Sometimes it’s okay to not fit in: Writing in the liminal spaces

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While I was doing my five-minute break from work today, I pulled up YouTube and saw a video about feeling like you don’t belong by Marianne Cantwell

And it was all about her book, which came from her experience.

But her talk was about how some of us aren’t terribly good at fitting in and that’s okay.

As a writer, I’ve felt this.

And as a person, I’ve felt this.

I almost quit my MFA during the first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts because I felt so much like I didn’t fit in. I’m pretty sure I actually said, “I just don’t belong here. I need to quit.”

One of the teachers there at the time, the lovely and kind and brilliant Lisa Jahn Clough talked me down. And I stayed. And I learned a lot. I never fit in and that was okay because the people there were cool like Lisa, who told me she often felt like she didn’t fit in either. They were chill with me being me.

But that wasn’t the only place where I felt like I didn’t belong.

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I never fit in with my family, too quirky, too weird, and though I’m quite pale my skin was far too dark. DNA explained that away eventually.

My sibling would say to me, “You’re so weird.”

My mom would say, “You’re just a bit special.”

My sibling would say, “Who dressed you?”

Or “Are those Snoopy shoes? What the hell?”

It wasn’t easy. I usually tried to hide by sitting on the floor at all family gatherings, hoping not to be noticed because to be noticed? It was to be hurt.

I didn’t fit in at college even though it was a great college.

I wanted to study political science and theater and psychology and it all felt too—confining.  My friends told me I was anti-intellectual because I worried about class issues. Nobody else worried about class issues except for this one Marxist guy from England that eventually fled from the FBI.

Everyone else seemed to want to procreate all the time and I didn’t really think about sex, worry about sex, be motivated by sex. I wanted to write poems, figure things out, write stories and plays and understand Derrida and Kant. I wanted to be Derrida and Kant, honestly.

I worked as a security dispatcher because I had to work as part of work-study. I interned at the district attorney’s office while other people spent their summers interning at family law firms and sailing and leading cool Outward Bound trips. I hung out in court rooms with cops and lawyers and alleged criminals.

Still didn’t fit in.

And as a grown-up, I didn’t fit in during my first career as a reporter. I wrote too fast. I cared too much. Same thing as a city councilor.

People said, “Carrie’s nice and smart. But she has pigtails.”

Spoiler alert: They were braids.

They’d say, “She just doesn’t seem tough enough to be a politician. She cares so much. Too much.”

And as an author? I don’t fit in all that well very easily. I’ve gotten to hang out with people who are considered “great,” Printz Award winners, super bestsellers, those whose books become Netflix and tv shows, and also those who are just quietly brilliant and awesome. But never ever have I been part of a clique.

Still no fit.

And I kind of thought I’d fit there. But instead, like always, I have random good friends who fit in their own cliques and I love all of them.

I joined Rotary International because it’s all about service above self and helping others. Still nope. I truly didn’t fit in there at all though I loved SO MANY Rotarians and had so many wonderful experiences talking to massive conventions.and helping others. But did I fit in? I didn’t even own a business suit. So no.

The video reminded me of a few things and we talk about some of them during our live podcast of Loving the Strange:

  1. You can shift careers and professional tracks if it doesn’t suit you and it gets to be too much. You don’t have to stay.
  2. Sometimes if you are okay with persisting in a career where you don’t fit in, you can create great things there.
  3. You can create things all on your own—your own path, careers and ways of living that might not be the ones society thinks are ‘successful’ or where you should fit.

How Does That Relate To Writing?

In the Ploughshares’ blog, the brilliant Yasmin Adele Majeed writes

“Writing is a liminal act, one that comes from a place between the writer and the world, the writer and the page. In this way it is mediated by death, desire, and dreams, those other “in between” spaces we move in and out of in this life.” 

In her own blog, Jeannette de Beauvoir writes:

“Liminality is the borderline area, the frontier, the place that, as a Lewis Carroll character might say, is neither here nor there. Rites of passage move people through liminal moments. Borders move people through liminal places.

“That liminality is on my mind because I’ve recently been having trouble sleeping, and so I’ve been hyper-aware of that almost-but-not-quite asleep moment during which (as in all liminal spaces) magic quite clearly occurs.

“For me, magic always has to do with writing. I am a writer not just in the sense that writing is what I do, but also in that it’s my most authentic and innate self.”

Writers and artists are specialists in the in-between spaces, but they aren’t the only ones who are. There are masses of us out there, searching, discovering, not quite fitting in, making our own spaces, claiming our own spaces.

