Since Tuesday of this past week I’ve been meaning to write a blog post to say, “Hey, I have a new book out.” I have a newsletter whose single purpose is to do this, and I posted one of those, but I didn’t blog. Haven’t blogged much at all, you’ll notice, for quite some time. In fact the last blog was an announcement of the last book out. Tuesday came and went; I told myself I’d write a post Wednesday. On Wednesday night I promised I’d put the post together after I went to yoga, something else I’d been lax on attending to.
I went to yoga, and the center I go focuses on very spiritual yoga. Usually when I go I figure things out, and this Thursday was no exception. I figured out a lot about why I’d been dragging my feet over everything about this book, why I kept forgetting almost I even had a book coming out. How I was doing rather a poor job of talking about it. As I sat doing one-nostril breathing and swimming in the dangerously deep places my practice can take me, I finally understood what I’d been telling myself ever since I started that book, and once I left for home I quietly told myself I could take as much time to blog about it as I wanted to.
Then today I started another book which came out Tuesday, one I’d been looking forward to and which others had told me was amazing. Beverly Jenkins’s Forbidden. I have admired Jenkins for a long time and had no small flutter when I was listed in the same article with her new book in the Washington Post. My friends and family were all impressed by the paper, but I was all about bragging getting to sit next to Ms. Jenkins. I tweeted that, and then she replied about getting to sit next to me, and I had to go lie down for a bit.
But today I finally had time to read the book. I began it while Anna was at the barn, and I already knew it was going to break me into bits. It was so lyrical and crisp and crafted. A dangerous book in that it made me feel a bit as if I had no business writing books if they weren’t going to be this good, except she would scold me for thinking that, so I decided I was just going to have to live up to her example as best I could. In the middle of reading, however, I paused to watch Beyoncé’s video for “Formation.” By the time I returned to my book I felt so raw and cut open I just gave in and let myself bleed.
Beyoncé’s video and Ms. Jenkins’s book both affected me in ways I didn’t expect, but both are powerful art, and art moves us in the way it wants to. At first the video in particular had me breathless and humbled by the artist’s grace, power, and beauty. I couldn’t stop watching it, and I felt a little awkward, because this video felt like such power, such, as I have seen so many write, black girl magic. I felt clumsy amidst grace and beauty and had already been half undone already by my reading.
But I couldn’t stop watching, and the music rang in my head. Then I went back to Forbidden, and I kept crying even though it wasn’t a crying of part of the book. Finally I stopped, sat with myself a minute, remembered yoga, and figured it out. I finished the book, cried a little more, and then came down here to write my post about my own damn book. Or rather, the post about why I was (and still am a bit) reluctant to talk about this book, something I had managed to hide even from myself.
I’m not sure why it took me eighteen months to figure out the correlation between having a major surgery ripping out three precious organs from my body and writing a steampunk where in the very first scene a soldier has more than half his body cut away because it was the only way he’d survive, but it did take me that long to suss it out. Just like it was a mystery to me why I got to the point in drafting the story where Johann had to face the knowledge of how much he’d been altered and how much it upset him, and I stopped writing for months and months until I couldn’t wait any longer and make my deadline. In fact, for the first time at that publisher, I moved my deadline. But no, during none of that time did I put two and two together and get four. I denied the existence of math. That’s my subconscious though, for you. Always ready so I can cut myself off at my own knees.
I’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half trying to process a loss I didn’t know I would really feel. I still don’t fully understand it. I think it upsets me so much because it comes in so many waves. It’s just never done. I very much like to identify my struggles, beat them within an inch of their lives, bury the carcass and move on. This is not a carcass I can bury, because it’s my own. I’m more than a little flustered as I admit I really don’t know how to function with something like this. I can’t ignore it, I can’t abandon it. I can only carry it. I have to stop myself constantly from being annoyed with myself. I say things to myself like, “Why are you so upset? You know you’re still a woman, for crying out loud. You didn’t really want more children.”
Well, the last one is a little bit of a fib told to make myself feel better. I had, in fact, wanted more children, but since I was always sick and worn out, not wanting more seemed an easier thing. In fact there was a moment I thought I was pregnant, then burst into tears in the shower and whispered, “I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t.” Then knew in another day I was not, in fact, pregnant. I carried shame for that for years, and I still have sorrow, though I did nothing more than wish and whisper. I had wanted a lot of children. I’d wanted to be active and do all kinds of things. But I was decidedly not active, and I didn’t do a lot of things. I remember Anna drawing a picture once when she was young. I was on the couch. “Because you’re always tired.” It wasn’t meant to be cruel, but it made me sad. I look at her now, fourteen, and I think of how I didn’t play with her as much or do as much because I was tired. How I escaped into writing because it was being in my head, not my body. That will make me sad forever, and now if she wants to do something, I’ll throw over almost anything. It’s not playing horses like she wanted. But it’s what I can do now.
