Monday, May 29, 2017

Fuck Advice

Okay, chickadees, let’s talk about writing advice and mental health.

There’s this writing bromide that you have to write every day to be successful. It’s not new; it’s been around a long time, but another article just turned up peddling this.

And, like most writing dogma, it is bullshit. Like the time my college advisor told me to never talk about my writing projects, because I’d lose my drive to write them. Not true, at least not for me. I LOVE talking about projects. Thinking aloud helps me brainstorm, and other people’s reactions help me maintain the emotional energy for a project. (Remind me to tell you sometime about how many years I’d had the idea for #JurassicUnicorn before I started writing it.)

A lot of people--Seanan Maguire, Aleksei Valentin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Daniel Jose Older, Alex Acks, etc.--have torn the write-every-day advice to shreds on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s classist. It’s unnecessary. It can lead to bad writing. It's ableist.

Yep. Yep. Yep.

About a year and a half ago I was considering checking myself into a facility for a nervous breakdown. 2015 had been intense: my biological father had died, I’d gotten married, and I’d started a new job. I taught a full load of three classes across two of UM’s branch campuses, and—because I needed the money and didn’t know my limits—took an overload of two extra classes on the main UM campus. On top of all of this, I was trying to maintain my own demanding internal writing schedule, writing every day no matter what, and blaming myself for laziness and inefficiency when I didn’t meet my writing goals.

By the time Christmas break came, I told my parents I couldn’t visit them because I was too overwhelmed. In truth, I had been isolating myself from people around me because any social engagement, no matter how minor, felt impossible. One night I woke Wil up in the middle of the night to tell him that I was having fantasies about hurting myself. “I’m not going to,” I assured him. “But it scares me that I’m even thinking this. I just feel safer if you know.”

I had anxiety, brought on at least in part by pressure I was putting on myself to do everything at 100%. My body had been trying to get my attention for a while, with insomnia, stomach problems, headaches, neck and back pain, and an eye twitch. But I didn’t listen until I hit that mental wall at Christmas.

It’s taken me the last year and a half to get out of that space. I used medication, counseling, and mindfulness to treat my anxiety, but the most radical thing has been self-forgiveness. Being easy with myself. With writing, that means letting myself off the hook for the days I don’t work. And being more honest about what I call “work,” because even now I have a habit of saying “I didn’t work today” when what I mean is “I grocery shopped, e-mailed five students, read half a book for class, called the vet, cleaned the house, and went to choir practice, but I didn’t write or revise fiction today.” That other stuff—the stuff I’ve had to train myself to think of as “work”—is a vital part of my life. And I am a whole person. I am not a machine that produces words.

What’s been amazing about the process of learning self-forgiveness is how difficult it was at first, how much I resisted it because what if I get soft, get lazy, don't I need the guilt to produce?. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’ll start forgiving myself now.” Or, I did, but the rest of me didn’t believe it for a while. I had to keep waking up, keep saying it, writing about it, reading it in tarot spreads, talking about it with my husband, my counselor, my friends.

What’s even better is how much easier it is now. You know how it feels when you’ve got the flu, and then you have your first back-to-normal day again? How bright, how easy, how lovely everything is, relative to having the flu? That’s how it feels now that self-forgiveness is a reflex. When I don’t check everything off my list and instead of internally self-flagellating, I’m more able to shrug and say “Oh well. There’s always tomorrow.” Not every time. But more than I used to be.

Which is not to say that self-forgiveness is going to be easy or learnable for every person. I want to share this story because my ability to forgive myself was hard-won, and it still feels like a miracle to me. But even this advice—is this advice?—can be damaging if you take it and feel guilty for how much guilt you feel. Maybe you have a harder time shutting off your brain than I do, because we have different brain chemistry. Maybe you lived longer with people who shamed you or told you that you were worthless, and those messages are more deeply engraved into your identity. In my experience, learning to be easy with yourself is still worth working at, but don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with. As an old boss of mine used to say, "Don't should on yourself"--whether that should is writing, or self-forgiveness.

The big thing is: No advice is foolproof. Fuck advice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Me, Bertha Mason, and Trichotillomania

A few weeks ago, my essay “The Breathtaking Sting of the Pull,” about my experience with trichotillomania, came out in Superstition Review. This is by far the piece I’ve gotten the most comments on from readers, which surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have; more people read non-fiction than fiction.

What shocked me—and ultimately affirmed my choice to write about trich—was how many people wrote to me, both publicly and privately, to tell me that they could empathize. That they too pull their hair or pick their skin or do something else that they’ve always felt vaguely ashamed about. It feels really good to have people tell you they spent their free time reading something you wrote. It felt even better, after twenty-plus years of hiding, to have some solidarity, to have found some people who understand. 

I just wish I’d written about it sooner.

I love hair: all it can do, all it can say. Hair as symbol and signifier. This past semester, my Women in Lit class talked quite a bit about hair as we read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Americanah, both books about, among other things, the importance of hair in the lives of black women. We also talked about Bertha Mason’s hair in Jane Eyre. Jane describes her lover's imprisoned wife as having “a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane,” hiding her face. Wild hair could be read not only as an indicator of Bertha’s madness but also of her potential racial otherness in the book. Some scholars have read her as a multiracial woman. (For what it's worth, the book calls Bertha a “Creole,” which is a complicated and ambiguous term. As far as my research shows, at the time the term simply meant that she was the daughter of a white European settler in Jamaica. However, there is enough in Jane Eyre to indicate that Bertha might be intended to be multiracial—for instance, Jane talks about her “discoloured” and “black” face.)

Women’s unbound hair has also, at various times and in many cultures, indicated similarly unbound sexuality, and Bertha is no exception. Rochester doesn’t spell it out for us, but he says that when he first met Bertha: 
she lavishly displayed for my pleasure her charms and accomplishments. All the men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me. I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her.
The words "displayed," "charms," "stimulated," "senses"--all of this reads to me as the account of a man driven to lust by a woman’s sensuality. Later on, though, Rochester criticizes Bertha for her lack of modesty, calls her “perverse” and “unchaste,” a woman of “giant propensities.” Reading between the lines, I assume she had, in some way, violated Rochester’s expectations of committed female sexuality—perhaps through adultery, or by being too eager for and interested in sex in general.

This second option is how I’ve chosen to rewrite Bertha’s backstory, in my story “The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing in the Nest.” It’s a retelling of Rapunzel, as well, with Bertha imagining herself as the captive at the top of the tower, and Grace Poole/Jane as the witch imprisoning her. And you can’t write about Rapunzel without writing about hair, so my Bertha uses her hair as a means of escape and even revenge. But unlike Rapunzel, whose hair is most useful when it is still growing from her head, Bertha must pluck hers to braid it into rope, to use it as kindling, simultaneously erasing the very symbol of the madness and hyper-sexuality she’s been labeled with. The absence of hair, here, means as much as its presence; it gives her power.  She imagines making a boat out of her hair and sailing away, saying "I would stride the waters like a bald Amazon."

I don’t think I intended all of this subtext, at least not when I started writing the story. I hadn't given much thought to what Bertha's hair might symbolize and I was still in the closet about my trich. But when I thought about my own anxiety, imagined myself in that tower room, the imagery flowed from there. I was writing about trich before I knew it. My version of the story begins with Bertha plucking her hair, in a scene that mirrors my own experiences plucking mine: 
I roll each hair between my fingers like a rosary. My fingers crawl across my scalp until I find one: coarse where the others are thin, kinked where the others are smooth. I enjoy the feel of it pulling against me, tenting my skin. Then I yank it out, suck on the end, and drop it on the floor.