To understand this story, you’ll need to understand my relationship with desire. As a long-time, half-assed Catholic, I’ve inherited the vague yet undying impression that desire is something to be embarrassed by. In my late teens and early twenties, I only flirted with people after taking shots of cheap, raspberry vodka – my social lubricant of choice. If I texted someone I liked while under the influence, I deleted the messages the morning after, making sure to also erase any photographic evidence of any fun times the night before. Desire and vulnerability were inextricably linked, and without a safe place to explore either, I did so wearing the cape of liquid courage, when I could be rendered invincible.
I came by it honest: For years I watched my mother eating food while standing over the sink, usually scarfing down leftovers before they went bad. She ate while hiding, so as not to be accused of gluttony. Having grown up in the era of stick-thin aerobics, my mother was under constant scrutiny, though I never saw it until I was older. Her dieting, her self-denial, her wanting to want, but not wanting to be seen as lustful.
Women know this dance well. We’re to be desired, not desirous. We’re to provide an illusion of comfort, pleasure, beauty and security while covering up the tricks we use behind the scenes. Don’t look behind the curtain and see our curlers, our tweezers, our Spanx, our late-night binges in our PJs standing next to the glow of the open fridge.
So for me, naturally, this translated to a decade-long denial of my muse. My creative spark. My undercurrent of emotion, pleasure and want.
When I was in middle school, I helped write a script for my school’s Destination Imagination team. We won the Maryland state competition and got to go to Worlds in Knoxville, Tennessee. The prompt for our award-winning skit? Tell a story in 10 minutes or less (I think) about a plot that goes awry after a pendulum of some sort swings. We had to build the pendulum, write the script, design the costumes and the set. We had a budget or $1,000. We had a few months to prepare.
Before the world told me that art, creativity, music, scriptwriting and theater were unattainable, frivolous and unproductive professions, my teammates and I stayed after school every day and prepared our skit. We cut aluminum cans into shingles to hot-glue onto a cardboard house. We enlisted the help of our woodshop teacher to help us build a giant, wooden spoon that swung on a pendulum. We measured materials, hand-drew patterns, cut them out with saws and scissors, fastened items together with nails, screws, adhesives, needles and thread.
Nobody told us that some things were for girls and others for boys. Nobody told us that it was dorky to dress up in a thrifted costume donned with fairy wings (which is how I will be forever immortalized in my eight-grade school year book, a memory that still sears me with embarrassment to this day). Nobody told us that creativity and art were a waste of our time, or that following our desires and curiosities was a futile, low-paying trajectory.
They just let us be kids.
Fast-forward to high school, and I decided theater wasn’t for me. This was my first experience betraying my muse. I didn’t intend to; I was only trying to survive. In my new school, social hierarchies dictated who had access to the fun memories: the dances, the football games, the road trips, the popularity contests. Without realizing it, I subconsciously harnessed all of my theatrical prowess into fitting in. I played a role which lasted for years, more than a decade it would turn out. I studied what to wear, how to act, how to speak, who and what to laugh at. I performed my role immaculately, and whenever vulnerability did seep through the cracks I learned to disarm people through comedy. Through impressions, through mockery. Mockery of myself, and unfortunately, of others, too.
Once, I was walking home from school alone, without the protection of my social ranking to shield me. My house was only a half-mile away, a small 1940s rancher that my parents were fixing up in an old neighborhood connecting to a new, cookie-cutter subdivision where there were the “big houses.” Up ahead, about 25 yards in front of me, walked a classmate who I made fun of once in a public way. He was on the color-guard squad, the only male gun-twirler. A week earlier, I had asked him if I could do a dance with his gun. He agreed, and I mocked him.
Suddenly, we were alone. The two of us without any of our friends to egg us on. The walls, totally stripped, any defense inadequate now that the stakes were person-to-person.
Would he notice me, walking behind him alone and in silence? I tried to lay low, but he did.
He stopped, and my insides twisted into a fiery knot. I caught up to him, not having much choice but to keep going. When I reached him, he stretched out his arms and said, “I forgive you.” He gave me a hug, turned, and walked forward with a tall posture and steady gait.
I froze, stunned. Nobody had ever extended that kind of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness before. Raised by a roughhousing brother, and alcoholic dad and an overworked mother, my evenings were spent in literal fisticuffs wrestling my linebacker brother just to get access to my toothbrush before bed. If we watched TV together on the couch and I let my guard down enough to un-suck my gut, he made it a point to insert his long index finger into my belly rolls and laugh.
My desires, my confidence, my sense of self-worth remained in a box for years, and the facade I presented was that of an over-confident know-it-all who didn’t need anyone.
But now that I am 31, I’m realizing that there is nothing but strength in desire. In letting the right people in to help you follow it. To risk vulnerability and express the truth without the aid of raspberry Burnetts or Camel Lights to cloud you in an illusory intrigue.
My desire has never left me through the years. I’ve always journaled, painted, tinkered with music. My curiosity and creativity knocked on my door when I’ve been asleep (hello vivid, fully-formulated dreams), when I’ve been drunk, when I’ve smoked. And I’m grateful to my muse for never giving up.
But now, I’m interested in being available to my muse and my creative spark without the need for inebriation, without having to put up a facade, without having to be asleep or in a dream-like state.
For years, my muse only knew to find me when I was driving, sleeping or smoking — and that’s on me. I don’t think writer’s block exists so much as we find ways to distract ourself from the intelligence that’s calling to us all the time. We have to make ourselves available to it. We have to greet it with open arms. We have to be available, accepting and forgiving of its flaws.