where the light gets in
Once upon a time there was a young woman who lived in an ivory tower.
That tower was UBC. That young woman was me.
And in this tower, I let down my hair, talked a lot and read a lot and drank a lot of red wine with arty, smart, politically outraged and passionate people. In that world, the academic world, cleavage means conflict. Difference. Divides. The lines that shape us. In other words: life.
And so cleavage is a sexy word that means more than you might think. Cleavage is where I start my writing: the breaks, the cracks, the fissures, the wounds, the shadows, the caves. I mine them for joy. Cleavage is what I try to write about and through. Cleavage is the lines that shape us.
Cleavage reminds me of an anthem that Leonard Cohen writes and sings:
ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in.
It’s like poet Tupac Shakur writes and raps and asks: Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in concrete? Well, we are the roses, this is the concrete, and these are my damaged petals.
And that reminds me of another thing I learned at UBC: that our flaws allow people to get close to us.
One night my university room-mate got tipsy and told our mutual best friend and resident genius/beauty that she was so perfect, she was intimidating and the only reason she was ever able to talk to her was that the first day they met, her mascara was all messed up.
That’s the truth: our damage, our cracks, our imperfections and our vulnerabilities are what lets the light in. Vulnerability is a precondition to intimacy.
And creating and writing and blogging and publishing is intimate, especially when your life is your material.
And so the word cleavage also refers to me. (Perhaps you’ve noticed.) Cleavage refers to my spectacular rack – 36H for hawt, although the intention of Danielle LaPorte’s branding/biz question, What do people notice about you, comment on? may not have been this literal, alas – and to my methodology: my writing is embodied. My life is my material.
Witness: this picture.
The ring on the necklace hanging around my neck is a wedding ring. I found it in my bed.
It’s not my wedding ring.
That’s a good place to start a story, yes?
That’s cleavage. That’s real life. That’s my life.
And hey, if it was good enough for Anais Nin, it’s good enough for me.
Anais Nin has sometimes been criticized for being a “diarist” rather than a “real” writer (who of course would have published and been famed for fiction not diaries, donchaknow) and I think people – especially women – who publish on blogs face the same perception that their work isn’t serious, consequential, or art.
Anais Nin would have rocked the blog.
IF she had traded transcontinental affairs and bigamy to move to the suburbs and gain baby weight that is now school-age.
Which brings me to the single most inspiring, creativity-enabling resource that I can imagine and that is always in short supply:
A moment of silence and some white space and fervent thankful prayers in honour of childcare and caregivers.
There is, of course, both a congruity and a fundamental tension with being a mama and being a writer.
Congruence: Why for so long “artist” meant “male” mystifies me because it’s such an essentially feminine enterprise. Writing, like birth, is an act of creation. Sometimes the little rug-rats even inspire a piece or two or an entire oeuvre or the best story I’ve ever written.
Tension: Alice Munro has written and spoken about writing during naptimes and though she wrote more lyrically and urgently and successfully crafted some of the best stories I’ve ever read during those snatched moments while the kids slept, I can sum up her message in a word: FRUSTRATING.
Being a writer and a mama is a study in conflicting priorities and loyalties.
Which gets my undivided time and attention?
This is not ideal.
And that’s the fundamental truth that writers, painters, artist, entrepreneurs, provocateurs, adults, you must come to terms with: the conditions for creativity will never be ideal.
The Prince by Machiavelli, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Justine by The Marquis de Sade: all of these books were written in prison, where, one assumes, the author’s conditions were not ideal.
And then there was Jane Austen, who wrote all of her novels in the middle of a sitting room of a tiny cottage she shared with her mother and sister while visitors came and went and came and went and came and went. Legend has it that she never oiled the parlour door so she’d be alerted by the squeak that someone was coming and could put away her papers. Her scribblings. The ones that would later be celebrated as masterpieces.
(I was tempted to tie Jane Austen to the imprisoned male authors by saying she wrote in kind of a prison too, a domestic prison, but that doesn’t feel authentic to me, it feels like bowing to the patriarchy. Domesticity and the intimate provinces where women have traditionally reigned are not prisons unless that’s the only place we’re allowed to be.)
And so I’m inspired by this motherhood gig and surrendering to it and my reality has improved my writing. Being a mama has not made me a better person, it has made me a bigger person, because I’ve grown to accommodate mixed feelings. That’s what parenting is: profound love and absolute frustration…simultaneously. It’s like being both of these little girls at the same time.
Having the capacity to hold those mixed feelings, to carry the tension, makes my writing more evocative.
And emotional tension and mixed emotions is a recipe for authentic, provocative writing that feels real rather than writerly. It’s like an ice cream dessert I had once at a spa: vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries, cracked black pepper. Cream, sweet, and heat. It works on the plate and it works on the page.
That’s the recipe I teach and the one I follow in my writing. Contrast, mixed feelings, carrying the tension. That’s Leonard Cohen’s cracks and offerings, Tupac Shakur’s rose in the concrete, and my Cleavage.
And so if you’re reallytrulymadlydeeply (the way I say it, it’s one word) trying to absorb and believe the gorgeous message circulating out there in the world, the one insisting you are not broken, you do not need to be fixed (thank you Patti Digh for articulating it so compassionately and powerfully) but feel like maybe something’s wrong with you because you can’t quite believe it…
…then please believe this: cracked isn’t broken. Cracks are lines of experience, the lines that shape us, the lines we draw, the lines we write. Cracks in the sidewalk are where the roses grow and cracks in everything are how the light gets in. Cracks are cleavage and cleavage is beautiful.