Wednesday, January 12, 2011

writing things down

There's a quote from Yann Martel's Life of Pi I keep tacked above my desk:

"For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you."

I don't think writing is any panacea. But I think it's a great advantage to be able to access your thoughts and express them precisely. When Bryan died I wrote constantly. Letters, emails. I wanted to be left alone to explain everything. At the funeral home, many people came up to me and offered, "You know, you're a writer, you could write about Bryan..." As if it hadn't occurred to me. I've been writing about Bryan for years. Describing him has always been an impossible but infinitely satisfying task. His many contradictions. His peculiar genius and quick wit. His thicket of eyebrows and long beautiful fingers.

(A few years ago I gave a mutual friend a bundle of short stories I'd written. When I next saw him I asked what he thought. He grinned and said, "I like when you describe how handsome you think Bryan is.")

For two years I've taught writing to kids at a homeless shelter, and I always try to impress upon them that spelling and grammar aren't really the thing. Any word processor can fine tune that. What matters is you can say what you mean. That language doesn't intimidate you.

I reached the 9 month point of widowhood yesterday. I still write about Bryan everyday.

Below is the article I wrote for Broadside after Bryan's death.

Since January 2009 I’ve lead a creative writing workshop for homeless youth at Shelter of Flint. I began the group with a love of writing and a belief in community: as someone who’s grown up in Flint with a single mother and free school lunches, I felt a sense of solidarity with these kids. That solidarity has deepened since the group formed, and in ways I never anticipated.

Autumn 2009 my boyfriend, Bryan, and I backpacked Europe and Africa. I had just graduated from college and wanted an adventure before sending out resumes and grad school applications. We wandered through Paris art museums and picnicked on baguettes and Nutella. We sniffled together in the Anne Frank House, Amsterdam and got lost in the maze of canals. We made cheesy Beatles pilgrimages in England and squeezed ourselves into the tight press of bodies on the London Underground.

We were in Essaouira, Morocco when Bryan dropped the change purse with all our cash and credit cards in the back of a taxi. We were homeless, penniless and hungry: two lost Flint kids with bad French in a dusty, sun-baked town on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

We explained what happened to policemen and taxi drivers; we beseeched the hotel proprietor to let us have the room we had reserved on the faith a Western Union transfer would come soon. The girls at the internet café allowed us to run up a tab as we sent our SOS home and waited for word our transfer was sent. We walked the ancient streets of the medina, listening to the muezzin call the prayer, and sat on the ramparts, looking over the vast sweep of the ocean. We went to bed sunburnt and exhausted, desperate for bread and cigarettes.

At my first workshop at the Shelter, my group included three teenage girls who had walked in off the street just minutes before I arrived with my notebooks and pens. They were visibly anxious and reluctant to answer my ice breaker questions. Though the group is exclusive to under eighteens, their mother quietly sat at the far end of the room. I brought cookies for the workshop, and at the end of the workshop I told the girls they were welcome to take the leftovers. They bundled the cookies in napkins and stuffed them in their coats, handing a few bundles to their mom.

After three days of hunger and anxiety, our transfer came through and Bryan and I went straight to a café to fill our growling bellies. I thought of those girls, and wondered how long they had been hungry.

April 11th, Bryan died. The life I anticipated was dashed, and the life I knew was pulled out from under me. A year before I was graduating college and planning a trip with my boyfriend; now I found myself widowed, unemployed and moving my life box by box back to my mother’s house.

I canceled the group for three weeks. When I returned to the Shelter I had a new group awaiting me. The group is constantly shifting shape as families transition into new homes and new lives. When I have a new set of students I return to introductory exercises. Easy, open-ended prompts to get kids to write. “Write about yourself,” I usually say. “In a poem, a personal essay, a letter: write what’s important about you, whatever you want people to know about you.”

I always participate in the exercises, and for the first time I didn’t know what to write. Before I wrote variations on the same autobiography: I’m a Flint writer living with her boyfriend and birds, looking for a job and trying to write the Great American Novel in the reading room of the Flint Public Library. But what could I write now? Who are you when everything you know changes? So many times I had gently chided a resistant new member of the group for his or her silence-- the task had always seemed so easy-- but now I couldn’t manage it either. At that moment, I understood the pain of uncertainty and sudden loss. How daunting the task of explaining yourself to a room full of strangers is when you’re no longer sure who you are.

I looked around the room and found the expected: pens absently tapped on notebooks, a few short lines and scribbles. Chins in hands, staring into laps.

“Let’s do something else,” I announced. “Let’s write fiction.”

I asked them to each begin a short story in first person. To conjure up some new and fantastical “I.” Then to pass it to the next person and let them continue it.

We wrote. We passed our notebooks and continued each other’s stories. There was a teacher who lived in a house made out of garbage with her husband, and made a moat of vomit and rotting food around the house so no one would intrude on their happiness. A girl raised by famous jewel thieves who grew up in hiding in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant. A kid who roamed the world’s zoos with a monkey named Brownie, seeking vengeance on zoo security guards.

By the time we closed our notebooks, we were running 20 minutes over and my cheeks hurt from grinning and laughing.

We entered the room burdened by our hard luck, down and out stories, but we helped each other conjure new worlds. For that brief time in the basement of the Shelter, we experienced that mercy peculiar to artists-- of reinventing and reclaiming ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. The Broadside article was wonderful. It seems to me you learned a little something that day in the basement, and I'm sure your "students" did, too.