February 23, 2015 § 17 Comments
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.