Writing My First Book & The Worst Year of My Life
How I clawed my way out of hell with only a pen.
In July of 2021, I got dumped. I thought I’d be engaged to my boyfriend of 3 years by the end of the year. Instead of wedding bells and ivory lace, I found myself single and back in my hometown, my life as I knew it rendered unrecognizable in the course of a weekend.
In August I returned to dating and promptly got raped. I celebrated my 25th birthday the day after.
In September my closest mentor, my voice coach of ten years, died of cancer.
In October I dumped a really wonderful guy I had just started seeing because I was falling apart inside. His being really wonderful scared me half to death, so I cut and run.
In November I had a small breakdown and experienced the closest thing I ever have to ego death.
In December I experienced a sort of “dark night of the soul”. A few but not all of the revelations I had during that time include realizing the truth of what I had called a “bad date” back in August, how upset I really was about having left that really wonderful guy, and how I’d caused myself most of the pain I was currently in. I was then lucky enough to reconnect with that really wonderful guy, though that was his doing and I can claim no credit.
In January, my paternal grandmother, to whom I’ve always been close, went into hospice care.
In February my grandmother died. Her passing led to a huge kerfuffle over the family estate that resulted in many of the especially unappealing skeletons in the family closet being dragged into the light.
It was a hell of a way to spend 8 months.
I type this at the end of May 2022, nearly a full year from the beginning of my months-long nonstop horror show of personal travesty. I don’t say all this because I like the idea of sympathy from strangers, nor because I enjoy the masturbatory pleasures of displaying my sorrows for others to see. If I did, I’d add the other catastrophes that didn’t make the list. I say this because, here on the other side, I can see how clearly the events listed above precipitated writing my first book.
I’ve always been creative. As a kid I read everything I could get my hands on and wrote stories in my classes, even finishing a (terrible) book in my teens. I studied singing from the 5th grade until I graduated college. I started acting in church plays when I was about seven and continued studying acting and performing until I graduated with a BFA in Musical Theatre in 2018. I learned to paint in college for fun. Around the same time, I started a blog with the intention to write a poem a day for a year just to see if I could do it. There are other creative pursuits in there, too, but for the sake of brevity, I’m creative.
In good times and bad, I’ve always returned to art in one form or another. Sometimes it was the canvas, others the stage– but in the most vulnerable of moments, it’s always the empty pages of a notebook that call me back. It’s kind of strange, actually, as I have no formal writing training beyond what I learned in high school. I never studied it in any critical capacity beyond what was red-inked on the essays I turned in for English class. Perhaps that’s why it’s always been the way I worked through things. Though I liked it, it wasn’t my chosen medium, and that took the pressure off. Writing, unlike the performing I spent the majority of my life doing, is entirely private. There’s no collaboration, no one else’s feelings to contend with, no disparate interpretations to harness and hitch to a single wagon. Writing had always afforded me the chance to sit quietly in my room with the door shut, cross-legged and nothing more than a person with blank paper in front of her. There (and seemingly only there) I had no responsibilities, no code of conduct to adhere to, and no expectations to fulfill. I could just be.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in the still white-hot grief and pain of last July, I felt like writing the first poem I’d written in years. Somehow I was. It would take me months to realize why the poem was a big deal, but the memory of writing it remains vivid, even now.
It was only 9 a.m. or so, but already hot and humid outside. I was sitting on the front porch with the stub of a Marlboro Menthol short smoking between my middle and forefinger, my legs stretched out and resting on the mate to the metal chair I sat in. One of the neighborhood toms was curled up next to my feet, my own three cats looking at me through the window. The sight of my childhood home’s front door seemed to command my vision. I chain-smoked two more cigarettes sitting just like that, staring at the door, wondering why I couldn’t look away and simultaneously feeling spectacularly sorry for myself. I’d lived in my childhood home for almost a month, so why was this banal door I’d seen millions of times suddenly so thought-provoking? There, at what felt like the end of my life (and in some ways was, as I’d known it), I wondered if I’d ever have anything good happen to me ever again. I think I was asking myself how to begin, or if this was really an ending (or something of that nature) when I thought of a line: “To start at the beginning, again.”
