Image: Melissa Grunrow (left), Ming Lauren Holden (center), Chelsey Clammer (right)
I’m falling apart all over the place in a hotel room in some godawful state that’s one-third of the way between Denver and Washington, D.C. I hopped in my car at 5 a.m., left my crazy-but-in-not-a-fun-way husband in bed. I got on I-70 and started heading east to where a friend lives. By nightfall, I’m twisted in emotional knots because I’m scared my husband will kill himself. It’s 2015 and Kansas apparently doesn’t believe in cell phones, because I had no reception during the day as I drove through that entire state. So I hadn’t been able to check in with him, to tell him I left and that he needed to go get help. And now that I’m finally somewhere that cell phone technology exists, when I call him, his phone goes straight to voicemail.
Maybe I’m terrible for leaving, but after taking him to the ER a month ago where he refused to be admitted and lied by saying he wasn’t suicidal; then a few weeks after that taking him to a mental health crisis center where he described his plan for killing himself, but was again able to talk his way out of being admitted; he then started yelling at me yesterday before he started arguing with the walls.
If he refuses to get help and take medication, then I can’t help him. All I can do is save my own sanity and emotional safety and so I left as he slept, and have ventured further across the US to stay with a friend I’m hoping will help me recover from this chaos.
But now it’s that night of the morning I left and I’m trying to sleep in this yellowed and withered hotel room and I start imagining how my husband might be killing himself right now. My friend in D.C. texts that if I’m scared, maybe I should suck it up and go back. His life over mine. She’s not helping. So I text my bestest best friend, Marya—a writer.
She responds with positive messages, reminds me to breathe, tells me that I need to stay put, to get some sleep, to take care of myself because he needs to do that for his own self and I can’t force him to but I can take care of me. All I can do in this moment is try to calm down and sleep. I’m still sobbing though breathing some, but haven’t fully surfaced from crisis mode. And then this happens:
Me: “I’m sobbing so hard that I have gallons of snot coming out of my face.”
Marya: “Sweetie, snot is measured in metric.”
And now I’m laughing my face off and everything is fine and Marya helped me to breathe because it’s hard to be devastated and scared when you’re cackling and howling like mad.
This is the power of words—and more specifically, the power of having women writers as friends, those who don’t have to be in your physical presence to give you a hug, but can save you from your hardest life moments with just a few perfect words.
If, for some weird-ass reason, you were assigned the tiresome task of spying on me, you would see that it doesn’t seem like I have any humans in my life. Any. Post-divorce (it was inevitable) and working from home as a freelance editor, I spend every day alone, in my apartment, planted in front of my computer, clunking on a dirty keyboard and staring at a screen. My ex often said I needed friends, continuously told me that I needed to get out, to go meet people and get connected. I get that it looks like I have a lonely existence. Not a single friend within driving distance. But really, and he never understood this, I’m talking to people All. Day. Long. Unending email conversations, Gchats, Facebook messages, texts. Even editing another person’s work is like having a conversation. I have best friends—those people in my life who I feel connected to on a level that matches none other. I’m constantly hanging out with my friends, we’re just never in the same physical space.
In fact, one of my best friends is a woman I’ve never met.
A book is a collection of words. A community is a collection of people. A friendship is a collection of memories, but for Angela and me, our friendship is a collection of emails exchanged between time and space, essays sent back and forth. We know, and know of, each other through our words.
She calls me “love” and signs her emails with “xo.”
I reply with sentences about how she’s my favorite, and also sign them with “xo.” It’s what we do.
Our first exchange—like so many first exchanges between writer friends—was an email. December 2015, I emailed a group called WOW! Women on Writing, wondering if they were hiring for online creative nonfiction instructors. They said yes, and I then sent them my CV, an author bio and photo, and a class proposal. In February 2016, I received an email from the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Angela Mackintosh, saying that yes, they wanted me to teach, and that “PS—I love your dreads!”
