I’ve read about this. I’ve read in writing craft books about asking yourself who is the voice in your head that tells you you are a bad, no talent, shameful writer. Could be a parent, could be a teacher. I’ve never been able to pin-point mine. Sometimes I’d claim it to be my first husband, but deep down I knew that wasn’t true. He was not insensitive or cruel, he was simply ambivalent. Most likely not secure enough to provide what I was asking for (on the rarest of occasions I would offer to let him read what I’d written), so he chose to render no opinion. No, the voice is not him.
I wondered if the voice originated from a scene I still see so clearly; an older sibling reading the start of a story I’d written in middle school. It was a story of a brother and sister trying to solve a crime, my first draft handwritten on loose leaf and gathered up in a black three ring binder. Memory has a way of providing the 360 degree view of such a moment; my sibling standing at the kitchen counter holding the binder, reading out loud, laughing and dramatically acting out the words I’d written. We were both young, and this person is so dear to me I’m certain this is not the voice.
Whenever the voice pops up, I try to tuck it away, do my best to brush it off. I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter what it thinks, but nonetheless that voice tangles itself into my brain and is alive and well up there. The voice I've identified as “THE VOICE” snuck up next to me recently as I wrote about the metaphysicality of existing in two places simultaneously. The voice belongs to a woman who passed away last year, before I came to this realization. I am a bit ashamed to admit that there was a degree of relief at the news, though I did not understand why until now. She is a woman with whom I took my second Creative Nonfiction class many years ago, let’s call her Patsy. It’s her voice.
Patsy hadn’t been in the first of the two-class series, and was an unfamiliar face. The instructor, a lovely nurturing woman had given us a process of critical response early on that I still rely on in my own teaching. It asks the reader to provide an affirmation to the writer to say in essence, “I respect your efforts and find this particular aspect of it remarkable.” This is the 'ante' into the trust bank, to open the dialogue to then provide feedback in the form of curiosity. Not correction or suggestion, but in essence, “this is what I felt and thought as I read your work, and I’m wondering...”
Patsy simply disregarded this model. Blatantly. I remember her waving her hand as if shooing away an insect, starting her comments with—and this is not far from verbatum, I’m certain—“Affirmation, blah blah blah, affirmation,” and then she’d start with her critique. It felt icky from the get-go.
After the last class, a group of us decided to continue to meet as a writing group, and Patsy offered her condo’s clubhouse as a place for us to gather. Early on, I brought a piece about tears, how they’re (gratefully) the most likely of the limited number of fluids the body chooses to express the big emotions. Can you imagine if you salivated instead? Or sweat? Or some of the waist-down fluid options? Patsy, a medical professional, countered right off the bat. Body fluids aren’t LIMITED, there’s A LOT of them, and proceeded to rattle off the medical terms for all kinds that simply shut me down for the rest of my critique. Later she scoffed at my use of the phrase “liquid mercury.” ALL mercury is liquid, she quipped. I don’t remember any other feedback on the piece I wrote, from her or anyone else, and that essay got shelved for years. Because whever I thought about all I heard in my head was, ALL mercury is liquid, STUPID.
In truth Patsy was absolutely right, and I’d have so appreciated that correction if I had felt she, as my critique partner, had my best interests at heart. If she had built that trust with some acknowledgment that, yes, this piece is worthy, you have done effective work. Then pointing out that small error would have been welcomed, I’d have thanked her for saving me from looking stupid. Instead I just felt stupid, and as a new writer, this was too much for me to overcome.
I stopped bringing pieces to the group. This really pissed Patsy off. This IS a WRITING group, she’d admonish. I’m disappointed, she may have said, or something as condescending at best, offensive at worst. Not at all helpful or interested in why I may not be bringing something. Not that I would have been able to provide a reason at that point. I was just feeling incompetent and stupid about the whole endeavor of being a writer, which in my mind I wasn’t, since I wasn’t writing.