How terribly dramatic, right? But I liked the sound of it. I liked the rhythm, I liked the little internal half-rhyme. I got up, disturbing the dozing tomcat, went inside, and grabbed a notebook. I returned to my spot and wrote a version of something I later titled “Welcome Home”, and it ends with that line.
It’s a poem contained in the book. In fact, it’s the opener. Perhaps it’s not my strongest piece of all time, but it does set the stage for what’s to come. And, artistic justifications aside, the most sensible place to start is the beginning.
At the time, I was assuring everyone I knew that I was doing just fine. No, really, I was. I ate maybe once a day and could only sleep in stretches of four or so hours if I was especially exhausted, but I was doing fine. I was stalking the major players in my personal catastrophe on every social media platform in order to measure who was coping better, who was “winning”, but I was honestly feeling good. In fact, I was glad it happened. I was scrolling through all the dating apps and siphoning flattery from people I didn’t even like, people whose entire existences I condescended to, but hey, that’s dating in this day and age. I was looking thinner than before, wearing makeup at all times, and driving to the gas station every single morning after work in the hopes someone would say I was good looking, which is like, a totally normal thing to do. I cried two or three times a day and felt a constant urge to snap my phone in two, get into the car, and drive until I ran out of road, but I was totally cool. I was the Darby Fucking Taylor that my friends reminded me I was when they called, and I was doing just fine.
I was turbulent, one day up and another down, never on an even keel. I should have expected to be upset, to be a bit off of my game, but I was raised to simply not feel inconvenient emotions. The denial ran deep and much deeper than I knew at the time. Some of the pain that would be visited upon me in the coming months might’ve been prevented had I just allowed myself to be a sad girl the first go-round, but my ego just wouldn’t allow it. I had decided to do as I’d been taught– feel only what was optimal, show no weakness. Somehow I thought this huge loss could be ignored, the shredding of all my plans serenely downplayed and moved to the background. That unwillingness to be seen as suboptimal was the beating heart in the middle of a network of neuroses, issues that spread out like veins and arteries from the center. Those vessels existed to disseminate my ideas about myself to the people in my life. I didn’t want them to come asking and find out I was actually extremely upset. So I woke up every day and did my best not to feel lest someone catch on. That system worked about as well as you’d imagine.
The day that I wrote “Welcome Home” was the first moment I allowed myself to be sad, to be afraid of the changes I’d already experienced, to wonder what was to become of me now. It would take me a while (and a few more catastrophes) to admit those feelings to anyone else, but now I can see that it all really started on that sweaty July morning.
For the next two months, I’d return to that spot on the porch, or a spot something like it, nearly every day. I never sat down with the intention to write anything specific, never planned for an idea. Something would bubble up and I’d put it down on paper however imperfectly it appeared. There was no sense of premeditation, no working towards anything. More than anything, writing felt like flipping up the lever on a sieve and letting something out of me. At the time I didn’t know why I kept feeling compelled to sit and write, but I did keep doing it. With some hindsight, it’s easy to see why writing helped. It released the pressure borne of lying to everyone, trying to convince myself of that same lie, then getting mad because I couldn’t make myself believe it. My “compulsion” to write was really a part of me demanding I take care of myself, that I tell the truth to someone, even if that someone was just me.
The works did not save me, the act of creating them did.
Poetry doesn’t work like prose. Well, it doesn’t in my case, at least. With any longer form of writing it was easy to pick up where I’d left off the night before. Even from what felt like a dead block I could always start banging on the keyboard until I found a groove. Character A must do this in order to get the story to the next chapter, so just start somewhere and it could be fixed later if it was awful. To me, writing prose feels like physical labor. Just like manning a shovel or a paintbrush, the same repetitive motions could get the job done even if you didn’t find the flow until long into the work.
Poetry, on the other hand, resisted such brutish treatment. It demands the next word be the right word. From start to finish, it will not stand for a so-so choice. One cannot barge through the blocks with poetry unless they plan on writing prosaic nonsense, or worse– flowery prose masquerading as poetry.
No, the poetry had to come to me. Poetry is not unlike a cat that resists being hand-fed but comes looking for a bite of something you’ve sat down to eat.
I think that’s why poetry, of all the mediums I was familiar with, was the way in which the work presented itself to me. It demanded surrender, refused manhandling. In order to write poetry, I had to sit down and see what came up, had to open myself to what was stirring inside of me, had to get out of my own way.
