Period

Ugh. I feel like I have a writing hangover. I don’t know whether I’m over it or just scared of what might happen.

How do you know if something is really done? How do you know where to put the period? To say, “Enough, I’m done with this—for now.” I feel like I’ve been stuck in writing limbo for a long, long, long, very long time. And the longer it drags on, the more I question myself.

I question my motives. I question the quality of my writing. I question why I’m even writing about this in the first place. There’s a part of me that’s screaming at me, “Don’t do it! Don’t even THINK about it.” WTF, inner self? Why you gotta do this to me?

Truthfully, I don’t know how to find resolution, just in general. I think something does happen when you put a period on something—when you let it be out there, in the big wide world, all by itself. I wouldn’t call it magical, but I would call it “sort of done.”

And my hope is that in the sort-of-done-ness other people would find something that they can also relate to.

In a larger sense, I know that I’m hoping to find resonance in the world, in other people. I can’t pretend that I don’t want someone else to say, “Yeah, I get it” although it does seem like there are easier ways to get empathy than writing about some of your worst moments, trying to capture the kind of pain that feels unbearable.

Why this? Why writing? Why now?

There are no answers here, only questions; no periods, only ellipses…

Power

I’ve been trying to write for a while (my entire life?) about not feeling at home anywhere. Call it third-culture-kid syndrome. Call it being a child of divorce. Call it being ethnically ambiguous (where are you from?). Call it whatever.

When I was studying abroad in college, I couchsurfed with this guy in Glasgow, Scotland over break. He had accepted my couchsurfing request, but seemed pretty ambivalent about my actual stay. Sort of a, “Yeah, sure, you can stay with me, or not, that’s fine” vibe.

When I got there, he had two other guys from Poland staying with him too. And maybe it was because I was a woman traveling alone, or for some other reason, but my host seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare.

It was already night, and he and the other two couchsurfers went out to go light writing, while I stayed behind to read my copy of Shakespeare’s complete works because I’m an English major, introvert and complete nerd.

When they got back, he tossed the guys some sleeping bags to sleep in the living room and asked if I wanted to sleep in his roommate’s room instead of sleeping out in the living room (all the roommates were out of town).

His roommate’s room was utterly wrecked and there were clothes completely covering the floor and even all over the bed, so I felt right at home. I made a little nest right in the middle and curled up like Rose on the door in the middle of the freezing Atlantic.

And I cried, overcome by a grief I didn’t even know I had.

I don’t know how to tell this story. I don’t know how to explain what it felt like to have this complete stranger show more care and concern for me in a few hours than I felt from my own family.

Earlier this year, I found myself in the type of shitty power dynamic I was pretty sure I had escaped for good.

And of all the people in the world, I feel like I should’ve known better. I mean, c’mon, I practically wrote the book on shitty power dynamics (I’ll take toxic jobs and relationships for $1,000, Alex).

But there I was, again, fumbling around in the dark with a constant low hum of guilt, shame, resentment and fear.

I’d been here before, more times than I care to admit. I think that’s what kills me the most, that sense of repetition, as if I’m doomed to repeat this shitty dynamic over and over again. Worse, I’m angry at myself for falling for it again.

I’m almost scared to go back and re-read the texts—to see how little it took to put me back in my place. Part of me wants to break down the diction, the syntax, the tone, the metaphors and similes, as if I can close-read my way out of shame.

I feel like this is the part where I should talk about not giving away your power, you teach other people how to treat you, don’t let anyone bully you over how much sunscreen you use, blah blah blah. But there are some narratives that hold so much power in our lives simply by virtue of their familiarity.

It’s impossible to exercise hyper-vigilance all the time, and as I’ve written about before, hyper-vigilance doesn’t protect you. I’m coming to believe that it’s basically the flip-side of shame, this idea that you can control how other people treat you or even how they see you.

When I write, I feel like I have so much power, but so little control—power to write into the unknown and the inexplicable, into those “Titanic” moments when I’m lost and adrift. And as much as I want to believe that I can control how other people “read” me (or leave me on read), I really can’t.

It feels simultaneously terrifying and freeing.

Particular

I’ve thought a lot about how love is particular: how it exists, like writing, in the details. You love someone not because they embody some platonic ideal of “friend” or “partner” or “parent” or “sibling” or “Chipotle server who gives you an extra scoop of chicken.” You love them because they are this specific human being, singular in the plurality of their peculiarity (sorry).

