Seek and ye shall find (something different)
Good girls, essay expectations, and the craft of curiosity
I’ve always equated expectation with safety.
This probably comes from growing up in an unpredictable environment in which I was treated like an adult from an early age. Kids needed rules, but I was an equal, and I was expected to anticipate what was and wasn’t appropriate behaviour without being explicitly told. I dedicated an enormous amount of brain power in childhood to reading social cues and facial expressions and listening for the tension in a voice or the way in which a person closed a door or picked up a plate to try and anticipate and defuse anger before it erupted, but regardless of how close I thought I had gotten to “cracking the code”, I lost a game that was designed for me to lose.
When I left home to start my undergrad degree, I craved structure and a clear, defined sense of what I should and shouldn’t do to keep myself happy and alive. I planned elaborate outlines for my essays before I wrote them. I practiced future conversations in my head before they happened. I had to know about events weeks before they were scheduled in order to “mentally prepare”, or I couldn’t attend them. Surprises were always negative in my world, and if I prepared for long enough and assembled all of the information I needed prior to everything I did, I could predict the future, both good and bad. Nothing would be difficult if I knew about it before it happened.
Graduating university plunged me into deep waters of uncertainty. What was I going to do next? Where would my income come from? What could I expect from such a limbo? That uncertainty brought the unprocessed uncertainty I had experienced when I was young back to the forefront of my mind. I reacted in two ways:
I decided that I couldn’t write anything without completely planning it out first. If the plan evolved or changed, I would drop the project and start another.
I decided that I needed a Dom.
I’ve recently been reading the novel Good Girl by Anna Fitzpatrick. The book’s central character Lucy navigates desire, feminism, and a chaotic craft practice amidst the 2015 Toronto zeitgeist. I was nineteen years old in 2015—six years younger than Lucy—but I her and I share a common experience: In the wake of uncertainty in our romantic, creative, and professional lives, we sought out men who would make rules for us.
I had myself convinced at the time that I was seeking sexual liberation, but in hindsight, I think I wanted BDSM without the sex: someone who would tell me what I could and couldn’t do, set my schedule, and create boundaries in an otherwise open and structureless existence. Particular actions would lead to particular outcomes. Life would be predictable, and in a strange way, I would be safe.
Some people find what they’re looking for in the BDSM community—I’m just not one of those people. It took a string of shitty experiences and a first real healthy relationship for me to learn that predictability doesn’t always equate to safety. There is a difference between knowing that someone will hurt you in advance so that you can prepare for it, and letting the open space of trust within uncertainty allow you to experience real love and care.
When I met my now-husband, my fear of the unknown was replaced by optimistic curiosity: I couldn’t predict what would come next in our lives, but I could approach our future will a posture of openness. That way, I could discover ways of being in the world that I never could’ve planned for.
I’m in a braided essay workshop until the end of May this year, taught by the brilliant Margo Steines. I went into the course with a very clear idea of exactly what my essay would be about. I made mind maps. Wrote outlines. Did most of my research prior to the course. Look how prepared I am, my actions seemed to say.
In fairness, I’ve reached a season in my writing career where a lot of what I write is planned out beforehand. I submit detailed pitches to magazines, and I write essays that don’t stray from those pitches. I submit book proposals with outlines to my publisher, and I use the proposals as guides. I receive commission requests for poems and essays with specific themes, and I write those pieces based on those themes. I’ve lost a lot of the exploratory fun of writing new work.
But my essay for this course had an agenda of its own that I wasn’t privy to until very recently. I tried to write it according to my original outline and plan, but the more I learned from Margo, the more my ideas evolved and changed shape. I fought hard to keep the words aligned with my expectations, but when I did, the writing fell flat. It was only when I gave myself permission to start completely fresh, with no expectations, that the craft of curiosity emerged: what do I want to say? What questions do I have about the world and my place in it?
I found something very different than what I had expected, but it was something much better.
I’m still someone who feels most comfortable when their life has structure and predictability. But I’m trying to leave room for that curiosity—that willingness to venture into the unknown. It never takes me where I thought it would. That’s the point.
News from the Marsh
Class will meet weekly on Monday nights via Zoom, 6PM - 8PM Eastern Standard Time.
How do we write about our traumas without becoming re-traumatized? In this course, we will use a variety of texts to establish a therapeutic framework for writing about our traumas and participate in holding space during writer-led workshops for personal essays and selections from memoir projects.
The authors we will draw upon for our framework include Alice Walker, Nicole Chung, Melissa Febos, and others. All text selections will be provided to students in accessible PDFs from the instructor.
Prepare for a variety of grounding exercises and group boundary-setting in our first session based on the needs of our particular group, and to complete the 8-week workshop with a polished essay or memoir selection.
To understand craft not just as an art but as a healing practice and a way of processing.
Complete the 8-week workshop with a polished essay or memoir selection.
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Sydney Hegele is the author of The Pump (Invisible Publishing 2021), winner of the 2022 ReLit Literary Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2022 Trillium Book Award. Their essays on life with Dissociative Identity Disorder have appeared in Catapult and Electric Literature, and featured by Lithub, the Poetry Foundation, and Psychology Today. Their novel Bird Suit is forthcoming with Invisible Publishing in Spring 2024, and their essay collection Bad Kids is forthcoming with Invisible in Fall 2025. They live with their husband and French Bulldog on Treaty 13 Land (Toronto, Canada).