About two years ago, fueled by COVID and general upheaval in my life, I started writing again. Writing was something I’d loved doing. Until I let someone into my life who destroyed my confidence in so many ways. And, as a result, I stopped doing things that brought me joy. That was almost twenty-five years ago. A few weeks into this new writing journey, the cosmos aligned and I connected with Adam through a summer camp alumni group, and things took on a whole new direction.
Although initially our dynamic was a student-teacher thing, it’s evolved. Adam has become my mentor, collaborator and most importantly, friend. But over the two years we’ve worked together, I’ve consistently affirmed three things: :
I’m not a writer
I’m not a poet
I can’t write fiction, especially not sex scenes.
I am a Writer
Adam wore me down on the first item on the list. He began calling me a writer very early in our work together. I was adamant that he was wrong. I lost that battle after more than a year of working together. And after about nine months of publishing my work online, I did (eventually, reluctantly) admit that I had, in fact, become a writer. A year after I finally admitted that much, I’ve mostly stopped feeling like I’m going to throw up when I actually say to someone: “I’m a writer.”
As we began our third year of working together, the ways that our work together has changed became much clearer. The other day, we were working on editing one of Adam’s poems. That may not seem like much, but the idea that I would be the one editing Adam’s work instead of the other way around is already a little bit much for me. And then to top it off,I asserted myself as the one with greater knowledge about contemporary poetry. I firmly suggested that he listen to my advice. There might even have been a little swearing in that assertion.
I am a Poet… Maybe
It wasn’t all posturing either. By now, I’ve written some poems that even I have to admit aren’t bad. At Adam’s request, I read one during a 2 Rules of Writing writing workshop, and was stunned at the positive reaction it got. And I’ve read a few of my own poems at Zoom poetry readings, too.
But by far, the biggest shakeup to my claim that I’m not a poet has come from Wen, one of our 2 Rules contributors. I admire her work greatly. It’s not easy to write good poems in one language but somehow Wen manages to write great ones in two languages. Well. I can’t speak to how great her poetry is in Chinese. But I can tell you they’re beautiful in translation. When I was preparing for our 2 Rules anniversary celebration I reached out for help to decide whether some not-quite-finished things were “finished enough” to read at the party. Wen answered in the affirmative, but to my amazement she offered to work with me on revising and finishing them. I felt like I’d just been noticed by the coolest kid on campus.
I may not have come around completely on “I’m not a poet,” but I’m very clearly losing the fight there.. As much as I don’t want to admit it, the day I wave the white flag on that one is probably not all that far off. It’s not that there’s an expiration date on the statement, but the proof that I’m wrong is piling up. It’s really only a matter of time before I’ll actually say to someone “I’m a poet.” It may be a while after that before the barfy feeling abates, though.
But the third part? The part about not writing fiction, and especially not sex scenes? I’m still far from convinced that I can do that.
Learning Happens One Day at a Time
When I think back to the first few months that Adam and I worked together, it was painful just to put words on paper. I let him lead the way, and he chose to start with writing short stories. It didn’t matter to me what we started with; writing anything was hard at that point. Even the basic free writing exercises we used to warm up with, where he would set a timer and we would just write without stopping for the prescribed number of minutes, would produce enough anxiety that I seriously thought about quitting. I hated how much writing, something I’d once loved so much, had come to hurt.
But Adam had taken a chance, taking me on as a student. He hadn’t even asked for any kind of a writing sample before we began. I didn’t want to disappoint him or make him feel like he’d wasted his time, so I stuck with it. And then, things changed. After an incident where my PTSD was triggered by a literature analysis activity that we were doing, I wrote the first poem I’d written in years. Decades even. And something compelled me to share it with Adam instead of what he’d assigned me to work on.
Things picked up speed very quickly after that. Writing became just a little less painful. We shifted our work away from short stories and into poetry, and then, as the first website we collaborated on took shape, into essays.
Learning becomes Habit
I wrote every day, without fail, for months. I needed to make writing into a habit again. Needed to love it again, but also to get into the habit of practicing enough. Just like you do with any new skill.
When writer’s block hit for the first time, I panicked. I was afraid the words would never come back. That if I stopped writing they would go away again for decades. With tears, and a lot of support, II worked through that first episode of writer’s block. And another. And each time it happened, I kept going. Until one day I realized that the idea of not writing hurt more than writing did. That even when writer’s block happened, I had the tools to get through it. Even more importantly, I discovered that I also had the support to get through it.
