After you’ve broken

If I am learning anything from my long journey toward becoming a writer, it has something to do with kindness.

Oh, sure, there’s courage and honesty and creative word-smithing. Those seem important. Discipline, scalpel-sharp critical thinking, dogged commitment. Yup. Lucky breaks, too, and putting in your time and learning how to get by with less. But really, at the very bottom of it, I find it’s kindness that is the most essential to continuing forward.

I’m not talking about empty kindness, easy kindness, the stuff of courtesy and politeness. Real kindness. The undeserved, the unbidden, the unworthy, the unending. And I’m talking about being kind to yourself.

I nearly broke myself last winter when I was kicking my own ass in a brightly lit apartment thousands of miles and an ocean away from home. I was working on my first book-length manuscript, demanding myself to write at least 1000 words a day and a chapter a week for twelve weeks. I was demanding myself to write the best book ever written, the best adventure story, the best gay marriage story. I was demanding myself to write a story that could change the world, that would subvert and surprise and give and give. I was writing a story that could save my relationship with my siblings and could teach my parents. It was a story that was true and right. I was demanding perfection.

Meanwhile, I was physically ill. I was depressed. I was pretty sure I was an egocentric hack. I went spiraling down a vortex of doubt feeding fear feeding frustration feeding doubt. I survived the vortex.

Some folks don’t.

Six months later, thanks to a friend’s suggestion and an editor’s selection, I found myself sitting in a circle of writers seeking our stories together at the incomparable Summer Fishtrap workshop in eastern Oregon. Across the circle sat Luis Alberto Urrea, who told of his own doubt-fear-frustration-doubt vortex that led him to the edge of everything. He survived. And returned to the world of the living with the gorgeous epic The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

If you survive the vortex does not mean you will produce a gorgeous epic. Nor am I saying you must go through the vortex in order to produce brilliance. But I do believe that to tell a great story you must be willing to face the truth of things, and you very well may balk in the face of that truth. And if you balk, it very well may be kindness which allows you to escape with your life and your story.

Later that same week of Fishtrap, the poet Kim Stafford explained to us how his father, the poet William Stafford, wrote. I find it the daily expression of writerly-kindness-to-self:

1) Write the date.
2) Write boring prose.
3) Write into an aphorism or koan – a self-contained observation or idea
4) write the thing.

Kim made us practice his father’s technique. This is what I wrote that day:

7/9/14

Today is Wednesday. I had a harder time waking this morning than yesterday. I didn’t hear as many birds and I am not sure if there actually were fewer birds or if I just couldn’t or didn’t hear them today. No hummingbirds yet today. Or dippers.

I’m wondering as always about the good that will come out of this. This is writing church, but I distrust all churches. I like to believe that this mistrust is not because I believe I do not deserve the sanctuary, but because I doubt the truth of sanctuary in the first place. Or if not truth, then usefulness. Though the use is obvious to be kind to oneself. To be kind to yourself means being kind to everything you know about yourself. Being kind to the ugliness. To be kind to the fear, to be kind to the doubts, the anger, the endless river of voices. These are my voices and every other voice I have ever heard.

Give me the strength to survive this, the going out, the falling. And give me the strength to still be kind, long after I’ve broken against the bedrock.

And then I wrote the thing:

To the Writer

Never tell the names
of the smallest gods whirring
behind your ears, but do not
swat them either, cursing

be kind to everything you know
about yourself, even your doubt
even your hate
even your own death

be kind long after you have
leaped, after you have
fallen, after you have broken against bedrock


Applications are open until December 15th for 2015 Summer Fishtrap Fellowships and Scholarships.

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Write Your Manifesto

A week ago, a friend of mine asked me to speak to her class. Lauren was teaching her juniors and seniors how to write a personal manifesto. After hearing that I had written and published my own manifesto a few years ago, Lauren thought I’d be the perfect guest lecturer.

