I Lied. I said I wasn’t going to post any old material to the blog unless I had reworked it, but I found this in my papers and felt it was important. This was one of the writing exercises that my Biography Professor (subsequently my Thesis professor) gave me. It explores the reasons I read and the reasons I write. Enjoy:
Growing up, I read a lot. When I was learning to read, my parents had to force me to sit down with a book every day; after I got the hang of it though, they couldn’t get me to stop. Throughout middle school and high school I would go to the library with two canvas sacks and pick out fifteen to twenty books, check them out, take them home, read them all before they were due, then return them, and get fifteen to twenty more. I am a little less obsessive now, mainly because I have better discernment as to what may be a good book. I also have friends with similar tastes who can make recommendations, book lists, and book store proprietors that I can consult. I think I used to check out so many books in the hope that I would find maybe three or four that made me feel something outside of the normal every day spectrum of feeling. Coming from a middle class, white, suburban family, I have never really been faced with much adversity, persecution, or even resentment. So there is a set of feelings that I cannot really feel by just looking at my own life. C.D. Wright once said, “You live well the slums must be inside you.” I live well, and I think I read in order to get in touch with my inner slums.
Looking back at the stories that meant the most to me when I was a little girl, I notice that every single one was centered on a strong-willed, independent, outspoken girl. I was in love with stories like The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Heidi, National Velvet and basically any book written by Tamora Pierce. I was a timid child. I was loud, bossy, but it was because I was nervous and insecure. I still do it today; I get bitchier when I am nervous, I bristle like a porcupine. But the things I admired in those girls were the fact that they were all confident, collected, cool. It would have taken me a lot longer—without them—to become confident, collected, and cool.
Middle school brought on a deluge of science fiction and fantasy novels. I was addicted to anything by Andre Norton, Mercedes Lackey, or Anne McCaffrey. This is clearly when hormones kicked in, and since I had no idea what passion was I went looking for it in books that typically had good, if not typical, love stories. I had to look for it in books because there was no way my acne ridden, greasy haired, calculator bearing, pubescent self was going to attract anyone. So I read books.
Now I find myself gravitating towards darker material, stories that are, or can be true. Up to this point I have suffered no major loss. All of my grandparents, save one, are alive. My relationships with my immediate family are all healthy, thriving. The thing my brother and I fight about now is over his clothes. I think of his wardrobe as an extension of my own and he thinks of his wardrobe as his. He keeps saying that I am going to stretch out all his sweaters in the wrong places. I usually tell him to shove it. The point right now is that my inner slums have no outer stimulus, so to give them release I have to look in books. I am currently in love with Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. He wrote it in a month—then died. Hans was interred in a Nazi insane asylum; the book is understandably tragic. I read Primo Levi’s Se Questo è un Uomo (If this is a man), a memoir written shortly after his release from Auschwitz. I loved Shantaram, a novel loosely based on the author’s experiences as an escaped Australian convict who suffered through imprisonment, torture, war, drugs, and love in Bombay. I read these because on my own I cannot understand what it is to be hungry, tortured, lost, conflicted, or even heartbroken. I am whole, unbattered, with no bruises on my psyche.
I still enjoy fiction; I still find meaning in fiction. But I find myself reading more and more material that is at least based on some sense of reality. I think I have reached a point in my life where I want to know more about lives of people who have actually lived or are living. I want to learn things from people who are, or were, real. There is so much that can be learned from the contrived. All that man has created stems from our own existence, even if it means imagining what our existence is not. But for me, right now, I am driven to read things that reflect our world more directly. Hans Fallada’s Everyman Dies Alone is beautiful, it made me cry, it got me to feel, but reading Constantine’s Sword by James Carrol, though slightly more boring, was even more moving because it wasn’t made up.
Going through the list of books that I have fallen in love with I begin to understand that I read in order to feel. I read to have feelings that I do not typically have on my own. I read in order to get a better understanding of what it means to be human in all our various, complicated, and contradictory forms. I believe, maybe naively, that this makes me a better person. I like to think it helps me better understand compassion, empathy, sympathy and charity. I read in order to understand what it is to be all the things that I am not.
