People love you. You need them. You can’t live without them. They help you. But in the end the only person who can make you well is you. – I’ll Be Yours For a Song
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but what kicked me into it now was two things. The death of David Bowie turned out to be a big one, and it was primarily sparked by what people were saying regarding what he personally meant to them: That he stood for the idea that it was okay to be weird and awkward and vulnerable, that outcasts have worth and value. That if you love what you do, you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. And so many of my friends – and acquaintances/colleagues/whatever – are creative people and also people who have felt weird and ill-fitting for most of their lives.
Though I think a huge majority of people feel that way. I think some people are just better at faking that they don’t.
And the other thing was this post by Chuck Wendig on self-care for writers, specifically the part regarding shame.
I want to write about shame more some other time, because it’s something that I’ve been struggling with on a number of levels, and it’s been enormously difficult. But what I’ve especially been wanting to talk about is vulnerability, and being open, and not pretending to be okay.
Which I think too many of us feel like we have to do.
A while ago, I made a promise to myself to start writing ugly. To keep my prose beautiful – it’s really important to me to have beautiful prose – but to confront the gross, angry, shameful things in me, to take my mental illness and my emotional problems and bring them out in my work. I decided to make that promise because I felt like I was finally ready, and I felt like in order to write truly good stuff I had to go to the things that were hardest to write about and drag them into the light, because pain is where a lot of the most fundamental parts of your identity can be found.
I don’t believe that happiness shapes us nearly as intensely as pain does. I don’t like that, but I do believe it’s true.
So I tried to do that. The results were things like “Singing With All My Skin and Bone” and “Dispatches from a Hole in the World” (two things I’m immensely proud of) and repeated attempts to write a different kind of book than I’ve written so far (so far unsuccessful but I think I’m getting closer). If you read/have read these, you’ll notice that they’re angry stories, and they’re sad and they’re scared. Almost all of what I’m writing at the moment is angry and sad and scared, and agonizingly personal, because that’s a lot of how I’ve been feeling for a while now. But of course I’ve also been feeling like that’s not something we’re supposed to reveal publicly. That being open about how we’re not okay a lot of the time – even some of the time – isn’t acceptable. That it’s something to be ashamed of.
I wanted to fight that. I’ve come to think of this process as “aggressive vulnerability”, not entirely in the sense of aggression toward other people, but also aggression toward myself. Because it really hurts. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s terrifying. It makes me feel awful. I do it not because I think it’ll fix me but because I sincerely believe that bottling it up and pretending to be okay will make me feel even worse.
I also do hope that it might help in the long run. When I teach qualitative methods in my Intro to Sociology course, I show Brené Brown’s TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. She’s done extensive research on both of those things, and one of her primary – and in her opinion most important – findings is that people who aren’t shackled by shame, who are able to connect with others, who develop a sense of personal worthiness, are people who can be vulnerable. Who don’t pretend to be okay. That these people are ultimately people who can feel love in a sense that can be so hard for others.
I really want that. I’ve spent most of my life wrestling with profound feelings of unworthiness. I don’t know what it feels like to be okay. I never have been. So I’ve been trying to be vulnerable, and I’ve been trying to be vulnerable in a professional setting – especially when it comes to writing and being an author – which is where we’re least encouraged to be that way. Where we have to be okay.
I think our idea of “professionalism” is toxic. I think it’s harmful. I think it’s bad for us. I think it encourages the maintenance of a culture of coldness and disconnection in a place where most of us spend most of our time, and I think it makes us feel alone. Which makes us feel unworthy, because how the fuck are you supposed to feel like a worthy person when you don’t feel like anyone views you as worth connecting with? When true connection itself is devalued?
I’m not saying we should all be raw and bleeding and confessional in public. I’m not saying we should all go around constantly hugging and sobbing on each other’s shirts, or that no one should have to do their jobs even if they feel like shit on a particular day. But I don’t like this state of affairs and I think it needs to stop.
