Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos

Body Work by Melissa Febos

This book can easily be gobbled up in a day, but the digestion would take several. Excellent. When I finished it I had so many papers stuck in the pages marking parts I wanted to return to that I essentially wanted to re-read the entire thing. Narrowing it down to these, some of my favorite quotes and what they mean to me below.

“I have found that a fulfilling writing life is one in which the creative process merges with the other necessary processes of good living, which only the individual can define.”

Every writing book I’ve ever read has tried to put into a single sentence what it means to be a writer. This is perfection though. It is going to be different for everyone. I believe it was Ann Patchett that got into an argument with another prominent writer over what it is to be a writer, because the other writer had some very exact proofs and Ann basically said, yeah but I don’t do that and I’m a writer. This sentence is the perfect yeah but. I have my ideal writing day (which has never happened), my usual writing day (most days of the month), and my uncommon writing days (kids get sick, it’s a perfect storm of deadlines and family visiting and the chickens have been attacked by a bear, or whatever). The bottom line is that my writing process isn’t the same from one day to another as much as I try to make it so. I’m no less a writer. And neither are you.

“I became a writer because the process helped me survive and it still does.”

I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a professor in college who essentially said, you write because you’re a writer, because you have to. I love the idea of writing for survival, although it all seems to very dramatic. Yet it’s true. I’ve never not written, which is a very double negative way of saying that if I’m not writing letters to friends and family then I’m writing in my journal, or posting on my blog, or working on a story or a novel or or or… We write because we must.

“The story that comes calling might be your own and it might not go away if you don’t open the door. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I only believe in fear.”

The most terrifyingly accurate thing I’ve ever heard about writer’s block. I absolutely believe we get to a point in our writing where we don’t know how to move forward, and it’s almost never because we genuinely don’t know what comes next. For me, I’ll become afraid that the thing I’m about to say is too unique to me to be understood by anyone else or that’s it’s too off-putting or that if I say this thing people might think it’s the autobiographical part of the fiction piece I’m working on or or or. But the bottom line is that I don’t stop writing because I have writer’s block. I have fear. I have fear around this thing I need to say and until I work through the fear, it’s not going to get written. That’s on me. I can’t blame the not-writing on writer’s block, only on my own fear.

“Empowerment often begins more subtly, with only a narrow ledge inside ourselves wide enough to hold a crumb of resistance.”

There are several paragraphs in this sentence. Stop resisting your own empowerment and write yourself off the ledge. (I say this to myself as much as to anyone else).

“Tenacity is often cited as the most common characteristic of successful authors.”

Once again, said in a different way and in a different voice, the bottom line is to keep going. Keep writing. Keep painting. Keep dancing. Whatever it is you do, keep doing it. The only way to fail is to stop trying.

“I cannot imagine nurturing a devotion to any practice more consistently than one which yields the reward of transformation, the assurance of lovability, and the eradication of regret.”

I hadn’t thought I wrote towards the “eradication of regret” but one of my stories proved to be so very autobiographical and soothing that I realized how lovely that would be. To be a memoirist whose words become the balm of their memory. I have always believed in writing (and reading) as yielding “the reward of transformation,” however, very much so. If you’re not being transformed by what you’re doing, what’s the point?

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite quotes? Have any book suggestions for me? I’d love to hear from you.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones

I have a shelf of books on writing (that’s a lie, they were on a shelf but they were being ignored and shelf space is at a premium, so I put them in a stack thinking “a stack of books could tip over; I will certainly read them if they’re stacked.” And I have been reading them so I guess there’s that). Amazing books on writing that I’ve collected over the years and I’m finally starting to read them. Last month I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Amazing. And this month I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These are some of my thoughts based on some of the things she said that really stood out for me.

“There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem
that will satisfy you forever”

If you’ve been writing your whole life, it’s easy to look back on the things you’ve written and wonder who wrote them. A wonderful and also frightening thing. Isn’t it fascinating that the person you are now is so different from the person you were then? Isn’t it so incredible to be a person always changing, growing, becoming? Going through old writings is like running into someone I used to be really good friends with but we somehow grew apart and it’s sad and sweet to catch up with them again. I’m grateful when the catch-up is over and I can go back to the person I am now, the person I’m on my way to being, no longer waylaid by that trip to the past.

