A Letter to My Writing Mentors

After I graduated with my MFA in August, Dennis and I drove from New Mexico to the Alabama Gulf Coast where we retreated for ten days. We had adventures along the way – Lubbock, Austin, Ocean Springs. I carried a cheerful pride upon earning my creative writing degree. When we arrived at my parent’s beach condo, the cheer evaporated. The air was still and uncomfortably hot. The water hardly moved. Beer cans and cigarette butts littered the beach. Even if I wanted to go into the water, a thick line of jellyfish crowded the surf.   Some people managed to move past the jellyfish to a sandbar. They stood in chest deep water, talked, and drank beer. There were no seashells. Turtle nests dotted Perdido Key, but they were not due to hatch for weeks.

For the first time ever, I had no desire to swim or walk or explore. I stayed indoors, read books, drank cocktails, and worried about my future. The longer I remained in this place designed for relaxation, the more anxious I felt. I began making strategy lists. I reasoned that since I now had a second master’s degree, I should get my shit together and figure out next steps, pronto. The more I attempted reason, the crazier I felt.

I returned to Arkansas feeling exhausted.

*

I dream about sex almost every night. Raised to take my dreams seriously, I’m now in a dream group, and we help each other interpret our dreams as gifts from God. When I dream about sex, it symbolizes creativity and my vocational call as an artist. For me, to be alive is to be an artist. I have struggled with this identity for at least twenty years after I internalized something said about me two decades ago, something said out of fear and the person’s own wounds. Regardless, the words became an unconscious filter for how I made decisions and thought of myself. The words took on a strange shape inside my spirit.

I snuck my artist identity into the cracks of my scientific programs in forestry school. While writing my thesis for my MS, I maintained a private creative thesis.

My fear has been that if I fully embrace my artist identity, I will drift from a grounded, rational life and turn into a crazy person. This is the lie I’ve carried. It became a spiritual deformity, though it does not present in an obvious physical manner. I don’t have any oddly shaped parts or growths. There’s nothing peculiar under my clothes.

A favorite dream is when I stand naked at a party or in a classroom, and I tell myself, “It’s okay. They’ll adjust to my nudity.” They are the parts of me who question my artist identity. My unconscious tells me to have compassion for those worrisome voices hell-bent on intellect.

I also dream about the Eucharist. In a recent dream, I am on a third-tier balcony of a cathedral. I look down on the altar and watch the liturgy from a great distance. People I don’t know well divert my attention, and I leave the cathedral and ride in a car with them. I realize I have no desire to leave church, and I escape the car by fly/crawling through the air. I return to the third-tier and realize I’ve missed Communion. I ask people if it’s too late to receive. They either can’t hear my question, or they don’t know the answer. I desperately want to receive, and I don’t go to the altar.

Here is the gift of the dream: I am relying on airy, intellectual tools in my approach to my artist identity, and these tools fail over and over, and the wheels of frustration and anxiety spin faster. To be an artist is to be spiritually fed. I need to approach my creativity the same way I approach the Eucharist.

I’ve somehow gotten hold of a scalpel and carved my artist life away from my spirituality in an attempt to make it reasonable and sound. When I go to church, I manage to arrive as a child. I feel innocent and vulnerable and open and completely loved and accepted for being broken, for not knowing everything I want to know, for feeling unprepared. I need to arrive at my art, my writing as I do with Christ. He is there. He is there inside the art and the vulnerability. He is tangled up inside my deformity.

I place obstacles between my art and myself. To be who I am is to accept I am intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. My gift is not thinking my way through challenges. I must use my flawed and perfect body to feel my way toward myself, toward home. I must arrive as a child.

Today, I will give my spiritual deformity a bath and wrap it in swaddling clothes and whisper in its ear. You are loved. You are so loved and beautiful.

Yours,

Joanna

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