Posted on February 19, 2017
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou
On a February Sunday in 2016 I sat calm, spent on the shore of Sidi Kaouki. Two of my closest friends, Kate and Ritchie, were with me eating salads by the sea. We were aware that our time together was short—a hazard of expat life that bonds people fierce and fast. I had told the school I wouldn’t be returning to Morocco in the fall. When offered another contract, I was tempted to stay longer because leaving the kids, friends, and country would be so hard and no job had opened at home. But I missed my kids and though they were adults, I felt they needed me.
We had completed a writing workshop at the Blue Kaouki hotel in a rural area twenty-five miles south of Essaouria. Jason, a writer and our co-teacher, had led the workshop of faculty members. He and his fiancé often surfed at the quiet beach town, so we stayed at their usual hotel, which had a terrace and sunroom where we could meet shielded from the February wind.
We had left school on Friday and while the ride through the rural countryside was beautiful, my gut churned. A policeman stopped the van and climbed aboard, asking us one-by-one where we were from and where we were going. Satisfied with the driver’s papers and our answers, he waved us on. I checked my phone again to see what was going on, and it seemed a terrorist cell had been discovered and members had been arrested near there a few days earlier. Even so, this was not what upset me. After living in Morocco almost two years I knew the country’s vigilance against terrorism — the teamwork of the people and the police meant eyes and ears were always protectively watching and listening. No, I was worried and felt sick about what was going on at home.
My plan had been to return to the same address of twenty-one years after my time abroad, but circumstances had left my house standing empty for a couple of months. I’d hoped to get a renter until I could move back in late June, but no one was interested in such a short lease. I couldn’t afford to let it set empty until then, and I didn’t want the stress of renting it for a year, leaving me with nowhere to live. Given the upkeep of a large yard and an old house, I wondered if it was time to downsize. After months of praying and discussing with my family, it seemed time to let it go.
In 2014 before I left the US, I read an article written by an expat that said there would be great gains from living overseas. I knew I was meant to go to Morocco, but the article said there would inevitably be losses, too. I never dreamed our family home would be one. Today, almost a year since the house sold, I am thankful and believe God worked out all things for good, but I still sometimes wake from dreams where I’m on my deck with my dog or in the kitchen with my kids, and my heart hurts. A year ago… the heartbreak seemed unbearable.
The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset…
To convulsively weep and throw up simultaneously? I wondered, hoping so, because that was what mine was about to do.
The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body—in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain…
When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized…Your Writer and Editor …are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child—your creative unconscious—is the source.
I had thought the workshop would be good for me. I was thankful for a chance to focus on creating something rather than losing everything.
I knew the “Editor”—the critical voice—all too well. It always spoke in “shoulds” and kept reminding me that I should be home in Tennessee this weekend, though logic told me there was no way I could get there and back from Africa in two days. So when Jason sent us off to write from our Crazy Child—not the Writer who wants to organize or the Editor who wants to polish—I felt relieved. Alone I could cry and cleanse my stomach of everything souring there. There would be time to revise the draft others would see later.
When we reconvened I felt weak but better. The dry heaving had subsided. But then, to my horror, Jason said we would share THIS PIECE…NOW. To reassure us, he read from Bird By Bird written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, on the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”:
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea ofshitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Normally the “Mr. Poopy Pants” part would have made me laugh, but I just wanted to cry. Again. I felt as I had so many years ago—naked and exposed. My paper was worse than undigested food mixed with stomach acid. Following Anne Lamott’s lead…I told Jason my draft was not only shitty. It was liquid diarrhea. How could I not clean it up? It was sure to smell up the place. As the sharing began I realized I had no other choice but to let it go. To let her go. My Crazy Child would wait her turn, then share like the others.
One-by-one we read. Around the table our crazy kids showed themselves. They were from Canada, France, Australia, The Philippines, England, and the US. Collectively they made us giggle, laugh, nod, sigh, and weep. We asked them questions and repeated back their words—their wisdom, their courage—as their writers took notes. When I finished reading, some were crying and Ally, our guidance counselor and one of the most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, got up, walked over, and hugged me from behind. We all left lighter that day because we carried home something of substance—of ourselves and of each other. Our sharing made us vulnerable, and for that we left stronger.
