Amy Writes Words
Amy Writes Words
How to be creative when your back's against the wall, bell hooks tribute edition

How to be creative when your back's against the wall, bell hooks tribute edition

Amy Writes Words #25

This is a cross-post from my other newsletter, woe, which you should also subscribe to. I had not intended to send any newsletter this week, and now somehow I’m sending both.

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Here you go:

It's 10 pm EST, and I already said I wasn't going to send a Woe this week. I've had some intense meetings. My son is just home from college. I am busy preparing a two minute comment to my local school committee on the topic of how, seeing as we are all basically exhausted and all our kids seem to be pretty wrecked by this worldwide disaster we have been enduring together, perhaps we should not complain to our teachers that they are not doing enough for our kids but recognize that those of us still working from home in our million dollar condos should, rather, ask what we can be doing for our teachers. There is no more downhill for this shit to roll. Everyone is maxed out. We need to support one another, and in this instance that means me showing up for my child's teachers, the way they've been showing up for my kids for years and years now.

Anyhow, I did not decide suddenly to send this issue of Woe in order to tell you about the 2 minute public comment I am drafting in support of the teacher's union.

Well, maybe I did.

I've been giving you many tips about how not to burn out the people around you with your despair. But the reality is that we are all burning out, even the people who started out kind of okay. And what that means for us as individuals and for us collectively as humans, in this very hard time with no end in sight, is that we need to figure out how to do some things that are not so easy, and they are especially not so easy for people who are by nature already in despair.

We, humans, we need to figure out how to find creative solutions to problems when our backs are up against the wall. Long-term stress and exhaustion don't lend themselves to expansive, creative work, generally speaking. If you want people not to have the will or the time or the energy to organize to make change, wear them out. Make them fill out paperwork and navigate phone menus and spell their names over the telephone a million times even though they already sent an email with their name clearly spelled in it. Run them ragged with requirements. Tire them out with exhortations to "do more with less" even when there is obviously more available to some, just... not to all.

This is a fundamental problem for the individual who is suffering, this exhaustion that leads to an inability to imagine alternatives, and it is a fundamental problem for a society that is suffering too, when we are all too individually tired to imagine alternatives.

So the question, then: what helps people be creative when their backs are up against the wall, when they're tired, when they're dispirited, when they are out of ideas, when they are hopeless? The answer to that question is pertinent not only to those of us who were born inconsolable. It is pertinent to us all, in this moment, as we collectively face a series of slow-rolling ongoing minor apocalypses, while continuing to try to keep calm and carry on according to rules that are so unreasonable they will kill us all even before the pandemic does, even before the climate change gets to us all, we'll all just die of existential despair.

But we do not have to die of existential despair. There are people who have been teaching about this, writing about this, living it, for a long time now, there are technologies we can use to turn our energies to the work of surviving together in some kind of world worth living for.

bell hooks, RIP, was one of those teachers. There are many others. I can add some tricks myself to this bag of miracles, and you probably can too. The time to teach and learn how to do this is now, and the people who need to do it is all of us, yes, even me, even you, feeling like we're barely holding on, can't possibly take a breath and make a change, move something different in the world.

We can. We have. We will.


Last week I was reading Pleasure Activism, by Adrienne Marie Brown. She made a reference in the book to a bell hooks essay I hadn't read before, or had read and forgotten "Love as the Practice of Freedom" , which I then found online and printed out and read. In the essay bell hooks quotes from Joanna Macy's book World as Lover, World as Self, and the words she quotes are these: "The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies." I read them and I thought yes, this is it exactly.

The goal is not to push the despair away, it's to turn the energy of our pain, our despair at so much destruction, to turn it so it flows toward creation, so as we grieve we are also joyfully celebrating whatever new world we are bringing into being, us, together, backs against the wall, allowing ourselves to take those breaths and feel that grief and love one another and make something new.

That, friends, is the thing I think I'm here to do, and it's why I write these newsletters and it's the sales pitch of the book that I want to make out of the words that I've been writing about this -- a handbook for the panicked, overwhelmed, delusional, hysterical, the exhausted, the hypochondriacal, the suicidal, the self-hating -- a handbook for our most hopeless selves on how to make hope real in the world, for us all.

Because if the most congenitally hopeless of us can do it, well, then so can we all.


Thanks for attending my sermon. I am serious about the book, by the way. It is the thing that I have been talking about for months now, for years, that I couldn't quite explain. If you think this sounds like something you might read or you know an editor or an agent or you want to help me write the book proposal let me know.

At the same time, I am self-conscious about the idea that I might have something important to add to this conversation when so many people are all doing this work and have been teaching these things for such a long while now, much better than me. Like, am I saying I have stuff to say that is important in the way the things bell hooks said were important?

But then I remembered a thing that bell hooks herself wrote, and I am consoled: "Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’ … No woman has ever written enough.”

There is room in the world for every word I have to write that helps to turn despair. I might not believe it in my head but I do believe in my heart that words I write reach people other words didn't reach in ways that other people couldn't have done. All of this matters. Every damn sparrow. Each tired woman laying her head down to rest, taking a breath. We matter.

Let me put a tiny spark of hope in your heart today and then take a very long breath in. I have some words on how we can blow on that spark and make it a flame, and I expect they will come, but right now I need to lay my head down and rest.

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I gave a talk at Rubyconf 2021, on debugging product teams. If this sounds interesting and useful, well, good news: I’m trying my hand at making courses and I’m going to be turning this talk into a whole course. Sign up here to be notified about it.


Holidays, mostly. But stay tuned, I’m thinking about some more cool ideas for educational content for engineering managers.

Engineering Career Coaching:

Wondering what the next step in your career should be? New tech lead or manager? Complicated work stuff you don’t know how to resolve? Just want to get overall more effective at work? Need to talk about your exclamation points? I offer bracingly-realistic, always-actionable, strengths-focused and individually-tailored engineering career and leadership coaching; check out this info or email me and ask about it.

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Unrelated projects:

Reminder that I started another newsletter: “Woe: Mental Health Tips You'll Hate From The Saddest Woman In the World” and you can subscribe here: It’s a weekly on Wednesdays short newsletter I’ll be offering at least through the end of the year. It’s also sometimes an advice column so if you have a question you’d like answered in Woe then hit me up!

Also, 50,000 selfies later, I now do portrait photography and modeling. Get in touch if you’re in the Boston area and you want a portrait or you need a model.

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Amy Writes Words
Amy Writes Words
Amy Writes Words, the newsletter, only in podcast form so you can listen to it instead of read it. I have not figured out the footnotes situation yet.