I read once that “writing well is thinking well,” and I think that’s more or less true. How well you get your reader from one thought to the next is really all there is to it, and in that simplicity is where the real grace and beauty are found. A choreographer once described dance as nothing more than the art of the human body shifting its weight around. Again, here, the craft, the art, is in the way such a simple thing is done. In my admittedly poor experience, poetry is less about explaining yourself and more about the way you get the reader to the truest, shortest, best way of understanding your meaning. Sometimes that isn’t an explanation, but rather an image, a sound, a feeling, and it’s your job to get it across in the most elegant way possible.
Almost all my poems would start with a similar line or two to the one that got me to write the first. “BE GRATEFUL FOR THE LIGHTNING STRIKE/ THAT SET YOU FREE FROM ATROPHY,” “I go to the clinic alone/ though they recommend you bring a friend,” “Born a Barb/ in a sea of Britanyee, Kelseigh, and Annamarie,” just to name a few. They seemed to appear out of the ether, meaning nothing at the time of their arrival beyond what could be seen of the strange contextual threads that connected them to the black of the subconscious, that place where art and meaning are known to dwell. I’d sit my ass down wherever I was and turn that phrase around and around in my head like I was worrying a piece of hard candy in my mouth. I’d start to get a sense, a tingle, of what came next, and off I’d go. It would happen all at once, somehow, a little deluge of only two hundred or so words.
I’d look up at the end, reading back what I’d written, and I’d usually be surprised. I deduced that some part of the brain had to have been left on while writing because I could usually understand why I’d made certain decisions while in the heat of it, but I couldn’t tell you why I had written what I’d written. Why I’d written this poem about this subject was a mystery to me.
I distinctly remember finishing “Hypnagogia,” reading it back, and realizing for the first time that some part of me had always known I would be better off alone than in the relationship I had been in. I didn’t understand how I’d written something so antithetical to what I believed– life had been better before this had happened, hadn’t it? Reading it back, I came to see that it hadn’t, in fact, been better. I had been deeply unhappy and hadn’t known it. If you’ve never felt something like that, well, let me just say that it's sobering. No one can strip your ego bare like the you that’s already inside, the new self that’s been waiting for the opportunity to be born. It isn’t a fun experience to realize much of you is the molt of someone you don’t know yet, but it is at least gratifying that there’s another incarnation preparing to take the reins, and some proof that transformation is happening.
Eventually, I started coming to work (in an overnight position at a Crisis Unit) with the intention to write for the eight hours I was there. That may make me sound like a poor caretaker, but most nights my charges slept through the shift without a peep. I’d spend every spare moment I had perched in front of a page waiting for the magic to happen. I was lucky enough to strike up an online friendship with Spooky Mulder, or Landon, the man behind the @KrikkitMotel Twitter account. He had this infuriating habit of being able to churn out three poems a night when I usually couldn’t finish one. So we made a bet– we had to each write at least one a night. Somehow that worked. Through our correspondence, and with his encouragement, I started steadily cranking out a poem a day, taking my days off from work as days off from writing if I liked.
All the events listed at the beginning of this piece came to pass, one after another, and never with any respite. I had no time to recover from the last blow before the next one caught me in the jaw. I’d just about make it to my feet before another burial would send me sprawling, another heartache appearing to kick me in the ribs. I felt like a tree with its bark being sheared off by the heavy winds of a storm. The worst part was there was no promise the next blow would be the last. I simply didn’t know how much I had to lose, though I would quickly come to learn it was more than I had guessed. Worse, still, I had no clue if I’d end up cracking, no idea how much more I could take. As the disasters piled up, I wondered if I’d live to see the end of their onslaught and what shape I’d be in if I did. Still I had to stand there and take it as things I had never realized I treasured were taken from me. The lives of wise women who’d shaped me, the future I had so meticulously planned, all the many varied ideas I had about who I was. There were days when I would stop in parking lots to sob before walking into a family event or to see friends. Some days I only got out of bed because my cats stepped on me until I rose to feed them. In my more dramatic and hysterical moods, I often felt like Job or Dido. Here I was, a tragic little figure assaulted by some cruel God whose machinations I could not understand.
