Tuck the darkness in.
Los Caminos Tortuosos (1958) by Remedios Varo
One of the best qualities a writer can have is the conviction that not every thought that passes through her head is interesting or useful or entertaining or worthwhile. This is also a quality that makes it very difficult to write. If you return to the same default of questioning the value of your words… well, you have to be writing a lot of words to publish any of them. First drafts of useless bullshit tend to pile up on your desktop.
Right now, my desktop is covered in Ask Molly drafts. I would share a screenshot of it, but it’s honestly too pathetic. There’s “ask molly – beach” and “ask molly – weeds” and “ask molly – attuned” and the oh-so-telling “ask molly – nothing.” Some mornings, instead of trying to write something brand new, I’ll open up some of my previous attempts, only to reaffirm my original assessment that they’re unworthy. They are not lively or evocative enough. They are not amusing or rewarding or remotely necessary.
The problem with this process is that eventually the line between the writer and the pages starts to blur. When your writing seems magnificent, you feel almost supernatural. When your writing seems pointless, you feel like a farm worker whose sleeves got caught in the threshing machine one day. Your hands are mangled and you can’t do your job and you definitely blame yourself, even though the social worker making wellness visits keeps insisting otherwise. She’s very nice and her zucchini bread is delicious but she doesn’t understand you. You have a head full of manual tasks and a heart full of harvests. Corn is ripening and then turning brown inside your limbs. There’s a full moon inside your skull, pressing on your forehead. But all you can do is sit in one place, staring at your hands.
When people write to Polly about writer’s block, I usually tell them that they’re resisting the truth. When you’re not comfortable telling the truth about where you are, all of your words become strained. I witnessed this a few weeks ago when I asked an acquaintance how things were going with her. She said she was doing great four times, with the exact same words each time. But her face told me that she was repeating a prayer she didn’t believe. She didn’t want to tell me the truth, but I could see the truth in her posture, in the way she stared at the floor. Nothing was going the way she’d hoped it would, and she didn’t want to talk about it.
That’s how it feels to be a writer sometimes. It’s show and tell time at the preschool, but you’re in the corner, arms folded, sulking. You don’t want to show. You don’t want to tell.
And on really bad days, you feel like you’ve already shown and told way too much. Or as Pavement once sang, “We need secrets back right now.”
But you can’t get them back. There are 244 reviews of your secrets on Amazon.
I wrote about having breast cancer in an Ask Polly column the other day, and now an editor wants me to write about it for her newspaper. I guess this is the natural next step for me: I wrote about my childhood in my first book, told people how to live in my second book, analyzed what’s wrong with our culture in my third book, and analyzed what’s wrong with marriage in my fourth book. This list makes me sound like a jackass, the kind of delusional blowhard who holds forth on whatever and treats it like the word of god.
But the key to writing a good book is throwing shit away. You read a chapter that bores you or strikes you as arrogant or precious or tiresome? You throw it in the trash. You keep writing until you have something that feels alive. It’s not like there are *no* dull moments in Foreverland, but overall, that book is tight – particularly given the subject, marriage and kids, which I don’t need to tell you constitutes some of the most lackluster reading material on the planet. Foreverland is a lot of things, but it’s not lackluster. I was paranoid about boring people. I mean, the word tedium is right there on the cover. I had to make it fun and suspenseful – as fun and suspenseful as marriage itself.
And it’s easy to make things fun and suspenseful, actually. You just tell the truth.
The truth about me is that my brain and my heart make life fun and suspenseful. I am not a rigid human being. I like learning dramatic lessons, even when they’re humiliating. I’m arrogant and full of opinions, but I’m also very open and suggestible. I change my mind a lot. This makes for a real rollercoaster of a life. But according to Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, changing your mind a lot is a superpower.
When will everyone change their minds about Malcolm Gladwell? I mean, Jesus. Imagine writing an entire book about one idea. JUST ONE IDEA. And then doing that over and over again. And somehow EACH NEW IDEA is the key to transforming yourself into a supernatural leader type who feeds the hungry and also, I don’t know, skydives with Elvis impersonators and reimagineers liquid hand soap technology.
On the plus side, you’re not writing about your childhood then your marriage then your reimagineered tits. I’ll bet Malcolm Gladwell never feels like a preschooler in the corner, shaking his head, saying I HAVE SHOWN AND TOLD ENOUGH. I’M DONE SHARING!
My job is to tell the truth. And some days I don’t want to do that. I want to do something else instead. Anything else.
Here’s what I’ve been doing instead of writing: On Thursday, I ran four miles through the woods with my younger daughter so she’ll be ready for cross country practice when school starts in a few weeks. On Friday and Saturday, I painted my older daughter’s bedroom white because she’s hated her light blue walls for a whole year now, since we moved here last August. On Sunday, I ate a hamburger by the local pool and watched younger parents chasing their toddlers around.