When I’m able, I acknowledge what I’m actually mourning is not organs or even children but life. It wasn’t as if I was in a coma for ten years, but it’s absolute those damn cysts bled life out of me. In another era they’d have taken it wholesale. My teenage daughter would grow up without me, and then she’d likely have been bit by it too. It’s a celebration that I’m here. It’s a gift. But it’s also a lot of loss, and a lot of pain.
People have long told me they admire how I fought (and still fight) chronic pain. They act as if I am a woman as powerful as Queen Bey in that video. I think that’s why that video got me so hard, because I watched and knew I was not her. I have never felt that powerful. I don’t know how to explain to people who haven’t been hit with heavy tar fingers trying to drag you down into hell that it was all running. There wasn’t any claiming. There was just desperation and dogged determination.
What there is now is quiet. Healing and quiet, and weeping. All the fucking time, the weeping. Over stories, over songs, over light in the damn trees. Because as I have been trying to say, I wasn’t claiming power. I was running. And now I don’t have to run. And I have time, finally, to feel all that pain. Or feel rather what it cost to fight it. Babies. Smiles. Laughter. School field trips. Sex. Happiness. Life. I didn’t let myself look at what I was spending because I knew it would hurt. What I didn’t know was that it would keep hurting for so long, that it would be so hard to stop carrying it around.
On Tuesday I released a book about a soldier being rescued by a surgeon and given new parts. They fall in love and have fantastic adventures on land and in sky. They have great sex and terrible peril and save each other in the end. They grieve and they triumph and they carry the day. I wrote the book to be all kinds of fun, and it seems people think that’s what it is. But I guess I wrote it also to begin the complicated, messy process of talking to myself about what it means to have loss. To have life taken away. To have that happen and still believe everything can be okay.
Beyoncé’s message is more complicated for me to process because I’m feeling like the bedraggled ugly girl sliding into the back of a beautiful theater hoping nobody notices me and will just let me listen. I don’t know why that’s what it makes me feel, but I’m going to confess it so I can keep talking about it. Because in the back of the theater what spoke to me was that female power. The way she moved and the way she just owned everything. I watched it with my neck hurting and my body too heavy and weight never coming off, my abdomen still numb and uncooperative after all this time, and I felt as I watched her I could be sexy too. I could be beautiful too. If I kept watching and letting her be queen, I could feel just a little bit of that too.
And then I finished Forbidden, a story about accepting self and loss and building things anew, and I healed a little more. I believed a little more. I fell in love with Eddy right along with Rhine, and when he looked at her with desire, I felt pretty too. Then I thought about my own book. It doesn’t heal in the same way because I wrote it, but your own books are handy for making yourself look at what you told yourself, accidentally or on purpose. In Clockwork Heart I told myself a man could be missing parts and given new ones and have a better life than the one he’d led before. That he could be desired and loved, not despite his missing pieces but for the man he was with his clockwork parts. Then I thought about how much fun the book truly had been to write, how proud I’d been of it even though it had been hard. And I healed a little bit more.
It has been very tough for me to write lately. I am writing, but everything is so incredibly slow and difficult. It’s because, I know, of that body I’m carrying around, which is not the shell of an enemy but the wreckage of myself. Bit by bit I’m putting new parts on, and I’m getting better at using them. It’s slower going than I’d like. Clockwork Heart is out and I have nothing for preorder. I don’t have another piece of fiction finished and on deck with a book just published, which is the first time that’s happened in a terribly long time.
What I have finally figured out, though, is that the only way to get to the writing part and the healing part is to cradle that poor self and feel sad about it, and angry about it, and lost and confused about it. This is, I can assure you, ten thousand times harder than shouldering very bad endometriosis without even knowing you have it.
This is also all a good reminder to me and anyone else who needs it that all stories and all art move us, and it doesn’t matter who is in the story or in the art. It’s very foolish and silly of me to feel unworthy of watching “Formation.” It’s art; it’s for whoever is moved by it. Just as Forbidden isn’t only for black people and Clockwork Heart isn’t only for gay men. I still feel in awe of Jenkins in particular because she’s so talented, and I’m very sure I’ll make a mess when I have the pleasure of meeting her, but I know that her story was absolutely for me. Just as any story I write, if it moves someone, is for them. Whoever they are.
We are all of us torn into pieces by the hazards of life. We are all praying for someone to help us put ourselves back together. Clockwork Heart was an attempt I made for myself and an offering for you, if you’d like to try it.
Honestly, I think you need to give Jenkins and Beyoncé some sampling too.