My mother told me that my first words were “baby bear” and “Barbie dar,” and I don’t remember saying them. The first words I actually remember saying were indignantly strung together as declaration and defense:
“I can do it myself.”
Much to my detriment, whether in matters of art, career, spirit, or relationships, these defiant words have defined my resistance to hearing advice and taking help from people far wiser than I am for most of my life. I’m lucky I’ve learned that despite the promises in sprawling sections of self-help books in every corner book store, I certainly cannot do it myself—it being as simple as moving a queen-size bed up a flight of stairs or keeping hardships locked inside. Moreover, even if I can manage to get it done, it’s not always best to do it alone.
After damaging relationships, spending too much time on my self-inflicted and all-consuming issues, I’ve become more interested in hearing the wisdom of others more than ever before in my life. Looking back, I think of the few moments where I stopped long enough to really listen. My mother, who seldom gave me unsolicited directives (which I am sure began with my kindergarten rebellion against having my hair done and she, not wanting to fight me every day, gave up), made me look her in the eye, and with her index finger extending toward me, told me that she said she’d rather have children who were tattle tales than secret-keepers.
“You always tell,” she said. “Whether it’s on one of your brothers, your sisters—or even on yourself. You always tell if you know there’s something going on that shouldn’t be.”
Her voice shook. I was an adolescent, and she was telling me this because she knew too well what happens when you leave people alone, thinking it’s not your business to say something.
She didn’t cry, but she couldn’t have been more serious about making sure I understood this one thing.
You always tell.
Another piece of advice sticks in my mind that rivals the strong memory of my mother’s, but outweighs it in humor.
When I was twenty years old, I was interning at a local newspaper, and in charge of covering my hometown’s hot air balloon festival for the weekend. In only a few weeks of writing, I’d already been in trouble for recording the police logs wrong, marking the caller of a noise complaint as the cause of it. My boss let me off easy for the offense—the libeled man had called the editor, demanding a retraction because his wife had kicked him out—but I was nervous about getting everything just right after that. I was so agitated and afraid of committing errors that during that summer, I lived on sugarless Jell-O, coffee, and antacids.
Because I’d grown up in the town, I knew what had been written about the festival before, and I knew where to find the action, but I didn’t want it to be boring, so I didn’t know how to start.
After parking my 1983 Lincoln Mark VI and I walked down Center Street at the start of the day of the festival, praying that God would put me in the right places to talk to the right people because I was so afraid of messing up again.
The next day, my boss came into the office already excited about something, breathing heavily from stamping up the narrow stairs.
I braced myself. I was getting fired.
“Now, how in the hell did you find a kid who had a balloon land in his backyard? That was probably the best story we’ve had on Balloon Fest for years.”
Shocked by such unexpected praise, I didn’t know how to reply, so I told the truth:
“Well, I prayed before I went out.”
“Well, d—it, you pray before everything you write in here from now on.”
It wasn’t even that great of a story—nothing earth shattering or significant. I still have a copy of it filed away in a second-hand filing cabinet, but I remember what Ted said. Maybe it was part of the drama of feeling the intensity and the pithy quips I always dreamed a newsroom would have that made that stick with me.
Pray before everything you write.
Almost two years later during my senior year of college, a professor of mine challenged me on that point, completely unaware of how it would affect me. He’d been reading my essays for the past academic year, and had taught me journalism and creative writing courses throughout college. Through workshopping students’ essays, he dealt with tales of college students coming out of the closet, losing their virginity, sleeping with B-list rock stars, admitting abuse and drug addictions. In general, most of them were looking for ways to exorcise their adolescent demons and a way into writing careers through their confessional expulsions. At times, he became the counselor of the creative writing wing at the university. In working with me, he granted me the privacy of some special closed workshop sessions and some honest one-on-ones. In one of them, he confronted me in a way I’d never expected.
“I know you’re being honest with me about all this stuff, and you could write a book about it.”
I knew he told everybody this. It was his way of encouraging his students to keep working. We could all write books as long as we didn’t expect to be famous or to make any money from it. We could find mid-level jobs, settle down, and write our quietly outrageous memoirs. I waited for the continued encouragement, but I got something else instead.
“But there’s something missing. When I read what you’ve written, I think about you. I know you and how important your faith is to you, and I don’t see it in here. If you’re going to be this honest—I mean, you’ve written the most accurate description of a white night I’ve ever read. I’ve been there, man, and you got it. Your faith comes out there, but where is it the rest of the time?”
Although not advice, this question has haunted my consciousness and artistic intent ever since.
Drawn together, these three instances challenge me to write honestly. I hope it’s not just to exorcise any ghosts or to hop on the train of middle-class white girls trying to type up titillating “tell-all” paperback memoirs to get them on indie review sites and daytime talk shows.
When I write personal nonfiction, in a way, I do it to tell on myself. With all forms of writing that I try, I hope that if I’ve prayed and if I do it with right intent, God will show up. Reflecting on his body of work, Orwell admitted his love of politics and the theme of justice, stating that he couldn’t avoid the currents running throughout all his work. Years later, Didion lifted his essay’s title “Why I Write” and admitted in the New York Times that she loved words that draw pictures and using form to find out the place of “I.” Although I don’t see myself ever rising to their class of writers, I’ve thought about why I write and I know my foremost artistic drive concerns the soul walking about in a very tactile and present manner, through all torments, questions, blessings, and infinite graces.