I really started writing my freshman year of high school. My English teacher, Mr. Marini, had us all make writer’s journals. We looked through piles of magazines and cut out pictures and words that we liked, glued them to the outside of a college-ruled composition notebook, and then covered the whole thing in clear packaging tape. Mine was covered in romantic looking French castles, an elephant that had a note pinned to its butt saying “I love you two tons!”, and a picture of a yellow chewed pencil. We were tasked with writing in it every day, and I have not stopped. Now on my eighth journal, I have come to rely on my writing. In the way that I read to feel things I can’t understand on my own, I write to understand the things that I do feel. The writing that I have done for classes, the writing I am most proud of, also reflects this. When I write I typically choose topics that I don’t completely understand. The act of writing helps me to work through what I think, to form an opinion, to understand.
Last semester I took a class titled Spiritual Travel Writing. All the traveling was internal, and all the writing was describing that internal journey. We wrote four papers, each autobiographical. In the first piece I wrote about religion, because I didn’t understand it. I wrote it to ask myself what I believe and to work out systematically the things that I know I don’t. The second piece begged the question: what is the point of spending 130,000 dollars on a diploma. Because, to this day, I still do not know how to justify spending that much money on myself. For the third piece I wrote about my mother, nudity, and chastity. Because a mother-daughter relationship is complicated by teenage angst, questions about sexuality, and the motherly expectation of chastity. The final paper I wrote about my grandfather. He has lived an amazing life: raised three children, marched with Martin Luther King (had dinner with him too), fought in World War Two, graduated from Yale Divinity, and even after all of this he wants more. He is insatiable, which leaves him feeling sad, unfulfilled, and regretful. This is all compounded by the fact that he is suffering from severe dementia and spends his days moving between his bed, the kitchen table, and the couch. His once, broad, multinational world has narrowed to the confines of one small house, in one small town, in southern Texas. But I choose to write about him because he is living through a hell that I cannot understand. I know what it is for me to sit on the couch next to him, to answer the same question five times in a row, and to remind him that I am the older sibling, that my brother, Corey, is younger than me. But I do not know what it is to sit there and have to ask the same question five times, nor do I know what it is to forget which of my grandchildren came first.
I guess it all comes down to questions. When I start writing something I usually ask myself: what about this do I not understand? What can I not relate to? What baffles me? And then I write in order to answer those questions, or at least try to. For the third project for my biographical writing class I want to write about my friend Matt. He is religious, believes that Christianity is the only way for salvation, goes to bible camp every summer, church every Sunday, and youth group every Wednesday. Yet he sleeps around, smokes pot and cigarettes, and gets drunk on a regular basis. I do not understand how someone can live with such contradictions. I want to know how he rationalizes the two halves of himself. Maybe by interviewing him, writing about him, I will maybe be able to face some of my own contradictions and examine how I rationalize them.
What I want to accomplish with my writing is a scarier question. Obviously I have my own personal reasons and goals for writing. But I would be lying if I did not admit that one of my main hopes in writing is to affect a reader. I hope that by struggling with my own questions someone somewhere will read my writing and find some of their own answers, or even just feel compelled to start asking their own questions. When I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, I was struck by a paragraph near the end, “I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again” (Kidd 301). Until that moment, I don’t think I understood forgiveness. I had always thought that forgiveness was a onetime declarative act: I forgive you. And I was always frustrated when I found myself feeling vengeful towards someone or something I had forgiven. I had never thought of forgiveness as a continuing act, something we have to do over and over again until it sticks. I want someone to read my own work, be it fiction or nonfiction, autobiographical or biographical, and be smacked in the face with some bit of truth. I don’t care if it is only one sentence, one paragraph, or a page. I want someone to walk away from my work with the sense that they have learned something about themselves, or someone else, or the world.