Recently, a friend I trusted told me gently that my writing was too confessional, too exposed, too… much. Too much for my son, too much for my daughter, just too much.
He didn’t say all this in so many words. Rather, he said, gently, “Do you write fiction?” The subtext was, “Can’t you fictionalize this stuff?” (i.e., protect yourself, protect your kids, protect your privacy!?)
He said that in his family one did not share personal experiences with the general public. He suggested I shouldn’t write about my kids. He was concerned.
I heard the subtext throughout, and I was ashamed. I fought back, feebly, in the moment. I said something about how writers have to plough through such concerns, to not stop.
I accept my friend’s opinion and believe, nay, know with certainty, that he’s “right.” Right in the way that we all are right when it comes to our feelings. If we feel a certain way, no one can quibble with that. If my writing makes him uncomfortable, then that’s the way it is. The likelihood is high that it makes others uncomfortable too.
Still, I was pained when he said this. More importantly, I knew it was dangerous for me. A cavern yawned open. I felt it’s cold breath. I sidestepped it as best I could, desperately avoiding the slippery edge.
But in the morning, I woke up crushed. Not just crushed, but utterly defeated. Everything hurt. I not only had no energy and no hope, but I was afraid, ashamed, and filled with dread.
What had I done?
How bad was it?
Could I fix it?
I stayed in bed a full hour after waking, unable to move. I finally lugged myself vertical and got myself to the computer to try to write about my feelings, thinking — believing — that might be important to do. But, there it was. The frozen edge was back, and spreading fast.
I wrote a few sentences, or tried. Stringing words together took enormous effort. What’s more they felt stilted, false. Everything felt wrong. Every word, every key stroke, mocked me.
I went down the hill for milk and blueberries, thinking I might make the kids blueberry muffins for Saturday morning breakfast. Walking to the store, I was on the verge of tears. Leaving the store, I was on the verge of tears.
I was falling fast into the hole, scrabbling at the edges. I was losing the battle.
When I got home, I listlessly unpacked the paper bag and placed various individual grocery items on the counter, here and there, haphazardly. Wherever there wasn’t a dirty dish, I placed that foodstuff so bread, berries, bananas, and the like were littered along the counter in a kind of bizarre mosaic.
I returned to the keyboard. I stared at the screen. Raising my arms was an effort. Resting my fingers on the keyboard, an effort. I felt silly, terrified. Hopeless.
At the same time, it felt crucial to try. It felt like a life or death struggle. Because when I quit writing, it’s not for a day or two. It’s for a decade or two. And at 48, I can’t afford to lose any more decades.
My son came down the stairs. I could tell he was irritated that the kitchen was not particularly clean, that coffee hadn’t been made, that breakfast wasn’t in progress. I was irritated with myself for that too, but I stayed tied to my laptop. I steadied my gaze on the screen.
After agitating in the kitchen for a few minutes, my son gave in and made me a version of huevos rancheros with leftover brussels sprouts, roasted garlic, and a side of sauerkraut. I got up and made coffee. My son’s girlfriend Renee joined us. We discussed how to inspire my daughter for ninth grade, which starts in two weeks.
My daughter straggled down. We were out of eggs. I got up and made her toast with jam and a bowl of strawberries with maple syrup and cream.
The kids talked about this and that. I tried to listen and participate. I tried to be light-hearted, cheerful, free. Present. But, a steady pressure was welling up inside of me, fast. Panic. I felt like a geyser about to blow.
Finally, I blurted, “I feel really ashamed right now, scared even, because I was criticized about my writing on Medium, and I’m afraid they’re right. Maybe it’s too confessional, too personal.”
I looked at the table top.
My son said, “Fuck that.”
My daughter said, “If you want to be a successful artist, you can’t be scared to do things like that.”
After breakfast, we went to our local street fair. The sun was too bright and too hot. I was withering fast, even as I sheltered beneath an unflattering blue sunhat that a neighbor had dropped by some months before. We walked the length of the fair. Most of it was schlock — Farmer’s Insurance tables, tables full of tchotchkes, and the like.
