Friday, January 26, 2007

Pain, truth and good writing

When I was in college, there was always something lodged painfully in my heart. Whether it was a guy thing, a family thing, a "what the hell do I want to be when I grow up" thing, a job thing or something else, the point is ... it was there. I recently ran across some old journal entries of mine from those years. While they're a trifle melodramatic, they're real. They're honest and true and very, very real.

And now I'm well beyond college and grad school. All those "guy" things resolved themselves into learnings I brought with me to my marriage to my best friend. The family things have either mellowed, or I've learned how to deal with them more productively, or they've melted away entirely. The "what to do when I grow up" and "job" things -- well, I just do what I do. I may not yet be grown up and this may not be it, but the doing of it takes time, brings me some satisfaction -- and earns a living. The stuff that was stuck in my heart has turned into light and joy, or has shored up its walls at least.

And I wonder if, in the gaining of great happiness and deep peace, I've lost a part of myself. What do you do when the pain and frustration that identifies you and defines you melts away, like sugar in coffee? Life's not bitter anymore -- it's sweet, though there are still moments of darkness. And to write about joy seems boastful, whereas to write about suffering seems to be a way out of it.

I asked a very special friend this question about a year ago. I woke up one day panicked, realizing I hadn't written anything real, or of emotional substance, in a long time. So I did what I'd always done in college -- I wrote a long, jumbled letter to my friend. He's known me forever, and he's been there as my writing changed from junior high scribblings to moments of coherence in high school, to honest and clear-voiced thoughts in college and grad school. And this is what he said.

"What makes good writing 'good' isn't pain, though sometimes good writing can break your heart with its suffering. What makes it good is truth. If what you write is real and honest, you can write well, beautifully, profoundly."

And he's right, of course. I can't help but reflect, though, on writing that's changed me -- fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, letters from friends, someone's dream journal entries -- and they're overwhelmingly powerful because of something hard, something difficult that the author was growing or pushing through. I possess a handful of memories and impressions of powerful writing that was about great joy, but much more frequently the passages that haunt me, the ones I can quote by heart, are about loss and grief and ache and suffering.

I have always called myself a writer. But what kind of writer am I now, with only the memory of deep sadness to call upon as inspiration for my craft? Even those distant memories of pain have had their edges dulled by the passage of time and the healing of hearts. I live now in days that are buoyed by the laughter I share with a man I am too lucky, really, in marrying -- days in which I am loved and I can love freely, days in which I have found comfort and peace.

I'm deeply thankful for the abundance of blessings I've been given. And so in tribute both to God, who has given me the amazing gifts that grace my life, and to the past I remember living through to get to now, I make a commitment: I will remember. The ease I've found now (which may be fleeting in any case) will not keep me from understanding pain around me, because I've walked those paths myself.

So I'll remember.

Watching someone I loved being hurt by someone who never deserved to be with him.
Loving someone who was completely wrong for me.
Forgetting how to be myself, and how miserable I felt as a result.
Making the same mistakes over and over, because I was unwilling to quit a bad habit ... or a bad person.
Being lonely, even when I was surrounded.
Being outside, aching to get in.
Fighting inside, desperate to get out.
Hating myself deeply and viciously, even when I couldn't articulate why.

For to forget these things is to dishonor what I've learned and been given now -- faith, knowledge, understanding, companionship, trust, honesty, belonging, and peace. Whether or not any of that makes good writing, it is truth.