I cried when that happened. I’m a crier by nature, but I just felt years of hurt and fear and at least some of the self-doubt about my own writing falling away.
Learning is Breaking Down Walls
I’ve broken down so many walls in the last two years. Writing has changed so much about the way I see myself.It’s given me the courage to take risks that I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago . Sometimes those risks have paid off. I’ve had a piece published in Lilith Magazine’s Winter 2022 issue and in Bi+ Women’s Quarterly, and I’ve had another accepted for the next issue of Spoonie Journal. Sometimes the risks haven’t paid off, though. But when that happened I’ve still celebrated rejection because I remember how recently it was that I wouldn’t have taken a chance. Or when I would have taken a chance, but been so crushed by the rejection that I’d have given up on writing again.
Here I am, though, a year after my first big rejection, and I’m still writing and I’m still submitting things. I have submissions out there that I’m waiting to hear back about. I’m actively looking for places to submit things. I’m writing pieces specifically to submit to certain publications. And I’m even trying to learn how to pitch unsolicited pieces! There are times when I feel like I can’t even recognize myself. But when you read good writing, it’s transformative, isn’t it? And if someone else’s words can change you so much, then I trust that I myself am being transformed by the act of writing.
I am not a Fiction Writer
But the one barrier I haven’t conquered is writing fiction. I feel like it’s too much for my brain to handle. With the distractedness of ADHD and the fibro fog, I struggle to create a cohesive plot and tie up enough of the endings or keep track of enough of the details to get from point A to point B.
I have a lot of excuses for why I can’t write fiction. A lot of them.
Earlier in the process, Adam even tried sharing this video from Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal about how to write a short story,
And the thing is, after I watched the video it all made sense. On paper anyway. The way to nest the threads, the way to keep track of everything. It seemed like a great formula for how to write a short story. Not the details, but the way to organize the thoughts. It was great for someone else, anyway. For anyone else. But not for me. Because I still think I can’t write fiction. Just like I’m not a writer. Just like I’m not a poet.
I think by now, I’ve also demonstrated how good I am at self-assessment.
Really. I’m not a Fiction Writer. Except I wrote this one piece of Flash-Fiction.
Just before Halloween though this little Tweet about plums in the icebox came up. It’s a reference to the poem This is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
Forgive meWilliam Carlos Williams
they were delicious
and so cold
I like many of William Carlos Williams’ poems. There’s something about the plums though, that makes it just perfect for parodying. I’m even part of a Facebook group, Forgive Me for Plum Posting, dedicated to doing just that.
I might have been feeling particularly brave a few weeks before Halloween… or bored. There’s a lot of time for boredom in rehab. In spite of my misgivings about my own ability to write fiction, I write up a quick little scene where Mrs. Williams getting revenge on her husband. Perhaps for eating plums. Perhaps for the affair he had with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
It was just a little thing I dashed off in the comments of a post. It was silly, raw and unedited. But it captured just that one moment. It didn’t matter what was going to happen next. What mattered is that I had these two characters and a conflict. I focused on capturing just that one moment. The one where I imagined Mrs. Williams getting revenge on her husband. And I captured that single moment. Just like writing a poem.
People read it in the comments and they liked it. I thought it was just a fluke. It wasn’t going to happen again. That’s what I thought anyway. Then, a few weeks later I wrote up another silly little fictional, Reddit-style “Am I The Asshole” bit, again about William Carlos William and Mrs. Williams in response to another meme. Again I posted it to our 2 Rules of Writing community. And I posted it to Forgive Me for Plum Posting, And it got a lot of laughs.
Really. I’m not a fiction writer. Except, oh, there was also that other piece of flash fiction…
I remained unconvinced that I could actually write fiction. Really. Mounting evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. A few pieces of flash-length fanfic don’t count. Right?
Whether I write fiction or not, I’m a writer. And sometimes, I like a challenge. Not necessarily relating to writing, but that’s where a lot of my energy goes right now. When a 2 Rules community member posted the one word writing prompt, “tantrum” a few weeks after it was determined that William Carlos Williams was indeed the asshole, I took it as a challenge, and decided to try to capture another little moment. This time, it wasn’t fanfic though. I imagined a moment between two people and I tried to capture that moment.
