Writer A.S.King was the keynote speaker at this year’s Backspace Writers Conference. She spoke on Friday afternoon to a room full of exhausted, overwhelmed yet inspired writers (myself included). Her speech was amazing – in every sense of the word.
Here is what I wrote after I heard her words.
I’m Moving to Traumatown
The part of the conference that made my stomach flutter the most was when I was standing in line to get some books signed by A.S.King. The A.S. King. My hands were perfectly pickle-y cold and sweaty when I reached out to shake her hand.
My tongue was so perfectly tied and hiding somewhere at the back of my throat when I faced her that I could barely answer her question: “So what do you write?” GAH.
What happened is what always happens to me. Upon being inspired by someone on a grand level (like, the kinda level that makes me cry and learn something extraordinary about myself that I didn’t know before), my immediate physical and mental reaction is to shrink in figurative size and age, and become a daft, sputtering, shy being – someone who I am not….or am I?
It’s amazing how I make myself feel ‘lesser’, retreat into myself like a turtle’s tail when something goes near it, and literally lose my ability to speak in these instances. Why is that?
A.S. King had just given one of the most honest and inspiring speeches about writing that I’d ever heard, and my physical and emotional response was to retreat, to cower, to compare, and on a core level, feel like a child gawking at a hero and wondering if that hero will ever come and save me.
What King said that jarred me the most was this:
Trauma. We all have trauma.
This is not a sentence my ears have never heard. This is not information my brain has never absorbed. But today – on this day – these words felt different. Hearing them come out of her mouth, following a slew of other sentences informing the crowd of a few of her real-life traumas – these words fell into me differently.
I immediately started to ask myself: What trauma do I have in my life? What trauma have I lived through? And my immediate answer was: pshaw! (hand waves through the air towards the ground) I don’t have trauma!
And then I think about the words one of the agents wrote in capital letters across the top of my story pages:
WHAT IS THE CONFLICT?!* (Yes, she added the exclamation mark.)
*(This is not the first time I’ve heard this critique question for my writing. This question is asked almost all the time, in fact.)
The same thing that happened to me after hearing King’s speech, happened to me when the agent asked me to tell her what the conflict in my story was – more cold hands, more shrinking, more sputtering.
I said a few things. She said, “That’s not a conflict, that’s a result. These things are happening as a result of something else. A conflict is when two opposing things come together. What’s the conflict?”
I felt my shoulders slump, my boobs rest on the tabletop (fer reals)…and the only response I could give was: “Does there have to be conflict? Can’t we all just get along?!” The agent’s eyes about popped out of her head. She didn’t have to say ‘Yes’.
What if I’ve spent my whole life avoiding conflict? What if my role as a child and as an adolescent was to avoid conflict? What if survival techniques for avoiding conflict include: retreating, introverting, avoiding and distracting from…people? Even amazing, inspiring people like A.S. King – because, golly, wouldn’t a conflict arise if I went to speak with her and she looked at me and said – wait for it – what do you write?
My built-in conflict response is to avoid the conflict at all costs. Even if it means completely losing my ‘self’. That’s traumatic.
Look, I don’t need to be saved. Not by A.S.King. Not by any other amazing people who inspire me. Not by the folks in my life who negatively affect me now or have negatively affected me in the past.
But here’s what I need to do. I need to deal with this reality. I need to hold up that mirror; you know, the one that shows the reflection we don’t want to see. The one that answers to: Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the one not dealing with her shit most of all?
I need to get me some conflict.
I need to take a drive to Traumatown.
And I need to move in.
Because it’s the only way I’m gonna get my novels written. It’s the only way I’m gonna be able to tell the stories that are hiding inside of me. Right where the trauma is. Where the conflict-dealer-with-er is.
The thing is that I’m pretty sure I need to do this alone.
I’m pretty sure that I’m gonna have to do this ‘writing’ thing in a way that I’ve never done it before.
What does that mean?
It means I have to be 200% dedicated to the writing. To the story. To the craft. To believing in myself.
What will that look like?
It will look like a landscape with one giant mountain instead of well…the many that I keep telling myself I need to climb. I don’t want to climb six mountains at a time. One’s a damn-nuff.
The sign at the bottom of the mountain reads:
This mountain is reserved for writer Vanessa Shields ONLY.
This mountain can only feel the feet, sweat, blood and tears of writer Vanessa Shields.
Family, friends, acquaintances – please stay the eff away. Writer Vanessa Shields needs to write. She needs to deal with her shit. She needs to say ‘no’ to you even though she loves you very much and she really wants to eat with you, talk about writing and life, and just ‘be’ with you – but she can’t. Not now. Not until her work is done.
This may take awhile so you’re all going to have to be patient. And gentle. And respectful because writer Vanessa Shields needs to be this way to herself.
Trespassers will be prosecuted.