Heart on a Plate
When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. “Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said. “She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything.” — The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Last week I filled out several scholarships with questions about involvement in high school and college organizations, leadership positions, volunteer service, work experience, and awards won. And I couldn’t remember them all. Why? Because I used to be fabulous. Fast. Track. Impressive. Sparkly and shiny and stellar. I think I used to poop glitter. Now I just shit.
And now I’m trying to understand what it means to just be me. That girl with all the passion and ambition….what woman does she turn into?
Well this woman, in the height of her quarter-life crisis (stop laughing), applied to graduate school for creative writing and got in. I can’t afford more education (hence the desperate need for those scholarships), but here’s why I’m scared and why I ultimately want to go anyway:
I look back at old essays, I see how awful and cliché they are, and I’m ashamed. I worry that I’m still awful in the present and don’t have the future perspective to see clearly. And I know I have to pass that stupid “SO WHAT” test that all the professors warned about. Do I?
I love real and raw writing, writing that feels so…human. But the problem with being human is that being human comes with so many mistakes. I’m not perfect. I’m not polished. I have not read all of the books. I make typos. I like stylistic fragments. I don’t know all of the grammar rules and often break the ones I do know. On purpose because I feel like being a rebel. I am painfully and ignorantly human. Flaws stitched together with good intentions. Mismatched pieces of scrap.
I’m overwhelmed by the mystery of editors and agents and query letters. How does one’s manuscript get on a bookshelf? I don’t know. I think it’s hard work. And magic. So I want to learn more. I was always so jealous of my students. For the fact that they got to be students. Because I hated being in charge. Because I wanted to write the papers instead of grade the avalanche.
I read in a magazine that younger adults shouldn’t use the valuable time and money for an MFA program (especially in creative nonfiction) because they aren’t ready. Too early. They haven’t had enough life experience yet. Probably the only thing bad that’s happened to them is the death of a grandparent, the experts say. But people also give me the advice, “Go back to school now. Get whatever degrees you want before kids so you’ll actually complete your goals.” So I’m confused.
And I DO want to write about my dead grandma. I also want to explore her marriage to an abusive angry atheist and hope it passes the so what test. And I want to write about my other grandma who is literally insane and covers it up so damned beautifully.
Grandmas aren’t the only thing worth writing about from my twenty-six years. I want to write about my husband and our own intense love story that began when I was only fifteen. I want to write about my too-intense love for students. What teaching gave me and took from me. About the whole education system. And religion. And about God despite religion. I want to write about a unique view of feminism. About moving and people and north and south. About a ridiculous village called Woodbine. About mother-daughter relationships. And sisters. The teeter-totter of losing my hearing, gaining, and losing again. I want to write about childhood and high school and marriage and learning and panic disorder and crippling anxiety. Dear experts, respectfully please go poke yourselves in the eye because I have plenty of writing material. And I will continue to write into motherhood and new careers and more losses and other victories and changes. I want to show you what it all looks like, make you nod your head, “yes.” Show you you’re understood.
Why I must try anyway:
I have a fierce and urgent need for truth—a need to expose the fake, reveal the hidden, see the whole of the experience. I want to sculpt words of clay into a masterpiece without forgetting the masterpiece is of mud. I love confessional writing, the mud of everyday life, and I believe the specific can be universal. Stop pretending, I want to scream at everyone. And myself.
This need for authenticity is why I’m so drawn to creative nonfiction. Ezra Pound echoes “Make it new.” Truth is ancient and timeless but also a daily discovery, a growing thing. Real life has enough layers to keep me fascinated and busy peeling. Enough questions to keep me curious. There’s enough grit there. And enough grace.
Writing is prayer to me….it’s always some sort of prayer. Even filled with curses. Even about non-godly things. The release of clenched fists. I tutor a girl who fascinates me and teaches me about herself and myself at her age and myself now and God. She possesses a beautiful and challenging duality. She doesn’t speak much. Communication seems slow and imbalanced and pulled and simple-minded. But she is anything but simple-minded. Her writing is poetic and symbolic and filled with misspellings and shockingly brilliant and scary and complex and genius. She lets me read her prayer journal sometimes.
Her journal (much like the one I wrote in at her age) is the only thing that softens all the hardness in this heart. She understands the release of writing. I have to start with the tool of writing to get her talking. Keep turning the knob on the faucet. And the faucet just does a little drip…and then a few slow, weighty, seems-like-forever moments later…it does a little drip-drip again. And then. And then ten minutes later the whole sink overflows with a gushing flood of creativity. Words that are special and different, poetic and so…worth the wait. And oh, how I understand her hesitation. And I will gently draw out all of that inside beauty. Because God’s right there in the details. And writing is a holy act.
Betsy Lerner says that writing is like handing over your heart on a plate. So true. Fears of not being adequate in my writing make me feel like I am nothing. Fears make me hesitate to admit what I want to be. But the art of writing, the humanness of writing, allows me the chance to be everything. And to be everything is simply all I’ve ever wanted to be.