She dropped the group after a few months of meetings, to focus on revising her own manuscript, and the group moved to my house for meetings. I began to write again, and often found that group such a treasure, so uplifting and encouraging.
Then Patsy asked to come back.
And me, not fully understanding the toxicity, and not strong enough to protect our group and say no, allowed it. The group broke apart soon after.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I wrote the word “metaphysical,” I heard that voice. That’s not how metaphysics works, STUPID. And I finally recognized it as Patsy. So I have some things to say to her now, to the real Patsy, who in truth I didn’t know that well. My hope is doing so may provide some ballast to deal with this imaginary Patsy between my ears. Patsy, you had no right to eschew the process of building trust with me as a writer. You had no right to shame me when I wasn’t writing. Your comments were corrections, not feedback. I’m sorry you’re dead, and perhaps your loved ones are mourning you. I’m sorry for their loss.
But imaginary Patsy, there in my head? Fuck you, Patsy. I see you there, you small-minded bitch.
I see myself waving my hands at her like I watched the real Patsy do during class. I see myself taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face the other direction so I don’t hear her. If I want to write about metaphysics I will. And will probably appreciate her corrections down the road in a revision. But not in my early draft. Now is not the time to not look stupid. Now is not the time to even worry about looking stupid.
I’m saying no to Patsy now.
I’ve talked to other writers who have ‘patsies’ in their writing histories. Some of these painful moments happened during the time the group met at my home, which now, as a holder of safe spaces, I regret I could not see and mitigate. But I suppose it all comes with the territory. As writers it’s up to us to identify and understand who we hold in our heads as our ideal readers, our critical voices. It’s up to us to be the gatekeeper, letting in those who are most helpful, turning away those who are not.
On weekends after my husband and I each take our early morning hours for our respective projects in our own creative rooms, we meet in the kitchen for some breakfast; weekdays when we both work from home we meet in the kitchen for lunch. We cook, eat, then sit together for an hour or so, on the comfy sofas inside in the winter, on the back patio furniture outside when the air is fresh and warm. A lot of times it takes a few minutes for things to get rolling, we sit in silence sometimes for many minutes, but patience usually pays off and our thoughts are shared.
The previous day, when we met in the kitchen for lunch, he came in imitating a character he just watched on the Simpsons while he had walked on the treadmill. I was busy with something else, preoccupied with wanting to ask him a question, and he didn’t get the laugh response he was looking for. His repeated efforts and explanation of what he watched, along with his feigned indignance at my non-response did end up making me laugh after all. Or maybe it was our mutual weirdo-ness that stunned me into laughter. I love that man more every day.
We found each other ten years ago this day and he earned a significant level of trust from me right from the start. I was 43 years old, and had been recovering from a series of events—the death of my mother, losing my job, a surgical biopsy of my breast tissue (benign, thank goodness), my two children entering their teen years thus not needing me as much—that had forced me to turn deeply within. A few days after meeting him I had pulled a book off my bookshelf, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a book my older sister had given to me many years earlier. Back then, when I opened and read the first few pages I placed it back on the shelf, not understanding the appeal it held for her. This time when I opened it I could not underline fast enough, there was not enough ink in my pen for all the exclamation points and asterisks in the margins. Its stories were a way to understand myself, a way to sing my way back to myself.
I wanted to share this discovery with him, pulling the book out as we sat in the front seat of his car, having met up in a secluded park to see one another. I read him page after page, including the following passage. “So often a woman feels…she lives in an empty place where there is maybe just one cactus with one brilliant red flower on it, and then in every direction, 500 miles of nothing. But for the woman who will go 501 miles, there is something more.” I wept as I read the words. Even now I find it hard to express the profound experience of reading that book.
But here’s the thing. He sat and listened, held me as I read and cried, and said to me afterward that even though he didn’t understand all that I had read to him, “I can see how important it is to you, how much it means to you.” And that statement set the stage for me to trust him, perceive him as an exquisite listener. It gave me permission to express what I needed without necessity of his approval or understanding. From that day forward I have always felt safe to talk to him about anything, no matter how ‘out there’ or weird. He listens, without judgment, without belittlement or teasing. He has never once laughed at me, or made me feel ashamed to be me. Neither of us are perfect, of course. Our years together include their share of misunderstandings and difficult, painful conversations, but always, we have been able to bring our selves to the table.
