A famous writer took me to lunch and over a plate of hummus and pita bread and a glass of red wine told me that one has to be fearless to write. She said that writing is not for someone afraid of shadows or dark rooms. If you are scared of telling the truth, then you should be a lawyer or a politician. But if you want to write, she said, then you better get ready from now on for the shitstorms that will come. Because, you will never get it right for someone out there, and, God forbid, you write about shit close to home, then you will probably get it totally wrong for most. Words are like bullets, each one having the potential to injure or kill. How can you write if you are scared of the words that may best capture the story you are trying to tell. That would be like telling a painter to paint without the color red, because too many people might find it too harsh for the eye. So once you write, just let go of who you are and who you want to be and who the characters are and who they once were or better yet, who others want them to be.
I have never forgotten those words and have found them to be in my ear every time I sit down to write. But I also have other words in my ears, words that carry an understanding that if I follow that famous writer’s advice, then my words will speak for me, but not for others. And if I want to write in a way that is powerful, real and, even, brutally honest, then I have to find the words that capture not just my feelings, but also the feelings of others. Because truth never sits in just one place, or better yet, in just one heart. Ask a woman who has just been divorced who is to blame for the end of her marriage and I’m pretty sure she will point at the ex-husband. But ask the ex-husband and, well, I think you get the point. So the question becomes where does a story lay, in what part of the narrative of life can one find the best story that can be told in the best way.
Think about the joke that radical history teachers like to tell. History is really His-Story, but as for the Her in history, well she is nowhere to be found. It is the same with any story isn’t it. There will always be a side not seen or not heard. There will always be a person who feels their claim to a story is more authentic than the claims of others. And they can be right and wrong at the same time. Every story belongs to every person who has experienced it in the way they have experienced it and as much as one would like to say, THIS STORY BELONGS TO ME AND ME ALONE, God just didn’t make the world like that. Nothing and No one belongs to me and me alone.
So what to do as a writer then, where to turn, what to write and how to write it? Surely, one can’t worry about who one will offend and who they won’t. Surely, one has to tell whatever story they feel they have in their heart to tell. This is what that famous writer would say and not for nothing, that is pretty much what she told me. Except that a story that is truly powerful for me is a story that can capture as many claims as possible and validate them all. Your claim to a character does not need to take precedent over my own, same way mine should not take precedent over yours.
In my humble opinion, a writer needs to be able to listen to the angst and rage and shouts and whispers and prayers and dreams and everything of all those who are courageous enough to lay a claim to a story. A writer needs to be able to weigh what they feel about a thing with what others feel about that same thing. And this takes time and patience, and honestly, really takes a lot of love. Yeah, I said it, Love. Love for the story, sure, and for the characters in the story, and especially for those who have stories of their own about your story.
So you must listen with an open heart. Engage with an open mind. And be present when they are telling you their reasons for their claim to the narrative you are telling. Because, if you are like me, and come from a culture like mine, one that honors the community as much as it honors the individual, then you must respect in every way possible every claim you hear about the story you are telling.
Because, I was brought up in a family where you do not exist alone, and therefore when you speak, you do not speak alone, and when you scream, you do not scream alone, and when you grieve, you do not grieve alone, and when you cry, you do not cry alone…
And when you love, you do not love alone…
So that when you tell a story, you must find a way to tell the story of the community and not just your own…
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