Beyond Words: A Writer’s Burden
About a week ago, I shared with my thesis advisor that I have two ongoing manuscripts; a collection of romantic comedy poems and a nonfiction book centered on grief. He asked why I chose the first over the latter for my graduate thesis. Beyond the apparent reason that poetry comes easier, there are responsibilities I am ignoring, that the nonfiction collection would need to thrive. Over the past two years, the responsibility of being a writer, choosing one’s words intentionally and carefully has become unignorable.
For over a year, I have been trying to write a nonfiction piece about my decision to be non-feminist. Of course, I divert – this isn’t what the post is about; however, despite having written many versions of that piece, I have struggled to find contentment in what someone else might believe my words convey or “my intent.” Being in an MFA program, words now matter more than before. In conversations with friends, I often say, “This isn’t the perfect word to describe this but think of it as…” because there is something about using words with precision and truth that makes a difference in whatever is communicated. The alarming consciousness of how words can convince, manipulate, or change people and things is a heavy burden.
A particular experience that hit the nail was when I was admitted to a few graduate schools in 2021. Some of the writing samples I submitted for my application were about sexual assault and rape - not my experience but a re-write of popular news. For example, there is a non-fiction piece titled Father - about a father who raped his daughter and attended a church where one of the pastors was a rapist (in light of allegations against a prominent church leader at the time). My goal was to humanize the women in the stories the media told because I find that a distance in relatability is a barrier to action.
The first school I gained admission to put me in the memoir nonfiction group without asking, despite submitting a work sample containing poetry. When I spoke with the director of the second program - he began our conversation by expressing gratitude that I am “such a vulnerable writer..." I didn't read meaning into it then because this isn't the first time I'll hear that compliment. Then, I met a professor from the third school who began our conversation by admiring the nonfiction piece titled Father. She said, "There was such deep vulnerability in writing that story about your father..." I was shocked and thought, "What have I done?”
Yes, a simple disclaimer might have prevented that problem, but I was worried there was a more significant implication like Chimamanda addressed in The Danger of a Single Story. When individuals are limited to a single story or portrayal of a group, it can lead to misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and stereotypes. A single story is often incomplete and fails to capture the complexity, diversity, and richness of the human experience. There are implications of repeating and re-telling a history and narrative centered on the oppression of any “marginalized” group.
Around that time, I picked an interest in videos and books by people whose perspectives contradicted my beliefs, from politics to feminism, religion, identity issues, and more. Soon, I realized that if I watched and read long enough, I would believe what these people shared as their truth and join their fight. I realized as Annalise Keating said in the series How to Get Away with Murder – “There is no truth in the courtroom. It is just your version of what happened versus theirs. That is how the justice system works. It is not what is right and what is fair. It is who tells the most convincing story.” I was now very much aware of people who say or talk as though they have “the truth” as much as those who say there is no truth.
In our century of “content creation,” I have observed how people combine words to prove themselves credible, wise, intelligent, right, correct, and relevant. Whenever I fall into these rabbit holes on YouTube or Instagram, I remind myself that I am responsible for whatever I believe based on what someone else has said or how they have used words.
In January, I visited the White House for the first time. Getting to the front, I was so disappointed that it looked smaller than I expected. When I talked to someone about it, he replied, “It is the White House, not the big house.” Touché. So, I lowered my expectations when I planned a road trip from Las Vegas to Arizona, with stopovers at different state and national parks. I thought it was better to be impressed by something I don’t expect than disappointed by my expectations.
On day 1, I visited the Valley of Fire State Park and the Zion National Park. On day 2, I saw the Horseshoe Bend, the upper and lower Antelope Canyon, and the Glen Dam. Finally, on day 3, I went to the Grand Canyon National Park. Driving through, I just kept thinking that despite being a writer, I would fail if I tried to describe these things to someone else. When people say, “Words can’t describe something,” nothing can describe these places adequately. I got tired of taking pictures at some point because no camera angle could capture their magnitude.
On this trip, I read The White Book by Han Kang (which I highly recommend). Han used words so intimately and masterfully to describe white things. The center of her work is the grief of her mother losing a child and one of my favorite pieces includes her description of snow. This book and the trip brought a lot of clarity to my thesis – the collection of romantic comedy poems and how I would feel content with it. If I can’t describe a word as she did, I won’t feel convinced or confident to use that word to justify something else, like sarcastically comparing the size of one of my character’s buttocks to the Grand Canyon only after visiting the place.
These days, I am more conscious about the way I talk to and about myself or other people. I take seriously what Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
As a writer, I had never imagined the gravity of using words like mountain, grand, and canyon until I saw a few so close-up. Driving through mountains felt like touching and feeling with my eyes, something I have always reached for. Notably, there was something incredibly soothing about being at the top or depth of places like the Grand Canyon, the wisdom of these forms and their stillness combined with the silence of nature.
I shared with my thesis advisor how this trip changed my viewpoint about writing and words. I will never take for granted again the specificity of the words I use to express something or evoke anything in anyone. Moreso, the closer I pay attention to these things, the more I find peace in silence about many issues, understanding that too, is beyond words and at times, enough said.
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