Writing the Broken World
This morning when I read the news I was overwhelmed with rage and sorrow. Two more black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—killed by police over minor infractions in the past few days. Five police officers killed by snipers in Dallas at a #BlackLivesMatter protest. Senseless, stupid, bigotry; lethal violence. The worst aspects of our humanity on flagrant display. I wept over it all. I joined Campaign Zero.
And then, as writers do, I pulled out my journal. Into its pages I poured my heart: how sickened I felt at the state of our country, bemoaning how often hatred is chosen over love, looking to the Dalai Lama for inspiration (for who has made a more conscious choice for love and joy in the face of circumstance?), and finally exploring what is mine to do.
What I came to is this, and it is what I always come to in the end: I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. I can examine my own beliefs and biases. I can speak for truth and justice in my own sphere of influence. I can choose kindness over rudeness or indifference. I can be a loving presence in the world. I can use my skills and talents to speak out about what matters to me, whether in conversation or in writing.
At the journal conference I attended in May, I took a workshop with Judy Reeves, author of Wild Women, Wild Voices and A Writer's Book of Days. The workshop was called “Wild Voice, Wild Writing,” and its purpose was to encourage us to strip the influence of the censor, the critic, from our writing. One exercise she had us do was this:
Make a list of things you really want to write about. Begin each sentence with “I want to write about . . .” and then go into a little detail with each.
If you try this, you may find yourself going deeper with each item on the list. The last item on my list was this:
I want to write about how the asbestos industry has claimed so many lives, including my father’s, and how difficult it has been for my family and others to receive justice or compensation.
Whew. In November 2014 my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure, and died six weeks later. Since then my family has learned some ugly truths about the asbestos industry and the legal machine ostensibly set up to help families receive compensation. It’s been a grueling journey, fraught with heartache.
When I told the group about this, I also said I have been avoiding writing about it because I am so angry and I want to wait until I can write it well. “F**k writing well,” Judy said. “Don’t worry about writing well right now. Write from the heat and passion, and don’t worry what form it will take. That will come later.” As she spoke these words—ones that I like to think I would have said to anyone else besides myself—I felt a flood of relief. Yes. I don’t have to do it right. I just have to do it.
And so I offer Judy’s advice to all of us. Write what matters. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t let your critic have its way with you. Write from the heart: journal it out, write a poem, a story, a memoir, an essay, an op-ed, a feature article, a play, a novel, all of the above. Don’t worry about your audience; you are your audience.
Your passion is your fuel. Let it burn.