As I’ve said before, this self-serving blog allows me to connect with the world outside of near-Babb (quite important during February) and to feel like a writer, and not a lawyer, a beekeeper, or a bookkeeper.
However, I focused on creative writing as an English major at the University of Georgia, and there was a time in my early-to-mid-twenties when I would have said, whether or not you had asked me, “I’m a writer.” My W-2 would have identified me as a waitress, barista, or bartender, but I felt like a writer. During those days on campus, I had the luxury of being expected, required even, to spend time thumbing through the lyricism of Billy Collins, gulping down the intoxicating magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and absorbing the thrumming anger contained in Sherman Alexie’s pages. I was also expected to write. Write without ceasing, as an ex-Catholic TA mischievously instructed me.
So I did. And I spent my days surrounded by others who were addicted to literature, reading it, dissecting it, and for some of the more advanced in my classes, actually creating it. Most of us were still writing pathetic poetry about our favorite high school boyfriends. I went to writing conferences, workshops, retreats. I even went to class. I wrote about the layers of blue in turquoise glacial melt, the metallic hollow hairs of ursus horribilis, the way a horse smells at daybreak.
I attended a gathering of the Southern Nature Writers, led by Janisse Ray’s honeyed voice, and I learned that a writer must write about what she knows – if you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’ll lack that authentic voice that makes you a writer, that garners respect from other writers. Not to mention selections by Oprah. No small task for a bunch of co-eds in their early twenties – many of us could string words together in a pretty fashion, but we knew very little, besides the number for all night Chinese delivery.
At this symposium, I also learned that I was not the only would-be writer who suffered from fear of writing. No, not the fear of writer’s block. Not that of publisher rejection. More the vague fear of a grandmother reading about a character’s morning stroll home, clad in black and wearing last night’s heels, trailing eau de Absolut. At twenty, I could not quite define this fear. If you are a writer who has an imagination vivid enough to create works that have no episodes of your own life in them, then perhaps you do not suffer from this fear. But my writing has always been tangled up in the hazy truths of my life, what might have happened versus what did happen.
Before my brother Howard’s 2004 death I had filled up hundreds of pages of journals and scribbled down countless short stories, poems, and pieces of flash fiction. After Howard’s death, I wrote not a word, save for law school exams, grocery lists, and correspondence that generally said: thank-you-for-thinking-of-me-during-this-horrific-time-that-is-turning-me-into-an-Academy-Award-winning-actress-yes-I’m-fine-and-not-drinking-alone-hope-to-see-you-soon-xoxo.
Clearly, I am writing again. When you tend to this sort of blog, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of your days, revealing your soul to the internets, then you are certainly writing about what you know. And I think that’s part of what makes blogging popular, not just the act of writing a blog, but also in reading others’ blogs – I think humans are intrinsically drawn to authenticity.
But there is a danger to setting down the more significant events of your life in virtual ink. When you write about something that’s happened to you, the act of arranging the syntax of the event and plucking the right adjectives off the thesaurus tree, the process of making it readable, if you take pride in that sort of thing, and all writers do – these actions forever alter that happening about which you are writing. And once you have written about it, there is no going back. You can’t change what you’ve written, and what you’ve written has changed forever your perception of what may or may not have actually happened. That truth is one of the few things I had a clue about in my early twenties, and that I had the good sense to be fearful of.
About three years after Howard died, I began writing again at oh2bnmt.wordpress.com. I took no risks with my writing. In my opening post “about me” I did not even mention that my baby brother had died. Which defines my life. Even now, though grief no longer has me by the jugular, I believe that Howard’s death will always, in some ways, define my life. I am not the person I was before he left us. Howard is my personal Jesus timeline – there is B.H. and A.H. in the new and old testaments of my life.
What I knew at twenty, that writing about anything that has actually happened will forever alter the writer’s perception of that anything, became magnified after Howard died. I was terrified to write about Howard’s death because I knew that I was not ready for the sense of permanency that writing about his death would bring me. I knew he was gone but did not need another reminder. I already realized that the few photos I had of he and I were my complete collection, forever. That the message saved on my phone would be my last link to his voice. That the headstone installed at the cemetery where he was not actually buried would be there until some subdivision was constructed, likely long after my own time on this Earth.
I knew I could not write about my feelings on grief, because by writing about them, I would be unable to change them. What if, once I started writing, all my feelings were negative? That seemed quite likely. Some visceral, animalistic, self-preserving part of me must have known that writing a negative post on grief would not be good for my future positive outlook on life. And so I waited another couple years to write, not just about Howard, but about anything of substance.
But last week, I did finally write about Howard’s death and the grief that consumed me in the years that followed. I don’t know why I was suddenly unafraid to write about it. I do know that I was awoken at 4am by a strange moon, one that was far away in the sky but cast so much light on the snow that it drew me to the window, and out into the sub-degree yard with my camera, trying to capture it. Even after the freezing temperatures chased me back into the house, I did not return to my warm bed. I sat on my couch and thought of Howard, and of Chris Street, another gorgeous man who left this world at a very young age, and quite recently. I turned on my laptop and an email I was writing to a friend who is grieving suddenly came to life on my screen. The words about the wretchedness of Howard’s death came pouring from my fingertips. Before I knew it, three hours had passed. I considered enlisting a proofreader. I hit “publish” instead. I feel more like a writer than I have since college and I no longer feel afraid. Pretty sure I have Howard to thank.
Howard, Summer 2004
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