“In order to write about it, we have to go to the heart of it and know it,
so the ordinary and extraordinary flash before our eyes simultaneously”

Everyone says to write what you know. Everyone. More recently I hear writers giving the advice that one ought to make sure it’s their story to tell. That works too. I try every day to remind myself to look around me. There’s a light here that’s unlike the light of any other place I’ve ever been. They say the light in Paris is pink, something I’ve never noticed myself, and the light here, where I live is blue, sometimes purple. The light itself. Not the sky or the sunrise/sunset. The actual light, the molecules of air are tinted blue. It’s remarkable. And perfectly ordinary when you’ve lived here long enough to stop noticing.

“We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us”

I’ve always been an excellent myna bird; picking up a bit of slang here or an affected way of saying something there. I usually don’t even notice until I’ve said it a few times and then I realize I’m not speaking like me. It makes it easy to pick up the correct accent when learning a new language, difficult to shed when you’re trying to write something and it sounds familiar but you can’t place why. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you’d think we wouldn’t worry about sounding like ourselves. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write yourself?

“I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back
is the most powerful thing I know”

A professor in college said something along the lines of “you write because you have to.” I forget that writing can be powerful because I’m so absorbed in the fact of writing, in the writing because I can’t not write. I love the idea of writing something powerful. I love even more than powerful, the idea that anything I say may matter to even one person.

“Finally, if you want to write, you have to just shut up,
pick up a pen, and do it”

And this is what it comes down to. I haven’t written any of my stories in three days because I’ve been dealing with sick kids and messed up sleep schedules and the general chaos that accompanies disease. I feel wound up, like I couldn’t possibly sleep even though I’m exhausted. I feel like I could stay up all night writing and not feel tired tomorrow. None of this is true, of course, because I’m 43 years old and a night without sleep is likely to derail my entire week. I know this. And yet…the not writing has created a sort of low frequency hum inside me. Sometimes, even if you don’t want to write, you have to just shut up and do it, because sometimes you have to write, there’s no choice in the matter.

What Success Means

What Success Means

I have the great fortune to be involved in a women’s group in my small town that’s full of incredible people. Every one of these women is very different. We meet as a group once a week to discuss a topic or do a craft or hear a speaker. The group was created to bring women in our small community together to support one another and connect on a deeper level. I am so beyond grateful to to the woman who created and runs the group, and appreciative of all the women who attend.

Last night we did a vision board craft. Everyone brought poster board and magazines, stickers, markers, glue. There was a lot of talking, a lot of laughing, a lot of connecting. We were all working on the same craft: vision boards. And every single board was different. Of course it was. We are all different. We all have different goals, different joys, different ideas of success. Of course we do. Of course our boards would all contain different images, words, colors.

Success’ literal meaning, dictionary wise, is the accomplishment of an aim/purpose.

That’s it.

You set a goal. You achieve it. Success.

That’s the magic formula.

Why then do we have these vastly wildly beautifully different ideas of what success is? Because everyone’s goals are different.

And if you’re truly lucky, if you’re really living your life, your goals are always changing, growing, getting better and different.

My hope for all these woman, myself included, is that our vision boards are reminders for our current goals, that we achieve them, that we create new vision boards that look radically different than these, repeat.

What does your vision board look like?

Old Habits Die Hard

Old Habits Die Hard

Her grandmother insisted she could only inherit the old cabin and it’s fifty-some-odd acres if she moved there and lived in it. So she didn’t inherit it…not for years. She was being stubborn, she knew that. What would it cost her really to move into the cabin for two years, use it as her mailing address, then sell it afterwards. She’d have fulfilled the requirement to inherit it and she’d save on capital gains tax. It was a win-win. Still, it took her nearly eight years to break down and move there, and by then it was because she was slightly out of options.

