On Not Leaving My Writing at the Door
April 13, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Caroline Stowell
I first heard the phrase “leave it at the door” from my high school choir teacher. Forget about that math test you have next period, she’d say as she plunked out some bright chords. You’re going to leave that at the door. This space is just for singing. Years later, I was in my church’s basement when the leader of the weekly moms’ group asked, What is one thing you are going to leave at the door? I understood that she was giving us space, and then she was going to move on to keep us on time. I played along, but I realized that if I had to verbalize the most awful thing I was dealing with that day, it would have been nice to tell the entire story.
The amazing thing about writing is that I don’t have to leave anything at the door. Whatever I’m going through, I can put it on the page. I can let it make a mark in the world. And then I can share it with my writing group. I can jump right into the hardest stuff, because in an essay you have to get to the hard stuff quickly and try to make sense of it before the end. There’s that hope that maybe if I figure out how to write the essay, that maybe I can figure out the solution in my life too. But before that happens, I generally need a space to sit in the hard stuff, to let it soak in before I am forced to race to a conclusion, and what better way to sit in the tension of the hard stuff than teasing out the central question of an essay with your writing group where no one asked you to leave it at the door. We may discuss mental illness, misplaced desire, or existential crisis, and we can do so in a way that acknowledges there are no fast and easy answers to these struggles. We can probe our feelings and circumstances somewhat obliquely as we critique the writing. And perhaps, in doing so, through improving the writing, they will help me tease out what it is I’m trying to say, what questions I’m trying to answer, what solutions I’m searching for.
At my writing group gatherings, we may not always have time to circle back to small talk and what else is going on in life or current events or what books we’re reading, but the time remains immensely satisfying because we have discussed what matters most. We have discussed the hardest thing, the thing that is too often relegated to the doorway because it could otherwise distract us from our purpose . But with writing, processing the hard stuff often is the purpose. We can say, here, here is a space for that. It’s on the page, and I will work through it with you.
It’s been a long time since I had a weekly moms’ group at my church, and many of the casual or planned interactions with people I care about outside of my home have simply vanished because of the pandemic. My writing group, however, which formed in 2019 after we met during a course at GrubStreet in Boston, has continued to meet semi-regularly. While we are all women, we cover a breadth of female experience. We’re single, married, divorced, mothers or not, gay or not, working or not or on disability, and yet, each devoted to the writing craft. In the beginning, we met at Pat’s office in Central Square, nervously getting to know each other beyond the structure of the classroom, finishing our sessions with a drink around the corner at the Plough and Stars, later sharing some of the last hand sanitizer to be found in February 2020 before retreating to Zoom. When we finally emerged from our homes later that fall, we all laughed around a firepit in Sylvia’s driveway in Roslindale, and in whatever form we have met since, we have found connection with each other through our work. We have also celebrated first and subsequent publications in poetry and personal essay, as well as acceptances into advanced courses at GrubStreet.
But, my dear writing group, I am moving away. In a few months time, I won’t be able to see you in person without getting on an airplane, and I know we are all Zoom weary. I cannot leave you at the door. How will I keep you with me? Will I find similarly supportive writers in my new home?
When the writing gets lonely, I’ll think of you and how encouraging you’ve been. When I don’t know what to do, I’ll hear your voices murmur: Write it down, love. Write it down.
Caroline Stowell’s essays have appeared in The Other Journal and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. In May, she will graduate from the Memoir Incubator, a competitive year-long program at GrubStreet in Boston. You can follow her at evenincambridge.com and on Twitter @evenincambridge. She lives, for now, in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.