Last year at this time I had just arrived in Martha’s Vineyard for a two-week writing residency. It was where I finally found my voice. I’d been in New York for the first two weeks of Write or Die, and I was finding that my greatest fear was true: I had nothing of meaning or depth to say. I wrote a text to HBL chronicling my despair, and he wrote back: That’s your voice.
I was shocked. It was like trying to get dressed for a party and coming downstairs to your date only to be told you looked perfect just the way you were, rumpled and tear-stained.
You mean being myself is just as easy as showing up? And you will still love me?
What if the same as true of writing? What if writing is just as easy as showing up?
I went to school to learn how to write. I minored in creative writing as an undergraduate and went to graduate school to get an M.F.A. in creative writing. But I didn’t write creatively. When you wear a mask and have to keep one hand up to hold it on, you can’t be the master of your own universe. You are too tired and you forget or don’t even know what your real face and self looks like. You write around the edges of the mask, but anything real feels ugly and wrong, so you erase it or don’t even let yourself translate the hiddenbrain’s thoughts into language you and others could understand.
What do I mean by real here? It’s different for everyone. Real is the thing that comes from the silver thread of truth that rivers through you like a second spine. Real is the thing that feels naked. Real is what quickens your heart and soothes it at the same time. Real comes from a deep, quiet place that isn’t about black/white, good/bad, you/me. Real is the child’s eyes. Real is you looking from those eyes and saying what it is you see.
In my case real was saying many of the things I thought made me bad. I thought I was supposed to be a happy person with few needs. As a writer, I struggled all the time with the idea of character need. I didn’t get it. Your deepest needs--for love, stability, creative fulfillment maybe, whatever they are for you--are the things that drive you forward and make you do what you do. But if you don’t know what your deepest needs are, you are driven by animal needs: hunger, thirst, the desire to be seen, and so addicts are born, people with commitment handicaps, people jittering through life like cars stuttering down the road with no one at the wheel.
When I was working on the screenplay for Phantom Halo, Samuel was the easiest character to write dialogue for because his need was clear to me: he wanted to fix his car. When I was in college, I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know about what and so I was like Samuel with no car. It wasn’t until I finally gave myself permission to write about something I thought 1. Might make those closest to me turn away 2. Might be dismissed as trivial 3. Might make me look more needy than strong 4. Might make me look stupid that I was able to finally begin to meet myself on the page and then in life.
It hasn’t been easy.