And now it’s almost four years later and Angela calls me love and I’ve claimed her as my favorite and she’s seen me through my worst moments and she is also my first reader and has read every essay I’ve ever written (even the unpublished ones) and I am in love with the essays she has written about her mom who killed herself and about past abusive relationships. In these past four years, we’ve been through a lot together. Helped each other through mini- and maxi-traumas. She was having to get a hysterectomy while I was excising a friend from my life. Angela saw me through my gambling addiction. I witnessed from afar her struggles with her husband getting ill. She fractured the hell out of her ankle from falling down a cliff while running, and she was emotionally there in my inbox when I got divorced.
Our friendship is about how we connect on the craziness that life can be and how we have each other’s backs and how she’s drawn me awesome portraits and I’ve knitted for her every genre of an imaginable project and when she was falling apart and said, “I just feel like my brain is melting with worry all the time,” and I replied with, “That sounds sticky,” she laughed and then everything was okay because we have each other—even though I don’t know what her phone number is. Or what her voice sounds like. But I know the inflection of her words as they flood into me in each email. It’s through her sentences that I know Angela best.
I wonder if I’ll ever meet her.
Marya Hornbacher was my favorite author, the woman whose memoir, Madness, had taken me a year to read not because I didn’t like it, but because it was my story. Alcoholism and mental illness. The drink I didn’t want to put down, but in seeing her words, I knew I would eventually have to. An over- (though apt) identification with the text, I saw this woman as strong and incredible, awesome and intelligent and I wanted to be her. I worshipped her words, and I wanted to write like her.
And then a year after I read Madness, in 2010, I was a few months into sobriety and I picked up a shift at the bookstore I worked at, which was when I checked the store’s email.
To: Women & Children First Bookstore
From: Marya Hornbacher
I’ll be teaching at Northwestern this quarter, and I’d like to order a small number of books (8) through your bookstore. How do I go about this?
Marya Hornbacher? In my city? Teaching a writing class? I for real squealed. I wasn’t in school but I was just starting to dapple in writing but my god I wanted to take that class.
I emailed her back and a conversation began.
The class was full, but she suggested doing it one-on-one by meeting up weekly for coffee. This was in Chicago and Marya lived in Minneapolis. She was only in town for her class once a week, so we picked the only time we were both available to meet—Thursdays, 6 a.m.
But in between our weekly in-person meetings, a friendship started to grow through email, a connection—its kernel—planted in words.
That was when I would wake up at 1 a.m. because that’s when she was up and writing emails and books. Aware of her twilight emails, my body must have known of them, too. Sensed them. I got up at 1 a.m. with no alarm. Her emails excited me, made me fall in love with words and writing them. Soon, talking writing turned into talking about our lives. We connected on a writer-person level and eight months later I moved to Minneapolis to live with her.
It’s like I was an apprentice when I lived with Marya for that year. Getting to know who I was as a writer through seeing how a writer lives. We’d wake up at 1 a.m. and chat over coffee before we retreated to our desks to write until we got tired and went back to bed. All day every day we sat at coffee shops together, writing and giving feedback on each other’s sentences. With Marya, I witnessed how a writer spends her days, how we must keep going after it no matter how hard it can be because if we don’t write, we’ll go crazy.
And it was Marya who brought me into the collective pronoun. The “we” of being a writer. She validated me as a writer regardless of my initial lack of publications—“It’s what you do, Chelsey,” she said, “you write.”—and from that space, I grew. Not just as a writer, but as a woman.
When my ex-husband was having that psychotic break right in front of me, arguing with the walls and whatnot, it was my bestest best friend Marya who was there with me, my phone grasped in my hand and reading her text messages as I gave frantic updates and asked what I should do, supporting me through handling the situation all the way through to that night in the hotel room when I had a gallon—no, 3.78 liters—of snot coming out of my face, and even later on through my divorce. Always.
Every word I publish is a shout-out to my writer friends. A head-nod of sorts. A thank you. Gratitude because each word was written with the sense that I’m not alone.
But first, before publication, every time I get an acceptance, my first thought is, “They must have emailed the wrong person.”
Or, “They must have accepted the wrong essay.”