I had the same kind of feeling that I feel when I have the inspiration for a poem and it has to get out of my head and onto the paper RIGHT NOW. Out of my fingers flew a 750 word little story in response to the prompt. It was astonishing. The characters in it were from my own imagination.
You can’t do a great deal of character development in 750 words, but it was there. A story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I could read it and see the way it made the little mountain shape, climbing to a peak where the big conflict happened and then coming back down to the resolution at the end. Just like my teachers back in elementary school used to drive. It had all the parts of a real story. I shared it in the comments again. And once again to my shock and a little bit of dismay, people liked it.
My insistence that I can’t write fiction is being destroyed bit by bit.
Learning is a Community that Challenges You
But this is where a writing community comes in. My community keeps pushing me to take risks. To try things I haven’t been willing to try before. And to give real, honest feedback when I do try. They hold me up when I’m scared, they celebrate success and they celebrate rejection, too. It’s quite clear why finding a writing group or a community is the invisible third rule, after “you must make mistakes” and “you must finish something.”
So when Adam made a post about the story in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel and ends up with his hip dislocated, I made a joke in the comments about that scene being the first time “wrestling” is used as a euphemism for sex. Adam challenged me, “Go write that scene.” Not one challenge, but two.
The brain weasels are all reminding me about what I can’t do: write fiction and write a sex scene. But this time there’s no way I can let this go. I have to beat the brain weasels. I’m not expecting anything good to come from it, but I’ll try anyway. I remind myself that no one else has to read it if it’s that bad, and if it’s only maybe that bad, I’ll show it to Adam. He’ll be able to give me some feedback so that the next time I’m challenged to do something like this, it’s only half as bad. The writing and the lack of confidence.
I’m not a fiction writer. Except, oh right, I am low-key working on a short story right now.
It didn’t take long before I found myself with 250 words on the page. 250 words that I didn’t hate. No. 250 words I actually liked! That feeling of success was incredible. I’ve gone from hating everything I write to taking chances and daring myself to do things I’m convinced I’ll fail at.
As I read the words again, I started to see the rest of the story. I could see the major conflict coming into focus. I still had no idea how to make it happen. But there was a landmark. I need to just create the moments that carry the story there. Bit by bit, up the mountain, one moment builds on another to the climax and then moment by moment we come down to the conclusion. There’s a lot of work there, but I can see how it works now.
I don’t remember the last time this happened. Where I had an idea for a story and enough of the threads were there that I could connect the parts and see a complete picture.
For the first time since I was a teenager, I’m excited to sit down and finish a story. I want to see how this story ends. But in order to get to the ending, I’ve got a little Choose Your Own Adventure to get through so I can figure it out. Only this time, I get to make up the choices for myself.
I might never finish the story. I might finish it and discover that I don’t really like writing short stories, or I might discover the opposite. I’m chipping away at another one of the blockades I’ve put up and bravely trying something new. It’s the beginning of a new story for me.
The Story so Far: Jacob and the Angel
Jacob walked along the boardwalk. It was late. Most of the visitors had gone home. The sea slapped against the wooden supports of the pier and the boardwalk scent of ocean mixed with the sweet, greasy smell of funnel cake and sugary cotton candy filled his lungs each time he inhaled. He was anxious, as he always was when he walked alone at night. He felt his stomach sloshing nervously. He focused on trying to figure out whether or not the rhythm of the waves in his stomach matched the waves gently rolling in along the shore. He thought, “if I think about the waves, I can’t think about the other thing. The thing I shouldn’t think about. That I can’t think about.”Erika Grumet
He loved this boardwalk. He knew the weathered boards just as well as he knew the neighborhood streets where he spent the rest of the year. His grandparents had bought the shore house decades before he was born. He’d spent all of his summers here and had grown to love the music and the chaos that surrounded him, so different from the quiet suburb where he spent the school year with its stately, shade trees and wide lawns. He loved the quirky awkwardness of the houses here, where people seemed to worry less about impressing the neighbors or fitting in and more about creating joyful spaces.
Jacob walked on. His flip flops slapped rhythmically against the decking and the noise annoyed him. He thought about taking them off, imaging the rough wood beneath his feet and then reconsidered.
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