Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writing a Wrong

Photo of the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I sat in the passenger seat of our car with my notebook spread open in front of me, gleaming and white, ready to absorb whatever ideas, thoughts, and stories I might bleed onto it.  My counselor, Gloria, had recently read to me a poem I’d written in a previous session with her, and when she saw the look of shock on my face at the raw power of the words contained in it, she pointedly said -- “Sophia, start writing again.”
Writing was the only safe way I knew how to exorcise the corrosive memories smoldering inside of me.  Six years had passed since the day my old life had abruptly ended, but my blood pressure, which had never been extraordinarily high, was beginning to escalate as the past began creeping into the present.  I couldn’t account for the midnight panic attacks and racing heartbeat that would rev inside my chest, like an out-of-gear engine when you step on the gas.
So there I was, sitting in the car, trying to obey Gloria’s advice.  I stared at the notebook and pen that I’d bought for the sole purpose of dumping the trapped memories that were suddenly roaring to life in the form of physical ailments, trying to come to terms with the fact that the words apparently weren’t going to write themselves.  Outside, the rain turned to hail.  I heard it on the rooftop of the car, smattering and pinging, as I watched my husband Noah and his soccer team chasing the ball, completely unfazed by the spring storm.  I finally put the tip of the pen on the paper.  Once I started writing, there was no holding back.  Years of turmoil, frustration, and black humor poured forth from my heart and head, through my hand, onto the paper, pure and unfiltered.  I couldn’t get it out fast enough.  Later, I would describe my experience writing the “Big Bang” chapter of Illumination as an almost uncontrollable bodily function.  I felt as though my body was expelling the story, vomiting uncontrollably, allowing toxic waste to exit in giant heaves.
I was writing again.  I’d written since I first learned how to.  Journals, short stories, poems, even timid beginnings of novels eventually discarded.  Writing was my original and most precious form of self-expression.  Even my ex-husband, who was devoid of the ability to compliment me, used to say I could write.  Writing about one’s own experiences (“ME-moir”) can seem gratuitous.  It is certainly one way to expel the demons.  But it’s also a way to call them back to you – to bring them to life so you can look at them when they are standing still in the full clear light and possibly make sense of them.  My demons were more manageable once I could see them laid out on paper in the form of black and white words.
In all of my writings online, I’ve been surprised not to have elicited more negative comments and harsh words or judgments about my life decisions.  But the other day, I found one that took a direct shot at me.  A woman wrote in response to a piece I'd written for the Post Divorce Chronicles:

“I’ve read your articles for many weeks here and I have also read a ton of your blog and I keep telling myself to keep a open mind to you and the ways of your family,...and I’ve decided I just don't like it I don’t like the way you have chosen to live and to blog and to put your self out there for the world to see, I think the likely hood of your children resenting you is very high.”
The French have a word for whatever thing frightens us most, a “Bete Noire,” or “black beast.”   I know why I made the choices I did for my family years ago and, truthfully, I’m not always at peace with those choices.  I will be haunted by the guilt that comes from them.  It is nearly impossible to know if I did everything right.  And beyond just defending my choices to myself, I do wonder if it’s okay for me to write about them.  The commenter claims my children will one day resent me for doing this.  Is she right?  I don’t think so but I can’t say for sure.
One thing, however, she might not have known is that, to shield and protect my children, myself, even my ex, I have changed all of our names.  But even though I use a pen name, I do not want to hide my story any more.  I do not want to carry it around silently.  It was eating at me from the inside out.
When I began writing and regurgitating my past, my story, it was impossible to stop.  It feels like the reason I’ve gone through all that I have.  And the pen really is mightier than the sword.  When I am angry or frustrated or scared, my thoughts and words congeal in my head and stick in my throat, like a giant hairball of emotion.  When confronted by a hostile or aggressive person, I freeze.  Like an animal that poses as a statue, I hope the attacker will miraculously forget that I am standing there, or be deceived by my lack of motion, and leave me in peace.  In person, I am inept at fighting back.  But I can write.  Buffy used a wooden stake to vanquish her demons.  I use a pen.
Most of the response to my writing has been positive.  I’ve seen enough responses to my book and my blog entries to know that my stories give a voice to other women who thought, as I did, that they were alone in being a non custodial mother.
“I shouldn’t read your blog at work… Here I sit. At my desk, tears rolling down my face, because this the closest I have ever come to having someone who has been there, and lived it tell me, it's going to be okay. And It means the world to me. Thank you.”  This, from “Anonymous,” is just one of many examples.

Grace Paley once stated -- “We write what we don’t know we know.”  Sharing our stories is a way of processing our thoughts and experiences so we can make sense of our lives and give meaning to them.  We should be brave enough to write nakedly from our own point of view.  Only then will our stories be free and, if we choose to share them, free to affect the minds and hearts of others.

