Getting Honest about Om: A Brief Essay on Audience

February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Heather Lanier

I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.

Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.

But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.

The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.

The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.

Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.

So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.

And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.

In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.

I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”

The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.  

This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
___

Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.

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§ 13 Responses to Getting Honest about Om: A Brief Essay on Audience

  • Heather- You nailed the truth about writing the truth. In writing my memoir, I often wrote what I thought happened, but when I returned the next day to reread it, I realized I hadn’t figured out how to “artistically handle the complexity of real life.” You described it so perfectly. Thank you.

  • bethfinke says:

    Looking forward to reading the finished essay one day –brava!

  • Joanne says:

    Love this essay, and especially this: “If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.” Yes!

  • Oh, my dear, thank you! “If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing. . . . Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.” Truth finds a way in when we open the door.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Thank you for writing this! You may enjoy an article I wrote that was published in Tiferet: Fostering Peace Through Literature and Art:
    The Spiritual Aspect of Writing Memoir: How We Find Stories in Our Quest to Find Meaning
    https://media.clippings.me/cuttingpdfs/959122/aaeb17f615a52cd229ce7a2271eca941.pdf?&_ga=2.152772921.1409712751.1613574657-1771875084.1611270317

  • Jenny Apostol says:

    If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing. –absolutely true! Lovely piece.

  • raniiajenay says:

    Very true, I just made a new blog I will be using this. You should check it out

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is useful! I’m working on an essay now and I must say I keep thinking about the broad audience. I will try to think about the singular person.

  • “the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose….build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres” – Wow! This happens all the time in dreams: a familiar place (usually a house I’ve lived in) has an extra room, another floor, or an entire new wing. Truth tends to be larger, more complex than our memories or the images through which we try to convey it. How humbling…and liberating! Thanks for the reminder.

  • jerrywaxler says:

    Stunning artiicle! Looked up your book and bought it. If it is written half as well as the article, it will be heavenly. I have heard of many situations in which a parent finds the world turned upside down by an illness of a child (Angels in my Pocket was one of the most heart wrenching) and a sibling with Cystic Fibrosis (Sixty Five Roses) but don’t recall reading one like this. (Also I am totally fascinated by your spirituality, steering between Christian and Buddhist and landing in a new territory (trees in the living room, love it)). My problem as a writer is that my imagined audience is awesome, but my writing to them is taking years to develop – meanwhile when some smart student in a class asks me a question, my verbal brain seems to tap into some fire-breathing genius who spews out the best answer I’ve ever heard, and then vanishes. I am still trying to get that fire-breather to show up at the keyboard.

    Jerry

  • very nice piece. really enjoyed it. really talked about faith in many ways. thank you. bravo.

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