Ten years to the day after meeting him, I woke before my alarm, my husband’s side of the bed empty. I opened our bedroom door to find a long stemmed rose at my feet with a poetic clue printed neatly on a pink index card directing me to the next location. A dozen total, the last directing me to his home office where I slammed into him with the big bang power of the day we found each other.
Confession. I cried like a baby as I gathered each rose. Happy tears. So. Much. Love. Finding that man changed my life a degree of magnitude I could not fathom. In those ten years I’ve felt our hearts, both of our hearts, open, broaden, mine to the point of ache so many times, in ways that still surprise me.
We call the day “One True Love Day,” but we haven’t really celebrated it like an anniversary. Which is understandable. It’s hard to crow it out in public when that big bang day happened while we were both married to other people. When there are many who were so hurt in the wake of our discovering each other. And now we have a wedding anniversary during which we can declare our bond out to the world. One True Love day stands for something different, something private, once secret, which if I’m being honest is its one blemish.
One True Love day represents, well, LOVE. Love almost as if it is a separate entity we invited into our lives when we both felt alone and so empty of love. The three of us, my husband, me, and Love. Over the past ten years, we’ve been an amazing team. And Love has been the cornerstone of everything else. Any of the misunderstandings and painful conversations, and more significantly, all the forgiveness we asked for, all the shame we admitted to, Love was ALWAYS there. Urging us on, strong enough for us to fall back on when it felt like too much. True Love. True.
Ten years later, One True Love Day represents not only acknowledging that lovely third wheel of Love at our table, but also permission. This Love allows permission not just to feel the love for each other, but to accept the love we feel from our family, who graciously, if not reluctantly, have come to accept us and love us each in their own way. Permission also to love ourselves, to acknowledge that seeking and finding each other was a grand gesture of self love, a moment when we asked for and allowed Love to enter in. The day marks ten years of loving ourselves enough to place our hearts in its cradle.
After the Simpsons imitations subsided and we ate our lunch, my husband had a lot to say about his projects, his work. When he was done speaking he looked at me kind of surprised.
“Wow, I had a lot to process,” he said, “this really helps me, otherwise everything’s just a big jumble bouncing in my brain. You’re an excellent listener.”
I smiled. “I learned from the best,” I said.
“I learned from…” and we both burst out laughing.
“Now that I made you REALLY laugh,” he stood from the sofa and stretched, “we can continue our day.”
What’s not to love.
This feels like a strange new year in some way. Like, it’s so much not a big deal that it feels like a huge deal. I feel true. Maybe that’s what makes me cry when I meditate. I don’t mean euphoric. I mean settled. Whole.
New Year's Day morning before climbing out of bed (at 8:00am! Holy cow!), the sheets tilted in just a particular way to resemble my cat Annie’s profile (she passed away October 31, 2019, she owned me for 15 years and was my constant writing buddy). I stared at it for a while, a long while, then reached out a finger to caress where the spot between her eyes would be. Cried. Hugged the sheet to my chest. So how to make sense of this simultaneous fullness? This contentedness?
I love New Years. The New Start. I’ve loved these last ten years in all the ways they’ve been spectacular and devastating. This year I feel Ready. Maybe that’s what this feeling is. Ready with the wisdom that the road is riddled with puddles and potholes of Not Ready, of doubt and darkness, but knowing that’s all part of it.
What is this New Year’s ‘no big deal’ feeling? It’s like a… “carry on” kind of feeling. Like a brief nod to the check in dictated by the new calendar. Perhaps the routine maintenance and overhauls in recent years makes this checkpoint feel effortless, no big deal, carry on. Certainly I’m not claiming perfection. I still get distracted by my phone during writing minutes. I still have weight to lose, sugar to detox off of, books to write, exercise to do. Of course. But I have some steady habits to build on this year.
