Welcome to all the new subscribers!
I’m Nicole, an engineer by day and writer by night. You can expect this newsletter every other week. Dispatches typically contain a short essay or an occasional interview related to writing or creativity. They’ll also include a list of creative resources and links, random media I’m consuming, and of course, a buffet of memes.
These last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience, trauma, and forgiveness, and how to depict such weighty subjects in art in all of their complexity and specificity. “Resilience” is a word that can come off scammy by putting the onus of overcoming systemic problems on individuals. But it’s something that I’ve seen crop up again and again in recent months. Is resilience something that can be instilled or honed? What good is personal resilience if institutions create terrible circumstances beyond your control? Underlying these questions is an innate curiosity about how people endure, adapt, and grow.
I was listening to a Call Your Girlfriend podcast episode with Lulu Miller, an author and NPR reporter, about resilience. Miller discussed her book about the taxonomist David Starr Jordan, whose life’s work was destroyed time and time again, but never gave in to despair and kept on rebuilding. When asked about what lessons can be learned from Jordan, Miller had this to say: “I do think one of the lessons is —take this or leave this — [...] he draws no lesson, he makes no pattern out of repeated failures.”
Essentially, his coping mechanism was what Miller calls “unconnecting the dots,” to accept the uncertainty and chaos of the world and proceed anyway. As a writer, and as most humans do, my reflex is to create a narrative out of my life. It’s the way we make sense of things. It can be how we process experiences and emotions. But it reminded me that storytelling and narratives also have the capacity to flatten things, that by trying to connect the dots we may sometimes be enclosing ourselves in a constellation of our own making.
I’ve also been reeling from I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s fantastic HBO series which tells the fictionalized story of her sexual assault and its aftermath. It’s also an exploration of consent, boundaries, forgiveness, and healing. Its structure feels almost novelistic, jumping back in time and points of view, giving equal weight to the experiences of Arabella’s friends, Terry and Kwame, while exploring how they help and harm one another.
I love that Coel resists neat narratives and binaries, as discussed in this fantastic Vulture profile by E. Alex Jung. “What does closure look like?” Coel muses. “It’s not that it ends. For me, I look at the last four years and I feel this overwhelming sense of euphoria and pain.” Characters are not simply good or bad. They take courageous steps that are not rewarded. They fuck up and make amends but don’t receive forgiveness. They are hurt and they are selfish. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this quote sums up what makes the finale so special:
The act of empathy, she says, is really about her own well-being. It is how she has moved forward as an artist and a person. “This makes me feel better,” she says. “It’s about how you can feel better in a system that is fucked, but you need to sleep well. Daring to empathize, daring to help other people as well as being helped, it will do you good. It’s about you.”
I don’t know if “resilience” is a theme I would use to describe the show, because by most definitions, resilience implies the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences. As IMDY illustrates, in some cases, there is no “back” to bounce to, just as we are realizing that “normal” is not necessarily something to which we should return. Maybe it’s not bouncing back that’s valuable, but learning how to make peace and move forward.
"I found that other things couldn’t come in because it was blocking my pain, my trauma, my inability to sit with it and let it be, and let it live, let it be in peace. Maybe it’s not about letting it go; it’s just allowing your trauma to sit there. It’s scary to let go of. It’s very hard to convince anybody to jump off a cliff, isn’t it?"
I don’t know if I wholly agree with the Jordan approach of not drawing any patterns or lessons from past experiences, but there’s something interesting and potentially healing about “unconnecting the dots.” Similarly, closure doesn’t imply a conclusion. However, it can help you think about the things that will do you good. In life and in writing, the complicated things are not straightforward, and nor should they be. Maybe the way we endure and grow is not to construct a clean arc out of our lives. Sometimes, it is an act of healing to sit with the chaos.
- Zan Romanoff is offering a remote 7-week nonfiction class on Writing for the Internet. Payment plans available.
- Zadie Smith on creativity in the time of COVID, daily routines, and the responsibility of the artist: “Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love.”
- Check out Write or Die Tribe’s submission list for publications, contests, and residencies.
- "How to stay sane and healthy while making a film” by Joshua Sanchez (also applicable to any kind of creative work)
- Submissions to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop for flash fiction, poetry, and two special editions of The Margins are open.
Recent reads & other media
I’ve continued rereading my childhood favorites with Trial By Journal by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise, which is a murder mystery/courtroom thriller told through 12-year-old Lily Watson’s diary entries, newspaper clippings, radio transcripts, and other ephemera. After I finished reading the Addy Walker American Girl series, I revisited Brit Bennett’s essay on Addy and the role of Black dolls in American culture. It’s an excellent dissection of how Addy’s story as a slave is both unsettling and uplifting, how it intersects with the whiteness of childhood innocence, and how for Bennett, her parents “exposing me to brutal stories was an act of love.”
My friend and I watched Step Up 2 AKA the best dance movie. I watched Se7en for the first time (and had to calm myself with a few episodes of GBBO before I went to sleep). I highly recommend the series I May Destroy You, which will in fact, destroy you in the best way possible.
Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!