on creativity, suppression, and freedom…

So it’s been 105 days since I stopped writing poems like my life depended on it. 75 days since I decided I’d get back to work on my novel. 45 days since I blogged about actually beginning again. A month since I figured out I was going to take what I’d written apart at the seams. Two weeks since I figured out where I’d messed up. A week since I said, that’s it. Today’s the day.

But I still haven’t written a word.

I know all about ‘fallow’ seasons…about writing yourself to exhaustion and needing time to recoup…about that curious sense of build-up, when you feel tiny flames flickering in your belly and the words start bubbling upwards…I know about waiting, sitting at the desk and listening…

And I know too about procrastinating and about prioritizing everything else above writing and about being afraid to pin down the vision in your mind…

In some ways I do feel I’ve been shedding fruitless ideas about things and expectations and all the mental clutter/crap that can get in the way…and I’ve been tackling projects and to-do’s all over the place…but when I find myself in a place like this one…limbo without explanation…delay not born of necessity…then I have to ask what’s behind it…

A few years ago, my friend the poet Celeste Guzman Mendoza said something that struck me. She spoke about the gratitude she felt for having writing in her life—how grateful she was to be a poet/writer—how grateful she was to work with words—how grateful she was for this gift in her life, how it fed her, how it sustained her, how it gave and gave and gave. It struck me because I’ve so rarely heard writers talk about gratitude.

I too am grateful. At the heart/center/bottom of it all, I am grateful to have writing in my life…to write…to listen…to create…

When I wrote my first story at age 8, I couldn’t find any paper in the house. I cut up a brown paper bag to make pages and write. When my younger brother Eddie was buying candy and toys with his allowance or gift money, I was buying packs of pens and notebooks.

My parents were migrant truckdrivers, so we moved often, sometimes seven or eight times a year. In south texas, we lived in our house and I had my own bedroom, but everywhere else, we rented motel rooms or one bedroom apartments or two bedroom houses. Sometimes it was five of us, sometimes it was six or seven of us. I remember we were allotted one box or suitcase of clothing and one box of ‘stuff.’ Mine was heavy—filled with books and notebooks and pens and drafts of poems and stories…

Often, I shared a mattress on the floor with my siblings and kept a notebook under my pillow. I used to read and write in the dark, with nothing but the streetlights streaming in from outside. When we lived in motel rooms (my parents in one bed and my younger brothers in the other), I’d sneak up from my place on the floor between them and go write in the restroom. I’d put towels all around the door to keep the light from disturbing anyone.

Fairy tales, vampire stories, horror stories, a lot of science fiction and fantasy, the occasional romance, and a few other strange things that I could barely classify…stories, chapters, synopses, lists of characters, bits of dialogue…they came pouring out.

My mother encouraged me…she bought me a manual typewriter at a flea market. I lugged it around even though it was heavy and went ‘ping’ whenever I came to the end of a line. I loved it to pieces. I named it ‘Henry’ though I don’t remember why now.

One day when I was fifteen, we were living in Oklahoma, and I was at home taking care of my brother Moises. That summer, we listened to Roy Orbison, made friends with the cantinera neighbor and her daughter, and had many adventures walking to the Dairy Queen and the library and the gas station and the Gibson’s. But that particular day I wasn’t expecting my parents until dinnertime, so I’d taken out my typewriter and put it on the table we ate on. I’d also laid out my pens, a rough draft of a story I’d marked up in red, my thesaurus, some music cassettes, and who knows what else.

My father came home unexpectedly in the middle of the day. He saw me typing away and flew into a rage. He threatened to break my typewriter and burn all of my papers. I don’t remember anymore what I screamed at him or what I threatened, but I remember I put my body inbetween him and the table. He slapped me and yelled some more. I collected my papers and my typewriter in one sweep of my arms and put them on the floor out of the way. I forget why he’d come home, if he’d come to find a receipt for an auto part or for his checkbook or for what, but he left before long.

That night, I stayed awake knowing I’d run away before I let him destroy my writing.

I’ve written in other places about how my mother was an artist who channeled her creativity into the work of surviving…into filling our lives with moments of beauty…her gardening, her sketches, her meals, the blankets she made, the dresses she could create with and without patterns…for a woman with a second grade education, she could converse about anything…her memory was a marvelous thing…

But at the same time, she never had the chance to dedicate herself wholly to the things she loved most to do…there was no perception in her upbringing that a person—much less a woman– could dedicate themselves to their chosen art…life was about having a family and working….she lived with a lot of shame for her dark skin. she loved pale yellow but never wore it because she’d been told it made her look even darker (and uglier).  Whenever I wear it, I think of all the times she never did. She used to tell me she loved the way I laughed when I laughed loud because she’d never felt free to do so. I never heard her sing above a murmur because my father’s family had shamed her out of it. In my early twenties, it felt so important to laugh and sing and take up space and be free—because she had never been or felt free.

What I haven’t written about was my father’s dreams. One of them was about wanting to be a singer, heading a conjunto band, singing in a different place every night. He said that he used to sing with his friends when they were all teenagers, but that his friends had needed beer or liquor to get up enough courage. I used to beg him to sing and make those little mambo yells. The mambo yells he’d make, but singing was much more difficult to get out of him. A few times, I got a few lines out of him. When I asked him why he hadn’t become a singer, he’d say he never would have been able to remember all the songs a singer would need to know. That’d it be impossible for him to even learn them all since he didn’t know how to read. His schooling was so patchy, he never made it past the first grade. As children, he and his younger sister, left school to work all day in the fields.

