H is for Honesty (in Writing and in Life)

Write as if your parents are dead. –Anne Lamott

When I attended AWP last month, in nearly every session someone asked some version of this question: “How can I write my story without hurting the other people in my life?” Other versions of this question include something like the following:

“How do you deal with your parents getting mad?”

“What if your friends stop talking to you?”

“What’s fair game in story telling? When does my story stop being mine?”

“What can I write about my kids? My spouse?”

That’s usually when I got up to leave. I didn’t think I needed to hear this question rehashed and re-answered. I thought I knew the answers. I thought I had figured out this puzzle, solved this riddle. I  had spent many years asking some version of this same question. And though I feel like I’ve wrestled it to the ground over the past several years, somehow it keeps popping up.

All of the writing books and books on creativity that I’ve read in the past few months have addressed The Question: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing is My Drink, by Theo Nestor, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Clearly this is a universal problem for writers, and obviously given the plethora of revealing, heartfelt, truth-telling memoirs, many authors have pushed beyond their fears. As Nestor points out in her lovely book, “the writers we really admire and adore are the ones who are willing to take a risk and say what most wouldn’t dare.”

But how do they do manage?

Here’s the basic, most essential bottom line for me: if I don’t write it, I will never have to worry about who reads it. In other words, there is a huge long process to be navigated before anyone will ever read my writing. If I just stay in the place of worry and keep all of my words inside for fear of being judged or misunderstood, I will never be a writer.

The fear of never being a writer trumped my fear of what people might think about me and what I wrote. I managed to set aside my worries about offending people and settled in to write. After all, I started in a memoir writing class where no one knew me—fuck it if they didn’t like what I wrote. I had nothing to lose but my nagging fears of never being a writer.

But they did like what I wrote, and their liking my words, their positive feedback, and their support bolstered my courage. A few of us in the writing group still worried about our parents in particular, but we banded together, encouraged one another, and urged each other to write our truths and worry later when we actually had a publisher about who was going to be offended.

****

I have so many fears about speaking and writing my truths—paramount among them was the notion that somehow I would tell my story wrong, that I would put my story down and someone would say to me “nuh uh, that did not happen.” I hardly felt strong enough to write my story, let alone defend it. I had no idea when I started writing my memoir that I would find myself in that position so soon. When I wrote the essay “Body Language” that eventually appeared in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, I thought I was just writing another chapter in the long slog that was my unpublished memoir. So, I was able to tell my truths without worrying too much about who might read them. But then, the piece was accepted into the anthology and publication became a reality.

Two of my fears came to pass, sort of. The piece was picked up by The Friendly Atheist, a blog on patheos.com and reprinted in full. I had steeled myself for my family’s reaction to what I wrote, but I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with the online comments. My mom could accept my truths about my experiences growing up, but she recoiled from the commenters who labeled her as cruel, who said she should be punished.  The saddest result for me was that she felt like she couldn’t come to any of the readings for fear she’d be judged.

The other thing that happened was that my brother, having read my essay, looked at me and said “did we grow up in the same family? I do not remember any of this.” For a moment I assumed he was challenging my version of events, but what I realized after I pondered it (and talked to my therapist about it, of course) was that yes, in fact, we had grown up in different versions of the same family. As the eldest sibling, by four years, as a girl child, I did have a different upbringing than he did. He was 14 when my story took place—there was no reason in the world he would have known about the events. It was, truly, my story to tell.

****

The other part of this truth-telling, honesty, being vulnerable on the page thing is something I am still coming to grips with, and that is the creation of a persona. I am not the narrator of my story. The narrator is the narrator. In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro addresses the notion of exposure toward the end, in a section entitled, fittingly, Exposure. She tells the story about a woman who approaches the author Frank McCourt and says to him “I feel like I know everything about you!” to which he responds “Oh darlin’, it’s just a book.”

Shapiro goes on to explain that yes, while we may feel like we are flinging open the doors of our lives to the world, we are actually choosing what to reveal. We are not, she reminds us, writing a diary or stripping naked.  As much as I feel like I leave a good portion of myself on the page, there is so much more that I do not write about. I employ, in the words of my therapist, discernment. Occasionally to make a point I will use hyperbole. I become a character. The people in my life become characters: The Little Woman, The Children, My Therapist. Crazy Neighbor Lady.

