Agoraphobia, Writing, and Me: Fear and Laughing at Canyon Ranch

Robin Black

Feb 02, 2015

Dear All,

It’s an enormous honor and joy to be the Guest Blogger here for February. I’ve known about this for a while. Not long enough to have done anything smart like stock-piling posts, but long enough to ponder what I think the point of having a single blogger posting 8 times in 4 weeks might be. And of course, it might be any of many things. But here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell my own story in bits and pieces. I’m going to try to be honest about how I started writing, what role it plays in my life, what goes into the work. And craft! I am going to talk about craft. But mostly, I am going to try to make this into a month long collage about being a writer – one woman’s perspective. . . And I very much hope you enjoy!

Thanks for joining me here.


 The author, scholar, and translator, Bruno Rios of Gaceta Frontal recently begun translating Robin's works, which can be found here. Many thanks to Bruno for his contribution to the GC Blog.

Agoraphobia, Writing, and Me: Fear and Laughing at Canyon Ranch

I would pay a lot of money to have the emails I wrote my family and friends in January, 2003, from Canyon Ranch. I suspect they are some of the best writing I’ve ever done. 

A little background: In January, 2003 I was nearly forty-one years old, the mother of three children, the wife of one (very patient and understanding) man. And I was a recovering - I hoped – agoraphobic. For eighteen years or more I had been terrified to leave my home. I had done it some, in the course of raising my kids; in the course of the law school years I put in, between marriages; in the course of dating the aforementioned husband I’d been married to for eight years by 2003 - and in the course of attending a weekly writing workshop in Philadelphia over the preceding eighteen months. So, no shut-in, I. Except for the other 75% of the time, when I stayed inside experiencing the crippling panic attacks that almost invariably accompanied those necessary outings I took.

Forty-one minus eighteen is twenty-three. At twenty-three I married for the first time. At twenty five, I had my first child. I kept myself surrounded, anchored myself to my home. And that drive up to Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass – hardly adventure travel, I know - was the first trip I had taken on my own since 1976. Let me say that again: It was the first trip I had taken on my own since 1976; and it would be the first time in all my forty-one years that I stayed in a hotel room by myself.

So this trip was an Event. Not just for me, but for my husband and children. For my mother and my siblings. For the few friends close enough to understand the significance of Robin out alone, on the road. And it was a trial run – necessary because this writing thing was getting serious. I wanted to apply to a Low Residency MFA program, to send out the forms that had been buried on my desk for over a year. But if going to the grocery store reliably resulted in an emergency call to my shrink. . .

True, I had improved over 2001, 2002, had worked hard to build my tolerance for being out in the world, but I was shaky still. Very shaky. And I so, so didn’t want to begin a program only to quit from fear. I knew that coming that close to a goal and then sabotaging myself would devastate me. I was having a hard enough time forgiving myself for those eighteen years of dysfunction, I didn’t need another failure on the list.

Hurtling (more or less) up the throughway that day, I had a Counting Crows cd on an endless loop, and tears streaming down my face, not continually but regularly for sure – an endless loop of my own. Giddiness; and then unmistakable grief over time gone by; followed by tears of joy. I was, I suppose, proud of myself – even as I was aware of how absurd it was to be moved to tears by my ability to go to a luxury spa alone. But with every minute, every mile, I wasn’t just driving toward the possibility of an hour-long massage; I was driving toward my adulthood. A little late. But I was.

So, about those emails.

The emails I wrote that week were – and you’re just going to have trust me here – hilarious. They were also endless, thousands of words in each. Accounts of my “adventures” there.  Much of the comedy was easy – pot-shots at myself for being so uncoordinated, such a disaster at anything remotely athletic, the woman in the back of the aerobics class who trips herself trying to remember which one is “left.” And then there was the personal trainer who, as I lay upside down on an enormous ball, nauseated, worrying that I might throw up, began for reasons of his own to recite a declaration of love from Romeo and Juliet – words that for one mad, disoriented moment I thought were directed to me. (They were not.) The Tai Chi teacher who stood alone with me under snowy hemlock trees, instructing me to picture my own “genitals,” while holding a “ball of energy” in my hands. . . and then, as I struggled not to collapse in giggles, assured me he was picturing his own. . . The far wealthier-than-I, far better dressed, far better coiffed (which is to say coiffed at all) women discussing over dinner the Canyon Ranch “gas problem” brought on by all the fiber one is forced to eat. . . As I say, you’ll have to trust me, here. Time fades the humor, but these were hilarious accounts. Free-flowing, clever, well-timed. . .all of them starring me, the clueless, clumsy heroine of her own mad-cap comedy. ..