Suddenly, the word “Liminal” caught my eye, along with the word “write,” “writer,” or “writing.” Even after I saw and registered the words, I nearly passed the little booth by.
I hesitated. I said to my daughter, “Wait, let’s check this out.” We did a U-turn.
A couple of young women communed beneath a blue tent. As we approached the table, one of the women called, “Welcome, Artists!”
This was a good omen.
We learned from the materials spread on the table that Liminal is a feminist writing space on 38th Avenue in Oakland run by one Gina Goldblatt, who told me the group also offers affordable co-working space. And it was affordable — about half the cost of the space I’d looked at the previous day. Since I was slated to give that landlord my answer on Monday (and was feeling a little uneasy about it), this was providential.
A low-cost, spacious, writing-focused co-working space I could walk to from my home? Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
Timely though it was, it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the doldrums.
We had a $10 lunch at Miliki, a Nigerian restaurant on the strip — fried fish, spicy rice, black-eyed peas, and platanos (plantains to the uninitiated). My son and Renee joined us. I had a Red Stripe Jamaican Ale.
My daughter and I walked home after a fruitless stop at Goodwill. The uphill climb was brutally hot. The pavement radiated heat in waves, the tarry asphalt soft underfoot.
When I got home, I watered the back garden poorly. The creeping thyme between the pavers were dying of thirst, their tiny leaves wrinkled and powdery.
I took to my bed. I read a little, then fell asleep in the dimmed room for 45 minutes. When I woke up, it was still bright, but the light was starting to soften. I knew I should get up, but I wasn’t sure why. I stared at the ceiling for a while.
Flat on my back, I studied local movie offerings on my cell phone. I tried to get the kids to join me for Our Little Sister, a Japanese movie directed by Hirokazu Koreeda and said to be the best flick of 2016. They weren’t interested. My daughter’s friend came by. My son had Renee.
Downtown Berkeley depresses me. I didn’t want to go there alone. I opted to see Cafe Society, Woody Allen’s latest, at a theater closer to home. I told myself and the kids I was taking myself on an Artist Date (Julia Cameron’s suggestion in The Artist’s Way) — essentially a date by oneself to stimulate one’s creativity.
Before leaving, I forced myself to change into a sleeveless purple, black, and white striped blouse. It was even reasonably sexy. I saw in the mirror I could stand to splash my face and put on a little mascara, but after weighing the effort decided against it. I didn’t bother trying to tame the cowlick popping up from the back of my head either.
When I got to the theater, I realized I only had my sunglasses and wouldn’t be able to see the screen. So, that was out.
I wandered around Piedmont Avenue. What now? I felt restless, alone, and desperate.
I opted for a snack at an outdoor cafe. It was near 7 by now. I read a little. Two different people tripped over a fallen branch on the ground a few feet from my table.
I read a few blog posts. One in particular caught my eye. It was titled “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” This roused me a little. It sent a little rescue light into my cave. It was wan and shaky, but it was there. I grabbed it.
I got home before dark so I wouldn’t have to drive in the dark with sunglasses.
And while it’s true I was back in bed a little before 8:30 on a Saturday night, I could feel I was beginning my ascent. I was beginning to pull free, suture by suture, from the soul-killing carapace of shame that stands waiting to smother me at the slightest provocation.
I brought my laptop to bed. I read Said Sayrafiezadeh’s How to Write About Trauma in the New York Times. This heartened me. I wrote the writer. I thanked him.
I thought of a woman I know who began creating and publishing art on Facebook some years ago. When she began, truth be told, I found her work wince-worthy. Incredibly and to my profound surprise, it has become quite accomplished. She kept at it. She put herself out there. She tried. And it’s paying off.
It’s a battle, and it’s a noble one. It’s worth the fight to not allow oneself to become frozen by fear of failure or mediocrity.
I’m pulling out from under. It took 24 hours, but that’s pretty good. I’m on my way again. I think.
And, I’m going to Liminal first thing Monday.
1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.