It’s rare that someone looks you in the eye and tells you the truth.
I don’t mean about the little things, like “Does this soup need salt?” or “Do you, um, know what happened to my shoes?”–I mean the big things.
I was talking with a friend recently about a dynamic that frustrates me in my relationship with my husband and I got to that most common of phrases, “I mean, what’s up with that?”
He paused for a moment, a look of wry amusement on his face, and said, “You’re a bitch, Theresa. That’s what’s up with that.”
It was so unexpected, so honest about that dynamic, and so undeniably true I burst out laughing. How could I not? He’d hit the nail on the head, squarely, and I could either waste a ton of energy denying it and taking it personally and shooting the messenger or I could use that shock to crack open a possibility in my relationship I hadn’t seen before.
I had the same response when I saw this picture:
Oh yeah baby! It was another one of those moments where I encountered something and within seconds its tentacles had slithered through my entire head, connecting everything together in a new and undeniable way.
We all have a bullshit story. It’s that tiny, poisonous whisper that most of the time we don’t even hear anymore, but that still has the power to bring us to a complete standstill in life:
“I’m not lovable.” “I deserve to be treated badly.” “I’m not allowed to exist.” “Whatever anyone does to me is fine because I’m a bad person.” “If I stick up for myself, I’ll get killed.” “It’s too scary to try. Just don’t.” “Being open with people hurts too much.”
There are thousands of others but they all boil down to the same thing–stay safe. Curl into a ball and don’t risk sticking your neck out.
And if you’re a writer and you’re not aware that that voice is there and how it affects you, the things you write may be technically good–great–even brilliant, but they won’t touch anyone (talk about bullshit stories). Readers will move through your story, laugh, feel the tension, maybe even cry a bit if something sad happens, but your words won’t snake into them, curl around their hearts, and wake them up at night because there’s something there that affects them, too, a niggling little feeling that what’s happening on the page isn’t isolated to the page, that it’s actually happening to them, right here, right now, and they’d better pay attention.
Great literature does this. J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Jennifer Egan, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, I could go on and on (and I’m not even listing the non-fiction writers who do this, like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, to name a few), but the thing that makes them great, besides an obvious level of mastery of their craft, is that they aren’t speaking from their bullshit stories.
When I read these writers, I’m not just reading a story. I’m seeing the machinery inside all of us. I’m getting an in-depth picture of what it looks like to live out a bullshit story and what it takes to break free of it.
My contention has always been that literature is a conversation, not a lecture. As a reader it’s my responsibility to join in by bringing to bear all my experiences in life and seeing what that author has to say about them. When I engage this conversation, I have a chance to engage amazing minds who have thought deeply about what it takes to be human and what we need to do to reach that goal.
Hamlet: everyone talks about his hesitation, and how relieved they are when he finally acts at the end. But when I join in that conversation, with the benefit of my own bullshit stories squarely in my sights, I see the true tragedy of a man lost in his head, completely unable to connect to his heart, to the extent that he sacrifices everyone he loves, including himself. To me, Shakespeare is screaming a warning of one of the great dangers of his, and our, age: beware the death of the heart under the tyranny of the intellect.
As someone who spent most of her adult life living from her head, completely shut down emotionally, I feel the seriousness of this warning and see the impact of losing sight of one’s heart all over my life. Here be tragedy, indeed.
When I read The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, I threw the book across the room when I finished because I thought she’d completely cheated me as a reader by how it ended. Who couldn’t see that the Painballers deserved to be killed in a long, drawn-out manner? But I was haunted by that ending. Atwood is a master at this kind of conversation and I knew something deeper was happening there.
Throughout the book, I was rooting for the good people, gnashing my teeth until I got the pleasure of seeing the bad people die. And the Painballers–they’re so bad–they kill people, rape women, turn women into sexual slaves; they’re vicious beasts with no redeeming human qualities–you just feel yourself go rabid with wanting their death. And in the end, Ren and Toby have the perfect opportunity to kill two of them….and they DON’T.
This isn't me. It's my soul screaming at the injustice of them living.
But what I got was that throughout the whole book I’d been identifying with the good characters because that’s how I see myself. I’d been horrified by the bad men, disgusted and afraid of them…..and at the end of the book, my blood lust at wanting them to die? I WAS THEM. I was not like Toby at all. Given the chance to forgive and uplift or crush and destroy, I’d chosen to crush and destroy.
It was a watershed moment for me, as a writer and a person. As a writer, what an amazing amount of trust Atwood placed in her readers. How many got no further than their reactions to the end and swore never to read another Atwood novel? How skilled do you have to be to write a story that is so physically embodied by your readers they may not even notice which character they’re actually emulating?
And as a person, I had the devastation of seeing one of my bullshit stories so strongly there was no way I could turn away from it. I wanted to kill the Painballers in exactly the ways they’d killed people throughout the book. As horrified as I was by them, they are in me, and if I don’t pay attention to that, that poisonous whisper could wreak havoc in all sorts of situations.
I’m not saying I’m going to go out and kill anyone, but that “killer instinct,” that desire to destroy someone, that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with. It comes up, for instance, when I get hurt emotionally or when I think someone’s done something to make me look stupid. My mind goes into overdrive figuring out ways to make sure that person goes DOWN–I am cutting, rude, snide….a bitch. And here we are full circle, a poisonous whisper traced both through honest friendship and amazing literature.
So in terms of writing and life (some claim there is no distinction there ;) ), you can’t put a better poster on your wall than the one above. We can write things that do nothing but scream our bullshit stories–or we can write things that expose those stories, rip them open, and chart them so others can lay that map over themselves and see something, too.
Being a writer is a service to the greater good of humanity. That’s a grandiose statement, but look at the list of names that back it up.