Write From Your Scars, Not Your Wounds

Today I wanted to write about love and marriage (and my conspicuous lack of a baby carriage).

It’s no big secret that this part of my life has seen some flux over the last years.

While I’m happier than ever, more settled in my spirit and more quietly confident that I’m on the right path, navigating that flux has not been easy.

Earlier this year I was listening to a podcast interview with Gabby Bernstein, in preparation for interviewing her myself, and she said something that really stuck out to me.

(On the spectrum of stone-cold atheist to full-blown-woo, I would consider myself mildly woo-adjacent, whereas Bernstein is basically the picture of full-blown-woo, so I’m going to paraphrase what she said here.)

When you write about shit that’s painful, you’re gonna dredge that up for other people too, so you better be careful how you do it.

Jacqueline, my writing coach, calls this writing from your scars, not your wounds.

Scars are healed and will not open again. They’re safe to mess with. You can probe and jiggle and twist all you want, that sucker ain’t coming open again.

But wounds are still open, or just barely closed, and even a light bump could set the whole thing bleeding again.

When you write from your scars, you have distance, perspective, humility.

You’ve had time to think about what happened, you have empathy for the other people involved, you can see where things could have gone differently.

Writing from your scars = healing, closure and progress for you and the reader.

But when you’re writing from your wounds, you’re still in it.

You’re still in pain, still hypersensitive, still vigilant. You’re not far enough away from the fray to actually have much of a sense of what happened, or to write in a way that brings healing or closure to your reader.

Writing from your wounds = a standstill of pain and rumination for you and the reader.

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while now. In fact, it was the desire to write about this that kicked off this whole project.

But I knew that I had to make sure, long before I started, that the scar was really closed.

I’ve written dozens of pages of material that’s connected to this but isn’t ‘the thing’, just to make sure there are no phantom twinges where the wound was.

I’ve journalled a lot more than usual, and meditated. This morning I got up early, and instead of going straight to work, I went to my journal for one last pass. I had prepared myself a piece to write, knowing that if I could get to the end feeling joyful, excited and grounded, I would be ready to start this part of the project.

And I was, and so I did. I had my coffee, blessed the day, and began.

I think that if you strung all the words that have been written about love over the course of time, you could probably follow the chain to the edges of the known universe. But if you were to attempt the same thing with all the words that have been written about loving yourself, you might only make it up the road. And this seems to me a great outrage, because until you can love yourself, independent of whether someone else is in love with you, you’re trapped.

And this is where I found myself in the years leading up to the end of my marriage. Trapped, because I felt I had a surplus of love to give and nowhere to put it. I had so much love sloshing around in my body that I thought I might drown in it before I could give it away. I looked everywhere for half-empty buckets and smouldering fires in the corners of people’s lives that I might put to rights with all this excess, but my best efforts did little to make the levels drop.

Trawling among the poets for some advice on how to manage this, I found that Jenny Holzer had put to words the urgent mandate this love was pressing upon me:

kiss your friends’ faces more
destroy the belief that intimacy must be reserved for monogamous relationships
be more loving
embrace platonic intimacy
embrace vulnerability
use emotionality as a radical tactic against a society that teaches you that emotions are a sign of weakness
tell more people you care about them
hold their hands
tell others you are proud of them
offer support readily
take care of the people around you

The rush of hurling myself into Holzer’s advice was both thrilling and powerful. I called friends around the world daily, and told them what they meant to me. I wrote postcards to my long-losts, reconnecting with people who had fallen away. I spent time with everyone I knew within a day’s reach and gave them the most generous attention I could muster. But even this did nothing to draw off the excess that still threatened to swamp me.

And then Robyn, my therapist, asked if I’d considered directing any of that love at myself.

She asked how it felt in my body to consider that some of that attention might be better spent on me. If the balm I was trying so hard to salve others with might tend my own wounds. If I had ever considered that I needed my love as much as others did, or more.

Up to that point, I had considered ‘self-care’ and ‘self-love’ more or less some selfish indulgence that hippies made up. I always imagined a witchy-looking woman climbing into a scuffed tub, the water made slick with cheap bath bombs and browning flower petals, ignoring the increasingly frantic pleas of a horde of children beyond the door.

I can admit from this vantage point that I may not be entirely rid of my puritanical roots.

The judgement I subconsciously levelled at ‘loving myself’ was virulent and invasive, a towering weed that had to be excavated, chopped into tiny pieces and burned. Even so, it threw some seeds to the wind, and thus far I have had to return regularly to the garden of my life to rip out any new and unwelcome growth.

Let me be clear that I had never not loved myself — no traumatic history of self-loathing, no poisoned self-beliefs — but I had not consciously loved myself. In the line-up of people to love, I had never added my name to the list. It was something of a shock to learn that I was allowed to prioritise a relationship with myself as I would with anyone else.

And suddenly, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do.