Columnist

May 17, 2013

This week, the writing exercise from A Year in the Life was to write a letter to a columnist giving “advice” about something you’ve been through.

Since so many people seem preoccupied with finding “the one,” I wrote about how my romantic life blossomed after I’d decided to give up dating “for good.”

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My Last Day of One Job, Embarking on Another

May 3, 2013

Yesterday was my last official day as Teen Services Librarian for the Marshall-Lyon County Library. My heart is sort of breaking over it–I loved that job so much, but it was a two-hour commute, one way, once a week. I’m still processing all of that, and might blog about it more extensively, but for now, I’m working on a new writing “job” to help take my mind off it. I’ve started doing the weekly exercises in Sheila Bender’s A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self Discovery. Before embarking on them, she encourages you to “hire” yourself as a journal keeper. I found this exercise very empowering, because it allowed me to reflect upon how freakin’ qualified I am for the job. I definitely encourage other writers to try it. Below are some of my entries from the exercise, consisting of the Job Posting, My Application Letter, and the Interview.

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Writing My Way Toward Wholeness

December 3, 2012

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to do something I haven’t done since I was a teen — attend a writing retreat.

The retreat to mark my long absence from writers retreats, workshops, and conferences was Writing Our Way Toward Wholeness, an exploration of writing as a spiritual practice. It was incredibly nourishing, and just what I needed after the frenzy of NaNoWriMo — a nice chunk of time to reflect, to slow down, to reconnect with my inner self, and to write in my journal — something I sorely missed when most of my words were going toward Rapunzel in November. Most of all, I appreciated that the retreat was not focused on craft or achievement, but on rediscovering writing as a tool in a spiritual journey.

This retreat has come at the right time for me, as I continue to adjust to life as a married woman and call often upon the depths of my spirit to stay in touch with the person I most want to be, for myself and for my partner. It’s also reaffirmed the turn I’ve felt my writing life taking recently, which is slightly inward. When I quit full-time employment at the end of 2007 to do freelance work full-time, one of my goals was to have more time for my writing so that it could achieve more — so I could publish, write more for a real audience, and overall start to take myself more seriously as a writer. I did accomplish those things, and that’s a journey I continue to take. But there’s another, equally important path emerging, and that is a reconnection with writing for the sake of writing.

I’ve always written as a way to cope with my life in various ways — to escape, to feel worthwhile, to remember, to give voice to my joys and heartbreak and confusion. But since a fifth-grade teacher put the idea in my head that I was good at this, there’s been an achievement-orientation behind a lot of my writing. I desperately wanted to be published, and saw much of the time I spent writing as a way to bring me closer to that goal. Now I have achieved that goal, although not in the ways I most yearn for — but I find I don’t yearn for that as strongly as I once did. My dreams of publication are not slumbering, but whether I publish or not has less power now to influence my self-perception as a writer.

Continuing to write despite an accumulating pile of rejections, continuing to write now truly understanding and believing that many of my novels will probably never see publication, has reminded me that writing does not have to be about finding an audience. The joy and frenzy of NaNoWriMo drove this home for me, too — that writing is valuable for its own sake. That it’s valuable for the way it gives me a new way to experience the world, for the way it allows me to connect with myself, for the way it clears some of the clutter in my mind. And that if what I’ve written does not get published or does not even prepare me for publishing something else at a later date, that’s okay. Because in some crucial way, it has deepened my soul, and brought me closer to my most authentic self — and what could be more important than that?

I leave you with a “nested meditation” from my retreat, which is when you start with a single line (provided by the facilitator in this case) and add to it with each repetition. It reminded me of a pantoum, which is one of my favorite forms of poetry.

In the other I find
the pieces missing from myself.

In the other I find
the pieces missing from myself
and hidden in his heart.

In the other I find
the pieces missing from myself
and hidden in his heart
where he surrounded his fear of death.

In the other I find
the pieces missing from myself
and hidden in his heart
where he surrounded his fear of death
with laughter.

The Book is Here … but What if They Don’t Like It?

October 2, 2012

I got my box of contributor copies of Hungering and Thirsting for Justice in the mail yesterday, so I promptly sent an email to all the friends and associates I thought might be interested in knowing about it. Interest was especially piqued amongst those who know me mostly in a Catholic context. My former boss at the Writing Center at The College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University let me know she’d pass the word on to the English and Theology faculty and get a copy for the campus libraries. And the priest from my home parish told me he’d order three copies, and send one to the bishop.

I fought the urge to respond, “But I don’t think the bishop will like it!”

