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All The Way To The Bottom
What do writers mean when they say, "You have to go all the way to the bottom"?
You have to work the whole territory. All of it. All three hundred and sixty degrees. Not just the storyline that you are comfortable with, not the solid view that you created and carried and repeated again and again in one notebook or another. It means never believing that what you have written is the truth as though there is a Truth.
Sometimes when I'm writing, I am shocked by what emerges. My "truths" spill out on the page or an unexpected memory pops out of nowhere. Crunchie bars and a running shoe nailed to the maple tree in our backyard. Playing "Boo" with the neighbourhood kids. Eating fried bologna and mashed potatoes for dinner. Sometimes a new insight arises and the new seeing is so startling in its futility that I wonder, "Is how I held that moment? Really?" And because it is new and surprising, I think that it is actually how I held the event. And so I stop there. In amazement at what I have just written. I look around the room in disbelief; incredulous at the new seeing of a memory from so long ago. As though it is the truth. That is not going all the way to the bottom. You don't stop at the first astonishing "Ah Ha." You continue on all the way down to the darkness and the light and the place where I am not so attached to what "I" think "I" am seeing. A place where the "Ah Ha" is no different than any other response. You write until all that attachment runs clear.
Like when Natalie told us about being hunkered down in her car as she drove her friend to the airport; she hunched down lower and lower in her seat with the weight of her childhood pressing down on her as she compared her young years to her friend's idyllic and loving upbringing. The more this well-adjusted passenger spoke of her family, the lower Natalie drooped. While staring out the windshield, through the steering wheel now, Natalie could feel the added burden she was placing on this memory of her childhood. "That was just my childhood," she thought, "Why should I heap more onto it in this moment drawing me deeper into new and emotional lows?" It was just my childhood.
All the way to the bottom means getting to the place where attachment drops, stories drop, the emotion no longer rips your pen along the page leaving you breathless. You exhale and writing does writing.
My dad was a drunk. If I was to stop the story there, at that one truth, you wouldn't get to know about how when I was four years old I would watch my dad at 5:00am from the dark safety of my bed as he shaved in the bathroom across the hall. My big strong dad in his white undershirt and green work trousers with Gillette foam all over his cheeks and neck. A little tiny girl tucked in the early morning silence loving her dad. The harsh and unpredictable alcoholic. My dad. All the way down. None of it the Truth.
You need to know that you have covered the territory. That you have uncovered all the ways you loved a man you thought you hated. And hated the mom you thought you loved. And everything in between. Not that you'd publish all of that. You needed to spill it all as a writer. Writing and writing until you slowed down and were less attached. Love. Hate. None of it really amounting to anything but life living itself. Nothing bigger than that and, at the exact same time, so fucking precious that I sometimes choke back tears as I realize that I am alive.
Going all the way to the bottom breaks you apart because it shatters all that you hold sacred. You have to face death. Because your truth is not the Truth. And you need to be willing to die moment to moment. That freedom comes when you're not clinging with a death grip to the notion that your dad was an abusive alcoholic. Period. The end. The death grip is necessary to keep my single, preferred storyline alive. And it needs to live. But it is not the only truth that exists when I expand out to the whole territory all the way down.
There was a time when I was little in his arms. He kissed my cheek once and stroked my newborn dark hair and pronounced me as his "little black Jo." At some moment in time in my infant consciousness, I must have felt his tenderness and his heart breaking open for his precious daughter. Safe from the car crash that precipitated an emergency C-Section. He held his tiny, premature,first born child in his hands. And at that moment in time he became mine. And I became his. All the way down.
Feeling tender and angry toward my father is going all the way down to the bottom. And letting go of that too. From his little boy days of britches and strawberries and fiddle music to burying his ashes after an all night vigil in the zendo. All the territory covered.
Even the strongest storylines die. And I discover that I am not who I take myself to be. At any time. Ever.
© Joanne Hunt