A friend of mine told me recently that I could almost write like Zadie Smith. It was a glowing compliment. This piece is my attempt to run with it and still be humble. She sent me one of her articles, Zadie that is, and pointed out something that I had not previously seen: how she weaves entirely unrelated concepts and realities into a word quilt, threading each of the subjects she talks about into one dazzling montage. You could say the same of any writer, but as I was reading that piece, she was that writer.
In one of her essays, Alice Walker talks about two people she has known. One was Langston Hughes, and the other was, I forget his name, one of those charming alcoholic blues singers and raconteurs. She says that a real artist can reach down into her or his pain and use it to weave elegant haunting beauty and implied that both men had this capability and expressed it unabashedly.
One could argue that a real artist is tortured. Just look at Billie Holiday or Miles Davis. I fear that this is true for writers as well, agonized in myriads of ways and using their pens as lances for what boils they have. No one would be doing this if they had their shit together. I have often stumbled in doing this, in communicating better, in attempting to make something other than a fancy but forgettable hodgepodge of words using my experiences.
At first write about other people and their experiences, a situation that caused one of my readers always to cringe whenever she opened these pages: she might have found herself there, exposed and made naked to the world for something that was supposedly a shared intimacy. When I started writing about what I have been through, what I have seen and done, not merely what others have seen and done, it felt self-indulgent and narcissistic.
But, it occurred to me as time went on that I had to start with my stories before, and with permission, talking about other people’s. In finding my voice footing, I have been accused of pimping the pain of the people around me. Choice expletives, threats of lawsuits, murder and such things followed these moments of intense anger. To some degree, for me, I cannot shake the sensation they were not empty warnings.
I have also been told I came across as whiny and juvenile. My aim was to evoke the aching eroticism that often characterized (and still does sometimes) my turbulent and often short-lived relationships and various life happenings and to squeeze some meaning out of them, a lot more than a casual and dhirst-inducing piece. My earliest attempts came off as forced, wooden and bland and platitudinous. The only way I could remedy this was to tie my stories and what I perceived to be my truths into a long-standing wisdom or at least grasp at a hidden epiphany, a message in the shadows.
What began as an effort to nurse my wounds (the wounds of others are not no longer nursed here) and figure my world out has ended up providing a pleasure almost as thick as the joy I get from a long brisk walk along quiet shaded roads, alone with just my thoughts. Writing is cathartic for me in whatever form it takes. This site’s tagline was, when it had one, mentioned this.
I am a bit bewildered about why I even bother to write well when a scribble and scratch will give me the near-quiet high of what feels like an exorcism. I once railed against writing about writing and, for people starting out, it is, to put it chastely, frowned upon. However, it is something (something for the week, the flavor of the week), my something that I am watering and nurturing slowly. Writing is my cactus to grow. Who knows? One day it may sprout a flower.