I got an email from a reader of this blog this morning, taking me to task for being angry and unkind in The Anger Problem. Oh, and for writing beautifully about being angry and unkind.
Well duh folks. I’m angry right now. I’m trying to work through it, but anger isn’t kind, anger isn’t pretty, and unfortunately Patrick’s death has, as I warned it probably would, significantly changed the tone of LivingSmall … so if you were one of those people stopping by for another nice dispatch about my happy life in my little Montana town, and what was growing in my garden, sorry, that’s over, at least for a while.
“Shame on you” my gentle reader said this morning, for putting my anger and blame out into the universe, especially since I live in a small town where these things can get back to people. Look, I’m a writer, and there will be a book out of this whole Patrick thing, and unfortunately it’s going to be a nonfiction memoir, which means I have to deal with the issue of real people who will get their feelings hurt. It’s one of the biggest challenges writers face, and in every creative writing class I’ve ever taught or taken, the issue of how do you speak the truth in the face of other people’s feelings has been the subject of endless hours of debate.
Essentially, it comes down to ruthlessness. At some point you have to care more about your own writing and your own work, and about telling your truth than you do about other people’s feelings. Yes, it’s selfish. All artists are selfish. If you’re not, you’ll get stopped. I’ve seen really talented writers, people with far more talent than I have, quit writing because they can’t get past worrying about what their parents will think.
The Buddhist belief in “right speech” poses an interesting problem here – and as I work on the actual memoir, the actual book that I’m hoping my agent will be able to sell and send out into the wider world, it’s an issue I’m going to have to wrestle with. Patrick and I were so close largely because, after Michael died (at two, of cancer, when I was eight and Patrick was six) and after our parents were divorced, things were very messy and uncertain for a long long time. We didn’t really have anyone else in our world that we could depend on except each other. And writing about this will be tricky, because different members of my family have radically different versions of what happened and why and who did what. I also grew up in a family in which speaking certain truths was absolutely forbidden, and still is. Part of the project Patrick and I embarked on when we moved in together five years ago was coming up with a coherent story, a story that seemed to make some objective sense, and which seemed to jibe with our actual memories. We did that, and unfortunately since he’s no longer here to carry that story with me, I’m going to have to claim it and to write it down. And there is no way to do this without hurting some people.
All I can do is to try to make it as beautiful and truthful as I can. I thought I’d done that with my novel, where I tried to tell the hardest truths I know, and which even as fiction, inspired a slew of horrified reactions. You would have though I’d taken an actual small child into the wilderness and lost her from the reactions I got — why would you want to write about that?
Because that’s what I do. I’m a writer, and one reason I started this blog was to practice my nonfiction voice, and to practice writing little essays. Essay, from the French verb “to try” … that’s what I do here … I try things out. I float ideas. I write my way through them. Mostly I try to write about the ways we can sustain one another in a dark world, but every once in a while, you also have to try to describe the exact contours and dimensions of the darkness.