So I am taking this writing class called Writing the Womb, and it’s pretty intense. In fact, I’m taking it for the second time because the prompts ask you to engage with some hard truths about how our culture shapes and limits women’s lives, how our personal histories are bound up in that, and how we must insert our own needs and desires into that narrative if we want things to change. And if this is the kind of writing that lights you up, you couldn’t ask for a better guide on the journey than Isabel Abbott. This week’s prompt asked us reflect on the messages we receive about who and how to be.
To write from the womb, we unlearn and release, and this can be what allows us to unlock and unfurl.
To do so, we must sometimes be brutally honest with all the bullshit we’ve been told, the voices not on our own.
This can be painful. It can be sobering. It can be liberating. It, too, is a process.
And today we can begin.
The Writing Practice: i was told
Set the timer for a set length of time*
Take a sheet of paper (use as many as you want and need)
At the top write, “I was told”. . .and then write anything that comes, all the things that come, in relation to you, your womb, the body, voice.
Let yourself go into memories, if that is useful for you, the specifics of stories and experiences,in which, instead of being left to experience what was happening and decide for yourself what felt good and what you would choose, you were interfered with and told what to do, how to be, who to be.
When the timer goes off, stop writing.
Read these words. They are not yours. They are lies once told you.
You can burn them.
The thing is, after I wrote them I couldn’t burn them. Because those words told me something important about who I am right now, not who I want to be, but who I am. And I refuse to fall into some bullshit trap of talking about my “authentic” self. And yes, I do think that’s an appropriate use of scare quotes because authenticity doesn’t reside in a static object or entity. Authenticity isn’t a thing, it’s a practice. And learning to live authentically is learning how our capitalist, patriarchal, heterosexist culture (yeah, I said it) is shaping us, and then asking ourselves “is that how I want to live? is that who I want to be? are these my values?” Believing in an authentic self that we are born with and need to discover is just as limiting as uncritically swallowing the cultural messaging and living according to those rules. I want to choose. I want to get up each day and know that how I live, how I interact with the world around me is my choice. I can’t live walled off from the world but I sure as hell want to actively participate in determining what that world will be.
The hard thing about sharing these words publicly is their incompleteness. What I wrote is just a small view into my past, like looking through the opening in a child’s pinhole camera. For example, the lines below that reference my dad I know to be about how he was formed by the cultural messaging of his generation—that masculinity was getting a job and keeping your head down, never complaining, so you could provide for your family. In his attempt to help me become an educated, self-sufficient woman, he passed on this cultural message to me. He wanted me to succeed and that is how he was taught to see success. Now I am discovering I need to redefine success to live the life I want. There is no blaming my dad, no anger just a recognition of what was passed on without either of us recognizing it until now. But this complexity, this ambiguity is why I want to share my bad little poem with you today. Because we internalize what we have been told, and pass on those messages to our children often without even realizing we are the carriers of culture, a culture we are passively replicating like a virus.
I have no pithy call to action or wise closing statement. I have only my bad little poem and a hope that maybe by sharing others will start to recognize the things they’ve been told about how to live, love, and be.
I was told…
I was told girls didn’t play baseball, so I played football in the backyard with the neighborhood boys because I was the only one who could throw a spiral, and when he pushed me into the bushes ripping my new purple shirt I punched him and he went home crying. But even after all that they still wouldn’t let me call the plays.
I was told I wasn’t as smart as the little blonde girl.
I was told I wasn’t gifted.
I was told adults were not to be questioned.
I was told my anger was misplaced.
I was told not to carry on, to not make a big deal out of nothing.
I was told it did not happen that way. My memory was not to be trusted.
I was told to act like I wanted it.
I was told wanting it was bad.
I was told no one wanted damaged goods.
I was told to suck it up. To be practical. To live up to my responsibilities. Except they weren’t mine, but his. His daughter would be a man or else be treated like a girl.
I was told hard work would be rewarded, but the rewards required passivity.
I was told I should be over it by now.
I am now told I am enough, to love myself. But this is not about me. There is the small one who watches. The girl who wants to do right, to know what the rules are, who wants to know why. And the shock of cold I feel when I hear myself tell her “don’t cry. it’s not a big deal. calm down.” And the deep pain when she says “I don’t know how” and I reply “you’ll learn.”