I did the only thing I knew to do, and that was to keep showing up to the writing. Whenever an idea struck me, I wrote it down. If my feelings ever got to be too much, I wrote about it. I learned to tell the truth about what was going on inside of me to myself, and I started to get a handle on who I really was and how I really felt.
As the months began to pass, my life changed. I lost weight, partially from the stress and anxiety, partially because I started trying to take care of myself better. The bruises left from the rape healed. I buried my mentor, the person whose words I treated not as advice, but as prophecy. I got a tattoo I had wanted for years but had never gotten around to getting. I quit smoking, stopped making excuses for myself, and gave up on the idea that my defense mechanisms could save me. I visited friends I hadn’t seen in years. I saw I had treated myself with very little respect for the entirety of my adult life. I laid new boundaries for all the relationships in my life: familial, platonic, and romantic. I got insight after insight in quick flashes throughout the day, sometimes pulling over to jot them down. I began spending an hour a day writing in a journal in an attempt to make sense of them in addition to the eight or so hours I devoted to poetry. I reached out to new mentors, made new friends I admired rather than friends that told me what I wanted to hear, and I stopped putting up with a lot of bull I had become accustomed to.
Someone once told me that change was like getting new drapes, whereas transformation was like knocking down a wall. What I was going through wasn’t a period of change, but a period of transformation. It wasn’t until my grandmother’s death brought me face to face with people who were still operating with an outdated idea of who I was that I really realized it. I was quite different than I had been only 7 months ago. Somehow refusing to lie to myself on the page had snowballed into something bigger. Without my noticing, I’d stopped lying to myself altogether. From there I’d stopped lying to my friends, then my family, then to that really wonderful guy, then to strangers.
The act of writing, in itself, had kickstarted it all by making it possible to tell the truth to myself. Between the page and I, there need be no secrets. Unless I left my notebook open for some prying eye to find, what was written there would belong only to me. It was safe. I had thrown myself into the process and given myself over to the waves of understanding like a swimmer in the sea. I sat down day after day and bled all over those blank pages, startling myself with what was inside of me. I discovered self-loathing, I rooted out fears by the dozen, and, down at the bottom, discovered the tiny little thing I’d been depending on but had never seen– the faith that, no matter what, I’d find a way through.
The writing had seen me through the darkest of all of it, giving me a place to writhe, to exalt, to just be.
After my grandmother’s death and the following nonsense, I started the editing process proper. By April I was printing out the first copy of the manuscript to show to test readers for edits. As of writing this, I now sit hardly two weeks away from the publication of a book of poetry. It’s called Control Burn, named after the method of controlling forest fires. Growing up I’d see highway medians or long swaths of pasture blackened by the practice, those stretches of charred foliage preventing the potential chaos of a wildfire from running unchecked. That felt like an apt metaphor, to take a little heat and damage now in the service of preventing unmanageable chaos later. It’s an imperfect debut, but one I’m proud of. The book is, at times, a hard read. That’s alright with me, though, as the book is honest about its origins, about the circumstances which brought it, through blood and misery, into the world. When the reader reaches the triumphant conclusion, they, like the poet, get to revel in the joys of having made it through the hard stuff one word at a time.
I will never be able to prevent the worst tragedies of my life from occurring, none among us can. It’s just the way of things. I’m tempted to be glib and remark that if this was the worst period of my life I’d be quite lucky, or be glibber still and say, “Well, at least I got a book out of it,” but I don’t think that it would serve me to do so.
Instead, I’ll say that, if you’re going through something, keep going. Don’t stop for the life of you, and to let the experience change you. If you’re lucky enough to be literate, write about it. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be anything. What happens between you and the page isn’t for anyone except you. All the act of writing has to accomplish is to show you to yourself.
If you do it right, it might just give you what you need to set yourself free.
UPDATE: “Control Burn” is now available at many fine online retailers.
Available in Paperback and on Kindle here: https://amazon.com/dp/B0B37W546N/
Ebook available on Gumroad: https://darbradawn.gumroad.com/l/controlburn
Ebook available on Apple, Nook, Kobo, Scribd, Talia, Vivlio, Angus & Robertson: https://books2read.com/u/b5lJPR