There was this one person—I had to suppress a smile every time they said the word “jam.” They always used it in the sense that I was least expecting and it was so adorable I could not cope. But I didn’t want to say anything because what if they stopped doing it!

Oh my God, I sound like a romcom: “Your hair. Your smile. That faraway look in your eyes when I try to talk to you about Blake on ‘Bachelor in Paradise’—HE LOOKS LIKE A WALKING BROOM OKAY I SAID IT.”

When someone notices details about me, it can feel like love—either that or they’re trying to Half-Asian-White-Female me, you never know.

[AWKWARD TRANSITION HERE]

I’ve recently started coming to terms with a pattern of emotional abuse in childhood involving shame and control about specific, everyday things. Do you wanna know what it feels like, as an adult, to realize that you have very strong feelings about how to load a fucking dishwasher, feelings that suggest that if you do it wrong WE ARE ALL GONNA DIE??

I think one reason abuse is the opposite of love is because it erases the particular. When you think about the cycle of abuse, it’s not based on the person being abused, who they are or what they’re doing or not doing. It’s about this engrained pattern that keeps getting repeated over and over again by the abuser, often with different people or in different situations.

But the thing is—it feels specific. It feels like it’s about you. I’m bad. I’m wrong. There’s something uniquely flawed about me that means I will never load the dishwasher correctly and therefore never be good enough or worthy of love.

It’s this perfectionism that holds on so tightly, thinking, this time, it will be different. I will finally get this right.

And when you inevitably encounter another person or entity who tells you, “You would be better/happy/successful/accepted/healed, if you only ______,” it feels like another shot at redemption.

And that’s what sucks about trauma too—you lose the particular. Instead of responding to this particular person or situation as distinct and different from all the other people and situations in your life, you end up projecting onto them patterns from the past that might have nothing to do with the present.

But that’s okay. That’s where I am now, trying to be okay. Yeah, maybe my coping strategies were/are imperfect, maybe I have irrationally torrid feelings about dishwashers, but my survival strategies got me out of a jam.

And now, maybe I can stop just coping.

Maybe now, I can be free.

Faith

I recently wrote a comedy pilot about my church trauma (c’mon—you don’t have one too?). I wasn’t planning on writing this pilot. It just sort of happened to me, kinda like trauma itself (jokes!). Writing can be such a funny thing—not in the “haha” sense, more in the “what the fuck am I doing?” sense.

I felt pretty lost. I didn’t really know where the edges were, the boundaries. But like with most forms of creativity, you just have to let all that go at some point and do the thing.

There was this one scene I was feeling especially insecure about. I wanted it to work—I really did. I just wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. It was like the double-double dismount of my script, and I’m no Simone Biles. Not even close.

Writing this script brought up a lot for me, primarily guilt and also grief. It made me remember the person that I used to be, the person I was before the traumatic thing happened. Writing this, I felt like I had lost my faith—and that in losing my faith, I’d lost something beautiful. Maybe that self who had faith was naive or immature, but that version of me also seems, in retrospect, oddly endearing.

In Christianity we talk a lot about before and after—we emphasize the never-the-same-ness of life after salvation. I wonder if trauma works in reverse, a reverse-salvation of sorts, where you are never-the-same after.

I don’t know if it’s our culture’s emphasis on bright-siding that makes it seem taboo to admit that I’ve lost something, particularly something of value that I can never really get back. There are moments when I feel powerful and free and whatever post-traumatic growth is supposed to feel like. And there are other times where I still grieve what I once had, the person that I once was. Turns out, you can both/and that shit.

We did a table-read of my script in class and one of my classmates praised the one scene that I had struggled with the most, that I wasn’t sure if I could pull off, but that I fucking did pull off (HA! HA!!!!!!!!! Sorry, just had to go hubristic for a second).

And I think it’s a different kind of faith at work in me—faith that I can connect with other people in this space, that they might find resonance and truth and connection in something that I’ve written. Faith that I am not alone.

I wonder if it’s not unlike the same faith that I had before—the kind of faith that I never really lost in the first place.

Pride

About a month ago, I went to a panel discussion and networking event and a guy there asked me to send him a writing sample. Turns out, he hires writers. So I went down this rabbit hole of trying to find something to send him. Everything that I’ve written and published more recently felt too personal to send to a professional contact, so I read some of my old writing about mundane topics: lighting in dressing rooms, design-build firms in LA, human-centric lighting design.