I don’t want anyone to feel alone. I don’t want to feel alone. We’re not alone. None of us are. We’re all walking around as broken people surrounded by other broken people, and the worst thing for a broken person is to feel like they’re the only one who’s broken and they need to hide their brokenness at all costs or they’ll be even more alone than they already are.
But I’ve spent this last year feeling unbelievably alone.
It’s been a really bad year for me in a lot of ways. Which is frustrating, because at least on paper my writing career looks pretty good. I signed a three-book deal with an excellent small LGBTQ publisher and all three books are done and in the final editing stages, I had more stories come out in pro markets than I ever have before. I hooked up with another fantastic small publisher to put together my first short fiction collection, which is almost done and which will come out this summer (I’m really excited). I made and strengthened some important professional connections, and even better, I made some cool new friends.
But it’s been awful.
I lost my departmental funding. For a year I was unemployed and without any income except for tiny royalty checks and a couple of freelance editing gigs (I’m now teaching again, which pays very little but it’s enough for the present). I was facing the prospect of being essentially unemployable because of what my resume looks like (turns out very few people are interested in hiring me to socially theorize, which I don’t think I’m all that good at anyway). I’ve had to face the possibility that the last seven years I’ve spent in graduate school – which deeply damaged me mentally and emotionally – weren’t ultimately worth very much. I’m not where I want to be in terms of my writing career: I still have no agent and I’m not publishing with the places I really hoped to be and believed I was on the cusp of. I got no award nominations. I didn’t make it into the number of Best-Ofs that I have in the past. I was so embedded in editing and so deeply unhappy that I essentially stopped producing original work (guess what I did write a lot of? Fanfiction. I need to talk about that and why I feel ashamed of it and why I really do not fucking want to be or think I should be because it helped me fall in love with writing again and because a huge amount of that fanfiction is legitimately – in my opinion – the best work I have ever done, which will never be broadly recognized and for which I will never be paid).
Yeah, I know, cry harder. Boo hoo, a three-book deal. But look: Do you have any fucking idea how difficult that paragraph was to write? Do you have any fucking idea how tempting it is to delete it and pretend I never wrote it at all? I look at that and what I sincerely believe is that now I’m That Person and at cons everyone will be talking behind my back and I’ve just killed my career. By being honest. About how I’m not okay, and about what has been bringing me joy, because it’s the wrong kind of thing to be finding joy in. And about how I’m lonely and disconnected and I’m really sick of feeling that way.
And here’s a thing: I’ve been talking to a few other writers about this. Not in detail about a lot of that shit up there, but some. And what I’ve been hearing is exactly what I said and suspected: We’re all feeling like that to some degree. Or at least the vast majority of us are. And that vast majority are feeling exactly like I do: That we have to hide this at all costs. That no one can know or we’ll be That Person. Sure, we can let a few things slip, but the real ugliness and pain must remain completely secret Or Else.
Guys, I just can’t do that. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I don’t want to be.
I think not doing that is actually much harder anyway.
The terrible thing about writing especially is that by nature it’s so solitary. By nature we’re put in a position where we’re incredibly exposed all the time – we work very hard to put deep parts of ourselves out there to be examined and dissected and rejected and ripped apart, and even if the response is hugely positive it is still just so goddamn scary and painful so much of the time – but we’re also put in a place where I think so many of us feel like we have to stay in that little creative bubble and pretend that none of the dissection and rejection and ripping hurts a huge amount. Or that other things hurt. And are awful. And we’re lonely, and at the end of the day we don’t feel like we’re worth very much.
I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t really think it can be fixed. I think this is probably just what we’re stuck with, and it’s pretty much always going to suck. I tend to regard that far more as realism than pessimism, but there you go.
But I wanted to talk about it. Because like I said, I can’t do this anymore. And I would rather be open about that than grit my teeth and pretend to be at least mostly okay.
I’m not okay. At all. I think you probably aren’t okay either, and hey: I know that feel, bro.
So there’s that.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”