4 min read

Writing as Séance

Earlier this week, I made a Facebook post that seemed to resonate with a lot of people,

When you’re constantly evolving and taking on new things, it can feel like you’re always just starting out. But you know more than you think you do and you’re more qualified to go after your dreams than you think you are.
Why would your own soul hate you enough to push you to aspire to something wholly impossible?
And this is aspiration on a spiritual level not whatever kooky capitalism grift is hot on clubhouse this week. There’s nothing wrong with wanting financial security, it’s a necessary aspiration in our society, but your dream, your actual one true dream, is what you would set about achieving once you felt secure in your finances.
Move toward that. Confidently.

This can apply to your writing practice as well. Whether your intended audience is many or just you, each time you perform the alchemy of transforming a thought into a sentence, it feels like new and unknown terrain. Whatever your writing objectives are, they're valid and these words are for you.

My middle sister was reading Having and Being Had by Eula Biss. Not her general genre of reading, and while familiar with Biss, I haven't read it yet (but I did read the excerpt in the New Yorker), but still this made me the closest thing she had to someone to chat with about the book and our convo also pulled in Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic, a book I recently finished on audiobook and she read last year, and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, which we both read last year and I highly recommend (you can get a taste of it by taking in Odell's keynote address on the same topic).

The gist of our convo ended up being: You don't have to have some big lofty goal for your life, The Life can be the goal, your art doesn't have to support you financially for it to be worthwhile (nor do you need to place that expectation on yourself or the art), and we need a Universal Basic Income, so people's baseline needs can be met and they can pursue their art if they'd like without fretting over financial ruin.

Joan Didion is well known for having said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." So, writing is as much an exploration of self as it is a means to communicate with others.

Writing as séance, but the spirit you're attempting to commune with is your own. Your are channeling a past self and delivering a message to your present self.

Last week,  I asked you to sit down with a symbol of a past self.  I gave the example of high heel shoes, I no longer wear. This morning, I spent some time thinking about who that version of me who wore those shoes was, and, slightly painfully, the answer my mind bubbled up, was that I was a person obsessed with fitting an ideal as a substitute for becoming who I would be become. The high heels, the Forever 21 bodycon dresses, the trips to Vegas (so many trips to Vegas...) was me hopping into the life of what TV and music videos and rappers told me young twentysomething women should be living.

But I should give my young self a break. I wasn't some phony. A lot of that stuff was fun and it takes a lot of time to figure yourself out. Many of us put on costumes of who we might be, kicked them off, and tried on different personas searching for the right fit. Then, one day your high heel collection is getting dusty in a corner of your closet.

This may feel like a tangent, but stick with me, you can create a less painful space for your writing, if you can show the versions of yourself that once showed up in the world as you some grace. Some empathy. Some understanding.

A great example of this, is a piece that ran in the New York Times "Ties" section this week, "Juggling My Children, Their Alcoholic Sitter, and My Own Sobriety" by Sarah Twombly,"

Tonight I left my children with our longtime babysitter, who claims she is nine days sober, but is possibly drunk or high.
At the very least, she is exhausted — the kind of exhausted that seeps into your bones and calcifies. I am leaving my children with her because I trust her. Four years, she has cared for my children. She has made them paper crowns and cardboard castles, bathed them and sung them to sleep. She and I have lunched and sipped tea. Together, we have summited mountains of paperwork to secure her health insurance, a new car, a new apartment.
I know her, I trust her. This is the mantra I repeat to myself from my office upstairs, where I am listening to every thump and bump and giggle below.

The opening paragraphs of this essay aligns the writer with the reader, who is presumably not an alcoholic, and might be bringing certain judgments to the writer and her choices as a mother – How would you feel if your babysitter just revealed she's struggling with addiction?

Then a little deeper into the piece we get this reveal,

The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic. I detoxed in the hospital’s drunk tank. On day two of sobriety, I had a seizure. On day six, I had a panic attack. On day nine, I could put on my own pants, barely.

We are identifying with the writer because we assume she is like us – flawless. But then we learn she is, has been, the babysitter, and through this trick of writing, we are now identifying with the babysitter and what this struggle must be like for her.

This is the alchemy of writing.

The language goes from "The babysitter" aka the one with the problem to "we all lie," the writer and the reader and everyone we know to "I", the writer as addict.

I'd have to ask the writer,  but I doubt Twombly performed this alchemy knowingly. It likely just flowed from her or came about in revision. So, don't be nervous about how to pull off this same feat in your writing.

Instead, read the full piece. Then, return to the snatch of writing you began last week. Here, the babysitter is Twombly's symbol of a past self, in your bit of writing your symbol is a physical object. What happens when you look upon that past self your physical object conjures up with empathy? Do you feel yourself softening? Write from that place and see how the tone shifts.

I'd describe this NYT piece as having a tone of reverie, it's very much a "but for the grace of God, there go I" kinda vibe, right? Put another 30-minutes on your timer and spend some time making a second attempt at capturing that past self on the page.

Have another symbol come to mind instead? Another self? Another moment? Go toward that then. There are no real rules here.

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