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:
“He said, ‘My problem is me.’ I can’t think of a writer for whom this is not true. We have to get out of our way. We have to machete through the overgrowth of self-doubt, ego, shame, laziness, comparison to others, low blood sugar—all of it just to get some words on goddamn paper. And the fact of the matter is this: You have to write in order to discover what you are writing and why. You are worthy of this exploration. Your story is worthy of it.”
Your story is worthy of this exploration. It’s such a simple but powerful statement, profoundly true yet difficult for many of us to accept. Believing your story is worthy means believing that other thing Nadia said: that you are worthy. Sharing our stories requires us to believe that we won’t be rejected for them—to believe that when we reveal our whole selves, including the parts we aren’t proud of, we won’t be seen as undeserving of acceptance or love.
I think it’s understandable that people struggle to summon that kind of belief. We learn very early to feel shame about all kinds of things—about our behaviors and emotions, about what we want and don’t want, about where we’re from and what we look like and how we speak. Shame is such a universal experience and yet such a painfully private experience. It’s something we feel deeply and also guard deeply.
A few years ago I had a conversation about secrets and why we keep them with the brilliant writer and teacher Dani Shapiro. I mentioned that people are always telling me how afraid they are to keep a journal, because they would be so ashamed if someone found it and read it and their deepest secrets were revealed—but I suggested it might also be liberating, relieving the immense pressure of it, maybe completely dissolving that sense of shame.
Dani agreed, then recounted how, a few years earlier, she had a similar insight. At the end of a weekend-long retreat with about 200 people, she got up on stage and gave the final writing exercise: to write about the thing that, if anyone knew about you, you would curl up and die of shame. She told the participants that no one would read it, and they could throw it away, tear it up, or burn it at the end. Then she set a timer for three minutes and said, “Okay, begin.”
From her vantage on the stage, Dani could see the whole room, and she noticed that not one person hesitated. No one was like, “Shame, what’s that?” Everyone wrote and wrote, and as she put it, “The room was radiant.” The lesson she was trying to impart was that everyone has a well of experience to draw from in their writing, and they should not be afraid to use it. But later, in a flight of imagination, she considered what would have happened if she’d said, “Just kidding! Now you all have to read them aloud!”
And after clarifying that she never would do that—it would be a pretty terrible bait and switch—she speculated that the outcome would’ve been catharsis and connection. “I believe that everybody would have been sitting there with tears rolling down their cheeks,” Dani said, “nodding, understanding, knowing, relating. Full of compassion, full of identification.”
I believe she’s absolutely right. I see this with my own writing and within our Isolation Journals community. Someone shares a story in the comments section of the newsletter, saying, “I’ve never told anyone this before.” And rather than condemnation, it’s met with tearful acknowledgment, with words like, “I know exactly how you feel—I feel exactly the same way.”
I want to acknowledge here that the sources of our shame are often real. Many of us have been taught, sometimes by cruel and painful experience, to keep certain parts of ourselves hidden. Who hasn’t felt that dizzying sense of humiliation? The full-body flush when we’ve been called out or caught? But it may be useful to take a moment to tease out the difference between guilt and shame, two emotions that are often confused or conflated.
According to the researcher and writer Brené Brown, guilt is looking at something we’ve done, seeing how it measures up to our values, and feeling psychological discomfort. Guilt can be adaptive and even helpful, in that it often spurs us to action, to make amends or atone in some way. Shame, by contrast, is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Most often, shame does more harm than good.
I won’t pretend to know what you’ve been through, Calvin, or what has led you to where you are now. But what I do know is that a person is more than the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, or the worst thing they’ve ever done. We contain multitudes, as the poet Walt Whitman said. We are capable of good and evil, of breaking and building, of laughter and anger, sorrow and joy. But shame has a way of subsuming everything, snuffing out those parts that make us feel good and worthy. Shame obscures our vision. It keeps us from knowing this very wise truth that Nadia shared in a sermon at a prison in Colorado: “Our scars and our sorrow will always be part of our story, but they will never be the conclusion to our story.”
When I read that sermon of Nadia’s, I thought of my friend Quintin Jones, who spent more than two decades on death row in Texas. He’s been on my mind a lot lately, as we’re coming up on the anniversary of his execution—it’ll be two years tomorrow, May 19. Quin was the embodiment of the idea that our scars and sorrow are part of but not the conclusion to our story.
Quin never wrote his story in a conventional memoir, but he spent years writing letters to dozens of pen friends all over the world. For Quin, writing was a means of connection. In his letters, he would often ask me to describe the setting I was in, the landscape or the city or the people around me. My words, and the words of his other pen friends, were his conduit to the outside, his way of traveling the world from the confines of the solitary cell where he spent twenty-three hours a day.
