>Giving Voice to Hopes and Fears

>Why do we read books about people whose lives are broken by addiction, abuse, disabilities, tragedy, and even garden-variety dysfunction? Well, sure, some folks are just drawn to the sensational… the way people rush to the scene of a car wreck or a fire. I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (books or movies) but I get it. The rush. I just like to get my kicks without the dark, scary stuff, thank you.

But reading books about how people deal with their brokenness isn’t about getting kicks. At least it’s not for me. It’s about gaining clarity about my own life and the lives of those I am close to. It’s about the bond we share with other imperfect people. It’s also about the hope we often gain from the stories of people who are fighting or have fought battles similar to our own.

Writers who can get this message across with fiction are just brilliant. I think. To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s so much there for all of us. And sure, Harper Lee brought her own life experiences and relationships and acquaintances and family stuff into the work. But it’s fiction. Some one said that Pat Conroy has made a cottage industry out of writing fiction books about his own broken family. The Prince of Tides is my all time favorite. Not just because it’s a beautiful literary work. And it is. But also because it deals with some hard issues but also gives us hope. For healing.

The other day I was reading some craft essays on the Brevity website and found a link to an interview with Sue William Silverman, author of Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and other memoirs. Williams said she was drawn to memoir, as a genre, because “it helps me to better understand, mainly through metaphor, the connections between events in my life. Metaphor gives these events a shape, an organization. By ‘collecting’ all my words on pieces of paper, my life becomes a tangible entity that I can hold in my hands, look at, and think: Yes, this is my life. I see it now.”

In my own writing journey, I’ve been recently drawn to creative nonfiction. In fact, I’ve registered for a memoir-writing workshop at the University of Mississippi in February/March. For some of the same reasons Silverman was drawn to it. Here’s a bit more of her history:

Back in the early 1980s, shortly after I began to write, I met a woman I’ll call Lisa at a writers’ conference in Houston. She had recently published an autobiographical novel about her autistic son. I was in awe of her…. But how quickly I was disillusioned when I learned Lisa’s book ha not received a “Times” review. She had not flown to New York City to meet the literati. Instead, she described giving a reading at a conference on autism. How touched she was, she told me to share her experience with other parents of autistic children, touched because she’d giving voice to their hopes and fears.

Silverman wanted to write fiction. She continues here:

From 1980 to 1992, I wrote five (or six) bad novels. I received a MFA degree in creative writing. I published a handful of short stories. Nevertheless, with every bad novel I churned out, I knew I was learning how to write…as much as I feared I didn’t have a voice with which to tell my stories….. I never considered that my own truths could be heard, that my real life was important, that a woman’s story could be art.

That a woman’s story could be art.

Silverman struggled with some ethical issues that I struggle with. About writing, publically, about personal, family stuff. After her parents died, she felt safer about writing about some of her family history. Her therapist encouraged her to tell her story. So she did…. and there was good news and bad news….

But then, amazingly, the moment I began to write I heard my real voice. I felt as if I’d just learned to speak.

You can read the rest of the story here, at her web site. The “bad news” about how women’s “confessional writing” often isn’t taken seriously. Or it’s bashed by the media. She gives advice on promoting your work once you write it. And she reflects on the strokes she gets from real people who are encouraged by her work:

While women memoirists wait for our metaphors to be appreciated, for our work to be judged on literary merit, for our stories to be taken seriously, we must never overlook our equally important and much more heartfelt reviews. I received reviews in whispered phone calls from women who have read my books and need to make a connection. I receive reviews in handwritten notes from women barely holding on, thanking me for giving a voice to their own stories.

Silverman’s story is fueling the fire of this long, hard look I’ve been giving the fiction novel I just spent close to a year writing. Revising. Revising again. And again. It might still have potential as a novel. Maybe even a good one. But it might just be that writing it has been part of learning to write. If I can’t find the right voice for Caroline (in the novel)… maybe I need to give voice to some of my own stories. Write memoirs. Or to other people’s stories, in the form of creative nonfiction.

But oh, it’s hard to leave The Sweet Carolines in that drawer. Maybe I won’t abandon them forever. Maybe I’ll learn how to write them better if I tell my own stories first. Maybe. This cartoon from The New Yorker shows how I invision myself trying to sell these stories someday! I’ve drafted two chapters of Oreo Finds Her Voice (Oreo is my 18-year-old cat)… but so far I don’t think it’s working…. we’ll see.

Tonight I went to the last of our church’s Monday night services during the Nativity Fast… the weeks leading up to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. These services, as I described here, are called Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God.

Just standing in the candle-lit nave, chanting, praying, singing, and listening, reminds me of how the Real Life of this Real Woman changed the course of history for the world. And the more I draw near to Her, the more She changes me.

The Orthodox Church has its own Christmas music. It’s beautiful. We sang a few of those hymns tonight. But as I was leaving the church, it was a hymn from my childhood that came to me, and reminded me of what I wanted to write about on my blog tonight. It was these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The hopes and fears. Because Real Life is full of fears. But it can also be full of hope. Henri J. M. Nouwen, one of my favorite Catholic writers, says, in The Wounded Healer:

Man tries to find in his inner life a connection with the “reality of the unseen,” “the source of being,” the “point of silence.” There he discovers that what is most personal is most universal (cf. Rogers’ On Becoming a Person. Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 26). Beyond the superficial laylers of idiosyncrasies, psychological differences and characterological typologies, he finds a center from which he can embrace all other beings at once and experience meaningful connections with all that exists…. There he experiences himself no longer as an isolated individual caught in the diaboli chain of cause and effect, but as a man able to transcend the fences of his own predicament and reach out far beyond the concerns of self. There he touches the place where all people are revealed to him as equal and wehre compassion becomes a human possibility.

In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.

That’s what I want my writing to be. That’s what books like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies are for me. It’s the next in the line of her nonfiction/memoir books that I’m reading. In fact, that’s where I’m heading now… to soak up some more thoughts on faith….
I’d love to hear your comments on books–fiction or nonfiction–that have given voice to your hopes or fears. That have made you feel connected rather than isolated in your own struggles. Leave me a comment here, or email me at susanmaryecushman@yahoo.com. Good night.

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