It all started in the winter of 2017. That summer, my husband had decided he didn’t want to be married to me anymore, and I had fallen into a deep, dark hole.
All right, look: there are two sides to every story, and obviously my version of this story favors… well, me. Which is to say that the above narrative—that my husband just up and left—is not entirely true, or anyway that’s not the entirety of it. But I am a writer, first and foremost. And being a writer, I know that “He broke my heart and ruined my life” is, narratively speaking, much more compelling and succinct than “Oh, gosh, where to begin? Well, I guess you could go back awhile, probably about six years, kind of right around when we moved to Portland, Oregon…” The second rendering is flaccid and sprawling, more fitting for a memoir or a long boring essay and not a column about writing craft.
The point here is not how it happened; the point is that it did happen. My marriage ended, and I was completely destroyed. Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I stopped eating, started drinking, stopped leaving the house, started questioning—really questioning—everything. We’d been married for almost twenty years, and though on some level I knew this was better, still: I had no idea who I was anymore. This is very hard to talk about, for a number of reasons, so I may not say too much. But ultimately, it’s fair to say that in the winter of 2017 I stopped knowing how to live—or really, if I even wanted to.
I did know, though, that I should write. Not that I thought writing would save me; I was deeply unsure of that. But I knew that writing was a pace and a pulse that I could set. It was a familiar harbor that I could land on for at least a few minutes each day.
Here’s the thing, though: writing is hard. Writing when you’re in a pit of despair? Fucking impossible. We all have an Inner Critic that is constantly trying to humble us and keep us in check. Your Inner Critic is always an asshole—we know that. But when you feel like human garbage—when you’re wracked with grief and doubt and you are completely unmoored—it is absolutely impossible to quiet the Inner Critic. Under normal circumstances, if I was writing and the Critic spoke up, I’d be like “Yeah yeah, I know I know.” But that winter, my Critic would appear and whisper something honestly-not-all-that-critical (“That metaphor’s a little weak, no?”) and I would shut the fuck down. I mean like serious shut down: plugs pulled, lights off, all systems aborted.
One day, I was at it again—trying to get words to work, trying to get anything on the page—when the Critic was like “Okay, Zulema, this is bad. Like, really bad. It’s so bad I kinda want to puke.” She wasn’t wrong and so, right there in the margin of my own work, I wrote this simple word: “BARF” All caps, because this shit was terrible. We’re talking awful.
And frankly, in that moment, I couldn’t help myself: I started laughing, right there in my pajamas at my cute little desk. Why? Because that shit is funny: a depressed and broke and struggling writer putting BARF in the margins of her own writing. That is hilarious to me.
But you know what? It worked. What’s more, it kept working. I’d write something shitty, mark it BARF, and then, like a dang-ol’ Christmas miracle… I’d keep going. Where before in my depression the Critic would speak up and I’d shut down, now I could write for hours at a stretch. Where before I was writing a few sentences a day, with BARF® I had a novel draft within a few months.
Not to get all evangelical about it, but BARF® works. It really does, and soon enough, I’ll tell you why it works. (It took me a few months to figure it out, but once I did I was like duh.) For now, I will tell you what I intend with this column. In all my many years of teaching and coaching, I’ve come to realize that there are genuine commonalities among all the writers I work with. In every classroom I enter and with every client I engage, the same questions and concerns come up time and again. And frankly, I’m sick of it. Not because it makes me impatient. (Honestly, I could talk about this stuff all day.) Rather, I have worked incredibly hard to come to a place of trust and fun in my writing practice, and I want to share those tools with you so that you may feel the same way. To the best of my ability, I want to lighten the writer’s load. Life is already riddled with pains and sorrows and unknowns and frustrations. Writing doesn’t have to be that way too.
So here’s what I’m gonna do: Every month, twice a month, I’m going to share a piece of what I know. Timewise, it may not always be that consistent, which is something BARF® will address: how to be in your practice when you get derailed. But to the best of my ability, I will regularly show up. I intend to structure this column like I would structure a class. I’ll get deep in the weeds of the craft of writing fiction, and I’ll share prompts and examples and anecdotes along the way. What’s more, I’ll do it all for free.
Why free, you ask? Because I know what it’s like to be a broke-ass writer, unsure of my choices and unaware of my path and totally unable to pay my bills. I know what it is to question and to doubt. I know what it is to be scared. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years—besides the utility and wonder of BARF®—it’s that we’re all in this together, and this is one small way that I can pitch in.
Next time we meet, I will share with you the Secret Formula to being a writer. (Surprisingly, it’s not BARF® though BARF® is definitely one of the ingredients.) In the meantime, take deep breaths and remember: it all happens one word at a time.
With love and BARF®