On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.


  1. A wonderful, thoughtful post, Malin. So much here that I am resonating with, as I worked on a personal essay all day around a traumatic event in my own life, that I know shadows many others. And I chose to click on this link to read as a break! I suspect synchronicity at work.

    Hindsight is vital, I believe, for perspective on certain events. Yet, sometimes I can write from amongst the thick(et) of it. You need to trust your writerly instinct there, I think. Stay with the quiet until you are ready to speak. I’m sure it will resound with insight, complexity and courage when you do. X

    • Thank you, Adrea. Synchronicity does seem to be at work, doesn’t it? What you said about the writerly instinct, especially in a challenging emotional landscape, is spot on. It’s just when things get particularly intense that one needs to trust oneself the most. Not always easy or even intuitive, but sometimes very important. Thank you for your kind words – I’m so glad the post resonated, especially as I know you’ve been walking through difficult terrain yourself. May we both enjoy brilliant productivity on the other side! xx

  2. This is wonderful! Thank you for letting us into your process.

  3. You leave my breathless and almost speechless again. Sending you all the love and quiet you need. Xxx

    • Thank you, my lovely friend. You’re brilliant post sparked so much when I read it. Thank you for your clear-eyed perspective and compassion, and most of all, for your friendship. Xxx

  4. Malin – thank you, as ever, for sharing so much of yourself with us.
    You’ll never know the full impact your words have on your readers. Some may never comment, but I’m certain that they take a great deal away with them from what they see here, on your pages.

    We tend to avoid scrutinising our lives too closely (for fear of unearthing pain and not being ready to deal with it). So much easier to scoot those crumbs under the bed and pretend they aren’t there.

    I gain strength from your wisdom and your honesty Malin, and your desire to make sense of your ’emotional landscape’ and learn from it.

    You’re right that it takes time to gain perspective, and to decide how we truly feel. Sometimes, taking that step back and allowing ourselves the space to process is the only way forward.

    Thank you for encouraging us to be honest with ourselves.

    Sending tender hugs.

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