19 April 2008

The ghost in you

As I moved through the bookstore the other day, words jumped out at me from tables stacked with books. On one table all the books said "victim." On another, they all said "survivor."

Is this what we have reduced ourselves to? Victims and survivors?

I find it interesting that several memoirists have been outed in recent years for writing untrue accounts of their lives and experiences. Are these people so boring that they have to reinvent their lives publicly in written word? So greedy for notice? Completely insecure about themselves? Morally bankrupt? What drives that sort of falsification?

And what drives others to discuss horrifyingly intimate details of their lives so publicly? Not long ago, a friend with whom I trade books gave me a memoir of the sort I don't generally read, and I got bored quickly. I only wish I'd abandoned it completely because ultimately, this woman discussed not only the abuse she suffered--and it was undeniably terrible that she was abused--but she bludgeoned it home with details that I in no way wanted to know.

I don't remember where I read it, but there was also a story I came across a month or two ago about a woman who found the anonymity of blogging so freeing that she used her blog to talk about all the things she found really horrible in her life, the stuff that she couldn't share with her family or friends. That one was jaw-dropping for me. Blogging makes me so edgy, so uncomfortable, so conscious of what I'm sharing with a group of readers, half of whom are completely unknown to me, that there are days I sit here staring at the blank page in front of me, terrified, mortified...and blank.

But I keep at it precisely because it does keep on me on edge, way beyond my own comfort zone. And I think it keeps me honest about my motivations, how I approach the world. At the very least, it keeps me thinking about those things.

I've been writing since I could pick up a pencil. I've been telling stories since I could talk. All throughout my childhood, I made up stories for my younger siblings, inventing elaborate worlds, maps of which we'd draw in the dirt of the backyard. We were transported. I'd read them books, and tell them bedtime stories that would have them laughing so hard my mother would be furious.

"Don't get them wound up before bed!" she'd yell at me while my youngest sister lay on the ground choking and breathless.

A few years ago, my youngest sister and I were driving down a quiet desert road, and suddenly she said, "Do you remember the three-string guitar?"

"You remember that?" I asked, amazed. She'd been young.

"The pom-pom Santa?"

We had to pull over because we were laughing so hard we were crying at the memory alone.

I don't even remember the actual story. All I remember is singing them a song, bouncing a pom-pom Santa stuck on the end of a knitting needle, reducing us all to utter hysterics. The story apparently didn't matter. The memory resonated regardless.

Writing stories saved my adolescent life. Writing provided the escape hatch I needed, an escape from the confines of the narrow and difficult world I had no choice but to inhabit. Writing taught me that it was possible to create my own reality, my own life that had nothing to do with what others were trying to force me into, or worse, force on me. I learned I could write a script for my own future.

And that may be why writing fiction is so difficult for me now. I've succeeded in authoring an existence that I can live. I have space to breathe in my real world, and no need to create a dream of a fantastic three-dimensional space where my heart can beat freely, where I can't be wounded. These days, fact isn't tiny and limiting and filled with despair, mere existence, waiting to get on with it.

I could say that I was a victim.

I could say that I am a survivor.

Strictly speaking, both would be true. But strictly speaking, I don't see myself as either and more to the point, I don't want to be either. I am filled with compassion for those who suffer, for those who have suffered, but I am confused by those who want to claim suffering as their existence, who want to be defined by their suffering. I am content to say that I am alive, that I am living. For better or worse, for every good day and every bad day, and everything that happened and happens, for better or worse. And I want my life, the sum of my days, to be defined by what I've done, not what I've endured. I want my tombstone to read: "she taught a disadvantaged to child to read, she stood up and yelled for what was right, she cared for those around her."

Sometimes, I wonder if fiction is a part of my past, if telling the true stories is not only my present but my future. I'm not sure that it matters. Perhaps writing well and living to the best of my ability is sufficient.

Perhaps writing well, like living well, is the best revenge.

Go listen to some music: "The Ghost in You" from the album Superstition by Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Acknowledgement to fussy.org for "writing well is the best revenge." She's got the t-shirt!

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