The Trouble with Writing
The trouble with writing every single day is that sometimes I have nothing to say. I suppose this is not strictly true, because I have plenty rolling around in my head and heart. The problem is that not all stories are mine to tell. This is the lesson I’ve learned (and keep learning) the hard way.
In her book on writing, Anne Lamott says “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I remain unconvinced, and schools of thought diverge around this issue wildly. In every writing class I’ve ever taken (which admittedly is only 3 of them), authors/instructors describe their own differing approaches to this issue.
So what do I do with the hard stuff I’m wrestling through? How do I get it down for posterity and/or my own learning process that happens most readily through writing? The answer, perhaps, is that I don’t, at least not publicly. I can scribble all I want in my actual journal, far from the ever-seeing and always-judging eyes of the internet.
Is there a way, though, to talk about my neighbors and friends and family, my kids even, and do it with dignity and love? I’m not sure. There is always, immediately, a power differential, because I am the one telling the story. I am choosing which words to include and which to leave out. I pick quotes and details, I shape the landscape with my words. I remember things the way I saw them and heard them, not necessarily the way they actually happened. I pen myself, perhaps, into a softer light or a harsher one, depending on how I feel that morning. I craft the truth as carefully as possible and yet it still eludes.
I have been written about before, and I hated it. Seeing myself, my home, our lives, through the eyes of a journalist made me embarrassed and blush-y. Like why would I have said that? Or that’s not what I meant when I made that comment. The author had the power to choose how she heard what I said and then how she shared it, and I was appalled at the person she felt like I was. Maybe this example is more the case that I see myself in a more flattering light than I actually appear, like the difference between my favorite mirror next to the lamp casting soft shadows and the florescent lights/three-way-mirrors at the mall fitting room. Which one tells the truth about who I am? Both? Neither?
How can I adequately explain that I love my neighborhood dearly and find beauty in the broken crib beside the road, but also that I hate the ways it is changing with the marching advance of gentrification? How do I describe the young moms we work with who are heroes and work diligently against tall odds to create beauty for their children, but are also woefully unprepared and under-supported as the pressures of motherhood swell? How do I tell you about the young man who picked up a gun and made a terrible mistake? Or the family left sitting in the wake of that mistake, two families actually, lives lost and found and lost again.
Perhaps for now, or forever, the tension of this burden will be enough to still my pen (or keyboard). I will carry their stories in my chest and scrawl their secrets in my journal. My body will ache under the weight of it, and some days I will not want to emerge from under my covers. But they do and so I will too. They go to school and to work carrying their own stories and the unbearable weight of them, they pay their bills and hope the government shutdown doesn’t mean they will lose their home because their housing voucher and their food stamps are in peril. They do not despair, they have hope. And so it’s a complicated story, and the ways we tell it will cast soft shadows like a gentle lamp or sharp ones from the bright overhead buzzing florescent bar.