It’s relaxing to watch parents with younger kids. You remember how it felt to shadow tiny, clumsy lunatics through the world, constantly bracing yourself for a tumble and a squeal of pain. At the pool on Sunday, this one baby was just learning to walk, but he was running everywhere anyway — plowing through puddles, veering around the ping pong table, smiling brightly at every stranger. It was fun and suspenseful to watch this baby.
And sure enough, he eventually fell to the pavement. But when he did, he rolled like an expert stuntman, all rounded into a ball, so that his head only lightly grazed the ground at the end of his roll. Instead of getting up from the ground with a look that said THAT WAS TERRIFYING, he got up giggling like WTF JUST HAPPENED?
That’s what I want right now, to stumble and fall and then curl into a ball and roll. I want to roll like a ball for a while — who knows what’s happening, who knows where the fuck I am or what I’m doing? And then I want to get up and say HA HA HA, THAT WAS COOL! and start running again.
I don’t mind falling. Every mistake is just a thoughtful decision in disguise. Taking bold steps into the future with purpose and intention is the same thing as watching both of your sleeves being pulled into the threshing machine. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but watch. And if I stay as open as possible and feel as much as possible and I keep writing about it, I might as well be dashing around on the wet pavement with little to no walking experience. But I want to trust my instincts anyway. Tucking into a ball as you hit the pavement is a superpower. Getting up with a smile on your face is a superpower.
When you stay open and feel as much as you can, your entire identity is like a mood ring. Your marriage is a lava lamp, constantly shifting, changing colors, surprising you and then boring you and then exciting you again. My childhood looks different by the hour. My body is an evolving landscape and it always was.
The surgeries were just one chapter of that story, and I’m not even sure that it’s a chapter worth keeping. The miracle is that a girl can grow up and enjoy who she is, how she’s shaped, how she feels, what she loves with all of her heart, in spite of the noises around her, in spite of the way people still talk to her like she’s not in the room. This happened to me just the other night: I was talking to my husband and another man about my life, my desires, my dreams, and the man said, “You only have these freedoms because we’re living in a post-Roe world.” We weren’t talking about politics. But something about the scope of my desires felt wrong or destabilizing to him, and it was suddenly important to remind me that my status as a full person with my own emotions and needs and rights wasn’t assured. This is a nice guy we’re talking about. But somehow, what was notable to him wasn’t that a wide swath of humans had their freedoms taken away, but that those freedoms were ever given at all -- bequeathed like a gift from those whose freedoms are immutable, unquestionable, irrevocable.
And that’s how it feels to be a girl, to be a woman. You forget sometimes that your rights are revocable. But no one else does.
The miracle is that I can still feel anything under these conditions. The miracle is that I can still tell the truth. What I can’t do is bullshit anyone anymore. I can’t repeat prayers I don’t believe. I have no interest in seeming more pure or more impressive than I really am. If my words make you question your faith, well, that’s on you. What lies does your faith depend on to stay strong?
I know how to lie, but I have no reason to. Lies are not fun or suspenseful to me. Lies are boring and empty. Lies make for a bad story with flat characters. Lies are punitive to the people around you. You think you’re protecting people from harm but you’re actually warping reality, tricking people until they don’t know what to believe or who to trust. Lies mean you hit the pavement and skid and get up looking bloody and terrified.
I don’t know if I’m going to write about breast cancer. When it was happening, all I could write was abstract prose. I had it relatively easy, but it was still hard. I haven’t been ready to tell anyone about my body, which is about the most private thing there is, at least for me.
But I’ll probably write about it eventually, even though some part of me thinks that’s distasteful and it would be cooler if I didn’t. I’ll probably write about it because writing is like tucking into a ball for me. Writing shapes the truth that way, turns it into an act of spontaneous creation, just like that baby collaborating with the truth of gravity. How funny can you make the truth? How joyful can you make it? How thrilling and scary and worthwhile can you make the truth feel? Because that rolling baby made falling look not just graceful, but necessary.
When you tell the truth, you don’t have to commit anything to memory. You don’t have to analyze what went wrong before you stumbled, because it’s all natural, because no injuries were sustained. When you can feel everything, you tuck and roll and you get up laughing, saying to yourself, “What the fuck just happened? That was nuts!” You’re laughing because you know you did your best, you tried to do no harm, you improvised with an open heart, you cooperated with gravity, your body a miracle, a bouncing ball, a blur of motion, a lava lamp, a sea teaming with life, a liquid universe filthy with delight — hungry, joyful, never quite satisfied.
Superior beings didn’t grant you these rights. You were born this way: reckless, buoyant, proud, full of love for a stranger. A miracle.
Thank you for reading and supporting Ask Molly.