Yesterday I saw on Pinterest writing prompts my daughter had pinned. She and her brother are doing great, and that makes me happy. Recently I took the online class by Brené Brown, The Wisdom of Story, and have finished the first chapter of the memoir I’ve needed to write, it seems, my whole life. I get up at 5 AM before work and continue after school till I can work no more. Glennon Doyle Melton, Brown’s co-teacher, says we must write from our scars, not our wounds. This morning I reread what I wrote at the workshop a year ago. It was stream-of-consciousness–the gushing flow of multiple losses over many years, allowed to surge when the locks were lifted on the dammed pain. It will be there– in my book—because it covers chapters, decades, of my story.
In some ways I’m where I was a year ago. And not. Then I had no idea I’d end up teaching in The Dominican Republic. I’ve told the school I’ll be moving home this summer to be with my family, though no job has opened there. Whatever happens, I know I’m to continue working on my memoir and that my Father loves and has a plan for this Crazy Child, Gypsy, Writer, and Southern Mom–all me.
*I know many of you have told me you want to write your story, too. I have also found these resources to be helpful:
Story Structure to Die For: P J Reece–an alternative plot structure
Anything by Laura Fraser–her memoirs serve as great models and she mentors, too
Posted on January 19, 2009
Since my first book was a call to a Classics Coup, exhorting readers to put away their fluff fiction and pick up their Shakespeare, I appealed to Oprah as a fellow lover of great works. Hailing her as the Most Powerful Woman in the World who loves to make wishes come true, I threw myself on the mercy of her court. I sent her a DVD, offering my masterpiece as a pick for her Book Club. I included precious pictures of my children reminding her that she could change our lives with a simple nod. Illustrating my ability to hold an audience spellbound with the likes of Hawthorne and Hemingway, I included footage from my English class, showing my students as a captive audience. (I hoped she wouldn’t realize that they were, in fact, captive.) Finally, I pointed out the fingernail scratches on the whiteboard where I was trying to hold on financially and mentally– teaching 80+ students all day and mothering two small children all night. Touting myself as profound and prolific, I knew she would respect my proactive approach. I would write my way to a better life rather than codependently wait for a knight-in-shining-armor for rescue. I assured her that if she read my book it would change my life and hers.
In retrospect… I may have looked needy, merely bypassing the prince on a white horse to lay prostrate before the Queen of the Harpo Dynasty.
Sadly I never heard from her—no doubt because the DVD never reached her desk. I believe a keeper of the gate, someone on her staff—probably a perky intern with hopes of publishing herself—spitefully threw my pitch on the slush pile.
So when two agents and one publisher nibbled at my book, then swam away in August of 2004, I stuffed the manuscript in a box, slid it under my bed, licked my wounds, and returned to the classroom. As recommended in The Artist’s Way, I mourned my artistic loss an appropriate amount of time, but still I wondered… what went wrong? Wasn’t I born to be a writer? Didn’t my 40+ journals attest to the fact? And don’t my friends say I’m never at a loss for words, analyzing everything to death? In fact can’t my writing style be compared to Virginia Woolf’s and my dialogue to a Tennessee Williams’ character? Wouldn’t this explain why more than one guy had in John Wayne fashion grabbed and kissed me mid-sentence just so I’d shut up?
Down the Rabbit Hole…or Chasing a Rabbit Trail
No, I definitely had something to say, and I knew I could write. Maybe I simply needed to change genres. The first book had been nonfiction—more an academic tome than a page-turner. This time I would try a novel!
My main character could be a hopelessly romantic Queen of Angst fraught with the Perils of Parenthood and traumatized by dating over 40. After disasters with blind dating, online dating, and even speed dating, she would fear she was destined to never find The One—certainly a universal conflict. Though slimed with the human condition, she’d overcome hand wringing and despair…and I was pretty sure how she’d do it.
Excited about my new idea and especially my fascinating protagonist, I started characterizing this complex woman in ways that would translate well into film, saving me time for when I’d inevitably be asked to adapt the book into a screenplay. The movie would begin as the camera zoomed and focused on books stacked beside her bed: The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve; The ADHD Handbook and Parenting with Boundaries and Consequences; Teaching Lolita in Tehran; Intimate Kisses; The Bible; and A Thousand Days in Venice. These plus any title by four of her favorite writers, Jill McCorkle, C.S. Lewis, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, should cover her character’s many layers. In fact, later in the novel when the protagonist wrote a New York Times best seller and an Academy Award winning screenplay, I knew exactly who she’d thank as she accepted her Oscar. First, she’d recognize her mentor, Jill, for answering her email regarding the first book. Then she’d thank Anne and Donald for being her muses–for showing her how to talk straight, to be real.