Four years ago, almost to the day, along the banks of the mighty Columbia River, the heavens opened above me and poured down as I hunkered in my car and quietly began writing.  By the time I finally looked up, Noah was headed back, looking both refreshed and exhausted from his game.  Without ever stepping out of the car, I realized I too was out of breath and exhausted.  My fingers ached and my heart was slowing down again after pounding away in my chest.  I had been running for years from my Bete Noire, but now, I was staring at it in front of me, captured on paper, and finally in my control.

Tomorrow's entry - Slaying a Demon. 


  1. I love this. Absolutely love this. It is my life; it is my soul. We are who we are because we feel...and our feelings, coupled with our ability to capture them in words, have power for us and for others.

    I have someone who joined a blogging site specifically to comment negatively on MY blogs. Great. But I also get emails and calls daily from people who say, "How did you do that? How did you figure out what I was feeling?" after they've read a chapter in my book.

    Keep writing. But you already know that. Keep writing for you; keep writing for the rest of us to know ourselves better.

    The haters and doubters will eventually not hurt as much because the truth you get from writing will protect you.

    Geez, I'm all mystical today. Sorry!
    And THANK YOU!

  2. I admire your courage and fortitude in which you write. I wish I had half of it. I am jealous of your ability to put it all down, and love that you share it with us.

  3. Thank you so much you two.

    I wish I was better at standing my ground and knowing what to say "out loud" more often! Last night, my husband and I went to see The King's Speech and I couldn't stop thinking about how he must have felt... his words catching in his throat, trying to push through the nerves and fear to get his point across eloquently. I can write up a storm after the fact, but I feel powerless when it comes to expressing anything controversial in person.

    I expect I'll hear from people who don't approve of me or my choices and I respect that we all have our own opinions. The internet has created an outlet for all of us to be rather "faceless" and too often it makes us comfortable judging others.

    It's meant so much to me to hear from other women who have been silenced by guilt and fear of judgment for so long. I do think I've been through what I have so that I can write for others like me, and shine a light on a subject that has remained in the shadows for too long.

  4. I really believe that most of the negative commenters are envious in some way...either of your talent or for your giving yourself permission to express yourself. I, for one, don't know where I would be right now if it weren't for my blog. Keep on writing! There are many women out there, like Anonymous, who feel less alone when they read your words. I know I'm one of 'em. :)

  5. I wish that I had the gift of writing. I know what you mean when you talk about the panic attacks, and the guilt. I wish I had a way to line up the "demons" and make them less powerful. All the "what ifs", "why didnt I's", and the "how do I keep from screwing this all up now's". I have post-it notes, key chains, and stickers that say "One day at a time" so that I won't forget.

    I agree with the others who posted before me. I'm sure the nay-sayers feel that they have perfectly good opinions, but read what they have to say, thank them for reading, and then hit the delete and think about them no more. Because I for one need you to tell your story, because its my story too. And I don't write as well :o)

  6. You are an amazing writer and your words are so beautiful. Don't ever let the negativity from an anonymous person get in your way. You know you need to this and that's all that matters.

    One of your biggest fans

  7. When you married again, why didn't you try to get custody of your children, now that money was not a problem any more and you and Noah could afford to give them as much as Mike and Wanda do. You could have had a very good chance in Family Court of getting custody,now that you are married and have two incomes.I know everyone has a choice but I would have fought tooth and nail to keep my children, and no court in the land would have given Mike custody after what you say he did. But to each his own and we all have to live with our decisions, I hope your children never feel that you let them down. Good Luck to you all

  8. Noah and I did try to get custody. We spoke with numerous counselors and lawyers who all said the same thing: in the state where my children reside, unless a child is abused to the point of having bruises or having called the police in fear, a custody agreement cannot be changed without the parents consent. Just a state away, the children can choose at the age of 13 which parent he or she lives with, in the state where my children live, they cannot choose until they are 18.

    It seems so weird to me, now especially, after all crisis and debate has quieted, that the words "fight" even come into play. Our society believes in how "fighting" for you kids is admirable, when the obvious and neglected truth is that if parents were logical and considerate of their children's well being, they can "decide together" rather than "fight". It is less expensive all around... lawyer and court costs would be reasonable and money that should be used for food, college, family vacations could not be wasted on people being petty and vindictive.
    I realize this seems far fetched. Sadly it seems far to expected and assumed in our society to "fight" in court. I mean really, if both parents want to raise their children and there is no compelling reason that one parent should have less time with their kids, why not split custody?
    We are all too used to the idea that the "best" parent is the one who will pay the money and push to hire lawyers and go to court. That is ridiculous. You don't need to use the word fight at all. Parents need to work harder to agree so it doesn't hurt the kids in the long run.

    I still don't understand why Mike and I can't simply share our children equally. Step mom complains often about raising them when I am right here, ready to catch them however I can. Honestly, I can't help but think it boils down to parents egos. They think if on paper, one person has more custody than the other, that somehow automatically makes them the better parent.

    That is not always the case. If I could change anything in our court systems, it would be that children can be equally shared by both parents unless there is a risk to the children not to be.