Our publisher has been wonderful in backing us even though the book expresses, sometimes quite strongly, some views that are not in line with official Catholic teaching. And of course, now that the book is out in the world, I must deal with something I don’t have to deal with so much when my manuscripts stay on my computer: people are actually going to read this (I hope!), and not all of them are going to like it.

That fear has been niggling at me for the last month or so, as the reality of publication came closer and closer. I’ve always wondered if I’ll be one of those authors who doesn’t read reviews of her work, and it’s certainly tempting. But I’ve also realized that I already deal with the fact that some folks don’t like my writing on a regular basis.

Over at Young Adult Catholics, I’ve received negative or argumentative responses to my posts for almost as long as I’ve been writing them (my most recent, rather non-controversial post, is here). Some of them are reasonable, well-thought-out disagreements, but more commonly, they are a line or two implying that I’m a horrible Catholic, with no real invitation to continue a dialog past that point. There’s one particular commenter who seems to read my posts for the sole purpose of writing a snarky line or two in the comments. It’s gotten to where, when I see there’s a new comment on a blog post, I cringe before I open it, preparing for an attack. When it’s a supportive or even reasonable response, I breathe a huge sigh of relief and bask in a moment of profound gratitude.

It hurts, and it’s scary. Even in the midst of mostly positive remarks, it’s the negative ones that stick with us. But I keep writing because I need to. I keep writing because, I believe, other people need me to, too. I think the best thing about books and all the other written media out there in the world is that it makes us feel a little less alone. And as a progressive Catholic at a time when the Institutional Church is fondly reminiscing about Pre-Vatican II days, you can get to feeling pretty alone.

I continue to write out of gratitude for all the brave writers who have helped me feel less alone by putting their words on a page or on a screen.  I continue to write so that I, too, can remind people that we’re not alone. This means that I’ll continue to open myself up to reactions from people who don’t like what I have to say. That’s the price we pay for hitting “post” or for opening our mouths. It’s important to keep doing it anyway.

Why I Write: Because I’m Not Always Brave

July 27, 2011

Last night, I posted Ask Any Scientist! to Young Adult Catholics. The post argues against using “science” as a justification of homophobia. I knew as I was conceiving of, writing, and publishing the post that I was more likely to get flamed for it than to get support, as the commenters most active on that blog are those who like to pick it apart. My tone was a little more snarky than usual (homilies against same-sex marriage tend to bring out the snark in me), and even when I take the least offensive tone possible, my posts about women’s ordination and just treatment of GLBTQ individuals always get flamed.

For a moment, this made me wonder if making the post was worth it at all. Because I get weary of having people rail at me as if I’m a terrible person because I disagree with what my institution dictates that I believe. It always feels like a personal attack, as my Catholicism (and my feminism, and my bisexuality) are all core facets of my identity, so that attacking any one of these things feels like you’re attacking me and not an idea. I am Catholic. I am a feminist. I am bisexual. These are not ideas. These are the realities of living in my skin. I’m sorry if my reality is offensive to you (actually, I’m not. But I am sorry that I can’t live out my reality and speak my truth in peace, when doing so isn’t hurting anyone.)

Sure enough, the first comment I got on my post was one comparing my argument to the reasoning that eugenicists use. Often, I don’t even respond to these comments because it’s draining, and these people are never interested in dialogue. This time, I did respond. Whether I have the energy to continue the conversation remains to be seen.

Last night as I was deciding whether to go through with the post or not, two things pushed me forward. One was my deadline. I didn’t want to miss it, nor did I want to switch gears at the last minute when I’d struggled most of the day deciding on a topic to begin with. But the second reason was by far the more important one: I wondered, if we are not able to write about what we truly believe, if we are not able to write from our core, even when what’s at our core is pain or embarrassment or snarkiness or fear, then what good is writing at all? If I allow fear to start dominating my writing, then I lose a certain amount of integrity as a writer. And sometimes, my writing self is the one place where I feel my integrity remains intact.

Because here’s the truth: I let fear dominate my actions in real-life far too often. Although I write about being bisexual, there are still people I’m not “out” to in my real life. As my marriage to a man approaches, there are hundreds of people who I know now and will know in the future who will never see me as anything but straight, and I don’t go out of my way to correct them. Last week, I bit my tongue in response to two homophobic remarks. Both times, I rationalized my silence based on “professionalism” (since both happened within a work context.) Both times, I knew why I really remained silent: fear. Fear of being uncomfortable. Fear of having my professionalism compromised. Fear of “forcing” my ideas on others. Fear of many things, but ultimately, just plain old fear nonetheless.

