Returning to the Cave

Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Reading & Writing | 13 comments

Just as Cap’n J and I out­fit the Nerka with emer­gency equip­ment – radio, bilge pumps, fire extin­guish­ers – I reach for par­tic­u­lar sur­vival gear as a writer. Lately, the one I’ve been keep­ing clos­est is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writ­ing: The Per­ils and Plea­sures of a Cre­ative Life. This book is a rare gift, one I flip open to a ran­dom page and find myself face to face with the truth I most need to hear. Today’s sec­tion, “The Cave,” is no exception:


One of the strangest aspects of a writ­ing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the mid­dle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong. Yes, there are prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Eat­ing, for instance. Or help­ing a child with home­work. Or tak­ing out the trash. What­ever. But a writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go danc­ing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full atten­tion, our deep­est con­cen­tra­tion, our best selves. If we’re in the mid­dle – in the boat we’re build­ing – we can­not let our­selves be dis­tracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illu­sion. It is of no use to us.

If there is a time for that bright­ness, it is at the end: when the book is fin­ished and the revi­sions have been turned in, when you’ve given every­thing inside of you and then some. When the cave is empty. Every rock turned over. The walls cov­ered with hiero­glyph­ics that only you under­stand – notes you’ve writ­ten to your­self in the darkness…


Life over the past month has indeed been bright and shiny. I’d like to share all that good­ness with you, post­ing pho­tos and videos and news of friends’ upcom­ing events. I’d like to tell you how my res­i­dency con­cluded, with thought­ful reflec­tions on the expe­ri­ence and grat­i­tude for your let­ters and encour­age­ment along the way. I’d like to respond to those of you who’ve asked about this year’s Fish­er­Po­ets Gath­er­ing, shar­ing sto­ries of Cap’n J’s debut per­for­mances (which, all nepo­tism aside, were amaz­ing), his sis­ter Ashley’s win of the On-Site Poetry Con­test, and the pure joy this annual reunion brings. I’d like to tell you what a tremen­dous suc­cess last weekend’s She Tells Sea Tales was, as an inau­gural fundraiser for Port Townsend’s Girls’ Boat Project and a pow­er­ful cel­e­bra­tion of women in mar­itime trades.


What I really don’t want to tell you is that, in the midst of this inspi­ra­tional love­fest, I’ve been hav­ing a hard time. A hard time: even in admis­sion, I am less than authen­tic, reach­ing for a euphemism designed to main­tain my “I’m fine” wall. I don’t want to tell you that in ven­tur­ing so far from the cave, I’ve got­ten lost in a dif­fer­ent dark­ness. I don’t want to tell you about spon­ta­neous weep­ing and sleep­ing too much. About the unnamed grief of watch­ing day after day van­ish with­out my par­tic­i­pa­tion. About being ter­ri­bly aware that I am fuck­ing up, yet feel­ing par­a­lyzed to behave any differently.


Depres­sion and anx­i­ety are not usual states of being for me. My grimmest hours, hav­ing occurred in child­hood and ado­les­cence, have long been packed in memory’s base­ment – until now. Now should come as no sur­prise. I marched down those stairs, blew cob­webs aside, and flung the card­board gate wide open. How can I be caught unaware by what I have invoked?


As a beloved men­tor pointed out, “The guilt, shame – even when ‘just’ writ­ing about it, you’re reliv­ing those moments all over again as you recall them on the page.” Fun as that sounds, I bolted from the cave as soon as my res­i­dency ended. In per­son and online, I’ve been binge-socializing ever since, care­fully posi­tion­ing one delight­ful dis­trac­tion after another between me and my writ­ing. My job.


Yet as actively as I resist, every day that I don’t return to the cave leaves me feel­ing more lost than the day before. Dis­tance sprawls between me and my work, vast acreage for self-doubt and fear to set up camp. Again I turn to Dani Shapiro, this time her reminder that a writer’s work is what will save her, even as she acknowl­edges the return won’t be easy.


The page is indif­fer­ent to us – no, worse. The page turns from us like a wounded lover. We will have to win it over, coax it out of hid­ing. Promise to do bet­ter next time. Apol­o­gize for our dis­re­gard. And then, we set­tle into the pat­tern that we know. Three pages. Two hours. A thou­sand words. We have wan­dered and now we are back. There is com­fort in the famil­iar. We can do this. Breathe in, breathe out. Once again, just as we’ve been doing all along.


So this will remain a quiet place, friends, as I step away from the inter­nets. Know that the radio silence isn’t you; it’s me. I’m end­lessly grate­ful for your kind­ness, yet it’s obvi­ous that as much as I admire the many peo­ple who suc­ceed in writ­ing their books while fully engag­ing with the bright and shiny outer world, I am not one of those peo­ple. I know only one way out of this, and that’s back to the cave.


