Tomorrow morning I’m flying to Minneapolis to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. I’ll be doing a reading at Kieran’s Irish Pub in Downtown Minneapolis on Friday at 5PM, my first ever public reading of Dog Medicine. It has taken me thirteen years to get here. In 2002, I went back to grad school and spent two years trying to write the story of Dog Medicine as a novel. I finished the book, but never sent it anywhere because something about it felt not-quite-right. I got another degree and wrote reams of short stories and poetry. I filled boxes with wild, explorative writing, but my heart kept pulling me back to Bunker, to our relationship, to our miraculous story. When I finally decided in 2010 that I needed to write our story as a memoir, what did I do? I stopped writing. I had a pre-schooler and a toddler and told myself I was simply too exhausted to write anymore. But, honestly, I wasn’t writing because I was terrified, wading knee deep in terrible shame. I would lie in bed at night thinking, “Am I really going to tell the whole world that I struggle with major depression and that when the depression first hit me, the love of a dog saved my life? Really, Julie?” Finally, when the misery of not writing was too much to endure, I started writing again, one short scene at a time. I had to tell my truth. That’s all I knew. Slowly, with a lot of trial and error and support from friends and mentors, I taught myself to write straight through the shame, open hearted, without judgement. About five years later, I have a book, an amazing publisher, and if you can’t tell, it feels like a miracle. Getting here has been a long walk out of fear and shame and judgement into open-hearted, honest, beautiful vulnerability. There are very few things I know for sure. The one thing I do know, without a doubt, is that my dog Bunker was instrumental in my healing. So I wrote from that place, and now we have Dog Medicine. This reading in Minneapolis is like a birth announcement. Nine months from now, we’ll have that baby in our hands. Can’t wait.
Sometimes it’s okay to pretend you’re fine when you’re not.
Sometimes it’s okay to tell people that, actually, you feel so bad that you struggle to simply get out of bed in the morning.
Sometimes you’ll fight the awful feelings because they get at a deeper truth, that you’ve relapsed, maybe just a bit, and this idea terrifies you.
Sometimes breaking down in your gardening clothes wearing soil-laden gloves is just what you need to do.
Sometimes your husband will come to you and not know what to do or say as you weep, but he won’t leave or ignore your pain or pretend it isn’t happening.
Sometimes he’ll tell you, as gently as he can, that you need help.
Sometimes your therapist will have an opening two hours after you e-mail her and you’ll go to her couch and finally, gratefully, weep.
Sometimes she’ll confirm for you that, yes, you’re in a really, really bad place. You’re depressed again and it’s okay. It happens because you get too distanced from your own needs, and there have been one too many crises in your life lately.
Sometimes just hearing her confirm that your pain is real will help you begin feel better.
Sometimes you’ll feel like a superhero because you got one really annoying errand done.
Sometimes you’ll drive five kids to soccer practice and love listening to their sweet, loud, innocent conversation.
Sometimes your daughter will time a fart so perfectly that you’ll laugh so hard that you cry.
Sometimes you’ll go to bed feeling just a little bit hopeful because even if tomorrow morning’s waking is difficult, the day can actually turn out okay.
This is probably a stupid thing to do, but I’m going to share an excerpt from my journal. I’m motivated to do this partly because I just attended a writing workshop in Big Sur led by five incredible, bestselling authors and over a hundred badass writers, and it seems appropriate to share. Folks in that workshop bared their souls, and for that I feel gratitude of gargantuan proportions. So I return the favor to them with this. I wrote it in October of 2012, when I was halfway through writing the memoir and still in that purging phase of writing, of just getting it all on the page, not knowing where it might lead.
I’m done with the manuscript now. Well, I’m “done” in that I have read and revised it so many times I can practically recite it from memory. I deleted hundreds of pages and kept 75,000 words. I feel like I’ve written and rewritten my memoir more times than the earth has circled the sun. But it’s amazing to look back and see where I was two years ago, fighting my way through the process, realizing that my story is more about love and hope and forgiveness than it is about blame or hardship. I’m forty now, and I was right. It’s okay. It’s all okay.
October 1, 2012:
I am at a big crossroads. I’ve written the first part of this manuscript, this big bulky thing, about how I was a child scorned by her sibling, neglected by her well-meaning parents. I have a hundred pages of that. But it feels wrong. It feels pointless. The story doesn’t seem to want to sit in that place, that look how bad it was place. That, “See? This is why I’m so sad,” place. The story is in what happened after I became so lost, so scared and so monumentally insecure. The story is in how the very people who harmed me (both intentionally and unintentionally) saved me. What am I trying to say here? I’m saying that I’m stuck and muddling through and doing more wandering to the pantry and twisting apart oreos than braving through words.
I need a change too. I always need change. I can’t count how many times I’ve rearranged the furniture to try to feel different. Today I just want to write down two things to remember when I get back to the writing desk: #1, You’re happiest when you’re in it: Writing, feeling, crying as the words come through. Who cares about the bigger picture right now? Write the moments worthy of rejoicing. Write the moments you’ll always be grateful for. Celebrate the people who showed up for you when the shit hit the fan.
#2: …I forget. I think it was some fleeting thought about that word, “rejoice.” It’s ringing in my head today, my 39th birthday. Rejoice and stop fretting so much. It’s all okay. You’re okay. I look forward to 40. I…what am I trying to say here? What I’m fearing most deeply is that all of this work I’m doing will amount to nothing. All this hemming, hawing, will render my pages nothing but e-waste a decade from now. But when I write that, a little voice says, “So what? Who cares?”
I saw Cheryl Strayed speak in San Francisco last week and she said, “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.” And she said, “Write like a motherfucker. Do everything like a motherfucker.” And I get that sentiment. I get it. Go, get the blood out from your body and onto the page.
But when I get to my office, I get stuck and crave oreos and am distracted by Facebook and e-mail and all the unchecked things on my to-do list. When deep, way down inside, I know that what I need to be writing, to be rejoicing, is my truth. The truth of my story. No fear, never blame or hate, just beauty and love. Just rejoicing that we tried our best, and that we have all survived.