I’m Sorry You Scare Me

February 23, 2015 § 17 Comments

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.

A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:

“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”

I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t too busy and she hadn’t forgotten. In the column I examined how my writing evolved after a particular retreat combining lots of physical activity with writing prompts.

There was yoga on horseback and running with horses through Vermont forests; I couldn’t engage these particular things because of my M.S. and balance problems, but I walked out to the horses and stood with my friends who climbed up on their backs. I went to the edge of the forest. I put my hand on a horse and felt his heartbeat as my friend climbed onto his back. I felt my own fear. I could do other things, like follow a series of yoga poses to Eminem and drop to write to serious prompts about someone who loves me. This was more frightening in many ways than climbing on a horse. Fall off the horse? Blame disease. Blame the handler. Blame the weather or whatever external thing I could claim. Fail to really tell my story? There can be only one soul responsible at the end of the day.

I discovered how not letting my body’s knowledge speak up on the page was limiting my work. My body’s weakness was always an excuse. This breakthrough was accompanied by some crying jags and complete withdrawal for a few hours, but it was all worth it. It was a purge of my bad writing habits, like over-intellectualizing and avoiding emotional honesty by writing only with the rational mind.

My friend’s message continued, “I am somewhat terrified that you weren’t quite there yet. I entirely get that none of us are ever quite there yet and might not ever be, but you, to me, are a very scary role model of the unflinching look at the necessary, the real, the uncomfortable. And you weren’t there yet. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy for you, but it does mean that sometimes I don’t leap into reading something you wrote. I’ll keep working on it. And I hope you will keep sharing your writing with me. It always always always makes me think. Even when I wish it wouldn’t.”

I wonder if we all have writers we want to read but sometimes can’t or won’t, because what they reveal in us is uncomfortable or confusing or even downright unpleasant. I think about how I’ve picked up Toni Morrison’s work exactly once, and not because I don’t admire her writing or don’t want to know what she has to say. Or maybe that is exactly it, I don’t want to know what she has to say. I don’t want to know it. I felt like Beloved would kill me if I kept reading, and I’ve never gone back. Like my confessing friend, I have very complicated feelings about this reality. I feel like a coward, but I also know how hard and powerful narratives can be, how they become part of who we are, how we can’t go back to who we were before we read them. Once I’ve established a grip on writers who can do this to me, who will unavoidably alter my life with their work, I tend to exercise tremendous discretion around the right time to read them. I have in rare instances decided not to read them at all.

It is not an easy thing to admit this deeper thing, this truth that I choose at times to put distance between myself and the raw reality of other people. Writers are human beings who want and need readers to connect, to understand their experience and, yes, their pain. Readers are human, too. I’m grateful my friend felt she could tell me how she feels, and I’m honored that what I’m doing is significant enough to someone that she might not want to read it; but of course, I hope she will.


Elizabeth Gaucher is a writer, an editor, and a degree candidate for the MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElizGaucher.

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§ 17 Responses to I’m Sorry You Scare Me

  • jlcannon says:

    You said so much that rings that proverbial bell in my head! Reading your essay almost makes me feel legitimized. Many of my poems are :confessional: because that’s where they seem to spring from; my fiction probably reveals more about me than meeting me would. That’s one of the things that keeps me writing, though it seems egocentric and probably is, but it’s a built-in imperative that I believe I share with my favorite authors. We have to believe the effort is worth it if we’ve managed to communicate.

    • Such a nice point, the idea of the worthy effort, how there is so much value and depth in that alone!

      I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary intimacy,” how often it seems to get conflated with intimacy as a topic. The idea that literary intimacy is about including the reader in whatever you are writing about, I think that’s the magic.

      That’s what made a friend of mine say she threw a book across the room, or could only read some things standing up. Creating a work where the reader actually HAS the experience, and does not just read about it . . . and when that experience is grief-stricken, or violent, or ecstatic — well, you get a connection and reaction, that’s for sure.

      Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing your thoughts! I truly appreciate it.

  • Reblogged this on Esse Diem and commented:
    It’s an honor to have some work up over at BREVITY today, thinking about the highs and lows of literary intimacy. I hope you’ll give it a read. Thank you!

  • A lovely tribute to friendship– yours and hers. Your writing feels like silk on my skin.

    • Thank you, Sandell, I’m glad our friendship comes through in these words. It is a very special connection that has been strong for over 2 decades. She is always there for me, and I try to be for her. And thank you for reading!

