What a writing retreat taught me about repetition
A week ago, I had the pleasure of attending my fourth one day Big Island Writers' Workshop moderated by Beth Bornstein Dunnington. Per usual, I had no plan to share the work I did that day. Per usual, the day taught me an important lesson, one I wanted to share with you. One that is part and parcel to what I'm writing about my trip to Beth Kephart's Juncture Workshop. (Read Part One here.)
The morning of the Big Island (BI) retreat, as I showered, dried my hair, and applied make-up, I made a pact with myself. I'd noticed a pattern emerge from my first 3 trips to BI: that I used one or all of Beth's prescient prompts to write about my lack of self-esteem and self-confidence around my body image issues. This time will be different, I thought. I was sick of the repetitive narrative of my short stories and was sure my co-attendees must be, too. I hopped in the car determined to avoid writing about my body and what it does or does not mean to me.
The other writers and I gathered in our sacred circle--the space where we come together not to critique each others' skills but to bear witness to our truths--and Beth dictated the first round of prompts. The last one was, "There was an old picture found in a box. . ." Perfect, I thought. I'd brought an old picture of myself to Pennsylvania in September for Juncture.
Here's what I wrote last week:
There was an old picture found in a box. I’d pulled the box out from underneath my bed, where I’d stashed it after my mother died. We had to bring an old photo of ourselves to the retreat. I had no idea what the assignment would be, but I’d be prepared because I am always prepared.
I’d pulled the plastic box out from under my bed and carefully removed the lid so as not to disturb the years of dust that had accumulated upon it. I flipped the lid over and wiped the dust off onto the carpet, thinking that Tom would vacuum soon enough. Carefully, I removed one item at a time. These were the treasures my mother had cared enough about to save, to store in this box to one day give to me. Had she saved them in the hopes that we would sit side by side as she explained her life to me? If so, she never got the chance. Instead, she was dead, and I was sitting by myself on the floor in my bedroom.
I glanced at the black and white photo of my mom’s first communion circa 1955. Her mother—my grandmother—stood beside her, stiff and unsmiling, and I realized again that I knew almost nothing about my mother—not the woman she was nor the child she had been. I stared into my grandmother’s face, a mirror of my own, another woman I never knew. Had they shared their feelings, thoughts, and concerns with one another? I doubted it; otherwise, I might have ended up with a better idea of how my mom felt about her life and my place in it.
Next, there was a family photo from when I was a baby, one of only two pictures professionally taken of my little family of three that should have been four. I looked at my own face, young and oblivious to the firestorms that lay ahead. My mom wore frosted pink lipstick. She was beautiful. I wondered if she ever saw herself that way, as beautiful. Or, like me, did she only notice the perceived flaws? Next, Dad. My daddy. This shot was from his high and tight crew cut phase, but the salt and pepper coloring of his hair was as evident as it would always be, as it had always been, since he returned home from the war.
From the bottom of the box, I pulled out the red album. I knew it contained pictures of me from childhood: a black and white shot of Mom teaching me to ice skate on the lake behind our house, color shots of me covered in sand at the local beach where we went in summer to swim and of my beloved Calico cat, Bumpy, and even an exterior shot of my childhood home which caused my throat to feel suddenly like it was crushed inside a vice. I turned more pages and there they were: official school pictures from middle school. Holy cow!
This one, I thought, when I spied the shot of me from sixth or seventh grade. Freckles covered my face. My short brown hair looked like a bowl on my head, and the braces, ugh, the white braces the orthodontist had promised me would be less noticeable because they were white. He was wrong. Oh so wrong. How I’d longed to have clear porcelain skin and blonde hair like many of my pretty classmates had.
I remembered that the photographer told me that day to smile and that I hadn’t wanted to because even though those white braces were supposed to be hard to see, they were, in fact, easy to see. And really ugly. But the photographer told me to smile, and I always did what I was told. And now I sat on the floor next to a plastic box with this horrible photo and knew I would remember in perpetuity that I had the absolute worst hair do, freckles, and white braces of any kid in my school.
That picture traveled 3,000 miles with me across the country.
On a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania, I met Beth Kephart and the other writers there to learn about memoir. We got prompts from that Beth, too, and I took a few jabs at myself—at my body, my size, my girth—before anyone else could. Beat ‘em to the punch sort of stuff. One day Beth looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand how pretty you are.”
Fuck no, I thought.
Then Beth said, “I want you to work on writing about yourself the way other people see you. How we see you.”
“I have no idea what that would look like,” I said, and immediately thought of the god-awful picture of me with the terrible haircut and the freckles and the braces that was in the pocket of my notebook. I thought of the me from those days that got teased with names like “Thunder Thighs,” and the me that got asked out on April Fools’ Day, and the me that worked so diligently to fit in because I did not understand that fitting in is the antithesis of belonging. Fast-forwarding through the years I thought of the me that blamed myself for all kinds of things that weren't my fault up to and including the day I blamed myself for my daughter’s mental illness.
(I’m inserting this here because I want to draw particular attention to what I wrote next.)
I stared in disbelief at my teacher, who wanted me to see myself as something other than that little girl from the picture, and realized I had no idea how to go about it.
(Although this felt true when I wrote it, it is not true. I finished the piece with the following.)
Then I thought, not for the first time, but for the first time in a long time, that I absolutely deserved to figure it out.
In our circle at Big Island, I read these words out loud. Damn it, I thought when I realized that I'd done it again, written about my body and my insecurities. But then, as I read on, I also realized something else. In my mind, I was enumerating a list of accomplishments, ways in which I was downright awesome, like helping to shepherd my daughter through her illness, my volunteerism for NAMI, and writing openly and honestly about my struggles in an effort to help others. This is bullshit, I thought as insecure words escaped my mouth. I'm funny, smart, and loyal. I'm dedicated, and, usually, kind.
Brené Brown says that the best way to move information from our head into our heart is through our hands. Here's what the repetition of writing about my body has taught me so far: Writing about the events of my past won't change the facts, it won't change the meaning I made of those events, or how that meaning shaped--both literally and metaphorically--the person I am now. But writing again and again about my past gives me the opportunity to treat my assumptions like a prism, to hold them up to the light, turn them around in circles, first one way and then the other, and see their various hues. I can explore what may have been true, but no longer is. Or what was never true that I assumed was. I can choose to look back through the kaleidoscope of my favorite colors, to watch them fracture and reassemble. In so doing, I learn how to drive the narrative of my story. I learn how to write my own brave ending.