Tag Archives: fear

My First Book’s Coming Out. Cue Panic?

OYHH Front CoverMy first book releases March 31st. This isn’t the post I thought I’d write about such an occasion, but then– this isn’t the book I thought I’d write, either. 
Here’s a confession. Publishing this book is easily one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Writing it involved excavating and articulating stories, fears, and beliefs that I’d never let anywhere near my songs. Or even my own head. But over the course of a couple years, a poetic practice crept into dark corners and reported back what it found. Some of it is comprehensible. Some of it is recognizably nameless.

Some of it is photography. Michael Wilson and I have talked for years about creating a book together, and when these poems began piling up, they seemed to beg for a Wilson-ian counterpart. Perhaps less for illustration than for a haunted (and haunting) camaraderie, for a shift in conceptions of violence, of peace. For a break in the patternless pattern.

When the manuscript was complete, I was thrilled (as any writer is) to have the book accepted by a press. I signed a contract and made preparations. Logistics, aesthetics, repeat. And then the press settled on a release date. I was excited. I posted on social media. I texted my family. And then I fell into the most severe depression I’ve experienced since the illness sent me out of full-time music and into another life.

There were other factors; book-publishing doesn’t happen in isolation. Still, these poems pull on lovely, bloody threads strung from real bodies that move and feel in a real and volatile world. This isn’t to say that the book is (entirely) autobiographical, but it does expose and implicate. I don’t know how it couldn’t.

Of course, as it turns out, we keep things silent for reasons. I’ve spent the last several months tripping on mine: I’ve thrown up, cowered in bed, stopped for deep breaths while teaching, cried weirdly (and not soundlessly) in public spaces. I’ve berated myself for being given a great opportunity, only to cringe whenever it’s mentioned. I’ve steeled myself for congratulations, and tried to feel them in my bones. Sometimes I do.

I’m fortunate to have found support, and I’m getting steadily better. I’m more and more proud of the person behind the words in this book. I’ve begun to feel empowered by her movement from silence to conversation, or at least to nice-sounding works of word. Music-less songs.

I’m telling you this both to confess a terror and to dispel my lingering (irritating) sense of the shame of depression. This illness is, of course, less a signifier of personal weakness (or strength) than of personal intersections with chemistry, biology, time, and perhaps an uncanny, relentless sense of the possible. Perhaps none of these. Ideally, one simply learns over time to better live with depression—to move her body through the thick space of it. She learns to feel the shape of it in her mouth, and say it.

I’m also telling you this because, for the past several years, I’ve made my life’s work about the movement of silenced stories into public discourse. I’ve spoken urgently about the negative health impacts of individual and collective repression, about the necessity of the arts in helping us tell our stories. But if I needed a reminder that silences are bulwarks, safehouses, that they often serve vital, bone-deep purposes, this book has been mine. I’m re-learning the sense of fragility that often precedes the powerful ownership of one’s history; the fluctuating, feverish means by which secrets become strengths. I’ve questioned again whether it’s worth it.

I believe that it is.

 …The only recourse / is to name one’s self, and hold the margins / wide enough to walk in.


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The silence of being IN IT.

writing from inside the shitI recently taught a series of creative writing workshops for at-risk youth in the midwest. They’re new to writing, so part of our work involved writing list-poems in which each line began, “They say,” and “I’m afraid that.” The point was to identify what others might see when they look at us, and then experiment with giving voice to what’s underneath. Most of my students admitted this was terrifying.


So I was ecstatic about Donald Glover’s instagrammed messages, which came out a couple days before our last workshop. Here was a popular comedian, writer, musician, and actor, handwriting an impromptu “list poem” — going public with a detailed list of fears that read much like the penciled lines in my students’ notebooks.

donald glover noteSo for our last meeting, I projected all of his photos. The students said it made them feel less alone, less stupid. We discussed how, in appropriate contexts, there can be power and bravery – and ownership – in vulnerability.  I’d already told my own story: depression, violence, loss of faith. So here was another witness, saying, “It’s hard. Not ‘back then.’ Right now.” It was liberating. The students lit up. By the end, some were reading aloud:

“I’m afraid of how the world revolves around me when I’m awake.”

And another:

“I’m afraid my dad will never know about my accomplishments.”

Lying is lying. But as Adrienne Rich wrote, silence lies, too. By revealing difficult experiences only once they’re behind us, we leave unspoken the all-too-human sense of thick, dripping failure — relegating the worst of our experience to a vast silence. That’s why I love Donald Glover’s posts, and the myriad responses to it. It’s why I’m drawn to narratives in which the only hope lies in that they’re still being written. And since you should go read it, it’s why NPR’s Linda Holmes totally nailed the significance of currency in dealing artistically – and often publicly – with our demons.

I’m not advocating for some gross overspill of the deeply personal into inappropriate (and perhaps dangerous) contexts. I am advocating for the power of poetry, music, and art in general to speak dangerously: to give voice to the deeply human, to immediate terror. I’m advocating for its capacity to bear what we’ve deemed heretical.

From Holmes’ NPR article, October 29, 2013:

“It’s very sterile and very misleading to hear about battles only from people who either have already won or at least have already experienced the stability of intermediate victories. It presents a false sense of how hard those battles are. It understates the perilous sense of being in the middle of them. It understates how scary they are…

“there’s no substitute, really, for the necessary honesty that comes with currency. “

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