  • Loved it – so beautiful and true. I think for those of us who are especially moved by feelings, our own, as well as others’, “putting distance between ourself and the raw reality of people” IS important. We can’t take on everyone’s pain. Like you, I put a lot of thought about “when” I read something that I know will be distressing, and it tends to usually be on a weekend when I know I can hide under the quilt and feel better after reading something powerful but scary. Akhil Sharma, the writer of “Family Life” a moving memoir of growing up in a home struck by tragedy said one of the toughest questions he grappled with while writing the book was “how much pain should I share with my readers?” I write about this wonderful, painful book here: https://morethanjustonething.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/growing-up-broken-akhil-sharmas-family-life/

    Thanks Elizabeth for this wonderful post.

  • John says:

    This is a very thought-provoking piece. It makes me think from both sides of myself: The Writer and The Reader.

    For many years I wanted to be a writer, but that fear you so eloquently describe kept me from writing honestly, from writing successfully (I mean success in terms of ‘completing’ and ‘well’, rather than ‘monetary’ or ‘fame’.) As a reader, we may not want to go where the writer takes us — and the same is true as a writer: being honest on the page can take us to places we keep locked away. For a long time, I avoided going to those corners of my mind, and my writing was very vague and flat. It wasn’t until the first time I let the words flow honestly that I felt I had successfully written something worthwhile.

    As a reader, I feel like you do — though, I have taken the journey with Toni Morrison and Beloved. The story stays with you. There are books and writers I have avoided though, for the very reasons you state, for the reason your friend states. Some things you need to be ready to read. (Which leads to a whole discussion of how we can often ruin reading for people by making kids read certain books in high school. We aren’t all ready to dive in at the same time.) Given the opportunity, I think we approach books when we’re ready.

    Enjoyed your post — thanks for sharing!

    • John, your thoughts here remind me of a phrase that came to me yesterday afternoon, the idea that I don’t think anyone ever “has to” read anything in particular, but that we leave opportunities for empathy on the table when we categorically say “I don’t read _____ .”

      And I love your reflection on required reading in high school. And any time. “Given the opportunity, we approach books when we’re ready.”

      Now you’ve given ME even more to chew on. One of the many reasons I admire those world-class teachers who know how to balance both pushing and grounding students.

      Thank you!

  • Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:
    Writing takes courage — and so does reading. This is a thoughtful post about daring and not daring to read works that may be too challenging, too difficult.

  • I appreciate knowing that others have this experience. I’d never had it myself until last year when I tried to read *Wild* by Cheryl Strayed. The grief over her mother’s death was so palpable that I had to stop reading just 25 pages in. I felt like I was drowning in grief, which was odd, since my own mother is still alive. I would sincerely like to read the whole book, but I’m not sure I ever will.

    • Jenna, that is exactly it, the experience I am trying to capture. I have that book but have not read it yet. I will be interested to see how this rolls out for me, too.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Sue J says:

    You pulled the bandage right off the wound. It’s so risky writing raw. I constantly hold back from writing what I want for fear of driving away the reader, and yet it’s all I want to write lately. What a tremendous and rewarding challenge to wrangle unruly and often unpleasant feelings into words. Yet, I avoid doing exactly that for fear of what I might reveal to myself in the writing, for fear it will be ‘made official’–permanently written into my soul. Not only that, but haven’t you noticed that we can feel one way about an incident/situation in one moment and then entirely different even six months later. So difficult to commit to one emotional/intellectual angle when our souls are constantly shape shifting.

    I’m often drawn to such writings, movies, music but have to limit my exposure lest I become the darkness they project. It’s a challenge to stay positive in everyday life, and I’ve noticed the dust collecting on my less-than-happy music CDs, movie DVDs, and books as I become less and less willing to go to those darker places.

    • Great observations, Sue, and your thoughts on changing intellect and feelings over time reminds me of what Joan Didion says, that it’s wise to stay in touch with the people we “used to be” because if we forget about them they may come knocking and want an accounting of something about our lives and we will be unprepared to answer. How great is that? I think that’s really true, that it’s hoped we will evolve and change but we shouldn’t forget who we used to be, once upon a time, darkness and light.

      Thank you for reading and for your comment!

      • Sue J says:

        I’d have to agree with Didion. I remain mindful of exactly that . . . I don’t want to forget the lessons of the past for their benefit in the present, so am compelled to capture the lessons–as many as possible, as best as possible–even when doing so keeps me alive in the past. Conundrum! 🙂

        Bottom line: Even if it threatens turning away potential readers, I’ll likely continue writing what I need to. The personal benefit I gain is always worth it.

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