Neely writes beautiful, lyrical pieces and I'm super excited that I finally have my hands on her MS.
Gird Up Your Loins
By Neely Stansell-Simpson
I never intended to become a writer. In fact, I intended to become a pastor, but somewhere in the midst of that journey the call to write snuck up from behind, clubbed me over the head, and dragged me off by my hair. Like so many irrational human beings who have come before me, I developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome and fell in love with my captor. Because I was on the path to clergy-hood when I was so rudely redirected by writing, I tend to view writing through the lens of theology, which at its heart is ultimately about stories.
In his book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite theologians, writes, "'Darkness was upon the face of the deep,' Genesis says. Darkness was where it all started. Before darkness, there had never been anything other than darkness, void and without form." Three of the world's great religions -- Islam, Judaism, and Christianity -- share basically the same creation story. It should be noted that these three religions also regard time as linear unlike their Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain counterparts, which regard time as cyclical. So, in terms of our storytelling heritage, this idea that creation begins in the dark, while not universal, is prevalent. More importantly, the narrative of creativity being born out of darkness can be considered one of our world's sacred stories.
Darkness. That's where my writing journey began in earnest. I always wanted to be a writer, but somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I couldn't do it. Being a writer seemed like being an astronaut; something amazing other people did, but which someone like me only watched on TV. However, in 2008 the Great Economic Kerfuffle came charging in and knocked me on my ass. I was nine months pregnant and in the midst of a huge identity crisis when the funding for my job dried up just in time for my mother to be diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Up until that point in my life, I had been the family breadwinner, but now I was needed at home to help care for my mother. With a suddenness that still makes my head spin, I found myself the stay-at-home mother of an infant daughter and the stay-at-home daughter of a very sick mother.
Everyone says you should never, ever quit your job in order to take up writing, but no one has advice about what to do when your job quits you, and you find that writing has taken you up as a hobby. That's what happened to me, and I didn't know what else to do, but wing it. I turned to writing, not to achieve literary greatness, but to stay sane and to carve out some small place within myself that could be wholly mine in the midst of a life that had become an unexpected, miserable mess. I've been fighting for that place inside myself ever since, advancing slowly on wobbly, malnourished legs like a third-rate, ragtag army, but advancing never the less. And what have I learned about writing during my feeble advance through the dark? Just like life, writing is hard and complex and almost never turns out quite like you expect, or like you would like for it to. So, why are life and writing so damn hard? For two main reasons, I think -- vulnerability and shame.
Writer and shame researcher, Brené Brown says, "The word courage comes from the Latin word cor meaning heart. When the word first entered the English language it meant to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart . . . I have come to believe vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage . . . to create is to make something that has never existed before. There's nothing more vulnerable than that." Brown goes on to say that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. However, in order to talk about vulnerability, indeed in order to embrace vulnerability, we have to talk about shame, which she defines as the swampland of the soul. Shame is that feeling of not being good enough, and we all wrestle with it. You know the vulture-like shame demons that circle overhead. They look like this and worse: Who am I to write? What do I know? This story is really stupid, and everyone is going to hate it. I’m really stupid. I'm going to look like a fool. I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough. In order to write, we have to gather all of our courage, push through the shame, and embrace vulnerability. In other words, we have to say to ourselves, "Yes, it is entirely possible that this story sucks, but I'm going to write it and put it out there anyway, because there is no other way to create something wonderful other than to grope awkwardly through the darkness with the courage to create something crappy."
Based on over a decade of research on shame and vulnerability, Brown says the only thing that separates the people who struggle with shame and those who are able to move past it to embrace vulnerability, is a sense of worthiness. They understand that despite all of their shortcomings, they are worthy of love and belonging. What that means for us as writers is that we must believe that no matter who we are, no matter what credentials we do or do not hold, we have a story to tell. There is going to be a lot of struggle and hard work and sifting through crap involved in telling that story, but we're worthy of telling it.
But they're incredibly seductive, those demons, and I'll be honest. There are days I just can't win against them. Those are the days I spend hunting for any distraction I can find, because I can't bear to stumble around in the dark with only that daunting blank page and my insecurities for company. Those are the days when I try to convince myself to give up writing altogether, and find something easier and more lucrative to do.
Fortunately, I win against the demons more often than I lose. However, I've found that winning is about learning to redefine success. For me, success looks like the days when I manage to add a few more terrible paragraphs to a first draft. Success is letting go of the creative process all of the rulebooks say you should have, and laying claim to the creative process that is authentically yours. Success is swapping manuscripts with a critique partner, and being privileged to be among the first people to see the creation that has emerged from their journey through darkness. Success is receiving a rejection letter from an agent you respect saying he really liked your book just not quite enough to represent it, and to please send more of your work to him in the future. Success is learning to quit comparing yourself to other writers. Success is finding joy and meaning in your work.
In his book, Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner draws a parallel between the darkness and subsequent light at the beginning of Genesis and a story from the Christian narrative in the book of John. I don't think you have to be a religious person to find meaning in the story. After all that's what we writers do, isn't it? We look for meaning in the stories around us.
It’s a story that takes place after the crucifixion of Jesus while his bereft companions are out fishing at night. They're grieving the violent death and painful loss of their friend. Their future is uncertain and frightening; most of their hopes and dreams have been dashed to pieces. And to make matters even worse, they can't even catch one damn fish. They're hungry and grumpy and tired and scared, but as dawn begins to take the edge off of the pitch-blackness of the night, they can see that someone is on the beach cooking breakfast over a charcoal fire.
Buechner writes, "The darkness of Genesis is broken by God in great majesty speaking the word of creation. 'Let there be light!' That's all it took. But the darkness of John is broken by the flicker of a charcoal fire on the sand. Jesus has made it. He cooks some fish on it for his old friends' breakfast . . . The original creation of light itself is almost too extraordinary to take in. The little cook-out on the beach is almost too ordinary to take seriously." And then Buechner says something that you and I, as writers would do well to listen to. He says, "By sheltering a spark with a pair of cupped hands and blowing on it, the Light of the World gets enough of a fire going to make breakfast. It's not apt to be your interest in cosmology or even in theology that draws you to it so much as it's the empty feeling in your stomach. You don't have to understand anything very complicated. All you're asked is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in."
Gird up your loins my writer friends. Creation starts in the darkness. The extraordinary is rooted in the ordinary. It's hard and maddening and the vulnerability it takes can be agonizing, but don't give up. Move forward on your wobbly, malnourished legs knowing you are worthy of the story that is yours to write. Call upon all of the courage you have, face that blank page with all its demons, and tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.