I went down this rabbit hole of reading my own writing—and here’s the semi-shameful part—I surprised and delighted myself. Yes, I felt a surge of pleasure and pride in my own work.

Falling in love with your own writing feels, in a word, super lame. Kill me now. I want to go to sleep right now just thinking about it (Coffee give me strength).

I’ve been wanting to write about the mystery of writing—that part that you don’t control, the words that flow despite your thoughts, not because of them—the part that feels like magic.

So much of this series I’ve been doing on writing feels like trying to demystify writing. It’s just words on a page. Get over yourself already. Stop being so precious. But I think one of the reasons that writing can feel so vulnerable is because of the mystery of it.

How many times have I started to write one thing and then ended up writing something else?

I have to admit, when people tell me that I’m a good writer, or even if I repeat back their words in the first-person, “I’m a good writer!” I feel a sense of alienation.

What exactly do you follow that with? It sounds like this final pronouncement, this badge, this designation, do I get a plaque for this, where’s my members only jacket?

No really, I’m a good writer. If you say anything enough times, it starts to sound like a lie, that hint of a doubt.

Somehow, I feel exposed—like, they don’t know the truth. They don’t know how much of this feels like something happening to me or through me or despite me. And I don’t know if it’s this deep sense of shame—that everything good in me is a mistake, an accident.

And maybe if I can keep a safe distance from everything good in my writing, I won’t have to be present to the mystery of myself and all the things that I can’t control.

Somehow it’s the things that are the most effortless and easy that are the hardest to accept.

 

 

Present, Part 2

I went to a workshop the other weekend on getting an agent. I wasn’t interested in getting an agent, so I didn’t think that it would apply to me. I was there for the networking? [I was so tired and out of it I couldn’t talk normally to another human being, go figure.]

Anyway, plot twist, it did apply to me.

There, in a too air-conditioned library conference room with high ceilings and fluorescent lighting, I listened in rapt attention.

I don’t know how to describe it, exactly—but by breaking down in the most granular, specific way the costs and profits of being a writer, the presenter made one thing clear:

Your writing has value. My writing has value. Ironically, breaking it down into nickels, dimes and two dollar bills didn’t cheapen my writing, didn’t make it less valuable—quite the opposite.

“What do you write?”

When people ask me about my writing, I always shrug and reply, “You know, I blog and stuff.”

And stuff.

You know me—I dabble. I dip one toe gingerly into a sea of words, close my laptop and then amble leisurely to my hot yoga class, green juice in hand.

Um, have you ever had someone call you out on your bullshit? I wouldn’t recommend it, but it happened to me recently. I felt like I was completely vulnerable and exposed and on the edge of tears, but there was no reason for me to pretend that I don’t care.

Trauma is tricky, tricky.

Bullshit

By avoiding the commercial and professional side of writing—you know, the part where you actually get paid—I conveniently avoided assigning value to my work. I write. So what?

I’ve been living in this contradiction of pretending that my writing means nothing while giving it absolutely everything. I’ve held nothing back. There’s nothing I haven’t given, nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice.

At this point, this feels less like some inherent nobility of spirit and more like the lingering effects of childhood trauma: This idea that if I sacrifice myself, then I will be worthy. It’s almost like trying to prove that you deserve to exist by pretending not to exist at all.

It’s hard for me to articulate just how deep this goes for me, but that’s what writing is, right, trying to make explicit the very thing that resists explication.

I gotta be honest—you can run from your trauma all you want, but it will fucking come for you eventually. It will pound down your door at 2am in the morning and refuse to leave until you face it.

I guess I’m just trying to buy more time.

Stress, Story & Writing Trauma

I woke up again today feeling a nameless stress. I’ve been stressed out recently, for no reason that I can really put my finger on.

Are there reasons to be stressed out? Sure. There are always reasons. But this feels different, like the stress is just floating around like an angry cloud of possums, waiting to attach itself to something and sink in sharp teeth.

I want to do everything, but I’m too wired to do anything at all. I want to do all the things, see all the people, read all the books, write all the screenplays, apply for all the jobs, take all the classes, make all the money, learn all the programming. My mind is screaming at me to do something, ANYTHING. But what?

