Monday, December 15, 2008

My Sugar is Raw

The inaugural blog on The Spinster Chronicles has been met with a mix of criticism and praise. Those who have read my blogs from previous venues have probably come to expect the uncensored, candid nature in which I write, while newcomers have simply said, “nice piece of writing.” The criticism so far has been from people that feel personally attacked by what I’ve written, which I knew going into this was a possibility. There are two things I want to say about writing.

The first is this: In order to write well, you must write about what you know about.

I’ve kept a journal since I was 11 years old. The journals evolved into years of crappy poetry throughout high school, and when I left for Italy as an exchange student the summer after I graduated, they became a way for me to console myself. During those first few months living in a foreign country, in a house with complete strangers that I could not understand, I found a retreat within my journal where my emotions, fears and thoughts hung on the page as proof that I was making it through another day. As things got better, the journal evolved yet again and became a time capsule for the life I started to live so passionately. I realized that living abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I would never be able to recreate the nuances and small moments that made it so special. Sure I would always remember going to Venice, or experiencing my first Christmas away from home, but it was the smaller things I wanted to capture. Moments like laughing with my friend Roberta the day she realized I had no idea how to use an European public bathroom (i.e. A hole in the floor you must squat over). Or the magic I felt when I heard myself sharing a dialog with someone in full Italian...realizing that I was hearing and understanding a string of words in a foreign language and responding with my own words and phrases in a full-blown fluent conversation.

The journal became a hybrid of a scrapbook and an autobiography, capturing my life each day. It layered factual descriptions of trips taken and sights seen, with the emotional fall-out of missing home, and the sentiments of a young love brewing on the shores of Lake Como. One page is decorated with leaves from the running path that wove its way through the foothills of the Alps, glued there as souvenirs for simple breaths on a crisp day. Other pages are stark white with only a few scrolling thoughts penned in fine-point Sharpie off in the corner. The journal became so much more than just a place to dump thoughts. It became a textured commentary of the woman I was becoming, and the one that I wanted to be.

I came home from Italy with four completed notebooks, each one with contents that outgrew the confines of the tightly woven spine, spewing all of my mundane treasures outside of the book like a pirate’s chest overflowing with gold coins and rare gems. So valuable were these books to me, that I purchased a fire-proof box to keep them in.

Throughout college, I continued to document my life as if one day it might be an interesting tale for someone to stumble upon. There are times when I imagine this “someone” being my daughter, or grand-daughter, or even great grand-daughter. Someone who might want to see a little of themselves in their ancestors from way back in 2002. It is that idea that inspires me to be so very raw when I write. I’m writing about what I know about. My life. I am not an expert in anything, or a famous person with a book deal, or a person with a tale of drug addiction, sexual abuse, or living in the wild for years by myself. I am an average person who enjoys writing about average things. I want to perfect the syntax of the Average Joe. The common denominator of the human experience. Who am I to write about all of this? What is it that I think I know about?

I know about status meetings that happen on Tuesday mornings.

I know about road construction on the highway I have to drive on every day.

I’m an expert at waiting in line at the grocery store behind someone writing a check and feeling myself age in the process.

I happen to be somewhat talented at getting mascara smudges on my face.

For years now, I have been practicing the art of being obsessive compulsive over the placement of my remote control on the coffee table.

My point is that I know about nothing of great importance, really...but I’ve become pretty good at capturing an environment, a moment in time, a scene in the filmstrip of everyday life. I cannot write fiction. I have tried. My computer is where Chapter Ones come to die. No matter how much I try to put my life experience behind a fictional tale with characters “based on” me or my life, I cannot generate anything that feels organic. I think I find so much to say about the actual world around me, that I don’t feel the need to try and write about a fictional world somewhere deep in my creative psyche.

The second thing I want to say about writing, is that it is a craft, and in my opinion, a kind of art.

Given that, it is meant to be moving in some way. One of my favorite quotes about art is from the show Six Feet Under , when Olivier the pretentious art teacher expounded that good art should literally make people vomit. I couldn’t agree more. A safe piece of writing is one that will please all audiences, apologize for how it might hurt, and play nice for everyone. In this day and age, it will be mindful of race, color, sex, religion, class and vernacular. It will stay inside the lines so to not come off offensive to anyone. It will never make you vomit, but it will never move you either. Few people will connect with a piece of writing that wasn’t allowed to have the teeth it needed to pierce someone’s soul.

I think there is nothing more profound than realizing the moment you tap into another person’s soul. Whether it’s falling in love or bonding with someone through similar experiences or just finding some inexplicable, intangible alignment with another person’s fabric, it is an awesome thing to realize you are at one with something inside of someone else. We can find this through music, or through our sense of touch, and by talking to each other and learning of our similar paths or goals. But here is the secret to finding it at all: it requires raw emotion.

So much of who we are and how we feel is broadcast to the world in an edited fashion. Consider your soul is nestled somewhere within, not so far from your heart. It is mere inches from the outside world in its raw form, yet any attempt to communicate its contents generally yields some “user friendly” version of what you’re really feeling. We avoid conflict. We are polite. We lie. We sugarcoat. We say what we think people want to hear. We are seldom raw.

Writing is an intimate medium. Its very nature asks us to invite someone else’s words into ourselves where they fall through our brains like pachinko balls tumbling through an array of pins. Some just fall to the bottom with no effect, but some hit the jackpot and totally inspire you. This is writing at its greatest. This is writing that is art. Writing that is worth reading.

How lucky am I, to have realized over the years that I can continue to be raw in my writing and find people here reading these words, finding meaning in them. Pausing for thought. Some people smile, some vomit. This is my writing, and I cannot do it any other way.


Jennifer Ward Barber said...

Two great writing books: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. Maybe you've read them already, but if you haven't, do!

Shilo said...

I struggle with the same thing. I always feel bad when I might write "too freely" and offend someone---but yet, when I don't write about how I truly feel or what I know, it just is boring. I hate keeping the good stuff to myself just so no one gets upset (even though my intention is never to hurt or upset). I really like your writing style. I hope you continue to do whatever makes you feel good. I look forward to your posts!

Jason said...

Um. You totally quoted Six Feet Under. And not one of the series regulars, but a seasonal secondary character. My toes tingles when I read that and I had to stretch them very far away from each other to prevent the excitement from causing my feet to spontaneously ignite. So thanks for that.

Linda Sherman said...

Cool blog. Thank you for your link to Singelringen! Would love to make contact. You'll find my contact info on my blog.

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