Now, twelve years later, I am not exactly known for my comic flair. I am a chronicler of grief, a cataloguer of losses. I am “brutally honest” about the “harsh realities of life.” I kill off my characters like so many kitchen ants. When I hear from readers it is as often as not to detail just where they were when they started sobbing over some piece of work of mine. (Subways are most common; coffee shops get second place.) I have written the occasional funny piece, but it’s surely not what anyone who knows of me and my work first thinks of at the mention of my name.

And in fact, up there at long-ago Canyon Ranch, whatever hilarity I dispensed in my daily dispatches home, the “real” writing I was doing at night, a bottle of Jameson’s predictably enough by my side, was serious, wistful, oh, and overwrought, subordinate clause-heavy, directive, written to impress, and you know, pretty bad. The world was an unhappy place and I was a miserable woman. For all the explosive joy in my email life, for all of my effortless ability to laugh at myself in those missives, I was all about the Tragedy when I tried to write. And it was a slog.

In the movie version of this episode in my life, a famous author also staying there – we meet in the sauna, I think – asks to see my work and when I show her those leaden pages, breaks it to me that I have no talent. . . until she glimpses the emails. “Why, you’re just trying to do the wrong thing! You aren’t a ‘serious author,’ at all. You’re a comic genius!” And a star is born. . .

But in reality, the quality of my endeavors played no role in determining what I would write during the subsequent years.

When I look back now, I don’t just see those two entirely different streams of writing I did that week. I see two me’s – as clearly as if I had in fact been two different women at the time. How perfect that it was January, the two faces of Janus overlaid, in my thoughts, with those of Comedy and Tragedy. The irrepressible author of laugh-out-loud emails, looking forward, and giggling with every word, dancing under a newly detected light at the end of the tunnel – because she knew that she had done it at last, had vanquished the monster of emotional illness that had kept her hidden her entire adult life. While the other author, fragile and mournful still, embodied the damage of all that fear, all the loss, and struggled, tentative, to put to page why her sorrow mattered, why it had to matter, what she had learned, what she might share.

When my first book came out, one of the most instructive things anyone said was in a nasty one star review. “I don’t know why she thinks anyone would want to read anything this depressing,” the reviewer opined. And I realized only then how little it had crossed my mind at all what anyone else what might want to read. I had written what I had to write. Those emails were fun and all, but that other woman and I had unfinished business, still.

Perhaps I am thinking of that Canyon Ranch trip now because I’m between fiction projects. I’m not under contract for anything. I’m back to writing for nobody but myself. And it’s not clear to me that I know who I am these days. At least not when it comes to the work. My story collection and novel were part of one long process for me, a particular me, the chronicler of grief, cataloguer of losses. Those forces that

kept me hiding at home needed exorcising – or something like that. I hesitate to pin down too neatly, too simply, what that gust of need was in me. The “why” of all those words.

But I know that the “why” has changed. Because I am changed. Don’t get me wrong; I have my sorrows, like anyone else, but I no longer feel defined by them. And I chafe now when I imagine myself once again sitting at my keyboard to type out my hard-earned expertise on the finer points of emotional pain.

And so I have no idea what comes next. I have no idea what kind of writer I am. I only know I am not the writer I have been. It’s a little discomfiting. Starting over. But maybe that’s just what we writers do – every time, with every blank page.

In the movie version of this era of my life, I go out to the garage and unearth the hard drive on which all those emails have been waiting to be reread, and manage to tap into them somehow. I sit among the boxes and the bags of clothes, devouring every word – and I laugh out loud, just as advertised. Though who knows, maybe I also discover that they aren’t quite as unrelentingly hilarious as I have long believed them to be. Maybe they are even a little poignant those letters, a telltale line toward the end of each: “So far I’m doing okay, fingers crossed” or “Nothing worrisome yet. I’m holding steady.”

How could there not have been that nod to my reality?

But then. . . even if so, there issomething else, as well. A glimmer. Unmistakable. A glimpse of the other woman I was that week. The irrepressible woman who saw humor everywhere she looked. Who cast herself in the role of ditzy heroine. The one who must have believed that this day of not defining herself by early sorrow would eventually arrive.

“Dear All,” she wrote to her worried family back home, “Just try to picture me like this. . .”

Robin Black Joins Gulf Coast as a blogger in Residence for the month of February. Stay tuned by subscribing to or bookmarking us!