My little girl is not broken
On fear, anger & why I do & write hard things
Today, a friend and WOL repeat offender, Nia Thomas, sent me a quote from Glennon Doyle’s Untamed that I used as a prompt for my daily writing/spiritual practice:
My little girl is not broken. She is a prophet. I want to be wise enough to stop with her, ask her what she feels, and listen to what she knows.
I think about her a lot, the little girl I was up in that plum tree in early 1980s Bushwick, Brooklyn. The girl who saw adventure, wildness, hope in that junkyard next door. Where folks only saw destruction and filth, my little girl saw something to explore, to play in, climb in and over. During the summer, when the bushes and trees grew thick over the mounds of trash, when you looked at the right angle, you could almost forget that you were in a junkyard. Or at least I could. To my six, seven, eight year old eyes, it was a jungle, and the mounds were ancient structures built into the ground. Somehow the dark magic within had been unleashed, and I was called there, the female Indiana Jones, to save the world from its wrath.
Isn’t that a metaphor for how I move in the world, the work I do, how I live? I imagine something, dream it up, then make moves to bring it to fruition. Where people see too much risk, failure, fear, I lean in. I go there.
I left everything I knew and loved at the age of 13 and never returned.
I quit corporate America when I had my daughter to try another way of living.
I left my daughter’s father and became a single mom when baby girl was just a year old.
In 2009, I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop.
In 2010, I quit my last full time job to pursue this writing and teaching life.
This is just a few of the risks I’ve taken. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid or worried. If I’m honest, I’m still afraid, I still worry. I take the risk anyway.
I learned young that fear was something to explore. I learned this in that junkyard next door where the feral cats watched me curiously and hissed when I got too close. I brought them bowls of milk, fed them pieces of chicken I saved from dinner. Later, they let me pet them and play with their kittens.
My little girl wasn’t broken by the trauma she endured. She was finding her way, making her way, by exploring the places people avoided and warned her about. Where she was told “Don’t go there,” that’s where she went, led by her curiosity and her fascination with fear. The way it bloomed in her chest, thumped in her ears. What is it about this place that scares people? That scares me?
Like that burnt out building behind our apartment building on Palmetto Street. The one she could get to by climbing through the junkyard and scaling a fence. She’d heard an old women died trying to escape the fire. She fell down the stairs. It was in that building my little girl learned the smell of burning, the smell that never went away, that lingered in her nose long after she ran out of the building. She walked in a few steps, saw the charred walls, the lick of the flames that climbed the wall like ivy. She imagined the old woman falling. She once saw her ghost standing at the top of the stairs staring down at her, her eyes gray and deep like caves. My little girl ran out, terrified, unaware of how brave she was. No one else even approached that building, one of the casualties of the Fire Wars. She kept going back. Taking a few steps further in each time. She never made it past the first floor. The point is, she always went in. Always returned to go further in. A few extra steps each time.
The building was eventually demolished. Cleared out to construct another building. But that burnt out building and the ghost of the old woman with eyes like caves lives on in my memory…as does my brave little girl.
My little girl who was a prophet. My little girl who started teaching me all those year ago how to confront fear. To feel it and not let it paralyze me.
I know these emotions intimately, and have been purposeful about healing spaces around these emotions. Part of that healing has been writing about them (as I did above) and reading about them.
I’ve realized that though we may know these emotions well (Who hasn’t felt the the flames of rage and the vise grip of fear?), that doesn’t mean we know how to express them on the page.
So how do we learn? How do we practice? We read model texts. See how other writers have done it, then try our hands at doing the same.
The way Ross Gay writes rage and fear in this poem takes my breath and makes me want to write like this.
Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM
It’s the shivering. When rage grows
hot as an army of red ants and forces
the mind to quiet the body, the quakes
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips,
his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes,
my license, and as I answer the questions
3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,
his hand massaging the gun butt, I
imagine things I don’t want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is one of my favorite writers, thanks to poems like this one.
Dinner with the Metrophobe
Metrophobia is the fear of poetry.
I could tell from our onion blossom
this was all a mistake. There was no
“flower” of fried petals, but a soggy mess
in a napkin-lined wicker basket instead,
a bad corsage at the end of prom night.
But at work he was kind—always had
an extra envelope, a red pen, offered
to get me coffee from the machine
downstairs. He was the only one
who didn’t gasp when I cut eight inches
off my hair. There was no competition
over publications (he never even read
The New Yorker), and sometimes, he’d hold
my elbow as we climbed staircases.
So when he asked me out for dinner over
e-mail, I thought it was just his way.
I had to lower my silly poet-standards
of expecting roses with each question,
a clever note snuck in my coat pocket
about my eyelashes breaking his heart
or how he must see me right now. I never
expected this guy’s hands to shake all over
our appetizer of clams casino—shook so hard
his shell spilled its stewy contents on his tie.
The clatter of his teeth on his sweaty
water glass as he dribbled. The hives.
All I said was Don’t be too nice to me.
One day I might write this all down.
I feel inclined to share a method I learned some time ago. I want to say I learned it from Lacy Johnson at Tin House back in 2016, but I’m not quite certain. This exercise has helped me when writing essays, memoir and fiction, and I’m sure it can help in other genres as well.
The guiding question: How do I show how rageful I was as a child, and how that manifested?
What I know: I was a rageful child. This rage was fueled by fear and pain.
How I know: I started fighting a lot in 2nd & 3rd grade. I was an excellent student academically, but had serious behavioral issues. The behavior section of my report card was riddled with Unsatisfactory (U) and Needs Improvement (NI) marks.
How I show: Write a scene from 3rd grade where I came back from the bathroom to find that the group of girls who bullied me & I bullied in turn had destroyed the Trapper Keeper I had begged mom to buy me. Show the sneaker marks on the pages, the Trapper Keeper stomped into pieces on the floor. Show my reaction: how I jumped over the table to get at the leader of the crew, Melanie, who was staring at me with a smirk as I sobbed and picked up the pieces.
This exercise is a great way to get down the show me, don’t tell me rule.
I know I was rageful as a kid. I fought a lot, especially in 2-4th grade.
I know this because of my report card and memories of fights in those years.
I can show this by writing a scene, rich with detail, of a specific fight in 3rd grade.
See what I did there? I know this because I am obsessive and I practice, practice, practice. I share this because it’s worked for me and I still use this tool. In fact, I just used it today when I edited a soon-to-be-published piece. I use methods like this in my classes.
In the upcoming new classes, Writing Rage and Writing Fear, we will read model texts (the pre-reading lists are so so good!), we’ll talk about them, then practice writing rage and fear ourselves.
Writing Rage with Vanessa Mártir scheduled for May 18th, 7-9pm EST, Suggested donation $30
Writing Fear with Vanessa Mártir scheduled for May 25th, 7-9pm EST, Suggested donation $30
Interested in attending or have questions/inquiries, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, start practicing by putting on a 10-15 minute timer, and writing in response to this prompt:
If your anger could speak, what would it say?
Then try this one:
If your fear could speak, what would it say?
Intrigued by what came out of you? Sign up for one of my upcoming classes!
Until then, mucho amor,