The first poem I ever wrote was a few days after I was sexually assaulted. It was the summer of 1979. I was eleven. Most of what I wrote before that was stories, but I can’t tell you what they were about. I have vague memories of romantic stories about faery princesses who looked like me or stories where my birth mother mysteriously found me and rescued me from whippings and hurtful words from my adopted mother, but I couldn’t pull up the exact words to save my life of any of those little girlish stories. But that poem that I wrote days after being violated, I remember it verbatim. I remember being on my bed with my matching Cinderella sheets and comforter pulled over me like a cocoon. I remember daddy asking me if I wanted to go to Ozark with him and me saying no. I pretty much stayed to myself that summer. I felt exposed on the outside, so my bed became my refuge but so did the words. So the eleven year old who now had to see the world with a different clarity wrote this:
My heart began racing, as he began chasing
I knew that the games had begun
Uncle I love you, but don’t make me touch you
Oh god make him leave me alone.
If the sun would just come out, or if mommy would find out
Then maybe I wouldn’t have to run
But the night will not let up, so I will just shut up
And pray for the day that I’m grown.
The trauma I was experiencing when I wrote this poem was unimaginable. No child should ever have to live with the pain of being assaulted and the pain of not being believed BUT I survived thankfully because of the writing. I chose, even at a young age, to allow the writing to be my balm of Gilead.
I know it is not easy trying to find the “right words” when it feels like the world is burning all around us, but if you look at the writing as your one place where you are in control, then maybe it can bring you solace. I know I can’t control this current administration. I know I can’t control racists who prey on black and brown people. I know I can’t control this virus that is ravaging our country. But I can control my imaginary worlds. Even when my characters are struggling with their own lives, I get to control what happens, and for me, a control freak from way back, I need to be able to control something. So, for me, the writing is truly a balm.
Don’t worry about sounding academic or literary when you write during this season we are living through. Just let the words carry you away. Write with the same wild abandonment of a child. No concern about form or structure. No concern about character development. No concern about plot or story arch. Just the words. The Holy Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Whether you believe in a God or not, there should be something comforting in thinking that before there was an US, there were words (yes, I’m adding my own spin to that verse.). I imagine these words just floating around the atmosphere, waiting for thinking beings to BECOME so that these words could attach themselves to these beings.
When my daddy was dying of lung cancer, I would sit beside him at chemotherapy and scribble in my notebook. The more anxious I became, the more I wrote. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first book, Drinking from a Bitter Cup was being born during all of that trauma. I remember one time daddy looked over at me and smiled and said, “You’ve been writing in notebooks since you were a little girl. Whatcha writing about?”
I remember simply saying, “Everything.”
Write yourselves into a better place. It doesn’t have to be publishable. It just needs to free your soul for a brief time. Writing during a pandemic or any other traumatic time is difficult. Mainly because we expect our writing to be the same as it is during normal times. Trust me when I say, it won’t be, but that is okay. You’re using your writing as triage. It is there for you to use to prop you up until the storm is over.
Here are some strategies I use to get myself to a good space:
1. Clean the space of negative energy. Meaning, turn off the television or turn it to something calming. I often have mine tuned to the Game Show Network or The Great British Baking Show. Those sounds are my white noise. I also listen to good music. Sometimes the music of the era I’m writing in.
2. Set small, attainable writing goals. My friend and the Associate Director for Communications and Alumni Relations at Spalding University in the low residency MFA program, Katie Yocom (author of: Three Ways to Disappear), gave me the best writing advice ever several years ago. She said, “Make your writing goal one sentence per day. You’ll probably write more, but if not, you will at least have a goal that is attainable.” I have followed this advice ever since and so far, I have seldom missed my “goal.”
3, Treat yourself when you do reach your goals. It can be something as simple as eating ice cream or something major like, “Once I reach 40,000 words I am treating myself with a new laptop.” You decide the goals and the treats.
4. Create an outline. If you don’t know where you are going, you will meander about, wasting valuable writing time. I spend months figuring out my story arch. Knowing that arch allows me to continue on a forward path no matter if we are in the midst of a pandemic or if times are going great. Either way, I know what I need to do, so I just get down and get busy doing what I have to do.