What do you want from me?

Yesterday, I read Alexander Chee’s essay The Autobiography of My Novel from his book of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. On the surface, the essay is a blow-by-blow account of how Chee wrote his first novel. But beneath that, it reads as almost a how-to guide about how to write about the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to you.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that this is the time of year when THE TRAUMA® happened. Part of what made it so traumatic was that I felt trapped, like I couldn’t escape.

[Cue your biannual reminder that it’s ALWAYS OKAY to leave a bad situation, full stop. If you need to GTFO, GTFO.]

I feel some of that same energy now, like I need to start running and never, ever stop. My body feels poised on the edge of something terrible, feet pressed into the starting blocks, waiting for the gun to go off.

In Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s latest book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, they talk about dealing with stress by completing the cycle. They differentiate between the stressor (cause) and the stress (effect). Even if you deal with the cause—being viciously attacked by a rabid Koala, you still have to deal with the effect—the stress hormones still coursing through your body after the koala is neutralized. Maybe you run a mile. Maybe you hug a friend. Maybe you run a mile while hugging a friend (could happen).  Otherwise, even if the koala is no longer a threat, your body will still be freaking out on the inside.

One way to think about trauma is as stress that got stuck in the body because at the time, you couldn’t escape. You were trapped in a locked freezer with the koala and there was nowhere to run.

What I found fascinating about Chee’s essay is that he describes the process of completing the cycle of trauma by writing a novel, i.e., through narrative.

He describes this as moving from paralysis (the freeze response) to plot:

“All my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me from my own life, the child’s mistaken belief that if he stays still and silent, he cannot be seen.”

And so Chee searches for a plot he loves in stories that he already knows. He draws on Aristotle’s poetics and the conceptions of pity and fear, action and catharsis. Through story, he completes the cycle.

The brutal truth is that a straight retelling of trauma rarely makes for good story—perhaps because the cycle is never completed and catharsis is impossible—trauma is a kind of never-ending loop, your worst fears on repeat, not a linear story with beginning, middle and end.

But what if you could complete the cycle through the driving force of plot, one event after another, one event causing the next, all leading to catharsis and release? [This is why J Lo always kills her abusive husband at the end of the movie.]

I am not writing a novel right now, autobiographical or otherwise, but reading Chee’s account of his process, I wept in recognition (also, I was really tired, because stress and not sleeping). I feel like I’ve been trying to write the things that I least want to write about. I’m struggling like hell to write something that doesn’t make any sense, even to me.

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know what shape or form this writing will take, let alone what genre I’ll end up writing in.

Chee in no way implies that writing his autobiographical novel resolved his own trauma, only that he had no choice but to write it, to write “across gaps, things that I wouldn’t let myself remember.” I feel the same way, compelled by something I don’t understand to do something I’m not even sure I want to do.

But if I’m going to run like hell from a nameless, faceless terror, I might as well make it story.

Procrastination

How can you write about writing without writing about procrastination? Hello darkness, my old friend.

I procrastinate, like, a lot, especially when it comes to writing. I had a big deadline this past week. Did I meet it? No, I definitely did not. But I tried. And then I stayed up till 4am, slept for 3-4 hours, woke up, and finished by noon.

There was a lot of writing and there was a lot of crying before I actually just wrote the damn thing (dear Lord, so many tears). And I think that I wasn’t just trying to write this piece, I was also trying to become a different person—

I was trying to become the kind of person who could write this. And change is always so fucking hard.

I don’t know if I have anything profound to say about procrastination, except that it always helps to get straight to the point. The thing that you least want to say? Write that thing. Don’t apologize. Don’t prevaricate. Don’t rationalize or make excuses. Don’t write around what you’re trying to say. Just say it. See what happens.

You can write around and around something all that you want, that’s fine. But I think that even when I’m writing in circles, or asking questions in circles, or being elliptical on the elliptical (just kidding, I don’t exercise), I’m still going somewhere. At least, I hope so, each circuit bringing me closer and closer to the center.

Getting to the point doesn’t hurt as much as you think it will. Speaking the truth out loud doesn’t hurt as much as you think it might—it’s all the other stuff that really hurts—the isolation, thinking that you’re the only person who’s ever experienced this, feeling wrong and feeling alone.

If I had to do it over again, would I still procrastinate?

Probably.

