I was thinking about two things on my bike ride down to Logan Square. Well, three. One was a feeling, really: how blissful it felt to be pedaling by the river, music ablaze in my ears, sunshine ablaze on my shoulder blades. Two was contemplating this odd task I’ve taken on of writing about myself – spending hour upon hour thinking about my life, traveling through my past. I was puzzling over why I feel driven to write about myself in this way. Are writers, specifically memoirists, monologuists, poets who draw on their personal experience, everyone who writes about themselves, are we all raging egomaniacs? The third thing I was thinking about was truth. Because when I think about why I write about myself, my life, it comes down to wanting to tell the truth. And I wondered what makes the truth so important.
I put the egomaniac question to Roger, with whom I’ve been meeting to share work and critique. We sat at a bar; I had a beer and a Cuban sandwich (which blessedly involved both plantains and pickles) while the sweat cooled on my skin.
“Are writers in love with themselves?” I asked.
“No more than accountants or lawyers,” Roger said.
“Or professional athletes,” I suggested.
“Let’s take athletes,” said Roger. “It takes a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there. Strikers, for example, you don’t think they’re egomaniacs?”
(I’ll look up strikers when I get home, I thought. I figure they’re the ones who make the goals.)
“It takes a certain amount of ego to get out there and do what they do. It’s necessary,” said Roger. “That’s why they’re the most flamboyant.”
“Okay, but the difference between me and a striker,” I began.
“I like the start of this sentence,” said Roger.
“The difference,” I said, “Is that I’m in my head all day. All those hours that they’re out running and kicking and –” I waved my hands in the air. “Doing the other soccer things they do, I spend those hours in my head thinking about my life and what stories are in it and why those stories might be interesting to anyone else and isn’t that being so much more obsessed with myself than a striker?”
“That’s a false dichotomy,” Roger said. “What’s the difference, really? It’s the Western, white, mind-body thing. Running and kicking is a different kind of intelligence, a different way of thinking.”
We didn’t get to the question of truth. We had work before us. But our chat about ego gave me an idea about truth: that it’s the counterpoint to narcissism. Maybe you need a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there in the first place — I think it’s fair to say Hemingway (see epigraph above) had a healthy ego on him — but writing the truest sentence isn’t about ego. It’s about the pursuit of something authentic, something real. A true moment holds power. I mean, I truly do not know from sports. (I felt like a cultural anthropologist when the Blackhawks were on while I was bartending this week.) But even I can feel the zing of the moment when hours of drills and what Roger called the intelligence of the body and maybe some chance, too, coalesce into a physical feat that is breathtaking and wondrous. I could hear that in the bar, even while pouring shots and ringing in sales at the register – the collective intake of breath, joyous whoop of the crowd. So, here’s how I’m like a striker: We both tell the truth in our way — when the ball rockets past the goalie, when I find the words that hit the mark.
As a kid I was very concerned with truth. Perhaps this was a result of growing up in a family full of secrets; possibly it was a consequence of being raised Catholic, a religion that engendered the practice of mental reservation. In mental reservation you make a statement that is technically factual, but you reserve part of the truth, leave it unsaid, thereby leaving your sentence open to misinterpretation. It’s a workaround. (That’s the thing about rules, they spur people to dream up creative ways to break them.) But in a way, mental reservation is a fact of life. You can never tell the whole truth and nothing but. There’s always something left unsaid. When I write, I get as close as I can.
Good writing does not equivocate. A writer bears witness. “This is how it was. This is what I saw and felt.” I was in a fourth grade classroom this spring. Most of the students did not want to write. They wanted to throw pencils, they wanted to call each other names, they wanted to get on the computer and play video games. Early on we did an activity investigating sensory detail. We’d talked about the five senses and read a poem. When it was their turn to write, I asked them to think about the blocks they lived on and to describe a detail for each sense. Kaivon threw down his pencil. It rolled off his desk and onto the floor.
“I don’t want to do this,” he said. “It’s boring.”
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s see if we can think of one idea. Tell me about where you stay. What do you feel like starting with? See, hear, smell, taste or touch?”
“I hear people shooting.” He looked at me. I handed him the pencil.
“Write that,” I said.
“I can say that?”
“If that’s what you hear,” I told him. “What does it sound like to you?”
“Like a pop pop pop,” he said, “Like fireworks.”
“I like that description,” I said. “Write it down.” He did. And he kept writing.
It’s a revelation for some of my students that they can write what’s on their minds, even the stuff that doesn’t seem beautiful or smart or like what they think adults want to hear. I try to open up that space for their voices; I try to keep my expectations out of it, to let there be surprises for both of us. That can make the difference between a kid for whom writing is really hard emotional and physical work not being willing to try and that kid actually being invested enough to put pencil to paper. Being allowed to tell the truth.
I grew up in a suburb of joggers and manicured lawns. Where moms in the church parking lot made polite inquiries about bake sales and softball games and whether we’d found that dress at Bloomingdale’s. I wondered constantly about what was left unsaid. Telling the truth depends upon a willingness to scrutinize not prized by dysfunctional families and not generally embraced by our culture at large. We buy our meat at Safeway and our clothes at the Gap. We don’t see the slaughterhouse or the sweatshop; mostly we don’t want to see. The willingness to look, to bear witness to what is frightening and wonderful, what is unjust, what it is to be afraid, to be petulant, hypocritical, compassionate, in love, what it is to be alive on this planet, that is a radical act. Natalie Goldberg says we must love the details – our task is to say a “holy yes” to our lives as they exist. Good writing demands a willingness to look and listen. A willingness to contemplate all of it. It makes for writing that reaches uncannily across time and space, that makes us catch our breath in recognition. It makes for writing that blazes with truth.
Maybe we’re willing to forgive the huge egos that sometimes come along with talent, because the truth they show us knocks our socks off. The athlete’s body twisting midair (“Seeming suspended,” Roger said, “Though we know it can’t possibly be.”), the poem or story or play that raises the hairs at the nape of our neck, elicits laughter or tears or just the ah! of recognition. Truth connects us, it tears down pretense, it opens fault lines beneath institutions and assumptions about what’s possible and real. It can change the shape of things. That’s why it matters to me.