We all are capable of stripping through the layers of society and self and getting to the essence of who we are, who the characters in our stories and our lives are.

As E.E. Cummings said, “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned in order to know himself.”

Writers do that with characters, building them piece by piece on the page, and when we do that, we reveal what it is we believe about people, about character, about cause and effect, society and connections.

But we can also do that with our own selves, right?

We can look and see where our identities stem from, our choices, and we can stitch together the narrative that suits our lives and who we want to be. Sometimes that’s lonely because it’s not always the ways we’re taught to think.

And just that phrase – taught to think – shows how terribly important it is to pursue an understanding of the different layers of your identity, to understand who you are at your deepest core without society or even your family or friends telling you who you ought to be or who you are expected to be.

In a speech back in 2010 at the Edinburgh Book Festival, author Jeanette Winston said,

“Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world — it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level.… Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all…. We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.”

And that’s what it’s really all about, striping away, expanding, creating, living, finding relief, finding our own story and reality even as we create inner lives for others and ourselves.

I hope you find your space. I hope I find mine, too. We’ve got this, right?

Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

4 thoughts on “Sometimes it’s okay to not fit in: Writing in the liminal spaces”

  1. Hi Carrie, I went to that same college (class of ’91), and knew very well that same Marxist you mention, and learned so much from the same poetry teacher you describe in your recent blog post. I also wrote poetry, and have for most all of my life. I have done a lot of flailing in life because I felt I didn’t fit in the way I wished I could. Always trying to find that way to mesh. I grew up in Washington County and have lived in Maine my whole life. I have been reading your posts for many months now on recommendation of a classmate, and have appreciated SO MANY THINGS about your articulations about writing, your crusade-like brave sharing, and your boots-on-the ground discipline in writing! I wanted to wave, and say thank you, and that you provide me a lot of inspiration and straight up recognition of many things that resonate in my day-to-day life. I’m 51 now, and a year and a half ago lifted my head from career in violence prevention, and parenting of two boys. I found a poetry group, began taking workshops again, am pushing myself to do an inventory of my writing, and have started getting things down on the page regularly again. Without knowing it, you have supported me in reconnecting to the hard-wired writer-person inside me.

    1. Kate!

      It is so kind of you to comment here and let me know this and I’m absolutely honored! I wish we’d known each other well at Bates. I almost feel like I can remember you. I’ll have to check. Congratulations on your long career doing so much good. I’m so glad that you’ve found a poetry group and are taking workshops.

      I’m not sure where you are in Maine, but in would be lovely to see you sometime!

  2. I also went to VC in 90 (graduated), I never fit in either. I ate with groups of people I didn’t know, and no one ever spoke to me. I spent my time in my room. Things got better the second year when I had the great good luck to work the entire year with Mark Doty. He is the best, ever, and I threw all that I had written the year before. I have always been a liminal person, quietly, in my own head. I had few friends, tortured by my drunken mother and my father, along with my classmates. I guess it was worse than I knew, but I had a few close friends in high school, college, getting my MA and even at VC. But the friends I made, have been true friends and I love and respect them and their art. I’m still invisible as I am recovering from a wicked case of sciatica. I taught college for about 8 years as tenured faculty and then much to my astonishment, I had a huge mental breakdown. It was awful, and so were all the others.—crawling out that pit wasn’t easy. Writing had clicked and I felt I could tell decent poems from bad poems. I joined a writers’ group, twice, but the groups are not for me. I take noncredit courses via zoom, but I am not close to many, That sounds good to me. I also work with an amazing writer Yeah a few people think I am weird, and I guess I am, but I don’t mind. I think of my MFA as being important as I worked so hard and harder to get here. For me, life is over in a minute, so I take it slow. I edit for money and I love it, as long as the other person wants to do so. It’s quite rewarding and the students are great. This is self-presentation. I have four books published, and a lot of pubs. It pleases me to come out from under the hazy head stuff, and have fun with my family. Writing is an understated passion. I’m reading too much here today? But, yeah, being liminal is positive and words for me. How lucky is that?

    1. Oh, Virginia. That sounds so hard. I’m glad things got better your second year and Mark Doty was a great fit for you.

      True friends are the ones that really matter, don’t they? We don’t have to walk around with an army, just people we respect and love and who respect and love us.

      I’m not the best with writing groups either so I can relate to that, too. I am so glad you came out from the pit and that you can embrace your liminal self and existence. That’s the way to be. So much love and luck to you!

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