Discover more from Letters by Deepa
No. 15 | My writing is not an apology
A coffee date opens up new challenges in writing, reading and life
On a sunny September morning that felt more like summer than autumn, Nina pulled up to our neighborhood cafe with a smile on her face and a dog in a bakfiets (cargo bike), in true Amsterdam style. Novelist, journalist, and New Yorker, Nina is my writing coach; it was our first face-to-face meeting in over a year.
I started working with Nina during the first lockdown, when I was trying to finish the essay I had begun writing two years ago. It was Nina who told me I shouldn’t be cramming everything I’ve learned about my open marriage into a 3,000-word essay.
“This is a book,” were her words. “It’s a far more interesting book than the book you think you’re writing. Because what is that? Another book about being an expat in Amsterdam, finding an apartment, making friends, and riding a bike?”
Ouch. But once she said it, I couldn’t unsee it. I began my first draft on December 1st, 2020; now I have six chapters, with four more on the way.
Upon completion, each chapter goes to Nina, who reads it, makes notes, and discusses her comments with me. I never go back and edit based on her feedback; to sustain momentum, she insists I keep moving forward “like a shark,” until the first draft is complete.
In this chapter, I write about my first date after we opened up our marriage. The writing is good, Nina says, but that’s not what she wants to discuss.
What she tells me that I need to do is to write unapologetically.
Anticipating judgment and criticism, I spill too much ink trying to reassure readers that Marlon (who is struggling in this chapter) will be okay.
“You have to let go of your defensiveness,” Nina tells me. “Stop apologizing. I’m losing sight of who you are.”
“I’m worried that people will think I’m selfish,” I admit.
“If people have a problem with you being selfish, that’s on them,” she says.
“Why can’t women be selfish? Write about that. Write about women’s pleasure, selfishness, guilt and shame. But write about it unapologetically.”
In the introduction, Taylor shares how the words “My body is not an apology” came to her in a conversation with a friend, and changed her poetry, purpose and life thereafter. She writes:
“Why are we constantly apologizing for the space we inhabit? What if we all understood the inherent vastness of our humanity and therefore occupied the world without apology?
My hunch was, the more unapologetically I showed up in my body, in my community, my job, family, and world, one of two things would happen: either I would pass on to others the power and permission to be their unapologetic selves, or others would feel indicted and intimidated by my unapologetic being and would attempt to contain or shrink me.”
I put my Kindle down on the sand, reached for my phone, and wrote a note to myself. The first line reads: “My writing is not an apology.”
I’m in for a struggle here. I mean, I once bumped into a supermarket shelf and apologized to it. My default settings are seeking permission and offering apologies.
But my voice is disappearing from my own book, drowning in a sea of apologies. I am fading from my own story in order to appease imagined critics. I can’t let that happen.
The other thing I need to do, says Nina, is write about sex.
“You end this scene right after you leave the bar with this man!” she points out. “What is this, an after-school special? They kiss passionately… and fade to black!”
We both laugh, but my inner Catholic schoolgirl is cringing. I’m going to have to write… about… sex? Like… actual… sex scenes?
“Of course! This book is about an open marriage!” Nina is clear on this. “Now we’re getting into the sexy part of the book. You need to be able to write about sex at a high level, without taking shortcuts or being porny.”
Of course. How did I think I could avoid it?
We finish our coffee and wrap up the session. But our conversation lingers after Nina cycles away with her dog in the bakfiets. I realize that for all the freedom I’ve gained in the last five years, I still have much to overcome. I can discuss sex with my husband, boyfriend, close friends and lovers, but I’ve never written about it.
I feel exposed. I’m a fraud! I’m a writer who can’t write about sex.
I’ve never even read well-written sex. My reading level on this topic falls somewhere between Mills & Boon and Jackie Collins: sufficient for a clueless teen, but woefully inadequate for a grown woman attempting to write a personal history of her own liberation.
This must be remedied, and soon. So I’m going full Hermione on this one. I’ve found a class. Now I need to start reading.
Will you help me out?
First, tell me: what are you still apologizing for?
And second: what’s the sexiest book you’ve ever read?
Only the good stuff, please. Let’s leave the cheap paperback novels in our teenage and on the drugstore shelves, where they belong.
Here in Amsterdam, days are still sunny, but the chill in the wind and the yellow in the trees testify to the arrival of autumn. Summer was drenched with warmth and pleasure, but I tell myself there is no looking back now.
Only moving forward, as Nina says. Like a shark.
See you in two weeks!