I don’t know what particular mix of frustration and shame and poverty and abusive experiences drove my father to be the man he was—given to sudden rage, sudden violence…pre-occupied with material possessions and power over others….but also, a man driven to suppress the creativity of others…

We grew up knowing nothing was safe. He regularly attacked my mother’s garden. These trees were too overgrown, those trees weren’t in the right place…He’d hack off branches until the trees looked like shorn and naked sheep. He didn’t like the ferns or the cannas and so my mother had to pull them out. They were gorgeous and green and overflowing. Someone told him prickly pear cactus harbored rats, and so he commanded my youngest brother to cut them down. When they grew back, my father burned them. There were no rats.

Drawings and papers and molding clay weren’t safe left out anywhere. My older brother and my youngest brother weren’t allowed in the kitchen even though they felt the call to cook much louder than I ever did. Any creative thing my brother Moises did, my father quashed—in his eyes, creativity was ‘suspect’—serving only to confirm my father’s suspicions that his youngest son was, in fact, gay.

Since I was a girl, what I chose to do was mostly unimportant—unless it kept me from the housework/babysitting/chores that took up most of my time, as long as I didn’t take up any physical space in the home, and as long as it didn’t affect my father’s comfort.

Other people talk about writer’s block and the Internal Critic or the Internal Agent (the Internal  Agent being the voice that says ‘no one’s ever going to publish this…it’s not marketable…you’re never going to make a dime…you’re not a real writer if you can’t make your living as a writer)…but I think I’m barely coming to the understanding that what I’ve always been fighting is the Internal Suppressor…the voice that prioritizes everything else above writing, that eats away at my conviction that my chosen art deserves everything I pour into it, that ties into my (this sounds over-dramatic, but let’s call things what they are)…self-destructive patterns and occasional depressions and threatens to torpedo my drive/ability/energy to stay with my writing…

There’s an essay I love by Jeannette Winterson where she speaks about the body’s natural impulse to heal… …and she says there’s a corresponding natural impulse in the psyche to heal and to create…

I believe that creativity is the healthy impulse of conscious humans: not war, not lust, not consumption, not greed, not drunkenness, not apathy, not suppression, not self-destruction…in my poet-skewed world-view, I usually think most of the world’s bitterness, futility, isolation, and trauma could be alleviated if everyone got to work on a poem or a painting or a garden or a song.

But this is not a world of conscious humans…this is not a world of healthy impulses…In a culture—whether a national culture or a family culture—where people follow materialism rather than creativity,  alcohol and drugs are used for entertainment and to ‘numb the pain’, where self-destructive behaviors are considered the norm, it makes sense that creativity and the artist’s life would be devalued, dismissed, derided. The self-destructive culture seeks to suppress the healthy impulse to create.

Which leads me back to the beginning.  Creativity is essential to my desire to be a conscious/healthy human. So what’s going on here? I know I don’t give a shit what the ‘culture’ thinks I should be doing or how I should be doing it. I’ve been an independent adult for decades now. Time may be at a premium, but if all I do is write for half an hour a day or if all I write is one sentence a day—then I’m still writing, I’m still creating. So what’s stopping me?  There’s no one left to suppress my creativity but myself.

And maybe, in the end, this is what will push me out of this limbo’d moment—naming the Suppressor and remembering the girl I was. How thrilled she would be to have more than enough paper. To have a safe and permanent place in her home to put her poems and stories. To write on a computer. To have written so many pages. To have a book with her name on the cover. To have other books on the way.  I don’t think she ever even imagined the pleasure of other people reading her words or the possibility of knowing other writers.  She loved to have a whole white page in front of her. Loved the feeling when the first word was written and when the last word was written. And for her, every word in between thrummed with freedom.

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9 thoughts on “on creativity, suppression, and freedom…”

  1. Beautiful. To remember my own girl-self who wanted nothing but time and materials to write down these stories…to remember my own father, who broke into every locked diary, even the file cabinet he bought “for” me, who interrogated me about what I had written…to remember that sometimes, the ghosts of our past become lodged within us, prevent us from accepting the freedom we have finally earned … this is all so important. Sometimes we become so accustomed to writing only when it is forbidden that we are taken aback by the frightening reality of freedom, and have to sit there, stunned, until we remember where we came from and how much this blank open page, and an hour to adore it, means. Thinking of you, Ire’ne, and your brave words.

    1. Thank you, Deborah. That is exactly it: “Sometimes we become so accustomed to writing only when it is forbidden that we are taken aback by the frightening reality of freedom, and have to sit there, stunned, until we remember where we came from and how much this blank open page, and an hour to adore it, means.”
      And thank you for sharing your memories…

      At a certain point I came to understand how much writing had been an escape for me. In my early twenties soon after I arrived in Austin, life was so good, it seemed somehow contrary to return to the page….and that was the point, I think, when I deliberately chose writing as a free person making a free choice. It continues to amaze me–how many new places there are on this journey as writers.

      Much love to you.

  2. ire’ne, your words make me want to cry but also celebrate the writer that you are–incredibly moving. You have accomplished so much and there is so much more you will write. I can only say I am touched deeply by what you have to give to the world.

  3. Thank you for your beautiful words. You are not in limbo, you are writing your life. What more can you do?

  4. Deborah Miranda’s comment really rings true for me and what you’ve written, ire’ne. I think that some of us for whom writing was a refuge it becomes difficult to not see writing in that same way again, so that when we are physically free from the limitations (parents, work, whatever!) we don’t go to the page because it is not what we had come accustomed to needing from our writing. I find that I am now needing to shift my point of view on what my writing means to me, the role it plays in my present life. Presently it is not a refuge as it was when I was younger surviving the chaos of my home. And really I don’t KNOW what role it plays now as I’m also in this shift but I can say that I recognize that the time has come to shift my relationship with my writing and to see it for something else than what I used to be for me. And I remain grateful that it continues to be present in my life and that it has changed with me. It is a beautiful gift!! Thanks for the post.

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