 

 

 

Present

I’ve been trying to blog regularly (this week’s goal was four posts, but that’s not happening).

It’s been a weird week. Someone I know was in a car accident on Wednesday and it just completely wrecked me. They’re fine (thank God). It’s fine. Everything is fine. But on Wednesday, I was not fine. I’ve been trying to keep my everyday life at arm’s length here on the blog, but I don’t know if that’s going to work in the long-term.

I’ve been trying to keep people at arms-length here in my life, but I don’t know if that’s going to work out in the long-run.

Here’s how this relates to writing: For me, writing is about trying to capture the present moment. I don’t mean in the sense of trying to exactly transcribe everything that happens in your day, or even, writing how I am sitting at a picnic table outside on a cloudy Los Angeles day, the temperature is 60 degrees and I am wearing an off-white sweatshirt with grey trim. I can feel a cool, soft breeze on my face and the sky is…

I don’t mean that kind of present tense. It’s more about trying to capture how you are feeling and thinking and being in the moment, knowing that this particular combination of things will never, ever be replicated. It’s about trying to capture that transcendent moment—that eternal space on the other side of silence, somewhere beyond past, present and future. I think this is why writing can sometimes feel like it is outside of time.

I won’t be the same person tomorrow that I am today, or the day after that, or the day after that.

This is why when I read stuff that I wrote years ago or even last week, it feels like I’m reading something written by another person. Hopefully, I managed to capture the specificity of who I was in that moment—frozen in amber like one of those mosquitos in “Jurassic Park.”

Which is to say, there are points in time where I’ve heard the grass grow and the roar is absolutely deafening —when a friend went through a mental health crisis, when I catch a hint of vulnerability in someone else’s laugh, when I think about my friend who died when I was only 17, when one moment you’re talking to someone about dumb shit and the next moment, BOOM.

Just to be alive is to be so desperately, horribly vulnerable all of the time, every minute, every second of every single day. It’s the fucking worst.

It can be so overwhelming to see the people around you as just exposed sticks of meat. I know this feeling will also pass. I want to cry but if I do, I’m afraid the tears will never stop.

Half the time (actually more like 90% of the time), I feel like I’m running away from some inevitable reality of being alive, of being a person in the world. It’s all just too much.

I write to be present, even to this, even though it’s hard.

 

Pain

I listened to a podcast episode about writing with Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao because the title of the episode was “I hate writing, I love having written” (throwback to earlier post).

I don’t agree with this sentiment, per se.

One of the underreported side effects of joining a writer’s co-op is that you end up talking about writing—like, a lot. Soooooooo much talking (so much writing too though, so it’s all good). Anyway, it came up in one of our discussions that the people in my little discussion group didn’t exactly love the process of writing.

I had heard this statement before (attributed to Dorothy Parker), but now, here it was looking me in the face.

Sometimes, I can get a little intense (okay, maybe a lot of the time), and I just wanted to grab someone (consensually) by the shirt lapels and shake them while looking deeply into their eyes and asking, “But, why???”

What in the Flannery O’Connor is the point of writing if you don’t like it, if it doesn’t bring you some kind of joy?

[Just to clarify—I didn’t do this. No one was grabbed or otherwise harassed in the course of writing this post, future actions not guaranteed.]

You know when you just go down that question rabbit hole, trying to figure out why people do the things that they do, particularly when those things (writing) are apparently no more appealing than sitting at the DMV or going to the dentist for a root canal. Granted, the sample size was tiny, just three people, all male.

Don’t get me wrong.

I understand pain (so do my editors, har har, but that’s probably a post for a different day). I’ve tortured myself into writing many a piece, staying up until the crack of dawn to crack open what the story is about, what it’s REALLY about.

Not what I think it’s about.

There’s that inevitable part of writing where you bang your head against the wall or desk or plaster head cast of Plato, where everything hurts and you pray for death because death would be better than actually having to write this thing I’m trying to write.

The stakes feel like life or death. Maybe they are.

Writing is pain. Life is pain. But sometimes it can be pure joy.

In the podcast, Harmon talked about how crucial his blogging had been to his writing and how he wanted to get back into writing everyday—because it was addictive (addictions are enjoyable, right?)

Can writing be so painful you would rather be eaten alive by a horde of angry fire ants you just spoiled GOT for? Hell yeah.

But also, writing is fun—fight me.