She’d known her grandmother was dying, in that way that everyone is dying from the moment they’re born, but also in that she’d finally been to sentences to hospice care. If that was even a sentence. She wasn’t sure. Helen knew her grandmother refused to leave the cabin unless it was in a box, and there was no one willing to come care for her until the hospice was granted. It seemed she’d get her wish now and if it meant a “stranger” was living with her until the wish was granted, so be it.

There were no strangers in that little town though. They’d all been born there, grown up there, would die there. Except the select few, like her mother, who’d managed to escape. Helen always expected her mother to utter something dramatic like, “promise me you’ll never go there!” but she never did. She died without ever having introduced to Helen to any family or friends from there. She died without ever mentioning her own mother was even alive.

All that is to say that Helen could be forgiven for her stubbornness when it came to the inheritance. Who would give up their life to move somewhere they’d never been, to live with someone they’d never even known about, to inherit a cabin they’d never seen. Not Helen. She’d created a life for herself, such as it was, a job that took ten to twelve hours of her day and a cat that took that remainder, books to fill in and soften the edges. So it wasn’t until the job disappeared that she even considered the inheritance.

It all came about one day out of the blue, the inheritance, that is. She received a phone call from an unknown number, and let it go to voicemail. Who answers an unknown number these days. And so it wasn’t until her lunch hour when she remembered to check her voicemail that she learned she not only had a grandmother, but that she could also have a cabin. She sat with it for awhile, chewing it over as she ate her turkey wrap and drank her pop.

When she finally decided to call the attorney back Helen learned that in order to claim her inheritance, she would need to go live in the cabin for two full years, and also that her grandmother was still very much alive and living there too. It all seemed a bit ridiculous, and Helen refused, the attorney letting her know that he’d be in touch.

He wasn’t. In touch, that is. She didn’t hear from the attorney again for nearly eight years.

And then her phone rang.

Surprisingly she’d saved the attorney’s information in her phone and new precisely who was calling this time. Rather than send it to voicemail, she answered, a bit clipped perhaps in her “yes,” rather than a “hello,” but she answered which she figured was better than the alterantive.

The attorney must have thought so too, because rather than stutter or stumble, he introduced himself again, this time with a “perhaps you remember me?” attached to the end. He then proceeded to inform Helen that her grandmother was now “actively dying” and that she, Helen, was still the sold beneficiary of the cabin and that the two year stipulation was still in place.

“When can we expect you?” the attorney said, for it was very much a statement as much as a question.

Helen sat quietly for a minute, quietly on the outside only as on the inside her thoughts spun about coming and going so quickly she wasn’t thinking about any one of them really simply being overwhelmed by their speed and quantity. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and shouted internally. With her eyeballs pulsing she told herself, “the bottom line is that without a job I’m in a bit of a bind. The bottom line is I could go there and have a free place to live for two years while I sort myself out. The bottom line is I don’t exactly have a lot of options. The bottom line is I can be packed and on my way in less than 48 hours.”

“I’ll be there by the weekend,” she heard herself saying and she hung up before the attorney could say more.

Helen had never expected to accept the inheritance, had never expected to be in a position where she’d have no other options. You don’t go from living a soulless work filled existence to having nothing overnight, and yet that’s exactly how it happened. One minute the people around her were slowly losing their jobs and their cars, their homes and their families, and the next minute she was one of them. She’d figured she had padding for one month, one month in which to find another job before she’d have to enter panic mode. Now there’d be no need. Now she’d have two years and a property to sell at the end of it.

She began packing.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here

Loss of Appetite

Loss of Appetite

It had to be Jack in the Box, that was the thing, when smoking weed she needed, not wanted or craved or thought about, but physically needed a chicken sandwich, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. And it had to be from Jack in the Box. Everybody has their thing, and this was hers. Or rather it was on of hers.

Which is how they ended up, the four of them, at a Jack in the Box drive thru one night. It was early, as nights out go, but late considering that they would all have to work tomorrow. The driver, Jeanie, didn’t smoke, so she’d be fine…although it also meant that she didn’t need this trip to grease town the way her passengers did. She dutifully got everyone shushed enough to get the orders placed, which took some doing, no small feat being the sober one amidst a group of raucous and totally stoned young women.

