I am sitting in the University of Freiburg library, which is basically my second home at this point. I’m status post one very harrowing creative non-fiction workshop with Roxane Gay and all of my amazingly talented fellow writers. I’d really meant to blog more consistently throughout the past two weeks — reporting on our syllabus, the analysis & close reading of all the amazing texts we’ve been assigned, and all the terribly insistent SnapChatting I’ve been doing both about the retreat and the daytrip to Basel yesterday (my poor friends and lovers received dozens of snaps from me yesterday, lo siento).
But instead I’m slightly drunk and writing post cards to myself. My essay topic was about “sex that is not technically non-consensual” or the ways in which sex can be both consensual and traumatic, so I wasn’t kidding when I said it was harrowing. Gray areas. People talking critically (but so compassionately) about some of the more painful parts of my life. It’s something that I’ve been mulling over for a while, something that I hinted at, maybe, months ago in my first-ever paid and published piece for The Toast, A Personal History of Misogyny. This new piece was not an easy one to write, but it was, I think, a necessary one. [And I swear this isn’t me gloating here, but I am over the moon about it: RGay corroborated that, the necessary-ness of articulating gray areas, particularly when it comes to subjects like sexual assault and trauma.]
But I don’t want to write about that essay. With any luck, and with a bunch more work, that essay will be published. I’m an ambitious sort of lady, and I’ve already pitched it somewhere. On Monday I’m headed to Amsterdam, where I’ll hopefully get a tattoo but will definitely edit my essay. In the meantime I want to share a little bit about the reading Roxane gave for us today, and some of the advice that followed.
Roxane read to us from An Untamed State, which in some ways was the impetus for this my very first writing retreat; without that book, I don’t know that I ever would have written my piece for The Toast, and without that piece, I’m not sure I’d be in Freiburg right now. I think, as tough as that book is to read, I might reread it in Amsterdam. To come full circle. To say thanks. And to learn, again, from a writer I admire so much.
After the reading we asked Roxane questions. Our essay class had had a q&a with her earlier this week. One of the questions I asked, and one of the questions I struggle with a lot in my writing, is a question of where my stories take up space. It’s something I think about a lot as a mixed race writer, as a bisexual writer, and as a writer (and woman) who has experienced sex as “not technically non-consensual” — a phrase which, in our one-on-one meeting, made Roxane sit up and say “GURL. That is your story right there.”
But it’s one of those things that is hard to feel like I have permission to write about. Gray areas. As a mixed race chick, how much can I say I’ve really experienced discrimination? When people walked up to me and demand of me “What are you?” before they ask me my name — that’s laughably harmless in light of the things some people suffer. And erasure as a bi girl, or ladies I date telling me that gay girls “really don’t like it when the girls they date sleep with men” — that’s peanuts compared to gay people who experience hate crimes because of their sexuality. And as for sex: sex that’s consensual but traumatic is still a far fucking cry from rape. These are all things I think about, kind of obsessively, before writing. So I asked her: How do you reconcile feeling like you have a right to a story with the space that story will take up among the voices of others? Or, how can you tell when you have the right to a certain story?
She said it’s important to ask yourself if you have something to offer in the telling of it. Women are so often discouraged from taking up space, so fuck that! Take up space. There’s a different between taking up space and dominating a conversation. Is there something about that story that only you can offer? If so, get writing.
Those were important words to hear, so I’m sharing them.
As to the placement of the stories in the wider world: “What are you doing if you’re not going to have faith in the world you’re writing into?”
There were two other things that resonated really strongly with me, so I wrote them on a post card and sent them to myself. Part of me is scared I’m not going to hold on to the magic of being here, of learning from Roxane, of learning from my peers. NYC isn’t Freiburg, and Freiburg is a fairy tale city. I’ve never done anything like this before in my life.
So, the post card. One of my classmates, Mehtab, asked about Roxane’s drive and need to write. She wondered if there’s every a disconnect between what’s in her head and what she’s writing, and subsequently if that makes the writing difficult. Roxane said no. She said, “I’m not delusional, I know when bits of my writing aren’t as good as others.” She keeps an “I Still Love You” folder for the scraps of writing that don’t work for a particular piece (a practice I think I may incorporate as well).
“If I’m not gonna believe in my writing, then who will?” and also: “I refuse to be disappointed in myself as a writer.”
So those are some things I’m taking with me, to Amsterdam, and home.
And most importantly: Writing is a pleasure. It’s fun. Why do it if it’s not fun? Find a different hobby.
And it’s still pretty fun for me, even the hard parts. So here I am, still writing.