Maybe you don't "just know."
Against "trust your voice" / "trust your instincts" / "trust the process"
I’ve got new possibilities swirling for this project, especially after the workshop I recently led for neurodivergent writers. But first, I want to tell you about Finney. And we need to talk about trust.
This is a letter about saying goodbye to a dog, my sidekick and writing companion. And it’s also about the problem of “just knowing” as a writer, an artist, a creative person. Especially if, like me, you’re neurodivergent and still sorting out the messy lines between good instincts and long-held masks.
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Last week we made the very tough decision to say goodbye to our cavalier, my Finney Louise. He still had the eyes of a puppy, but behind them was a failing heart. He would have been nine years old this month. We managed his congestive heart failure for about a year and a half, but in the end, his symptoms started to outpace what the medicine could do.
This was the first time I helped a companion animal pass, and Finney was a special one. More than one person made a point to telling me he was my “once-in-a-lifetime dog.”
He came into my life as I was untangling things I’d tried to get help for many times before, a mix of complex trauma and what I would come to learn is intense ADHD. Finney was at my side through every medication trial, through every false start and false hope, through every migraine the process triggered. For the first time, I wasn’t alone in the pain. I felt less alien with him next to me. His rhythms—needing to eat, needing to sleep, needing to rest—taught me how to eat, how to sleep, how to rest. It was like finally having a circadian rhythm, but one externalized in the sweetest face and muppety paws that I could never ignore, even in the depths of hyperfocus.
There would be no such thing as “perfect” timing in saying goodbye to Finney, but I wanted to do my best to aim for good timing. Compassionate timing.
But even compassion is difficult to aim for. Compassion is easiest in the abstract. In practice, it might be the most painful kind of listening. To know when and where and how to apply compassion, you have to withstand seeing or feeling or hearing a person’s pain directly, as it actually is.
(If you refuse to meet the pain directly, my hunch is you risk letting your compassion morph into something more like pity. And I think pity is one of the saddest forms of love.)
So I tried to listen directly. I tried to watch closely, honestly. “I don’t want you to hurt,” I told Finney, “but maybe you could make it a little more obvious when you’re hurting, so I can decide?”
I asked people for guidance. Even with experts like veterinarians, the response I got was almost exclusively:
Oh, you’ll know. Believe me, you’ll just know.
He’ll tell you. You two are so connected. You’ll just know.
Congestive heart failure is terminal, so just manage the symptoms as long as you’re able. You’ll just know when it’s time.
I was recognizing changes in Finney, but I didn’t “just know” anything. Mostly I felt confusion, mixed with the cloud of grief that was getting closer and threatening to overshadow any chance I might have at clear knowing.
It started making me more angry, this insistence that I would “just know.”
Nothing about it was comforting. If the advice was meant to soothe or empower me, it did the opposite. The more I heard “you’ll just know,” the more isolated I felt.
It took me a good week to realize that “you’ll just know” was pissing me off in an older part of myself, beyond the part that was trying to decide for Finney.
There was something deeply invalidating about being told, over and over, that I should just trust that I would just know.
As I tussled with this again one night, the thought flew in:
This is why I never tell other writers to “just trust your instincts.”
I’ve always had an aversion to how flippantly the idea of trust gets thrown into workshops and creative spaces, but I’ve never entirely understood why.
I tend to feel a wall of nope when trust is turned into a command:
Trust the process.
Trust your instincts.
Trust your voice.
It’s not that easy for many of us. Probably most of us.
Trust is complex. It sounds active and commanding as a verb—maybe that’s why people toss it around so energetically, like simply saying it could make it so.
But if the process is new to you, what then?
If your instincts don’t simply flow, what then?
If your instincts are bound together with your hypervigilance, what then?
If your voice is sometimes your own but also the masks you wear, what then?
If the knowing doesn’t radically or gracefully emerge, what then?
If I don’t “just know” about my closest companion and when to say goodbye, what does that say about how well I have loved him?
Have I failed him, since I don’t feel the knowing?
If I don’t “just know” about a choice or creative process, what does that say about my connection to the work or (god forbid!) my so-called innate talent for it?
It’s not that trust doesn’t have a place in the process.
The problem is it is often misplaced.
Trust the process.
Trust your instincts.
Trust your voice.
Look how each of these moves trust to the front of the process.
Trust as a little god guarding the gate.
Whatever happens next hinges on whether or not you trust. Right now.
Trust as the price of admission.
This must be why I felt so adrift with deciding for Finney. I could listen, I could watch, but I had never done this before. How could I “just know”?
This is why I think we set fellow writers adrift when we tell them to begin with trust. For some of us, writing is the place where we are practicing toward something like trust. It can feel daunting.
Writing is where we are taking off our masks (maybe for the first time) and trying to listen for the true voice underneath.
If you ask me (tell me!) to trust before I even begin, then I have already lost.
What I really believe: Trust flows out of practice.
Let it never be the prerequisite to practice.
What I mean is:
You don’t have to trust anything to write.
You don’t have to trust your voice.
You don’t have to know what you know or do not know.
You don’t have to trust your instincts.
You put one word after the next, and the possibilities widen. Whether you trust them or not, as long as you write them down, you’ll have something to work with.
Some of my favorite writing has come from the most skeptical part of myself.
May our doubt be a catalyst.
Writing is flexible enough, generous enough, to hold it all.
If we demand trust as a condition of creating, we narrow the generosity.
It got easier to imagine a decision for Finney when I let go of trust or “knowing” as a condition for deciding. I kept reminding myself that it was my first time doing this.
I kept reminding myself that every decision I’ve made for him has been one of love—that is, an agreement to stay with the generosity.