One of the giant, impossible, gnarliest questions nearly all writers face is how to handle the people in their lives, particularly the people who might people their stories. Of course this is a theoretical question at first. And is handled as such in writing classes and groups and in discussions with writing gurus. Sometimes the fear is simply dismissed as a worry for amateurs. If we don’t write something, anything, nothing will ever be published, rendering our worries moot.
Published writers have expounded upon this fear in encouraging fashion, and I’ve long been an adherent to Anne Lamott’s pithy comments on the subject: “Write as if your parents are dead” and “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Because if I didn’t believe this while I’m writing, I’d be paralyzed with anxiety, even more paralyzed than is normal for a writer.
At some point, if one is a serious writer, this concern blithely traipses across that line from theoretical to real. And this is what we serious writers want, what we yearn and ache for . . . that our work, our words, our views gain traction in the world and have lives of their own. Writing is not unlike having kids—we nurture, feed, hone, discipline, stay up at night, worry, fret, and finally let them loose to have lives of their own, and nothing prepares us for what comes next because we just don’t know, we no longer have control.
We celebrate. Publication parties, excited phone calls. Flowers. Like a graduation, an 18th birthday. Ours but no longer ours. Reflections on us forever it seems. And so.
I have always wanted to be a writer, but for many years did not write due to fear, fear that my words would be misunderstood, misinterpreted, used against me; fear that my words, my experiences would wound, maim, alienate, damage. I can trace that fear back to a specific incident, and what I learned then was this: I am not okay. Who I am, my deepest most intimate thoughts and experiences, the ones I dared to commit to paper are all wrong. Wrong, bad, evil even.
I hadn’t written a Unabomber manifesto or a hate-filled credo, simply a love story, a story between two teenage girls, the thralls of first love, the whispers, the profound moments of stolen passion, found time. The untimelydiscovery of this story scrawled in my loopy teenaged hand set me on a path that has led me directly to this day, yesterday, and the day before that. The past month, the last two years when I started taking my writing seriously again.
That story, the one that launched me into a world of trouble and onto the path that found me here, found the light of day again in a recently published anthology, and then again as it was reprinted by The Friendly Atheist Blog at patheos.com which is where I think my mom must have read it. She’s known for a good while now that I had an essay that would be published, and she knew the general context of the story, but she wasn’t prepared for the reality of my words. This time though, she’s not mortified by who I am or the story I am telling, but by her actions at the time, the beliefs she (and my father) held then, the ways in which these beliefs colored and shaped my life.
She emailed me a couple of weeks ago after I’d blogged about being raised Christian fundamentalist and the resulting damage to my psyche. She emailed to apologize and to beg forgiveness. I wrote back easily, telling her that forgiveness had long ago won out, that I no longer held that anger. We’ve been close in the past twenty some years, my mom and I. She’s been my biggest champion. I think I can write now about what happened then because I know we have a good relationship.
So I was sad when she emailed yesterday, telling me she wouldn’t be able to come to my reading and the book launch party for Beyond Belief on Sunday. She thought she might cry and be embarrassed and she still felt really awful about all of the Christian craziness of my childhood. She asked for my forgiveness, again. I reiterated what I’d said a few weeks ago: We are good. We have come to this place from those times. I forgive you. I love you.
My mother has her own stories. We all do. We own them. We can’t let fear in any of its guises (shame, guilt,vulnerability, martyrdom) silence us because then fear has won.