Dear Susu #14: Shame Shepherds & Grace for Fuck-ups
“How do I get out of my own way so that I can write what needs to be written most?”
Welcome to the latest installment of Dear Susu, my advice column where I answer your questions about writing and life and everything in between. Today’s question is from Calvin, who’s been incarcerated for over half his life and wants to write his story but is stymied by shame. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
I am submitting the below letter on behalf of Calvin Vines. Calvin is incarcerated in state prison in Virginia. He has been there for almost 20 years, since he was 18. I am his attorney—we attempted to persuade the governor of Virginia to grant Calvin clemency and, sadly, we were unsuccessful. We will try again when he becomes eligible.
Calvin and I keep in touch. I send him books and we talk about life. These infrequent conversations add more value to my day than he will ever realize.
Recently, Calvin informed me that he’s been writing (romance!) novels. We’ve discussed him writing more (and me, as well!). He had a question about his writing process and, having recently read a piece of yours, I encouraged him to draft a letter to you that I could share on his behalf. He responded days later with the letter below.
I write things sometimes, and sometimes these things I write aren’t half bad (in my opinion anyway—but my opinion is the only point of reference since I’m the only one who reads the things I write). I write out of a desire to be distracted from the unfortunate life I live. So I wouldn’t exactly say the things I write are mundane, but in comparison to my actual life, they could maybe be viewed as something cosmetic.
Anyway, it has been suggested to me on several different occasions that I write a book about my life. I agree, but I have probably made only one serious attempt at doing that.
My problem isn’t the hurt feelings of others. I actually have the green light to put it all out there. No, my problem is me. I’ve been too ashamed and embarrassed to write about my upbringing, things that happened with my family, and the things I’ve done. So I guess the question I have for you is how do I get out of my own way, so I can write what needs to be written most?
May the peace and blessings of the supreme be with you,
When I got your letter, it resonated so deeply. Not only was I moved by the lyricism in your writing, I also empathized so deeply with the idea of being stymied by shame. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been meditating on shame, on writing, and on writing about shame. I thought of all the people I know who have been a guide for me, helping me find a path through that particular wilderness.
Not long ago, I attended a work event with one of these wondrous humans: the Lutheran pastor and public theologian. Now, whatever came to mind when you heard the word “pastor,” Calvin—those things are probably not fit descriptors for Nadia. More punk rock than Sunday school, Nadia’s ministry is mercy and compassion specially tailored for spiritual misfits. As she puts it, “Grace for fuck-ups.”
I think of Nadia as my shame shepherd. She has such wise, illuminating things to say on the subject, always leading me away from shame, toward creative and spiritual freedom. And so I decided to share your letter with Nadia, and I asked her, “What do you think?” Later that day, she wrote back with this:
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