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Leaning into my Strength

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Ray Shabir is a writer/poet who reflected on his work when the pandemic first struck. He scrapped his plans to publish his second book and spent time perfecting it. However, he couldn’t understand how “I was experiencing so much joy but so much pain as I was reading it.” Ray tells how writing poetry expresses his pain so he can “Heal from my trauma and to change from my past.” But to him, it was a “Seemingly useless effort on my part because you can't ever change the past that way.” Luckily Ray’s friends pointed out the positives, and he’s hoping his readers can validate their own pain through his.

I love this Janet Jackson mic.

So I gotta be honest with you all. I'm not the best storyteller. It's probably funny to be telling this in a storytelling event, but that's the truth. I'm Ray, and I'm a writer/poet. And the pandemic really made me think about a lot of things. It questioned why I do what I do, and whether or not I'm any good at it, you know? Also, the pandemic really put things in perspective as it's pretty funny for me to be acting like Carrie Bradshaw with my little MacBook at home while there's so much adversity and challenges in the world. So yeah, I'm just writing about heartbreaks or being queer or being queer in a third-world country. And honestly, I don't even queer that much. I don't wear heavy makeup. I mean, I don't wear dresses. Well, this is pretty dressy. I put a special one on tonight.

But yeah. I don't challenge society in any in-your-face kind of way. But I know I'm sad a lot. I sad more than I queer. But nobody ever introduced me as that sad writer. 'Cause to be fair, that'd be generalizing. A lot of writers are pretty sad. My friends anyway. But I think it's healthy to reassess things cos I had my Saturn return last year, and the pandemic happens. Yeah, it's nice to be able to pause, and take a little bit of a breather, and sit. Like what have I been doing all this time? What have I been even writing about? And I've realized I've made my literary career out of my own pain, as a lot of people do.

And my friend told me really great advice—that as a writer, you should really look for clarity. And that's what I try to do. I try to be honest every time in service of the work, and hopefully, in turn, the work will then pinpoint things in my life about what I need to focus on or what I need to highlight or underline or fix.

My first book was about me entering my core life crisis. It was kind of anxiety written. I was writing about this collective experience that me and my peers had. So I wrote about marriage, getting a job, moving out of apartments, getting your heart broken, making a CV, and stuff like that. And as time moves on, my anxiety for adulthood becomes less and less apparent because I was participating in life. I was doing the brunches. I was getting a job. I was partying up a little bit—too hard sometimes. It took me about one and a half years after that to figure out what would be my sophomore book. I thought I was gonna do a book of essays, but I think I'm so glad I didn't do that one 'cause I need to clock in more decades to share my life wisdom, I guess. And then I discovered that "Oh, my second book would be a poetry book."

And when I discovered that "Oh, my second book is gonna be a poetry book," the words would just start flowing, and the book would magically (it's not magic) finish itself. And it was done about the first week when coronavirus hit Indonesia. So I scrapped my plans to release it last year and kind of just sat with it, chilled with it a little bit, edited it, and perfected it. And what I realized during the months I was editing the book, I was so sad. I was so sad writing that book, and it didn't make sense to me cos I was so happy writing it. You know like, "Oh this ranks with this—cool. Okay. Put that in." But it doesn't make sense to me how incongruent everything was because how was I experiencing so much joy but so much pain as I was reading it back to me? It doesn't make sense.

And that's when I start to feel like I betrayed myself. This is why I don't think I'm a particularly good storyteller because my own first and only audience was me, and I didn't get it. That's kind of weird. And I began writing poetry when I was sixteen, and the truth is anything is anything. You can make up your own form. You have a story, a context, and imagery, and you can pair it up with a beautiful stanza, put a rhyme here and there. There's a structure to it. A no-structure structure, at least. But then an actual story would have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that's when I realized I've been telling my pain in a janky, rickety, abstract, metaphorical, with dragons and didn't have any closure in it.

But you know, I love poetry because I think it served me at times because it's a way for me to express myself, but also to hide on any given day. You wouldn't know how boring that thing I was writing about because I filled it with many colors inside. And whether it happens or not, that's kind of beside the point. At least it's out of me. I like being able to tell people that I used to cut when I was younger, whenever I feel lonely. Or my first sexual experience was I was drugged and abused or how two other times, two other different people tried to beat me up for me saying no to them.

And when people tell me I should disappear, I like to be able to express that sometimes I would like to follow suit. In the midst of all that, I kind of lost myself and let things kind of just happen to me. I mean, I don't really matter. So who gives a shit, you know? And what I realized is I made a book for my pain to heal from my trauma and to change from my past. But it was this beautiful, but seemingly useless effort on my part because you can't ever change the past that way, no matter how many books I've written, poetry I've read, or stages I take. It was an epic disappointment at my heart that sends me chain-smoking all day, thinking I should probably cut again because I cannot ever change the past that way.

And potentially, I did all those self-sabotaging things because I grew up feeling like I shouldn't exist. I made a book about trying to fix myself in my past and in the middle of it, I realized I couldn't do it, and I kind of gave up.

I'm not telling you so you think I'm a sad person. Honestly, I don't know where I'm going with this, but I know my story has value. And I have friends that tell me my story has value, but I just can't hold it alone any longer. I mean, I made those books, right? And then I hear stories from other people. And I just realize how many people are trying to fix the one they love or move on from their past or are trying to fix themselves. And I have to detach and unlearn the way I would self-sabotage in order to feel better and be better. My friends would remind me of glimpses of myself. And I just felt for the last ten years I was so angry and asleep, and my friends would have to slap me silly and remind me, "Look at how many good things that you did? Look what you have," you know?

That's the thing that kind of brought me back, I guess. I learned to lean into my strengths and just get on with it and push through. With this second book that I did recently, I didn't get what I expected, but I got something else instead. I was trying to reclaim my narrative and changing the past. And I love the way that I did it—that I did poetry, and that's pretty dope. And now icing that thing, trying to change things about myself is still with me, but I'm celebrating them instead of trying to shove it, and change it, and celebrate them. And I realize that my story is not gonna be only defined by pain.

I now feel blessed that I have so much more and realize that I have so much more. With my books, now I realize I can't be taking care of my own story alone, and I need to share it with people. And then, hopefully, they can see not only through my journey and my pain, but validate their own. And that's maybe how we all can be better storytellers.

Thank you.


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