But Quin’s letter-writing was also an act of reflection, confession, and imagination. Writing allowed him to confront the brutal facts of his life, which included a childhood that was not really a childhood, but where violence was inescapable, where poverty, neglect, abuse, and addiction left permanent scars, both figurative and literal. Through writing, he began to process his past. Without blaming his circumstances, he began to understand and accept what had happened to him and also to take responsibility for his actions. Without forgetting the pain he’d caused, he began to glimpse a different self, or another part of himself. In essence, he stopped defining himself by the worst thing he’d ever done, and he began to understand that he could have a positive impact on others through his words. He spent every day until the day of his execution doing just that—for me and for dozens of other people around the world.
And so to return to the question of writing your story, I think it’s a powerful and important thing for you to do. There is a restoration and a recreation of self that occurs when we write our own story, even if no one else ever reads it, even if you only write it for yourself in a journal. In fact, I think that’s the best place to start.
I say that for a couple of reasons. The first is that there’s nothing quite like journaling to help process thoughts and feelings. When I’m experiencing anger or sadness or shame, it can feel overwhelming and too heavy to bear, even more so the longer and more silently I carry it. But when I write about my ugliest feelings, there’s an immediate transference. Even if it makes me uncomfortable or upset in the moment, when I externalize things on the page, it creates room within me. It makes space for new perspectives to emerge, which can provide clarity, rather than a miasma of festering feelings and muddled memories.
The second reason is that if you try to put form to unprocessed trauma, you risk re-traumatizing yourself. When I was working on my memoir Between Two Kingdoms, I didn’t realize this. There were moments when I’d be trying to write—trying to think about structure and organization, trying to pen a beautiful sentence. Ten minutes in, my brain and my body would completely shut down. I didn’t understand it. I would think, “What’s wrong with me?”
I’ve done enough work with a therapist to know that I was having a trauma response, and rather than bullying myself to keep writing, the thing to do was to turn to my therapeutic practices. I needed to lie down on the floor and take deep breaths, or go through the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise that helps ground you in moments of panic or other difficulty. (If you haven’t heard of it, it’s simple but so good. You look around the room and name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste.) As the activist and author Rachel Cargle said at her book launch last night, “Sometimes stuck is just a need for stillness.”
In your letter, you say you write to be distracted from your life—and I think it’s important to be aware that you’ll be doing the opposite if you begin to write your story. You’re likely to go to some dark corners, to recall things that were difficult or painful, things you aren’t proud of. When you’re revisiting those moments, in some ways it’s inevitable that you’re going to feel discomfort. To write memoir is to push at a wound, and even if the wound has healed, scar tissue is tender.
But I want to return to Nadia’s words now: You have to write in order to discover what you are writing and why. A longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous—something she talks about openly—she pointed to this passage from the Big Book: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
If you can get clear on the why of sharing this story, I promise, it will help. If you can think of someone you know, someone who might be carrying a similar shame, who is going to find comfort and a sense of recognition, maybe relief at the idea that they’re not the only one carrying that shame, it will give your exploration a sense of purpose.
And then there’s this last little bit from our beloved, irreverent, oh-so-reverent friend Nadia: “Fuck embarrassment. Embarrassment is a simple-minded little fucker that is afraid of everything. The shame I carried about who I was and what I had done in active addiction is always lessened and even evaporated by being in 12-step meetings with those who have their own shameful stories and seeing how free from shame they are. That is what allowed me to move forward with it.”
With that in mind, in addition to some journals, I’m sending you a starter kit of books about writing, books about sharing vulnerably, books about exploration—both of self and craft. For me, when I feel resistance to writing about something, and I’ve tried all my tricks, sometimes what I need to do is read other people who have dared greatly, either in form or in content or both. I hope they are a guide as you write your story, and as you contemplate whether it’s something to keep private, or if you want to share it with the world someday. If you choose the latter, I’ll be first in line to read what I know will be an extraordinary and powerful book.
I’m obsessed with freedom. I’m in all of this for the freedom. And I’ve found that freedom comes from taking the reins with the truths that I don’t want to admit and letting them out. I think it makes you a free person, and I want more and more freedom in life. —Nadia Bolz-Weber, from our Studio Visit
Calvin’s Starter Kit
Available in our Bookshop
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson
A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Felon: Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
The Tender Bar: A Memoir by J. R. Moehringer
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience by Brené Brown and Tarana Burke
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Educated by Tara Westover
A Letter to a Prisoner—
If you were moved by Calvin’s words, I wanted to include his address, in case you want to write to him. When Calvin was 18, he was convicted of multiple armed robberies, and though no one was physically injured, he was given a more than sixty-year prison sentence. His lawyer called it “stomach turning and an egregious example of prosecutorial indiscretion,” and has been working to get him clemency, both through directly petitioning the governor and more holistic legislative advocacy.
In the meantime, Calvin would love to hear from you. If you’re wondering what to write, we have a perfect prompt—called Letter to a Prisoner by the inimitable Mitchell S. Jackson. Calvin’s address is as follows:
Calvin Vines, 1098304
Greensville Correctional Center
901 Corrections Way
Jarratt, VA 23870
Alternatively, you can search for “prisoner pen pal programs” and find someone in your area to write to. It could make all the difference.