Or, “They must not be as good of a journal as I thought they were if they’re publishing my essay.”
Or, “It must be because I’m friends with the volunteer assistant editor on Facebook.”
Or, “The editor must be a people-pleaser and just doesn’t know how to say no.”
I know that last hang-up is ridiculous, but how many conversations have I had with other women writers who also do this? How we question our own work and worth. How we support each other, but tear down ourselves. Too many. Why is it that (self-) acceptance is questioned before it is celebrated? As women, how can we help each other through this?
It’s 2018 and a day is happening that I promised myself a year ago I wouldn’t let happen, that I wouldn’t let her do this to me again. She was a mentor who dropped me sixteen years ago. Then after fifteen years of silence, we became friends again, only to have another falling-out one year later.
I’m sad, to say the least. Suicidal, even. A sobbing mess and my life is falling apart again. Too sad to do the editing work I have already been paid to do, I’m missing deadlines all over the place and unable to pick myself up off the floor. I’m certain that by the end of the day I’ll either be in the ICU or a psych ward.
And yet I’m still trying to get work done. Angela emails me asking for some essay critiques I was going to send her the day before, and I haven’t done most of them and now I can’t handle anything anymore because I’m emotionally flat-lining and so I just tell her: “In a bad place. I’m awake and emailing, though, so that’s an improvement.” After a number of email exchanges with Angela cracking me up with comments about how her nose bleeds when she gets stressed, her ethnicity, and how the two tie together in Anime because they say that Japanese people with nose bleeds are horny, within an hour she has re-assigned all the work I had to do and now I’m free to just take care of myself.
Then, I get a text.
Melissa: “Are you okay? Angela emailed and asked for some help with your WOW critiques. What else can I do to help?”
(That’s Melissa Grunow. She’s also a WOW instructor and is the one who I stayed with in a hotel room during a writer’s conference and we were like an old married couple. We retired early to our beds every night, exhausted, and watched house-flipping shows on HGTV because Melissa’s a badass with a hammer and wood, while I knitted her fingerless mittens. We commented and bantered and I didn’t even want to think about what it would be like when I would have to return to my normal life and Melissa would then be miles away from me. Melissa’s also the one who, when I think about her, I see her sledge-hammering her bathroom after she kicked out her mooch of a live-in boyfriend. I wasn’t in her life during that time, but I read about it in her memoir that she hired me to edit two years prior and by god it made me fall in love with this woman. Anyway—)
I reply: “I’m not okay, but breathing. Just really depressed and scared and debating going to a psych ward. Just knowing you’re there is plenty.”
Just knowing you’re there is plenty. The truest words to say when your friends are states away. Those are the key words to people who can’t physically be there, but the love and support oozing from them and into the phone you grasp in your hand like it’s a lifeline at times feels stronger than any hug a person could give.
You know what? I’m scared. This isn’t a mental crisis like what the other present-tense segments of this essay are about, rather it’s just the basic emotion of fear. I sit in front of what I’ve written of this essay so far and the thought of reading back through it terrifies me.
What if I hate my words?
What if after all the effort I’ve put into this essay so far I end up despising them?
These women mean so much to me and when I wrote all of that about them, I loved the thoughts I was putting down with my pen. The sentences I was scrawling out were fueled with a type of love that I now worry sounds sentimental. Too private. Not universal enough. Words that will bore people who aren’t me or us.
And so I sit, scared out of my wits of my own essay. Worried that I didn’t capture what I thought I had captured and so then I won’t know what I’m doing and I will feel so lost in it. Lost in me.
I’ve been through a lot of shit in my life—what woman writer hasn’t?—but even with all the trauma and not-good moments, the hardest thing I’ve ever done is write. Revising, specifically. I sit here with my words printed out in front of me, stalling like it’s my job. Let’s knit! Make coffee! Go social-media unimportant shit! Check email! Smoke a cig! All of that and more because facing the fear that I have failed myself (and, therefore, these women) freezes me.
And then I hear them. Not my own words, but the messages these women would send if I were to text or email them how I feel right now.
