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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On writing a memwah

Turns out writing a book is hard (real hard).  Who knew?  Likely just about everybody.  Except me.  Somehow, in my youthful wisdom (read whimsical naivete), I thought I could say I was writing a book.  And then just start writing.  And keep writing.  And voila, I’d have a book!

ImageNot true, good sirs.  Nope, turns out you have to dredge your soul.  Stir up all your demons.  Face all your doubts.  And fail.  And fail.  And fail.  And then after years of this–after the whole idea of the book-length story which you want to tell cuts you down right to your base, then, finally, maybe, it’s no longer an idea.  It’s an actual story-like thing.  And then, maybe, you can actually write it and write it and write it until it turns into a book-like thing.  More than a collection of words, but a body.  A living thing. That breathes and speaks and does the tango with itself and whoever else wants to join it.

Turns out writing a freaking memoir–or as I like to call it, a memwah–is real hardWriting a memwah means not only having to successfully tell an interesting story in the first place (which seems easy enough, but proves exceedingly difficult in practice), but that story also has to be true!  It also has to be fair to your dear loved ones who you are writing about–while also honoring your own, likely divergent perspective on shared histories and experiences.  On top of all of that, the real people I write about also have to be good characters–and the real events good plot.

Speaking of plot: it is the story of an adventure I undertook several years ago with my at-the-time-boyfriend-currently-husband Pete during which we paddled 1800 miles of the Yukon River.  The story is also about us falling in love, of getting married, and honeymooning in Everglades.  It’s also about making sense of love in general–and my gender and sexuality–within the culture in which I live.  It’s also about what and who is natural; where the line is between self and other; what we risk when we are true to our selves–our dreams, our loves, our desires; and what we have to gain.  It’s an adventure story.  And it’s a love story.  But it’s also a queer story, which hopefully means it will surprise and delight and confuse people and their expectations and assumptions.

Oh, golly.  Overly ambitious, right?

Well, as you might have guessed, all this is to say that I’ve dropped the ball on the blog for the past few months.  But for good reason: I was writing the story of my survival.  It took me to some of the darkest, scariest places in my life.  But the good news is that I’m seeing the light at the end of the river.  I’m days and weeks away from the first complete, 300ish-page, manuscript.  I will be starting to shop it around by the end of May.

For this moment when I’m about to embark once again into a new phase of the great unknown that is this living thing, I figured the following excerpt from Chapter 0 – Shape of a River would be fitting:

Peter says he’s feverish. He certainly looks a little pale. Phlegm rolls down my bronchial tubes, and I give a good hacking cough. We launch the boat anyway.

“To the sea,” I say.

“Sssslp, lpp, slep,” says the river against the boat.

I thought it was going to be more than this. There’s no ceremony, no witnesses except the lone Al-Can drivers that flash and rattle across the blue steel-girder bridge that crosses the river here. We talked for half a year, and then decided we had better start actually planning, like a couple who hadn’t believed they were pregnant until the belly started to show. What maps did we need? Were there even maps? Who could we talk to about the lower sections? How do we get home? What kind of boat do we need? How do we eat? We made our best guesses and figures from a third of a continent away. After a full month of packing and driving, driving and packing, packing, then yeah, more driving, we did arrive. In my dreams, we hadn’t looked quite so exhausted. A sign beside the launch reads: Warning: Stay clear of control structure. 400 Meters down stream. Stay right and use boat lock.

Maybe, at least, we look good to those lonely drivers rushing by overhead. If you squint your eyes and lean back a bit, you can see us even now: two lean figures in a loaded red canoe, ready. You don’t see Pouncer’s bow rocking dangerously low above the surface or the whole boat wobbling side to side as we clip our final possessions into it, grasp at the gunnel, perch ourselves half in and half out. You don’t see how lumpy our load is, all three hundred pounds of it, which we’ve squeezed into a family of canvas bags, river barrels, and plastic crates, all of it lashed to the thwart and crossbars. You also don’t see what that same load looked like half an hour prior when it looked more like a full-on yard sale or gas-main explosion.

It’s taken most the day to get on the water, and the sun already stalks to the north and west, pawing round the low dip between spruce and birch, right where we and the river intend to go. We squint as we look downstream, barely able to see it for all the shine and glare. I lift my foot out of the muddy bank while Pete braces the boat. I swear the whole thing nearly flips as I try to sit down. I grip my paddle with white knuckles, digging the tip of it into the shore. Then it’s Pete’s turn to climb in, kicking his feet clean of mud before picking up the paddle. We roost our butts in our seats for several seconds, find places to set the soles of our shoes. And just now, we strike off from the shore, shoving water around without plan until the current catches us and brings us along. We spin in stutter-step unison, Pete sterning on starboard, I bow on port. The sun pushes in through Pouncer’s translucent hull and the light breaks around my legs like an aurora. The sea must be down there somewhere, out beyond what we can possibly know. We push and the river pulls. “We live and move by splitting the light of the present, as a canoe’s bow parts water” says Annie Dillard. And so Peter and I face the setting sun, all that can come, and we paddle one-two, one-two, one-two-three.