They were all waiting for the order to get repeated back, well, to be fair, Jeanie was waiting for the order to be repeated back, the others were staring off into nowhere, having completely forgotten where they were and what they were doing, no longer aware of their previously all consuming desire for this disgusting bit of plastic food to tether them back to earth. Only the repeat never came. Instead someone must have left the mic on without noticing because suddenly Jeanie the chicken sandwiches and fries that she was expecting to tally became a confusing smush of

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here

Thanksgiving Burgers

Thanksgiving Burgers

I’m a pretty good cook, not great, I’ll never be great cause I won’t do the training, but I’m good. Good enough. Good enough that when I invite people to dinner they jump at it, or it seems they do, there’s an immediate response of yes and much hoopla made over picking the date for said dinner, the sooner the better they always insist. So, yeah, I’m a pretty good cook.

So when I set out to make Thanksgiving dinner this year, I figured it’d be a slam dunk with family and friends. I created a menu based on all my favorite things but including some of the more standard fare as well, because you never know what dish really says Thanksgiving to people. I mean, you’d think that would be the turkey, but that beast of a bird really tends to be symbolic in peoples minds for some reason…which is something I’ve never understood, I mean, if those pox-giving Pilgrims really did sit down to a meal with the Native Americans, even if they had turkey, it wouldn’t be this huge thing we picture today…it’d be one of those scrawny wild turkeys, that yes, will fix you and your family of four a meal, but it’s not going to feed hundreds. Not even if you had four of them. Or six. I mean, clearly these people ate deer or something.

Anyway, I went ahead with the turkey, because as I explained, tradition.

So as I’m inviting people to dinner and showing them the menu and everything people are excited. I mean, they seem excited, there’s a lot of “thank you” and “I can’t wait” and even a “can’t Thanksgiving come earlier this year.” Which really pleases me, I’m not gonna lie, it feels good to hear people are excited to come, even if they’re coming for the food more than for me. Which is just me trying to be self-deprecating, but really I think they’re coming for the food.

And it’s not until I get to the last couple on my list, the last two people to fill in my table, the two people I’ve been trying to get to come to dinner for years who always seem to have an excuse, it’s not until I’m inviting them that things start to go…wrong seems like a harsh word, it’s more that things just start to go awry, let’s just say that.

I can tell right away, before I even invite them but after I’ve discussed this amazing menu, it really is amazing, that they aren’t interested, and it bugs me. How can they not be interested when I’m describing candied yams and a turkey that’s been rubbed, brined, and slow cooked? Who can look bored when hearing about the ingredients and the love and care being put into such a meal? But they do, look bored that is. And I already know they’re going to say no, but I ask them to dinner anyway.

Obviously, they find a polite way to decline. I mean, if I hadn’t seen that coming I would have been concerned by my lack of attention, but it still stings a bit, these constant “no, thank you” responses I get from them. And for whatever reason, instead of just shrugging it off and figuring out who to invite instead, I get a bit…defensive is probably what I got, but I’d like to think I was curious. And before you know it I’m asking them why they always turn down my dinner invites.

Well, it turns out, and this was a relief, I tell you, it turns out they’re vegan but even more than vegan. As I keep asking for more clarification, as I keep hearing the way they eat, I’m just amazed. There’s a list of like…fruit. Really. It’s just fruit that they eat. Literal fruit. They have all these vitamins and minerals and injections they take, because all they eat is fruit. And I realize that it’s really no wonder they always look cold and like they’re going to disappear if the wind blows, they eat fewer foods than rabbits.