Telling a greater truth by manipulating the day to day unfolding of our lives is a tricky concept, one that gets almost as much attention as how can we write our stories without offending anyone. But as Nestor points out (sort of via Vivian Gornick): “The story is the magic that the writer creates out of the events, the brew of insight, metaphor, and voice that renders the events meaningful.”

No writer I know wants to sit on Oprah’s couch and go through what James Frey went through. But there’s a difference between lying (passing off as truth what never actually happened) and rearranging the facts in order to better tell our stories, to better get at the larger truth, the Take Away.

Honesty in story telling is a dance. As writers, I think we seek connection with others through our words, and we can only authentically connect when we make ourselves vulnerable but we can’t just vomit our emotions on to the page. We have to shape, add, subtract, mold. We have to use our imaginations, as Nestor points out, to forge a coherent, universal story out of our personal experiences.

On Failing Better

It’s been a tough week, wrapping up with finals, keeping up with my wifely duties (mostly being door person to the cats), and contemplating a new direction in life in the form of grad school (starting in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Antioch University in April). Yesterday I attended orientation–and I’m excited to get going. That said, I’ve been wrestling with my writing too–what it means, how I do it, what will happen to it once I start school. I’m thinking there will be an intersection for me, a sweet spot between counseling and writing. Not sure yet what it will look like, but I suspect I will find it.

Mostly though I’ve been thinking about what it means to write, to be a writer. How I relate to the world via the written word.  Starting this blog a day commitment almost three weeks ago has reinforced much of what I already know–that nothing works quite so well as putting my butt in the chair–that usually even if I don’t think I have anything to say, if I just sit down and start writing, something will manifest. Not everything will be deep or terribly meaningful, but every now and then I hit on something I can work with, mold into more meaning. I’m turning out some shitty first and final drafts because oftentimes they are one and the same.

The blog isn’t a great format for me for in-depth explorations as I haven’t been devoting enough time to it. I write a piece and then spend the next few hours or days after posting thinking I should take it down, thinking “oh man, I should have said x and done more research so I could have said y” and generally wishing I was smarter or more thoughtful with more time and a deeper commitment. So many times I find blogs and articles on exactly my point that are far more articulate, funnier, and published in actual publications. And I berate myself further.

I started reading Dani Shapiro’s lovely new book Still Writing today on the plane today. I’ve been toting it around with me for several days now, waiting for the right moment to break into it. Today I needed to read what she had written. She writes about the inner censor, the one that sits on the writer’s left shoulder and says things like “that’s stupid” and “how boring” and “you’re wasting your time.”  Anyone who creates anything knows this voice intimately. We know to get any work done we have to ignore her, silence her, wrestle her to the ground and say “look bitch, I’m going to fucking write so just fucking fuck off.” She will sometimes slink away for a bit.

I’ve noticed the Censor doesn’t come around so much when I’m writing haikus. Ironically (is that the right use of this word Kari Neumeyer?), the daily haiku practice, of which I’ve written about  twice now (here and here), has actually been good for my writer’s ego. I get more bang for my syllabic buck with the haiku. For one thing, I have a venue in which I post and in that venue, a closed Facebook group, I’ve found a thriving community full of cheerful support and thoughtful feedback.

I’ve shared some of my haikus with other folks as well, people I know in real life, offline as it were (email is so luddite, it practically counts as being offline, don’t you think?). My commitment to writing a haiku a day has inspired others to do the same. Some people have shared theirs with me–a haiku exchange. I’ve found kindred spirits–it’s not everyone who understands what it means to distill an experience or a feeling or a sensation down to 17 intentional syllables. Even fewer people get excited about the process. Here it is less about ego and more about connection. There’s something holy there, sacred. A communion:

I attend haiku church
Words and syllables offered,
Received. Communion.

Words live on my tongue
Like communion, and sweet wine
Come closer, receive

(I love that I can use all of that religious imagery from my childhood to illuminate my love of writing and poetry. Finally.)