Obviously, I don’t try to hide that hard. The Internet is not exactly a private place, and publishing is not exactly a private act. I know that a quick Google search could lay bare the many things I don’t always talk about in my day-to-day life. So I do consider this writing, knowing there could be offline repercussions, as an act of bravery. But sometimes, my writing feels like the only place in my life where I live up to the type of bravery and honesty I value. And that’s why it’s so important to keep doing it.

Writing Makes me Cry

August 31, 2009

. . . and I consider that a good thing.

I’m not always the greatest at being in touch with my emotions, which usually comes back to bite me. I went for a period of about five years in my life when nothing could make me cry, no matter how sad I felt. When I was in therapy, my therapist sometimes gave me the homework of writing letters — to myself and to others. Right away, I started noticing something: writing the letters made me cry.

But I had been writing unsent letters and journal entries forever. Why was this different? For one thing, writing “on assignment” forced me to delve deeply into issues and feelings I might have avoided otherwise. It also pushed me to go further with those issues than I would have on my own.

Most writers take a little while to “warm up” to their writing, and this is just as true in informal writing like letters, emails, or journal entries. Usually, my  journal writing at the end of the day remains short, perfunctory, capturing a few thoughts or images or memories. But it usually stays in the “safe” zone — where what I’m writing was more-or-less preplanned and stays within those safe bounds.

Despite my own habits, I heartily recommend going outside those safe bounds. If you’re writing about an emotionally charged experience and you’re not feeling much, you’re probably not going deep enough (unless you feel certain that you’ve totally resolved something, in which case, congratulations!). To take advantage of writing’s cathartic benefits to the utmost, we need to stop being ashamed to write what we REALLY think, stop being afraid someone might read it. This leads to new levels of honesty, to new depths of feeling. So as I continued to feel a little numb about my upcoming move away from Duluth, I knew what I had to do. I took my journal to Chester Park, hid behind some trees, and wrote a “goodbye” letter to Duluth. I noticed that I didn’t feel much for the first page and a half — the length of a usual entry for me. It wasn’t until I went past the “clearing my throat” and got to the meat of the matter — the way Duluth had and hadn’t let me down in seven years — that the tears I needed to shed finally started making their way out of my system. There are probably more where those came from, but it’s good to at least know the plumbing’s still working.

When I was in college, I did research on the benefits of journaling and discovered that

  • journalers sleep better at night
  • journalers get sick less often
  • in some cases, journaling can be as beneficial as traditional “talk therapy” for your mental health.

For some fascinating reading on the subject, check out Dr. James W. Pennebaker’s work, from which I gleaned most of the above facts. If your own writing ever brings you to tears, trust in the process and keep going. You’re probably doing something right.

On Publishing, the Internet, and Self Googling

March 23, 2009

I recently self-Googled in an attempt to see if any of my Demand Studios articles had been published. I didn’t find any of them yet, but self-Googling proved to be an enlightening experience, as always. Because I have a unique name, and because I’ve had a fairly public job for the last few years, I get over 5 pages of nothin’ but the real me when I self Google. Most of it is expected — interviews I gave while with my previous employer, blog posts I’ve written, and old college websites. But there’s always a bit of the unexpected, too, like finding out I was quoted in a Canadian blog about Catholic education.

I still remember a world without the Internet. As an adolescent, I wrote fan-fiction before I knew that fan-fiction even had a name. The first time I logged on at the age of 15, I was astounded and delighted to learn I wasn’t the only person in the world who wrote stories about characters I loved. I immediately began dreaming of a way to publish my fan-fiction online, thinking that “being online is almost as good as being published.” And for a 15-year-old in a rural area, it was. I wasn’t concerned so much with seeing my name in print or getting paid for my stories as I was with the ability to share them with readers. The Internet allowed me to do that–albeit under a fake name, as I was very ‘net cautious.

It has me thinking about how writing is a constant process of unraveling layers to get closer to the truth. The first layer, and often the hardest, is putting form to the thoughts twisting in your mind or beating in your heart. After that, there’s further unraveling when you share what you’ve written, and then again when you share it under your real name, and yes, again when you share it with the world by saying it on the Internet or putting it in print. The ‘net is currently buzzing about a man who lost his job through indescriminate Twittering, and while I like to pat myself on the back and believe I’m more savvy than that, sometimes even I–the girl who once wouldn’t even share my first name online–forget that there are some secrets I just have to let go of after speaking up about them just once online. It makes me realize that publishing, online or elsewhere, is a constant challenge to be brave enough to stand behind what you’ve said — at least, if you have an uncommon name.