This post is adapted from a talk I gave on Saturday, August 24, at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. The weekend was amazing, and I got to talk about empowering women writers. What a privilege. My fellow “Hedgetalk” plenary speakers were Amy Richards, Katie Orenstein, and Hannah Tinti. It was truly an honor to be included on the roster alongside these awesome, talented women who are out effecting change in the world.
Over the course of my 14 years working with authors, I’ve shepherded over one thousand books to publication. Since I’ve worked almost exclusively with women since 2004, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern, a “worthiness crisis” I know to be more prevalent among women writers than their male counterparts. This crisis is characterized by a deep distrust—that the writing is good, that the work deserves to be published, that the author herself is “good enough.”
The worthiness crisis can strike at any time. It can happen when you’re in progress, once your manuscript is complete, when you’re close to publication, once the book is out in the world. This last group are the lucky ones. It’s too late to get stuck, and you can’t do anything to sabotage your own efforts. But when the crisis starts early in the process, or if or when you’re calling the shots about whether or not to publish, the results can be particularly stalling, or worse, they can put an end to your project.
I titled this talk “Writing on the Radical Edge” because the topic of our day on Saturday was “empower,” and because I first heard the term “radical edge” from David Whyte, who in fact lives on Whidbey Island.
In preparation for the talk, I listed to David’s CD, “Midlife and The Great Unknown,” and I want to share something he says:
One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are completely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss; when you have the right job; when the car payment has been made; when the kids are through college; when you’re on your deathbed; when you are dead. It will be certainly easier then.
The perfect conditions, of course, never come. When I was writing my book, I posted a YouTube video of my excuses. It was meant to be fun-loving, poking a bit of fun at myself, but my reasons for doing it were earnest: I’d seen people—many in fact—let go of their commitment or dream to write because of all the other things in their lives that they allowed to come first. Walking on the radical edge is about taking a “courageous step,” and sometimes that step involves putting ourselves and our own needs first.
On Friday, Kamy Wicoff shared with the Hedgebrook group how she decided in 2011 that she needed to step away from She Writes for a while if she was ever going to complete her book. She was afraid to take that step, but she put it out to the community to take care of She Writes while she took a sabbatical, and the community—all of you—responded. She had 70 offers to guest curate the newsletter so that she could step away. This was a courageous step that required her to choose herself over the community—for a while.
The radical edge of writing, for me, is when women writers say I am worth it. I deserve it. Hedgebrook is radical for just this reason. They provide space—and meals—for writers in residence as a gift. No strings attached. And although it’s getting more competitive because there are more applicants every year, they grant 40 women this gift annually, with no expectations. (Note that their deadline to apply for 2014 is Sept 4. There’s still time!)
Hedgebrook mirrors back to its writers a simple message: You are worth it. You deserve this. Dorothy Allison has shared many times that she’s struggled to let the staff at Hedgebrook take care of her. They refer to what they do as “radical hospitality.” A writer in residence is not to take her dishes to the sink. Not to have to tend after anything. This experience is apparently quite emotional for many women who have only ever taken care of others.
It's not only a powerful experience to allow yourself to be taken care of in this way, it’s also radical. It is radical to let go; radical to be yourself; radical to be able to turn things over; to be able to not be in complete control. It is radical to accept help; it was radical of Kamy to decide to ask her community for help because she didn’t want to run SW every day and instead wanted to work on her novel.
It’s easy to rationalize, I’ll write when my life gets easier. I’ll write when the kids are older. I’ll write after I leave my job. As David says: on my deathbed; I’ll do it when I’m dead. When I first heard those words I was tempted to laugh at them, but in fact he’s quite serious, and there’s a devastation attached to a life built around contingency, isn’t there?
We all know people who have dreams they never acted on; plans they made but never executed; books they wanted to write but never wrote. Or parts of books written but later abandoned. There are many reasons for not walking the radical edge. And I’m not suggesting it’s an easy place to stay.
We are bombarded by inner and outer critics who fuel the “worthiness crisis.” These are the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, but also there are real people we know who dampen our enthusiasm and squash our dreams. They’re the parents who can’t understand the time we spend on writing; the spouse who doesn’t see the value; the agents and editors who tell us, yeah, it’s good, but I can’t sell it. From here, the only way through is to find your own true compass.
Mark Nepo is a poet I admire and have the privilege of working with. I included this poem as the epigraph of my book because, although it’s a universal human experience he writes about, the emotions and message pertain to the writing life.
Here is the poem:
Thinking Like a Butterfly
Monday I was told I was good.
I felt relieved.
Tuesday I was ignored.
I felt invisible.
Wednesday I was snapped at.
I began to doubt myself.
On Thursday I was rejected.
Now I was afraid.
On Saturday I was thanked
for being me. My soul relaxed.
On Sunday I was left alone
till the part of me that can’t
be influenced grew tired of
submitting and resisting.
Monday I was told I was good.
By Tuesday I got off the wheel.
Pay attention to what happened on Sunday. Getting to the place in yourself that is beyond influence is the radical edge. This is the part of you that tends to who you are. It’s a place from which you can move forward authentically because you don’t care whether you’re told that you’re good or bad. It’s a place where your own excuses don’t matter. It’s a place where you’re set free. Where no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a space unencumbered by accomplishments or productivity. Mark speaks of his own writing practice as “entering the space.” Sometimes entering the space needs to be eased into. You might meditate, or write about what’s right in front of you. You might listen to music, or engage in another form of creative expression: art, music, dance. Places like Hedgebrook offer an experience of what happens when “the space” has no expectations attached, and it can be difficult to emulate this in your daily writing practice. And yet it’s important to carry with us the invitation and the awareness that the radical edge is available to us no matter where we are. Pay attention to the contingencies you may be putting on your writing, and think about what needs to happen to take your next courageous step.
And a question for all of you here at She Writes: In what ways have you walked the radical edge in your own writing?
*hiker on the edge photo from BigStockPhoto.com.