The Cave




  1. Hugs.

  2. Know­ing a thing or two about depres­sion, I’m strug­gling to think of the right words to lead you into the light, when the time comes to leave the cave again. For me, the cave is a place of sad­ness. I crawl into it, sleep too much, cry too eas­ily… and I can’t write. I feel par­a­lyzed. I have to get out of the cave to write. But yours is a cave of safety, where you can assem­ble your words into a story with­out fear of con­se­quences. Go back there, and fin­ish your story. Maybe it brings pain to the sur­face, but after you’ve writ­ten it, it’s out of you. You don’t have to carry it any­more. Look for­ward to the time when you’re free of it. You don’t even have to read those scenes at your sign­ing events if you don’t want to. Xoxo

  3. Dear Tele, so very sorry to hear you are suf­fer­ing the blues and dark greys of mem­o­ries hard on your psy­che and impos­si­ble to ignore, and just as hard to let loose into the world of friends and fam­ily. You are so per­cep­tive and appre­cia­tive of oth­ers, so care­ful of their feel­ings, so sup­port­ive, and yet so frank, I should think any­one read­ing your true story would find it easy to for­give if they felt ‘exposed’ by the truth about them­selves. That said, I have often won­dered myself if it is nec­es­sary to tell all in a story of one’s life. I remem­ber read­ing a book, alas I for­get the author, but she told the adven­tur­ous story of her life that had endured divorce, yet with­out once bring­ing into it her erst­while hus­band, and the how and­why of her failed mar­riage. But it was still a fine story. I’m writ­ing this on Tommy’s com­puter, mine hav­ing expired. I don’t know it he has read your blog was get­ting late tonight when I found yours, so I expect he has not. He will be sad to hear you are sad and strug­gling. Tele, know we are pulling for you to recover your sunny side up per­son­al­ity we all love so much, and may all be well that ends well!

  4. You have not fucked up, my dear. Some­times when we are in that base­ment among the cob­webs and musty card­board boxes, we need to breathe, we need to pop our heads out of the cave for gulps of fresh air. We won’t be any good to any­one if we choke to death on the dust and bad mem­o­ries. So yes, suit up and go there, but come up for air once in a while, come up to breathe and to get encouragement.

    Love you sweetie!

  5. Ah, love, you seem to be walk­ing through a val­ley of shad­ows before reach­ing that next exquis­ite peak. It’s hard to see the dawn from down there but, rest assured, after work­ing your way along the path you’ll even­tu­ally be bathed in sun­light. Keep walk­ing, Tele, but don’t for­get that it’s okay to rest along the camino every now and again. Beam­ing love your way.

  6. Thank you for shar­ing this. I’m going back in, too. Be there well. Stay close to your wild soul. Wear that thick rich pelt day and night. Owwooooo-woo-woo-woooo!

  7. Believe. Believe you can with each breath. Breathe. Of course you can do this. Reach out and land this salmon. I once had a men­tor remind me to “write your truth.” One line. Just start with that one line of truth, and let it carry you to the next.

    Send­ing you the energy to sustain.



  8. Dear sweet human,
    Oh Tele. I hear you — and so res­onate with this aspect of life you are cur­rently expe­ri­enc­ing. What pow­er­ful vul­ner­a­bil­ity and courage you exhibit in this post. I com­mend you on openly acknowl­edg­ing the shadow. We all work with shadow in its myr­iad forms, but rare are the peo­ple will­ing to boldly share what is eas­ier to hide. I cel­e­brate your move­ment toward the cave to cre­ate and come out the other side with the com­ple­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity you know is nec­es­sary right now.

    I also encour­age gen­tle­ness with yourself.

    Eas­ier said than done, but just know that every­one has their own process, and if some­times you go through the dark night and find that self fla­gel­la­tion is your auto­matic response, put the beat­ing stick down (as my wise mother often needs to tell me), as I’ve learned that it serves no one, most espe­cially you, and remem­ber that this, too, shall pass, and that this, too, will bring only more rich­ness to your sto­ries, more potency and real-ness to your words. There­fore, in the end, it is “all for good” (a phrase I keep hear­ing in these more ancient cul­tures of Nepal, India and Bali).

    This dark­ness will only amplify the light. So much love to you, beauty.

  9. You will fin­ish the last miles of this marathon, Tele. You’ll be tired and depleted, but vic­to­ri­ous and – most impor­tantly – done. Take walk breaks. Drink lots of flu­ids. And if you feel you are drag­ging, take com­fort in being at the back of the pack. You’re in good com­pany. Many of us are here with you. Love you.

  10. The process of writ­ing is like this for me. There are moments of emo­tional over­load, which are often fol­lowed by break­throughs, which might be fol­lowed by par­a­lyz­ing doubt.

    It might help to con­sider this as part of your process. I work best when I allow it to be as organic as it is dis­ci­plined, but every writer needs to find her own method.

    One of my men­tors says the act of writ­ing needs access to your inner crazy per­son, and that really sums up the expe­ri­ence for me. Maybe that’s why my cre­ative process rolls between days of cre­ative inten­sity and days of cre­ative exhaus­tion, because I can only let my crazy out a lit­tle at a time. I try to eek out a lit­tle writ­ing every­day, but it’s my good days that go back and fix every­thing I wrote on my blah days.

    I’ll miss your words here, Tele. Good luck with all.

  11. My heart is heavy know­ing you are so real with all of this. All the com­ments are thought­ful and kind. You know you can call and find a place in the warm “POD” ‚[i call the stu­dio] and you are on the receiv­ing end of all that is offered. I just pulled a whole fish out this week… One more to go ….and I will arrange a p/u or deliv­ery soon.Please know I would love to see you walk down the path…visit the cave in the woods

  12. Thank you for your hon­esty. There is much wis­dom, love and admi­ra­tion here. Wrap it around you. For me, the touch­ing of wounds that have not been prop­erly grieved means that heal­ing is in the future. Your brain and heart are in con­trol not you. They will do what they need to do and some­day soon the pain will be shelved in your library, just a chap­ter in the book and part of what makes you a unique and com­pas­sion­ate woman. Some­times we need a break from pain to gather love and energy so we can go back to it a lit­tle later. Love and nur­ture your­self. Sign me, an admirer.

  13. Dear Tele,

    It’s strong work, that goes on in that kind of cave. Folks you don’t know – like me – are send­ing love, and sup­port, for you in the work that you are doing.

    With care, and shared strength,

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