Write what you know.
This idea has stuck with me ever since I devoured the book Little Women in middle school. Jo, the protagonist, agonizes over writing a swash-buckling tale of derring-do. When her short stories are published, they receive little attention. Jo’s editor suggests instead she try writing something more personal, something from her heart. After some offended guffaws she pens a novel about growing up with her three sisters, aka Little Women.
As I’ve embarked on my own writing, the only place I know to start is with what’s in my own heart. Sometimes this gets me into trouble for being too honest, too transparent, and perhaps exposing those who’d prefer to remain anonymous. But it is not my wish to write for shock value or revenge. I share my experiences because I’m compelled to do so, and because I believe that writing is what I’m called to do.
I write about my love life, my aspirations, my fears and even my finances, but I have not written about social issues. Topics of race, oppression and sexuality have felt too monolithic for meager me to approach — best to let the PhD’s and activists in the world tackle such important issues. What could I possibly add to the conversation?
Maybe from living in a city steeped in years of activism or maybe from waking up to my own Blackness, I’m realizing how deeply flawed such beliefs are. Not believing I have something to add to “serious conversations” is indeed a mark of my own social conditioning. Am I not a living, breathing human living in a chaotic, confused time? Do I not walk as brown-skinned woman in a world where such distinctions are a liability? How could I not have something to say?
In social settings I’ve increasingly felt heat in my throat and stomach, which is an indicator to me that something wants to come out. I spent years cultivating techniques for squelching this fire, dismissing it as ‘not important,’ but now, with encouragement, I’m learning to not fear my inner dragon. The feedback, I’ve received has been surprising.
This week I learned that comments I made during an open dialogue about race led by Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, were published in her book Radical Dharma! Albeit, I’m identified anonymously, but that voice that Rev. Angel and her editors deemed worthy for publication on pages 125-126 is undeniably mine. In it, I’m discussing my experiences of growing up in a white town. Here’s a snippet:
You learn what not to say, how not to be. It feels like all those moments start to pile on you like a solid lead vest. And you carry that with you. And the process of taking off that really heavy vest feels like such an effort. There’s also some sort of comfort in that vest because you’ve learned how to wear it.”
When I open my mouth in a room where I’m the only minority, I’m acutely aware of who is listening. I feel a pressure to get it right, to represent my race, to say the thing that will make the crowd nod their heads in agreement. I’m always seeking this approval. But inside I feel, “I have not studied race relations, who am I to discuss such things? I have too much skin in this game to try to be eloquent.”
I’ve noticed that I’m not the only person of color who’s hesitant to offer perspectives and/or suggestions in group dialogue. We’re often the last to speak, offer our voices softly and end or begin our comments dismissively by saying things like, ” … but that’s just my 2 cents,” or “I’m no expert but … ”
I so get it.
But when we don’t offer our “2 cents” we leave space wide open for everyone else to shape the conversation, and what these people have to say often does not consider the experiences of anyone who identifies as “other.” The cycle continues.
So, my goals are these:
Write what I know — even those big scary topics
Say what I feel.
You never know what might happen.