The control dam rises up through the sheen, a long and low thing, like the open gates of a horse race, spanning the full fifty-yard width of the river. The current flows right on through the dam, which was built to hold back the water only when there was too much of it for the liking of the downriver residents. We can’t go through any of the open gates without risking our lives and Pouncer’s, so we push river right, slipping between the rusted seawalls of the lock which rise around us like a shipping crate or cell. Closing off the end are doors like old river rafts mounted and hinged. Just as in a dream, a ladder appears, lines of rebar welded to one of the walls. I tie Pete and Pouncer off, then pull myself up on top of the dam, intent on finding the doorbell.

There is none. What there is is a long lever that you can unlock. And a big wheel like you’d find on a sailboat. I am able to unlock the lever, which is about as long as I am tall, but there’s no moving it. As for the wheel, it turns and turns and turns just fine, and would all night long, I believe. With no other options, I holler down at Pete for help. Pete checks again that the boat’s tied off well, which I don’t see him do, but know just the same that he does it, and then he climbs up the dream ladder too. I show him the situation: turning wheel, unmoveable lever, unblinking door-rafts. We’d purposely put in above the lock, just to get the thrill of the experience, I suppose.

Pete throws his whole buck-twenty-five against the lever, then he decides we need our combined two-ninety. One, two, three–we throw ourselves against the lever, which doesn’t even creak and gives only the slightest shrug of a bend. As for the doors? Dead. We do what anybody who’s hit a sudden dead-end does: we scowl, curse, and toss up our hands toward the sky. And we look for ways around.

“I sure as hell don’t want to portage,” I say to Pete. We’d have to make five, six, eight trips to haul all of our gear up and around the dam, then back down the steep slope to an unlikely put-in. I’m more afraid of the psychological trauma than I am of the physical challenge. Even though the distance is short, it could take us another two hours, at least. It is late already. Ten? Eleven in the evening?

The sun is still setting these days around midnight, though we’d probably have enough light to get wherever it was we needed to go for the night. Our plan had been to just get on the river, float down a mile or two, and then find a camp. I hack. Pete broodingly raises his brow first to the bank, then toward the river, which he surveys with an engineer’s fixed intent.

“No, we can’t,” I say, breathless. “We shouldn’t.” Like a thief, Peter grins.

“I think we can,” he says.

A few minutes later, we are back in the boat, paddling upstream on an eddy river right, then Pete says, “now,” and I dig in deeper as Pete steers the bow into the current, catching Pouncer like the wind catches a kite just as it rises above the trees. We whip about and then we are full on, I in the bow, Pete at the stern, paddling in time, one, two, one, two, one, two, moving with the current which is neither fast nor slow, but resolute, calm, like a madman or Siddhartha, bringing us onward toward our waiting door. Loose pieces of the mountain slopes, trunks and branches, have washed down and plugged half the gates. Pete steers us toward a gate that we had agreed looked clear from where we’d peered down upon it from the lock: third from the right. I can’t see Pete behind me, muscling and taught, but I feel him: the quick rocks of the boat side to side from the force he moves through the paddle to the water, the way the bow which is now our compass, slides right, then left, right, then left, to point dead on at the gate third from the right. Why do we risk ourselves? All we need we hold between us and Pouncer’s skin, and here we are pushing it through the gate, third from the right. No matter the outcome, we’re doomed, the two of us.

The river comes on and the future too. I keep paddling as Pete has instructed me. The dam rises up and blocks out the glare of the sun. Now I see the texture of the water, where it pushes up over the logs that jam the other gates, the way it smacks up and curls around the thin cement pillars. I see now that the gates aren’t wide, but enough: five feet, a paddle width–and I can see that each gate is in fact four, all in a line, two paired upriver, two down, and a canoe length of roiling river between them. Now we near our gate, and we keep our paddling. The river breathes through the gates, speaking now in a louder, constant voice. It is the sound of falling. The rush of on-coming. The press of the present upon our temples.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“We got this,” he says.

“A little right,” I say.

“Looking good,” I say.

Just at the gate’s center, I see that the river pillows through, piling up and tonguing over and into the mouth, down the two-foot drop, passing on through the third and fourth gates, and then out. This is our line we push toward with everything we’ve got. There is no knowing for us now, besides paddling, and breathing, and sliding toward our line. Now the dam is a hand commanding us to stop.

Now it is a mouth, open, laughing.

“Looking good,” Pete says.

“Looking good,” I say.

And then we are in, and I do not pause to look about, but keep paddling, breathing, and sliding along that line. We pass through and out like we are opening a door that we will keep opening forever.

“Pete?” I say.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”