This month I have three new habits to cultivate. Two should be smooth. First, while coffee is brewing and airborne dissolving (established habit) I’ll stretch there in the kitchen (new habit). Then into my writing room for my #continuouspractice daily pages (journaling has been an established habit for decades, and since 2017 I’ve been using the same twelve journals each year, one journal for each month. This year I’ll finally fill each one, and have designated an “overflow” journal if I don’t end up with enough blank pages for the month). Then I meditate (another established habit). Nothing fancy. Just recline and listen for 10 or 15 minutes. My hopes are that with this morning routine already established (coffee/airborne, writing, meditating), slipping in that stretch shouldn’t be too traumatic (but any more parenthetical comments in this paragraph just may be).
The second new habit is to walk outside each day. Won’t it be great to say, “yeah, in 2020 I walked outside every day." Even if it’s just around the tiny block we’re on, it’s setting the habit I'm after. If I time it right I can walk around the elementary school down the street during recess and breathe in the children's laughter and joy. If I time it wrong and walk while school is letting out, I'll walk through a clog of parents in cars cued up to pick up said children and breathe in their exhaust--of both cars and children.
The third habit this month is the Captain’s Log, the end-of-day recap. This may prove more challenging because I don’t know where or how that’s going to slide into my day, so I’m staying playful with it. I have handy what I think my tools may be, colored pens, a spiral notebook, a small calendar. So let’s ask the question, what do I intend to get out of such an activity? What value do I see it?
As I write THAT I am in LOVE with the mindfulness of such a question, and would love to ask myself that question all throughout the day. What value do I see in this activity?
But let’s start here. What do I intend to get out of a daily recap? I intend to give the Captain (me) the last word. Where she gathers information from the First Mate and crew, and sets a course for the next day. It provides leadership to myself. I see it happening in my writing room before I make my way to bed. I don’t see it as the touchy-feely check-in that my morning daily pages are. I see it as boots on the ground tracking. Captain knows what she wants and where she needs to go, Captain knows she has the tools and the time now to proceed. She is the one who looks to the stars for reassurance, she is the one who listens during meditation and hears the Universe whisper, carry on, come along. But she needs day by day involvement in the TO DO’s.
Because this is what has usually happens. Captain shows up in the morning, rested and happy, strong. Stronger now than ever (so much change in the past three years as I skim through the Januarys of the past). She sits and checks in, and hands off duties to First Mate and crew, who, to their credit, can at times absolutely KILL IT in the TO DO department.
But they still have nasty habits, destructive self-talk, as they make the minute-by-minute decisions that may or may not get the ship to its coordinates planned for that day. Sometimes they make poor decisions and switch the priorities around (eating all those cookies was reward for cleaning the house which needed to happen instead of working on the memoir). The Captain gives a cursory nod as she pads off to her quarters to sleep as the crew just provides a quick thumbs-up of how things went as they silently berate themselves for effing up the day. It is not an effective debriefing.
This can go on for months, and everyone is shocked and disappointed when they realize they’re way off course, not as far along as they had planned and hoped, as they deep-boned knew they could be. So the evening check-in is intended to resolve that.
This first month is kind of an inventory month for the check-ins. Captain will ask “What got done?” and document it. Then she will ask, “Anything else to report?” to assess the overall morale of the crew. Then the Captain will step up and claim what is intended to get done the next day before all bid goodnight. I had the idea to do this New Year’s Eve, and meant to make the first check in that night, but I ate ice cream and drank champagne instead (imperfect!).
So right now is the time. Happy New Year. Welcome, 2020, you shiny new year. Let’s get to work.
Meg Kinghorn is the big weirdo of the Ella/Meg Salty City Writing Workshop collaboration. She teaches Creative Non-fiction and Memoir at the University of Utah and gives herself and any other writer crossing her path unmitigated permission to write whatever the hell they want.