..and what's next for this newsletter.
Happy New Year! Hahahaha. But seriously. This is the first Core Stories Substack of 2022, after ample time spent reflecting and brainstorming and planning and honing the new forms and directions that this project wants to take. We’re ready now, me and my writing. Ready as we’ll ever be, anyway.
Between writing coaching and The Core Stories Collective — and some personal stuff you’ll read about in just a second — I’ve been thinking and talking about writing, like, all the time. For months. And I still have more to say. So that’s what this Substack is for now: writing about writing, for writers and “writers” and wishful writers-to-be.
You’ll get a newslessay (a newsletter-essay, yeah?) in your inbox every Thursday from here on out. (Except if I’m sick! Also, vacations! And this schedule is subject to change. We’re experimenting.) Like the first one below, each one will include a brief reflection on the practice of writing, plus a writing-related quote and a prompt offering.
For now, reading remains free. At the end of April, I plan to switch to a paid subscription model. Free subscribers will get one monthly email, while those paying the $7/month rate will get one each week.
Okay, that’s all. Thanks for being here. Onward…
1 | ON DOUBT
I don’t want to write, I don’t want to write, I don’t want — I don’t even want to read about writing. I don’t want to think about writing. I’m mad at writing right now.
I’ve always understood writing as a living organism, a wild being of its own, with which we writers must nurture a secure relationship. If you’re in partnership with your creative practice, you have to ask yourself questions like, are you pulling your weight these days? Have you been avoidant? Anxiously attached? Cheating? Are you showing up for your commitment to your work, even when you don’t want to? Do you even want this partnership at all, if you’re real with yourself? Is it healthy?
Listen. I am not divorcing writing. I will never stop writing. (I will get to the “why” later.) I’m just pissed, and I’m insecure, and I’m let down. I need writing to be gentle with me right now, and I’m scared to go near it, because it’s probably going to make me cry. But anyway, here I am. I’m here.
Last weekend, I took a three-hour virtual writing class with Melissa Febos, who is my favorite living writer. Her work makes me yell out loud, you know? I mean, literally. It resonates so much. Good truth always insists on an echo.
I signed up for the class months ago, and then promptly forgot about it. Mid-March, I thought. Perfect timing. By then, I hoped, I’d have just been accepted to a selection of MFA programs, and this would be an energizing preview of my near future. If I’d been rejected everywhere, the class would force me to write anyway.
But I couldn’t do Melissa’s exercises with full presence or integrity. I was too emotional. I had to shut my Zoom camera off for a solid 15 minutes while the tears rolled down my cheeks. I shook my head at myself. This can’t be normal. To love writing this much. To want writing this bad. Behind the tears was a question: does the writing want me back? Am I good enough to deserve it? Will we ever make it work, for real?
And in front of me on the screen was this power couple: this accomplished writer and her writing. If either one doubted the other’s worth, it wasn’t perceptible. That assuredness — what’s the path to that place?
The word “doubt” comes from the Latin dubitare, which means “to hesitate.” Doubt is just a pause, particularly in a moment of uncertainty. But a pause implies an after; we only stop as long as we need to, and then we keep going. We do it anyway.
The word “hesitate” comes from the Latin haesitat, which means “stuck fast.” And this comes from the verb haerere: “stick” or “stay.”
Stuck. Stick. Stay.
If you’re stuck hesitating, you might as well stay. You might as well stay.
The only secret, I think, is to not turn doubt into leaving. After the big fight over dinner, you wash the dishes slowly, willing the hot soap to rinse the stubbornness from your wrists, and then you climb into bed next to your partner and apologize. You step outside for fresh air, stare up at the sky and ask for answers, and then drag your heavy feet back indoors to the ashes. You resist the urge to grab the car keys, jingle them angrily, and drive off. You just stay. And you don’t stop staying. That’s how you keep getting unstuck. That’s how you prove doubt to be what it is: just a hesitation, but not an ending.
In the writing meetings I offer through The Core Stories Collective, after I’ve shared some optional prompts for people to play with for an hour or so, I sometimes say this: If you find that you’re having trouble writing, write about that. If you’re blocked, if you’re distracted, if every sentence sucks — write that. Write about that. Write to that. With that. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t — those are still words on the page. Look, you’re doing it after all! You’re doing it. You’re here. And the writing’s still here for you.
Okay, another thing about that writing class. One of my favorite tidbits of wisdom that Melissa offered was the idea that oftentimes, the writer part of her knows what’s next for her in her life before the rest of her does. Like, the writer brain can realize, “There is only one logical next step. Only one conclusion makes sense or makes meaning here.” The rest of the mind might resist it, but the writer always knows.
The writer part of me knows I was meant to fight with writing right now. That part says, Yes, how important, to spend hours and hours and hours over months and months and months, sweating over those MFA applications, just to be rejected and disappointed. That’s the only way you’ll learn to do it anyway, when it seems most futile.
The writer part says, Yes, how correct, to not receive the easy structure of an MFA program to offer boundaries for your practice, so you’re forced to set boundaries yourself. That’s the only way you’ll learn to protect the relationship, no matter what.
The writer part says, Don’t you remember? Fourth grade? That letter you still keep pinned above your desk? My teacher wrote a goodbye note for every student at the end of the school year, and mine made specific note of my early talent (her word) as a writer. “One day,” she said, “I’ll see your name and picture in the window of Barnes and Noble and I’ll think, I taught her way back when. Never stop writing!”
Never stop writing. When she said that, she wasn’t pressuring me or binding me to anything, not really. She was saying that this was, in fact, a choice. And she hoped I would continue to choose it. She was making sure I knew that she saw my love for words and called it valuable. That’s the “why” for me: I choose to because I love it, and love, more often than not, means staying; it means hesitating sometimes, but coming back always, again and again.
2 | A QUOTE TO KEEP CLOSE
When I was writing The Empathy Exams, I was trying to write about certain deeply personal experiences, getting an abortion or getting heart surgery, and [my teacher Charles D’Ambrosio] read those drafts and responded with, ‘You get so clinical and detached when you write about these things. It's almost like you're writing these experiences for a medical dossier.’ And for me that clicked, ‘What if I did write these things as a medical dossier, and actively confronted why I get so clinical and detached when I write about painful experiences?’
So that was key for me, this idea: instead of seeing the trouble that you're having with a piece of writing as a sign that you're doing something wrong, what if you saw it as this tool of illumination, a dilemma that's taking you straight to the core of it.”
3 | A PROMPT YOU CAN USE
You and your writing are in a couples therapy session. There’s the therapist, across from you. Describe them. What’re they wearing? What do they smell like? What’s their facial expression as they look at the two of you, you and your writing?
Let your writing speak onto the page. What does it say about what it wants from you? Where it feels hurt?