They’d say: “I get that.”
They’d say: “That shit happens to me all the time.”
They’d say: “You’re an excellent writer.”
They’d say: “Shut the fuck up and get to it.”
And so I will. I do.
But why can’t we believe in ourselves like we believe in each other?
As an editor, I hold people’s stories. As a trauma survivor, I help those stories find their voices. Because it’s the experiences I’ve had that guide me in encouraging other survivors to find a voice. It’s the editor in me that helps to shape that story into something tangible—something we can see. Read. I give feedback about specifics. The mechanics. But as a female trauma survivor, I hold. Help. It might look like I’m by myself, but I’m never alone. I’m holding people’s stories. Guiding, even, the therapeutic activity of crafting a voice for your experience. I’ve read about so much trauma—have seen the ways so many people have survived to tell the story of those who haven’t.
I’ve become close with every person who has trusted me with their words. Women who didn’t think they had a right to speak, who then found the courage to get a voice on the page and have trusted me with those fragile parts of themselves.
They let me hold the shards so together we can work them into a smooth beauty. A story we can hold with pride, when before it was the story itself the writer had been trying to hide. These are the experiences I get to witness, regardless that I haven’t met most of these women. The fact that our connection is made through words is awe-inspiring. Magical, even. Life-giving.
In high school, there was a poster about STDs hanging on the wall in my anatomy classroom. It was a family tree of sorts. That is, if you sleep with one person, you’re exposed to all the people they slept with, all the people those people slept with and all the people those people slept with. It’s like the STD version of the Kevin Bacon game.
The point here is about contact. Human connection. Because: Each story we experience is built from an infinite number of other experienced stories. We are linked to one another by how we arrived at this moment.
That moment where a woman tells her story, and it inspires someone else to tell all of her stories. These experiences intersect. Stories build on stories. Women writers lift each other up with our words.
As an editor, my job is to make those connections more powerful. As a writer—as a woman—my job is to make the connections by living them first, then giving them voice.
What I’m trying to say here is that I hear you.
Laraine has a quirky idea for a book—the concept of which makes me fall in love with it. And Laraine. It’s a speculative memoir in which her dead father comes back to her as a raven and they figure out life and their relationship together in the context of his death and how she just survived cancer.
Laraine is now a dear friend, but initially she was an admirer of my work. When she read my latest book, she then contacted me, wondering if I could help her write in the way that I do—that is, not hiding behind words or holding back an experience.
Flattered, of course I said yes.
A year later, her book is written and we’re at a writer’s conference together and though I’m still her editor and will go through the final draft of her book that summer, we’re more like friends than just work acquaintances.
She gives a reading one night where she gets to share five minutes of her own writing and Laraine has decided to read the first few pages of her raven memoir. I’m sitting next to Melissa during this reading, the dark green walls of this bar barely containing the dozens of readers and listeners and now here’s Laraine’s voice as she reads the work I’ve known so intimately on the page for the past year. Each word, each revision has gotten me closer to this fantastic woman and her heart and her brain. And now here is her story with life and breath and the experience shakes me so deeply.
I lean over to Melissa and say, “Oh my god I’m going to cry.”
She looks at me and smiles. She understands how astounding this moment is.
And then I do—I start crying a bit at the beauty of this woman, her words that I helped to encourage into life and now they have breath and I’m sitting next to a dear writer friend who gets it only like how a writer friend could.
As women writers, we are a collection of these stories, these words, these tragedies, and these poetics of experience, as well as how we survive them, and in that survival, we become empowered.
Individually, as women, we’ve been called many things. Bitch. Cunt. Slut. Whore. Etc. Collectively, we have been called not the most empowering terms:
- A giggle of girls
- A gaggle of gossips
- A mutter of mothers-in-law
- A squeal of nieces
- An impatience of wives
But as women writers creating our communities, empowering each other through words, we can flex our creativity muscles and re-name ourselves for the group that we really are. We aren’t a gaggle or a giggle or a squeal.
We are a resilience of women.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor. Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. www.chelseyclammer.com