But, I can’t help myself, I’m intrigued. I have to know more. We end up getting a table at a nearby coffee shop, they drink water, while I ask all these questions about their diet, and they don’t seem to mind. They don’t get verbose or anything, they don’t try to convert me, they just answer question after question. And the next thing I know, I’m offering to make them a meal. Their way. A fruit dinner. But that includes cooked fruits, like a serious, multi-course fruit dinner.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here

Unexpected Thanksgiving Guest

Unexpected Thanksgiving Guest

I should have expected it. Especially from my cousin. Not only does she, my cousin, Charmaine, have a big heart, she also had no sense whatsoever of other peoples affairs. She’s not insensitive, quite the opposite, and she’s not empathetic or oblivious, it’s something else entirely. It’s like she exists on another plane, like she doesn’t understand the threads that bind people together or how those threads fray and snap. She, my cousin, Charmaine, always gives people another chance and doesn’t even recognize that she’s doing it. There’s always another chance with Charmaine because there are never not chances cause what are chances so chances are innumerable.

So I should have expected it, from Charmaine of all people. But I didn’t and that’s on me.

See the thing is, we were all sitting around the table, having just been called to Thanksgiving dinner by my aunt Ruth, and we’d all found a spot and there was still one spot left, for Charmaine, who hadn’t arrived yet, but my aunt Ruth had begun bringing the food in anyway, placing the green beans here and the biscuits there, the mashed potatoes catty corner from me and the gravy next to them. All this incredible food was coming out, and I’m salivating cause I didn’t eat breakfast expecting this huge traditional spread, and I’m so hungry and all I can think is “when are we gonna start passing the food around,” and in she strolls with the most perfectly browned turkey I’ve ever seen. So I was a bit distracted when Charmaine arrived. Even so, I’m still surprised it took me so long to notice.

Charmaine had brought a guest, because of course Charmaine would bring a guest to Thanksgiving dinner with absolutely no forewarning. It was classic big hearted Charmaine. No one was surprised by that. Or if they were they didn’t know my cousin. But we were all surprised. I guarantee you that. I guarantee that not a one of us was drooling over turkey one minute and then desperate to carve the next. Nope, we were all a bit stunned when we realized who she’d brought.

Because of course she, my cousin, Charmaine, brought my dad. The one person none of us ever thought we’d see again. Not after the last time.

See, several years ago now, I can’t think for sure, I want to say it was eight years ago but I feel like that was the year uncle Jeb threw out his back tossing the football around, so it musta been the year before or there wouldn’t have been such forced gaiety. So, nine years ago, the last time my dad came to Thanksgiving dinner, there was this moment where his sister, aunt Ruth, realized he wasn’t really there. I mean to say that his body was there, obviously, we could all see him, but his mind was gone. And not like the way we say “where’d my mind go,” when we realize we’ve misplaced our keys or been caught daydreaming out a window cause the larch trees are budding and the green is so exquisite. No, his mind was gone, and it turned out to be drugs.

Anyway, there were a few Thanksgivings after where his name would be mentioned in the pre-dinner prayer and I’d find out he was in this rehab or that psychiatric hospital or his name would simply be mentioned as one to watch over and I’d know he was out on the streets somewhere if he was even alive at all. I got used to the idea that my dad was gone, I mean, I guess I got used to it, what choice did I have, it’s not like I was gonna go search the streets for him all day every day til I found him. Cause then what? What did I know from drug recovery.

So there we all are, sitting at the table, except aunt Ruth who has placed the turkey on the table but is still holding the platter and my cousin, Charmaine, and my dad. And Charmaine has a contented smile on her face and simply says, “look who I ran into! Uncle Charlie’s joining us for dinner. I knew you wouldn’t mind, mama,” and then she’s guiding my dad to the empty seat, her seat, and she’s carefully sliding settings left and right and creating a space for herself to sit and no one is helping. Not a one of us is helping her. And it’s not cause we’re rude, not intentionally, we’re all just shocked.

I should have jumped up and started moving settings over or grabbing another setting out of the cabinet aunt Ruth keeps her linins in or gone to the kitchen for a plate and cutlery, but I just sat there. Luckily, I realized I had my mouth wide open and I shut it, although to be fair I might not have noticed my mouth open except that when I finally got to looking around I noticed everyone else had their mouth open which of course led me to discover mine was to.

This #writethirtyminutes session was prompted very loosely from “A Year of Writing Prompts” by Writer’s Digest, available here