People who aren’t writers never understand how hard it is to be a writer. I’ll never forget a keynote speech given at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference, where a successful author, with eleven novels under her belt, said that the only way she’d completed all of those books was this: when she went into her study, she removed the belt from her robe and literally tied herself to the chair. We all laughed, but we knew she was telling the truth. That’s why we were laughing. I thought it was a great idea. Maybe I’d try it.
Writing is often excruciating. Digging down into the core of who we are, how we feel, what we think, and manifesting what we want to create is incredibly hard. Sometimes readers imagine the story just “flowed out like that,” that those magnificent sentences and paragraphs and chapters, just appeared on the pristine white page. But for most of us who write, every word, every paragraph, every story, every chapter is hard won.
I earn my living helping people dig deep and tell the truth about their lives. I like to call it finding “the story under the story,” “the real truth,” the unvarnished truth. And it’s hard work.
During the years it took me to write The Burning Light of Two Stars, I wasn’t sure that I could pull off the very thing I’ve spent decades teaching my students—how to go for the gut, not hold back, and winnow out the real truth. There were times when the words were flowing, when I was in that state of flow and grace that is better than anything—the highest high, the greatest ecstasy I’ve ever know—riding that creative flow. Those were the best days, the blissful moments. But there were other days when the monster of self-doubt, monkey mind, took hold of me and squeezed me by the throat. “You can’t do this!” “You’ll never succeed.” “You don’t have what it takes.”
Reading this might surprise you. I’m already the author of six successful non-fiction books. I’ve been an author for more than thirty years. I’ve been teaching writing for more than twenty. You’d think, perhaps, if you weren’t a writer yourself, that all of this would be easy for me by now. But it is never easy.
In the eleven years it took me to write The Burning Light of Two Stars, I often wanted to quit. I told myself I couldn’t, that I shouldn’t, that I wasn’t capable. I didn’t have the writing chops, the courage, the talent, the capacity to pull off this story. I couldn’t find the structure. I could find the story arc. It was selfish, self-serving. A terrible mistake to delve into all this old history, again. Why dredge up all that old history? No one would care. The story was too narrow. Too broad. It would be boring. It would only matter to me—and why was I holding on to it anyway?
At one of those junctures, filled with despair and ready to chuck my manuscript in a drawer and never look at it again, I showed up for my bi-monthly writing group with Carolyn Brigit Flynn. And the prompt she gave us was, “The work I am not at liberty to quit.”
I wrote this in response to that prompt in March of 2018 and read it out loud, weeping, witnessed by my writing sisters:
I am not at liberty to quit this book. I am not at liberty to stop digging into places so painful and murky and uncertain that I want to quit digging every other day. I am not at liberty to quit asking myself the painful, unanswered questions, “Why did I tell so many negative stories about my mother? Why did I lock her into her worst moments and then want to publish them on the page? Why did I feel the need to protect myself from her all the way up until she died, long after she had the power to hurt me? Why have I created so many habitual stories about my life—stories I’ve crafted to protect myself? Stories where I am the victim or the hero? What have I been protecting myself from? How can I be someone who has worked on myself my whole life and still have so much I am ignorant about? So much that I’m deluding myself about?
Was I a good daughter or a bad daughter? Was I good enough daughter? Why has control been so much the center of my life, the platform on which I stand? What is it I’m afraid of? Terrified of? I who am famous for my courage, what am I protecting?
What is the story that I am really trying to tell? What is the real core of the story I am revealing to myself and maybe someday to the world? Why did I give my father such a pass? Why is it only now, 17 years after his death and I am allowing myself to feel how scary it felt as a teenager to be in his world? To face Big Ken the porn director, in his huge overalls and his huge belly, leering at me from the time I was fourteen years old, visiting my hippie dad?
I am not at liberty to stop asking these questions. I am not at liberty to stop feeling into the answers. I am not at liberty to ask myself if I will ever really crack this nut of safety and self-protection with an outer façade of bravery? Why have I been able to take so many incredible risks in my life: running my own business on a shoestring with none of the right credentials? Writing The Courage to Heal and putting it out in the world? Standing up to my family when they abandoned and shunned me. Standing up to my mother, the most powerful force in my world. Having children as a lesbian. Having children when I was uncertain whether I was really capable of the deep love they required. Quitting the road when I was at the peak of my success and not knowing what would replace it.
All of that took courage. Remaking myself again and again. So how can all that courage be built around a core shaking to its boots in fear? I am questioning all the structures that have kept me safe. Why am I doing that now at 61 years old? Why is this book calling my name? Sucking me under? Driving me into the underworld? Forcing me to ask these questions and a thousand others.
The work I am not at liberty to quit is right in front of me. I am in it. I am deeply immersed in it. The work I am not at liberty to quit is delving into the truth, deepening my craft as a writer. Learning about story and setting and dialogue and immediacy and presence on the page in a whole new way.
The work I am not at liberty to quit is owning up to the truth about me and my brother, the truth about me and my mother, the truth about the self-protection I have honored above almost everything else.
The work I am not at liberty to quit is exactly what I’m already doing, so I think that’s a good thing. And along with that work, I need more self-care. More days like the one I’m going to have Friday, hiking the Pinnacles. I need to step away from my obsessive focus. I need to give myself time to recover from the deep dive and the anxiety and the challenge and the stress of bringing this book to life—because it requires more of me than I’ve ever given before. I need to offer myself kindness, not judgment, love and not pressure. I need to let this work breathe. I need to breathe while I write it. This is going to be a very, very long journey.
And no matter how many years I’ve already put into it. I am still at the beginning. I seem to always be at the beginning. Always starting over. The work I am not at liberty to quit it loving myself as I wrestle with the darkness, with my own unknown, terrible, illuminating places. To love myself as I wrestle with the answers, but maybe I don’t have to wrestle at all, maybe the real answer is to allow. To allow the answers to come. To be willing to hear them, to sense them, to know them.
The work I am not at liberty to quit is to allow myself to know the truth.
I remember the day I wrote that, the day I read it out loud, the day it was witnessed and heard and honored. And the next day, I was back at it. Bringing The Burning Light of Two Stars to life.
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