But then I stopped short. (And not because the most common mistake new authors make is to write too much about themselves.)
I needed to write about my own experiences. It’s what I know best. But I needed to come clean. To step out of the shadows. To stop hiding behind a fictional character. For me, writing a novel would be taking the easy way out—something I’ve seldom done. As usual, I liked the challenge. I blame my decision on Frost and his whole taking -the- road- less- traveled -shtick.
I would write a memoir, and I’d be gut honest though still raw.
Now I knew from watching my dad fillet fish, that guts are gross. I knew from seeing him empty his bag after bird hunting that when you shoot birds, feathers fly. I knew if I was totally honest with readers there might be enough feather fallout to tar and feather me. I might be disowned by friends and family who don’t share my candid sense of humor or who might judge me for my many mess-ups, mishaps, and sometimes, downright meanness. Having grown up in the South I knew the taboo against “acting ugly.”
I might be accused of rocking the boat if I asserted that it’s the huddling together at one end of the dinghy—at one end of the political spectrum—which really tips the boat over, drowning us all. Polar extremes seemed to alienate, making communication impossible. Running from the culture by isolating oneself or combating the culture with disdain– in the name of whichever political party—makes everyone miss the party…and the point… altogether. Being drawn closer to Christ and then modeling him means, like it or not, drawing closer to each other. His unconditional love for us despite our failure to love others well must be the only reason He hasn’t fired us on the spot and hired a whole new PR team.
But a few people have gotten it right—mostly because they confess to so often being wrong. Reading Donald Miller and Anne Lamott gave me the idea to forget the novel and do the “novel”– write the “naked truth” about my own life. I appreciate their courage to admit their humanity as they seek to do the divine–to love others as we love ourselves. I appreciate their humility, admitting they often fall short. Miller’s books are more popular in college frat houses than in many churches. He reaches so many people because he addresses where we really live–where we really struggle. Maybe because loving others well is one of the most radical things any of us can do—ironically the only way to Rage Against the Machine.
Before Miller and Lamott, my greatest fear was that I’d cause others to falter in their faith–especially when I had questions about mine. Since a sorority sister gave me my first “quiet time” journal and instructed me to write out my prayers to God, I’d offered Him all the drama in my life. I could clearly see how He had answered countless prayers, which had no doubt strengthened my faith. But it was the unchecked items on God’s “To Do List”–the one I’d given him– that bothered me. Those chronic unresolved problems that stood in the way of my writing sooner from my heart as well as my head. Shouldn’t I wait until the major kinks in my life were straightened out and I could write a feel-good romantic comedy? Then I could encourage others because everyone likes a happy ending. My story would prove to everyone that wishes do come true someplace other than the Magic Kingdom.
I decided it was time to begin writing my story even though I wasn’t sure how the loose ends would finally come together and be tied up in a nice big bow. Could I raise questions without offering hard, fast answers?
Then I remembered that I had always suspected writers, and for that matter, people who offered neatly numbered steps to anything. In fact, the most effective counselors, doctors, and even pastors I had known admitted that life is messy. Two of them immediately came to mind.
Every summer while I’m not teaching, I schedule yearly checkups. Right alongside an oil change for my car, immunizations for my pets, and teeth cleanings for my children, I see my OB-GYN. My gynecologist is a really nice man. He delivered my nieces and his former partner delivered my children. We go way back. He always asks how life is treating me. More than once I had wanted to reply, “So roughly I’d like to swear out a warrant.” But when I wasn’t feeling so dramatic, I’d just laugh flippantly:
“No news really– still single, still financially challenged, still hoping I’m a good parent, and sometimes still wanting to run away to Europe. Oh, and I’ve decided I’m too young to go through menopause…ever.”
Each year he listened and nodded, ignoring only my last comment. But that summer of 2004 he added seriously, “I know it must be lonely trying to raise your kids alone. And I’m certainly no expert on parenting, but I think all any of us can do is just be consistent. Let our kids know who we are and what we believe. And that we’ll always be there for them.”
