Writing for No Readers
March 2, 2023 § 8 Comments
By Carroll Sandel
After watching the chaos at the Kabul airport in August 2021, my husband and I decided to host evacuees. In November, a young Afghan family moved into our home. The following morning, I felt pulled to the computer as though a huge magnet yanked me there. I needed to write about this life-changing experience my husband and I were sharing.
“I noticed her first,” I wrote. “She emerged from the airline passageway wearing a black hijab, a long dark skirt and a maroon hoodie. On her hip she carried a small boy. A slender man walked in front of her. ‘Abdullah?’ I asked. ‘I speak little English,’ he said.”
Later in the afternoon, through a combination of Google Translator and a CVS test, we learned his wife, Hadida, was pregnant.
At first, I emailed my stories about what had happened the previous day to my sisters, several friends, and my writing group. I then expanded my addressee list to more friends, cousins, and neighbors. What started out as fourteen readers mushroomed to forty-eight. Replies came: “I feel I’m right there with you,” “I can’t wait to read your email every morning,” “You are an amazing writer,” “I’m forwarding your daily installments to my cousin in Wisconsin.” I had become a modern-day Charles Dickens, for crying out loud.
Day eight, in the kitchen at Thanksgiving, my daughter-in-law, Siobhan, asked Hadida how she was feeling. Seeing Hadida’s blank look, I answered by shaking my head and imitated her vomiting. I then pointed to Siobhan and, holding up three fingers, said, “Her, three babies. Never…” and pantomimed vomiting. Siobhan threw her arms in the air and grinned. We all laughed, and I suddenly imagined Hadida in her kitchen compound, sharing fun moments with her female relatives. Writing the next day, I realized she must miss them so.
Each day I felt on the edge of being overwhelmed as our houseguests took over our lives. I lost track of when I last shampooed my hair. But my writing provided energy and solace. Writer-me focused on specificity, sentence length and structure, narrative arc, pumped-up verbs, transitions. By using my art to share what I was learning, I fed others as I was being fed. My writing never felt so important. In my emails, I said that though the couple only picked at my blueberry pancakes, Hadida had put blueberries in her naan batter one morning, making huge crepes for my husband and me. I shared that when he and I brushed our teeth at night, we wondered what mistakes we’d made that day.
Day eighteen after their arrival, a friend and I went for a much-needed walk. She quickly raised her concern about the wide network receiving my daily thoughts. Though I believed I was writing sensitively about our guests, she pointed out that I did not have their permission to share what was happening in their lives. Tears pooled in my eyes.
“Telling stories about our days together is time I have to myself, but also time to tell what is going on with them.” I said. “I’m helping people learn what it’s like for refugees. I can’t give that up.”
As I heard myself defend my emails to my bedazzled readers, I looked at my friend sideways. She was right. Our Afghan guests deserved my respect, their privacy.
I stopped sharing my stories.
For a few days, I grieved the loss of sending emails. Yet I never wavered. How devastated I would feel if one day I were to learn that our family had felt betrayed by me in similar circumstances.
But I made a promise to myself. I would still write every day. About Hadida, who, using my electric sewing machine for the first time, made a dress in one day. And about me, who took three months to discover the family liked goat cheese. As I noticed more about them, I became more in touch with me.
The family moved to an apartment in early April.
And I have 145 stories.
Why did I write for no readers, still paying attention to all the craft tools I learned over the years?
Hosting the Afghans was incredibly challenging and fulfilling. Writing transported me through the experience. It transformed me. Others’ praise may be intoxicating, but putting words on the page focused me, forced me to go deeper. It enticed me to explore what I believe, who I am. Our Afghan family gave me this opportunity. I didn’t need an audience after all.
*Names have been changed.
After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel began writing about growing up on a farm. Those stories morphed into a series of linked essays about her untrustworthy memories. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Pangyrus, Cleaver and other literary journals. She was a 2014 and 2017 finalist for the nonfiction prize in New Letters.
Having now hosted 3 Ukrainian families, I can relate. My guests are happy for me to write about them, and often offer suggestions.
I loved your story—I hope you can continue to write about that experience, even if you need to change identifying details.
Thank you for the reminder of diary, privately witnessing to our own lives.
Carroll: Your essay has been in the back of my mind all day. I am wondering about writing for the love of writing, writing to make sense of our experiences, and writing for an audience (readers). I have no answers (yet) for my own writing life, but I have appreciated the nudge that your writing gave me today. Thank you.
[…] by no means the only sign of “success.” Thus, I’ve found Carroll Sandel’s “Writing for No Readers,” on the Brevity blog, especially […]
Caroll, I so enjoyed reding this and thinking about the questions it raises!
Hi, last year I got involved with helping a young Afghan woman get settled and struggled with the same dilemma you’ve had. I also tutor adult immigrants in English. The connections have changed me and I’d like to share their stories, but want to respect their privacy. I like your solution!
Love your words, they give pause to reflect what we don’t know we don’t know…..