Writing as Therapy and Revelation

[cw for both articles: mentions of physical & sexual abuse]

I read a non-fiction piece by Alexander Chee on the Sewanee Review called The Autobiography of My Novel. In this piece, Chee reflects on the process of writing his first published novel and the struggle of writing about real things he’s experienced through the lens of fictional characters. It’s a really amazing piece and a good read for people writing novels, or hoping to someday.

Reading it reminded me of the Junot Díaz piece that came out in The New Yorker recently, The Legacy of Childhood Abuse. Junot writes about the abuse he suffered as a young kid and how and why he hid it, refusing to acknowledge it even to a reader who may have needed a moment of solidarity with the author.

These pieces aren’t just for writers either. Stories like this remind us that we’re not alone in the world. But from the perspective an author, seeing how other authors have taken their experiences and written them consciously or unconsciously, or as a form of their own therapy is worth reading about.

Poetry: Alternate Universe by Olivia Gatwood & TedxABQ “We Find Each Other in the Details”

“Alternate Universe” is a strong poem. It speaks to the nature of emotional investments not just in relationships but in ourselves and the effects of misogyny on both. It’s simple, it’s funny, and Olivia’s performance of it is awesome.

I think my favorite line is this: “I have so much beautiful time.”

I found Olivia’s poetry through this TedxABQ talk she did about finding each other in the details. Personally, I’m a big believer in small moments. Small moments where we give thanks, or love, or support or just memory to someone or something. She speaks there about a simple interaction between her and her best friend that she turned into a poem, and uses it to show the audience how she teaches others to write poems too.
In this, she tells us it’s about the details. We can tell stories about small things that are also about big things too. How a story or a poem about a bikini can also become a story about fat-shaming or body positivity or self-acceptance. If you’re a writer, it’s a really good way to think about framing devices. If you’re a human, it’s just a good way to think. 

Music: Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer

Yesterday was Judy Blume’s 80th birthday.

Judy Blume’s stories were the sort of human stories that we needed as kids, the stories that told us we weren’t alone with our weird thoughts… or we were but maybe we weren’t as weird as we thought we were. For those of us who grew up with the works of Judy Blume, I think we each have a book that hit us harder than others, one story that really spoke to us.

For me, that was It’s Not the End of the World.

My parents were already divorced by the time I was old enough to read It’s Not the End of the World, but that didn’t make it any less profound to read for me. The way Karen thinks about being at her parents houses when they’re separated, the way she deals with thoughts about her own future relationships, and what you feel like your house must look like to other people.

For Judy’s birthday, Amanda Palmer has written this really lovely tribute to the way stories change us, how reading books like the ones Judy wrote make us who we become. The video is full of Amanda’s piano playing, singing and a lot, a lot of people reading Judy Blume books. It’s amazingly sweet.

[Writing] Poetry — background on writing Instep

I wrote Instep for a specific publication’s open submissions about eight months ago. It was supposed to be a pretty big poetry anthology being created. At the time I had another poem I was thinking about submitting but when time came to actually send something in (of course I waited until the very last minute, despite having something on hand to send in) I decided I didn’t want to send the thing I had ready to go. Instead, I had an idea for this poem and decided to write and polish it on the last day submissions were open.

It wasn’t exactly a new idea for me though. I know a lot of dancers and have written a few fiction short stories about dancing or dancers before. Almost a decade ago, I wrote a short piece for an online community about a dancer being driven home after a big performance that has some of the same themes of Instep. So this theme wasn’t new to me and in fact Instep is pretty much that specific short story condensed down to its most basic parts. Putting it together into a poem format was pretty simple using that story as a template. It’s not my normal poetry style, but I was pretty pleased with it when I sent it off.

Last week I received the rejection notice for it. I’m disappointed obviously, but I guess I’m not super surprised given that this specific anthology was going to have a higher pool of submissions than your typical publication. (It’s not out yet, so I’m not going to name what it is.)

However, since it’s a little different, a little simpler than what I’d normally write, I’m not super keen on trying to resubmit it elsewhere. But I don’t want to toss it in a digital drawer and forget about it. So, I’m putting it up here and I hope people enjoy it.

Writing & Research [Passages]: On using people

A content warning, I suppose, is in order for this. At least if it were me, I’d want to know that I’m about to talk a whole lot about some specific [if nameless] shitty Christians. Also, a trigger warning for abuse of a minor (it’s an extremely brief mention).

I’m working on a story — well, a novel, maybe — and for that, I need to do a little bit of research. I want to build a framework around some old church sermons with a pretty specific theme. Thankfully (or not so much since there’s a whole lot of things I’d rather have stuck in my head) I used to go to the kind of church that espoused the kind of ideologies and doctrines this story is going to feature. This means I know pretty easily the kind of people to look up who might have sermons online to listen to.

Specifically, I found sermons from a travel ministry my old pastor taught around the country in the years long after he was the pastor. I listened to one tonight, just one, and I had to skip ahead to avoid the most boring bits. But here’s something I discovered upon listening: this asshole pastor (and he is for reasons I won’t get in to right now) is using stories told to him by the teenagers from my old school to shill his bullshit to the masses around the country. Oh yeah. Shocked me too.

Sure I’m aware pastors and evangelists, revivalists and missionaries, they all use stories from their own lives to weave into their sermons. And for the most part, we don’t mind because the stories are vague and mundane. They’re stories that could really be about anyone.

This isn’t one of those stories. My high school, in a good year, had maybe a total of 70 kids. 15 kids per grade, average for years 8-12. So when you talk about kids that attended the school at a specific grade level and whether or not they had a sibling and what gender they are. It’s not that difficult (if you know the place) to start filtering down to who he might be talking about.

But this isn’t just any story he told. He told a specific story about someone who’d graduated from school with enough details to figure out who it was. And maybe if this was a happy story about the person I wouldn’t be so shocked. But this isn’t a happy tale he’s sharing with thousands of people (or is online for anyone to hear). He tells a specific story that this person shared with him in private about a time as a kid when they were abused. Using details and language that should not just be upsetting for someone that even sort of knows who they are (like me) but for a crowd of church-going strangers twenty years later. This old pastor though, he shares details about the abuse, details about this person’s life… and does so not necessarily making light of it, but ignoring the depth of it in order to make a point, to use it as the core for his sermon. As a catalyst to action.

Listen, these people I was raised with, they weren’t good people. I knew it then, I know it even better now. And yet somehow, each time I learn a little tidbit of information about one of them, like this, I’m still surprised.

How…. how can someone who worked for dozens of years as a pastor, a counselor, a teacher of minds old and young alike, casually toss out information like that in a sermon to strangers? I don’t get it.

Now maybe I’m of base here and he got the permission of the person he speaks of in his sermon. Maybe, despite the gravity of the story, it’s not a big deal to this person? Having heard the story and having a pretty good idea who this person is, I want to assume that’s not the case. But readers… I was shocked and sad and really, really disappointed to hear it. And I didn’t want to be listening to this mess in the first place.

So I don’t know what of this series of sermons awaits me next, if there more stories from the people and places of my childhood to hear about. But I’m assuming there will be.