Here’s the thing: my manifesto is all about how to queer ecology. It challenges assumptions of sexuality and gender and naturalness. Lauren and I live in a rural town in western Colorado. People here ranch and hunt elk and wear cowboy boots.  I try not to stereotype people based on their appearance. I mean, I wear flannel and have a big beard and wear cowboy boots too. But I do know this community. There are very religious, very conservative families here. There’s a spray-painted sign as you enter town that says “Frack Obama.”  I was reasonably concerned that the high schoolers might not be too excited to hear about queering, not to mention ecology.

I wore cowboy boots to class. And good thing, because when I entered I found that the class consisted of six stone-faced teenage boys, some in camouflage, others cross-armed behind hoodies. Lauren handed over the reigns, and I stood at the board, a copy of my essay in hand, and acted as macho and confident as I could.

After a brief introduction, during which I did not mention queering nor ecology, I got them writing by asking them this:

Why are you angry? All the reasons big and small, why are you angry? Make a list or not. Offer explanation or not. Why are you angry?

After five minutes, during which they wrote furiously, I told them this:

If you had total power, god-like super-hero power, choose one of these things that you are mad about and then explain what you would change, and why.

After another five minutes of them writing, I stopped them and said:

This is a super-frustrating task, I know. You and I know that we don’t live in a world where we have total power. We never will. So what’s the point of thinking about the “IF”? It seems pointless to even contemplate.

BUT! Even though we will never be super heroes, I said, we still do have power to change the world. 

You can transform your anger into something that can convince people to make the change you wish to see. Convincing isn’t enough, though. You must also inspire people, too.

That is the manifesto.

We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about two manifestos that have shaped the world, my life, and my writing. The first one, to be fair, wasn’t a single manifesto but instead the collective works of Subcomandante Marcos, the public voice for the Zapatista indigenous rights movement of southern Mexico. For the last 20 years, Marcos has been informing the larger global audience about the struggles of the Zapatistas and the reasons why they continue to declare autonomy from the Mexican federal government. The Zapatistas offer many lessons for largely-peaceful social change movements, but Marcos in particular offers an example of someone writing from the place of immense pain and anger in an elegant and even entertaining way. Marcos convinces and inspires people within the Zapatista movement as well as millions of global citizens outside the movement. He has changed the shape of the world through his words.

The second manifesto I offered as example was Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer was a gay man in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic–I told the six high school boys–and he was very angry and very scared. He was watching his friends and family die all around him, and he was watching the city, state, and nation do nothing to stem the deaths. He transformed his anger into a biting critique that he published in the New York Native on March 14, 1983. The manifesto presented Kramer’s anger, but it also offered hope in the form of action. It focused the gay community to fight back against the disease and the institutional injustices that allowed the disease to cut down an entire segment of the US population without so much as an official announcement by the President of the United States. Kramer convinced and inspired.

With a few minutes left of class, I finally told the high school boys why I was mad. As an out gay man, I was very angry that people claimed gay people were unnatural. And so I had written into that anger, and I had tried to transform that anger into a story that could inspire, convince, and entertain.

I stood at the center of the room and read “How to Queer Ecology” to the class. I read about same-sex pair-bonded geese and the fluid sexual behavior of dolphins and how natural it feels for me to be held in the arms of the man I love.

When I finished, I thanked them for letting me join them for the day. That’s when Lauren and the boys began clapping. They clapped! Of all the best possible responses I had imagined that morning, I had not dared to hope that these six rural high school boys would clap for me.

And so, here’s one more thing about a manifesto: if you can muster the courage to look into the face of your own anger and own it, and then if you can transform that anger into a story that can move people, that can empower people, that can convince and inspire and entertain, then you can change the world. Because you will have empowered yourself. You will have found your voice. You will know what you need to do.

Here’s the really crazy thing: others will see how you have empowered yourself, will hear your voice, and they will want to speak up too. After class, as I was signing out at the front desk, the boy in camouflage stopped halfway out the door, turned to me, and said:

“Thank you for sharing what you did today in class.”

My heart shook with gladness and hope, cowboy boots and all.