To Whoever Needs It
A friend lent me the book Tiny Beautiful Things the other day.
"It reminded me of you. I mean, you could have written it. "
Now that I'm knee deep in the pages, having replaced my evening Louie-watching with compulsive reading (gasp!) my only thought is, please, God, let me write half as well as this, just once.
The book is a compilation of advice columns that the ever-brilliant Cheryl Strayed authored under the alias 'Sugar' for the website the Rumpus. Every one of her responses has tugged at me, pulled me toward some sort of truth. But the one I've pasted and linked to below?
This one's the one.
Take five and read it.
To the work, to the sanctity of the floor, and to doing life like a motherfucker,
The letters below were originally published on the Rumpus. The link to the original piece is here. The first letter was authored by Elissa Bassist, the second by "Sugar", also known as Cheryl Strayed. I'm overstating all necessary credits here to make it clear that I'm sharing this not because I want to mooch off of Elissa Bassist's and Cheryl Strayed's brilliance, but simply because I think you'll likely benefit from reading it. Now, onto the brilliance.
I write like a girl. I write about my lady life experiences, and that usually comes out as unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of my vagina as metaphor.
And that’s when I can write, which doesn’t happen to be true anymore.
Right now, I am a pathetic and confused young woman of 26, a writer who can’t write. I am up late asking you a question, really questioning myself. I’ve sat here, at my desk, for hours, mentally immobile. I look up people I used to love and wonder why they never loved me. I lie facedown on my bed and feel scared. I get up, go to the computer, feel worse.
David Foster Wallace called himself a failed writer at 28. Several months ago, when depression hooked its teeth into me, I complained to my then-boyfriend about how I’ll never be as good as Wallace; he screamed at me on Guerrero Street in San Francisco, “STOP IT. HE KILLED HIMSELF, ELISSA. I HOPE TO GOD YOU ARE NEVER LIKE HIM.”
I understand women like me are hurting and dealing with self-trivialization, contempt for other more successful people, and misplaced compassion, addiction, and depression, whether they are writers or not. Think of the canon of women writers: a unifying theme is many of their careers ended in suicide. I often explain to my mother my phobia that to be a writer/a woman/a woman writer means to suffer mercilessly and eventually collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this.” She pleads with me: can’t it be different?
Can it? I want to jump out the window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book. But it’s not that I want to die so much as have an entirely different life. I start to think that I should choose another profession—as Lorrie Moore suggests, “movie star/astronaut, a movie star missionary, a movie star/kindergarten teacher.” I want to throw off everything I’ve accumulated and begin as someone new, someone better.
I don’t have a bad life. I didn’t have a painful childhood. I know I’m not the first depressed writer. “Depressed writer”—because the latter is less accurate, the former is more acute. I’ve been clinically diagnosed with major depressive disorder and have an off-and-on relationship with prescription medication, which I confide so it doesn’t seem I throw around the term “depression.”
That said, I’m high-functioning—a high-functioning head-case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth. The truth: I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness. And I fear that even if I do manage to write, that the stories I write—about my vagina, etc.—will be disregarded and mocked.
How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?
Dear Elissa Bassist,
When I was 29 I had a chalkboard in my living room. It was one of those two-sided wooden A-frames that stand on their own and fold flat. On one side of the chalkboard I wrote, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor and on the other side I wrote, “She sat and thought of only one thing, of her mother holding and holding onto their hands,” Eudora Welty.
The quote by Eudora Welty is from her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. It was a book I read again and again and that line about the woman who sat thinking of only one thing was at the heart of the reason why. I sat like that too. Thinking of only one thing. One thing that was actually two things pressed together, like the back-to-back quotes on my chalkboard: how much I missed my mother and how the only way I could bear to live without her was to write a book. My book. The one that I’d known was in me since way before I knew people like me could have books inside of them. The one I felt pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable until my mother died, and there it was, the plot revealed, the story I couldn’t live without telling. My debut.
That I hadn’t written the book by the time I was 29 was a sad shock to me. Of myself, I’d expected greater things. I was a bit like you then, Elissa Bassist. Without a book, but not entirely without literary acclaim. I’d won a few grants and awards, published a couple of stories and essays. These minor successes stoked the grandiose ideas I had about what I would achieve and by what age I would achieve it. I read voraciously. I practically memorized the work of writers I loved. I recorded my life copiously and artfully in my journals. I wrote stories in feverish, intermittent bursts, believing they’d miraculously form a novel without my having to suffer too much over it.
But I was wrong. The second heart inside me beat ever stronger, but nothing miraculously became a book. As my 30th birthday approached, I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
At the time, I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young!I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.
I hope you’ll think hard about that, honey bun. If you had a two-sided chalkboard in your living room I’d write humility on one side and surrenderon the other for you. That’s what I think you need to find and do to get yourself out of the funk you’re in. The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes youshould be successful at 26, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace—a genius, a master of the craft—while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are 26. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.
That you struggle with major depressive disorder certainly adds a layer to your difficulties. I’ve not focused on it in my answer because I believe—and it seems you believe—that it’s only a layer. It goes without saying that your life is more important than your writing and that you should consult your doctor about how your depression may contribute to the despair you’re feeling about your work. I’m not a doctor, so I cannot advise you about that. But I can tell you that you’re not alone in your insecurities and fears; they’re typical of writers, even those who don’t have depression. Artists of all stripes reading this will understand your struggles. Including me.
Another layer of your anxiety seems rooted in your concern that as a woman your writing, which features “unfiltered emotion, unrequited love,” and discussion of your “vagina as metaphor” will be taken less seriously than that of men. Yes, sweet pea, it probably will. Our culture has made significant progress when it comes to sexism and racism and homophobia, but we’re not all the way there. It’s still true that literary works by women, gays, and writers of color are often framed as specific rather than universal, small rather than big, personal or particular rather than socially significant. There are things you can do to shed light on and challenge those biases and bullshit moves. Organizations like Women Literary Artists exist in order to connect women writers to do just that.
But the best possible thing you can do is get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.
That’s what women writers throughout time have done and it’s what we’ll continue to do. It’s not true that to be “a woman writer means to suffer mercilessly and eventually collapse in a heap of ‘I could have been better than this,’” nor is it true that a “unifying theme is many of their careers ended in suicide” and I strongly encourage you to let go of these beliefs. They are inaccurate and melodramatic and they do not serve you. People of all professions suffer and kill themselves. In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.
You know what is?
How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
Hi. It's Em again.
I mean, come on, right?