Maybe it was the embarrassing position I was in each year— with the stirrups and all—that caused me to feel so vulnerable and emotional, but the forced humor I’d always lead with would turn to quiet tears. Somehow his honesty made me feel a little better—like I wasn’t the only one who found life disappointing and confusing much of the time but who still tried to press on in faith.
Likewise, a counselor I know had the same effect on me that summer. Rather than just whine that God had apparently lost the item on His To-Do-List that plainly stated I needed my very own Miracle Worker—the perfect husband and step- father to help me– I presented her a To-Do-List of her very own. I said that I wished there was a support group for single parents—something I could really use– considering I was a single mom and my son had just that week fashioned our dog a vest from a squirt bottle of mustard—then wrote the word “Dubs” (luckily in chalk) on the rims of my new tires. I suggested this new support group meet in her office so we’d need no secret handshake. We could all talk freely about our exhaustion without having to protect our kids or ourselves from people who would rather judge than help. Rather than take the ball and run with it, she passed it back to me:
“You should start that support group, Cindy,” she said brightly.
“But I’m a mess. You know that better than anyone,” I protested, thinking I was not only unqualified but much too depleted to take on one more thing. I thought that psychologists were supposed to tell us not to bite off more than we could chew.
“Exactly. That’s why God can really use you. He can ONLY use people who know they are a mess and in need of His help. Don’t think you have to have it all together to start a group, or for that matter, to be in a relationship with a man. If a good man comes along, date him. None of us are perfect or ‘fixed,’ so never let that fact hold you back. It’s why we all need to support each other, to be in community with others.”
While I didn’t start that local support group, I realized that even larger community could be created through writing. (What I didn’t know then was that writing would lead me to new friends in my community as well—like Julie, a newcomer to Nashville who I met just yesterday for coffee because she identified with the experiences I’ve written about on this blog.) I had finally realized that God wanted me to write– not despite but because of my inability to fix anything or anyone. All I could do would be to offer readers the comfort I’d been given by pointing them to the One who comforted me. The only wisdom I had was to know I knew nothing…except the Guy who knows everything. All I could do was to be gut honest—to speak the truth in love– about my own fears, my own issues as I struggled with many of my own unanswered prayers.
As a writer, I would offer no ten easy steps to anything. I could only offer honesty, admitting life is not about me, even though I often wish it were. And then to admit I’m glad deep down that it’s not…most of the time. A writing career was a way to contribute—to cry with others and to laugh at myself. It could free up more time for my kids, my family, and my friends. And yes, it would introduce me to new friends and adventures… a way to love God by enjoying Him forever. Writing would be my door to an ideal future. I just had to figure out how to lunge across its threshold.
But before I would start Book #2, my Carpe Diem self seized not just a day, but the whole summer of 2005. I took a detour in writing my way to the sweet life. Ironically—no, Providentially–I found life sweeter that summer—both while abroad and when I returned home. I went to Italy for ten days and taught English to Italians. They, in turn, taught me that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence—or in this case, of the ocean. They reminded me of blessings in the US which were very sweet. Yet they also taught me how to relax and how to enjoy friends and all- things- bella. Their friendship, something taken very seriously and valued very highly in the Italian culture, continues to give me a richer life. A clearer vision of what is important. And they’ve given me more joy to share. That summer, as well as the times I’ve been reunited with them since, left me renewed, hopeful, ready to write again. Perfect timing because I had the whole Summer of 2006 to begin a new project.
Preparing to Lunge
But something kept nagging me: Even if what I wrote this time was more appealing to readers than what I wrote before, maybe good material wasn’t enough. Maybe the first book didn’t sell because I had neglected some vital step in the writing process. Maybe I still needed to find that golden key to unlock the door that barred me from publication.
Then it dawned on me. There was no golden key—no key needed at all. The way was free and clear, open to the public practically 24/7. But of course! I had failed to observe the sacred rite to write: the ritual to be observed at the pinpointed spot on the map to the Holy Grail (a.k.a. writing success). According to the Arthurian legend, the Grail was found in a sanctuary—a sacred place. But of course! How could I have missed it?
The only logical reason my first book hadn’t been published was because I didn’t write it in Starbucks!
(To be continued in Pt 4: The Rite of Passage to the Rite of Passage)