I love too that poetry is mystery–the making of it is a strange alchemy, and even when words are so intentionally selected, the meanings from person to person vary wildly. Poetry engages the imagination in a way that prose doesn’t. I know this may not be news to most of you, but I’m late to the poetry lovefest. I didn’t ever think I could enjoy poetry, let alone write it until recently someone put it in front of me and said read, this is great, expansive, mind blowing stuff. It is.

Writing is powerful, transformative medicine–for the reader and for the writer. As Dani Shapiro says

“the page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face to face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego–and also with your singular vision, guts, and attitude . . . life is usually right out there, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up and dust ourselves off, and begin again.”

This place, I think, in the failing, the sitting up, the beginning again, is where my career in counseling will intersect with what I know and love about writing.

Writing, Always with the Writing

A week ago Sunday I returned from a lovely few days of basking in writerly goodness—a writing retreat to Lummi Island, two events featuring Cheryl Strayed in the ‘ham, and then four days at AWP in Seattle. Coming down over the past week has been a gentle process. I’ve been motivated to work. This blog a day thing is keeping me writing. The daily haikus, too. I’m also reading a lot about writing. I finished Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing is My Drink—wonderful book, motivating, inspiring. I just bought Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. I had the privilege of hearing her read a bit from it at AWP. Can’t wait to read it.

Currently I’m reading  Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The first edition of this book came out in 2001 and it’s currently in it’s 13th printing, so it’s done quite well for a slim volume on art.

I noticed on the end cap on the Memoir section at Village Books the other day—I’m always hovering around the Memoir section, hoping something will happen (irrational, I’m aware)—and there it was, speaking to me as so many of the books do. I passed it by twice before I finally gave in and bought it.

I’m not quite half way through as I type this—turns out it is one of those books best savored over a couple of weeks rather than inhaled overnight. Every night I pick it up and read a few pages. I toss it in my book bag as well and take it with me in case I have time to read something other than my iPhone during the day.

Here’s the first line from the first chapter:  “Making art is difficult.” I’m hooked. Go on. The book seeks to answer, I think, these questions:  If art is so damn hard, how does it even get done at all? What are the obstacles that artists must overcome to create?

I only have to get to page four to find this nugget:  “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do and what you did.” Isn’t that the truth? How different is that paragraph I just wrote from the one that I thought I was going to write five minutes ago? The paragraph in my head practically danced off the page it was so lively, but now there’s this big brown poop pile of words that I actually typed and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what I intended to type. Why is that?

Bayles and Orland would argue that we need to type out many, many ugly piles of mediocre art in order to get to the one golden paragraph, the golden paragraph that shines the proverbial light in the inevitable darkness. Our job, the authors so helpfully point out, is to learn from our work. They say that “the function of the overwhelming majority of [our] artwork is to simply teach [us] how to make the small fraction of [our] artwork that soars.” We learn to work by doing our work.

Everyone has said this in every writing book I’ve read: Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Theo Nestor, Natalie Goldberg, Dani Shapiro are who pop into my  head at the moment. . . we have to put our butts in the chairs, we have to churn out shitty first drafts, we have to live in The Cave. We have to do the work. Cheryl Strayed said it last week when she was in town for Whatcom Reads. Multiple panelists at AWP said it last week. The book is not going to write itself, the painting won’t paint itself.

They also stress the importance of audience. Most people quit producing art when they lose their audience. For many folks, this time comes immediately after finishing school because our audience is suddenly gone. No more teachers, classmates, peers, student showings. It all vanishes and no one has taught us how to find our audience.

The authors make two recommendations. First, make friends with others who make art and share your work. Second, start to think less about showing your work in, say, MoMa, and more about showing it to those friends who make are.

I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that for me, there are two realities about writing—at least for me. The first is that no matter how much I think about writing something, nothing happens until I start actually writing. The second thing is that community is good. A writing community—being among so many writers, so many people with the same purpose, last week awakened the sleeping lazy writer in me. If all these people can write books, so can I. Because they are here to talk about it—they are here to help, to light the way, to pat me on the back, and to just sit across the table from me behind another laptop, working with me.