This is the part when we have to be honest with ourselves. And your words don't have to be perfect.
This week was a struggle for me, and for others, no doubt. I had planned my week around a deadline, which meant that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning were blocked out completely. There was not much time for writing, except a few minutes of journaling maybe in the morning. But certainly not enough time to process the events of the weekend, and the ensuing reactions.
As I watched it all unfold, I was struck by two thoughts:
I should be writing. Writing is what I do.
But I also knew, and two things I talk about in my seminars, that I had to be honest with myself:
And sometimes this is what writing looks like. It's why writers and artists often get made fun of for being daydreamers. It's why we get laughed at for getting lost staring out the window. Sometimes writing doesn't look like writing from the outside. Sometimes writing is getting lost in another world to understand this one.
But I also knew that every time I sat down to write, if I had tried, it would have been impossible, because I thought, when I sat down to write, what came out had to be perfect. It had to be the answer to every argument out there. It had to solve and explain everything. It had to be a masterpiece worthy of being written....
I had to get real. I know better than that. The art comes in the editing.
And that's why you have to know yourself first and distinguish between your voices and others'.
I had to know why I was writing at all. Was I really writing for a readership? Or was I writing for myself, to process things? Was this pressure to write coming from me, or some outside voices that I had internalized: You're a writer. They're all looking to you for the truth. You need to write something incredible. Be the writer you claim to be. (Emphasis on the "claim" and with an eye roll.)
As a writer, I knew I wanted to write. But I was creating the pressure on myself to do it. As a writer, though, I also knew that time is usually needed to produce my best work. Not so much time to write, but time to not write.
But I also knew that part of my need to write was my need to understand. To understand why these people were so angry, to understand them. I started to get down on myself because I thought I was being too easy on these people. Because I wanted to write something and have them actually listen. (Putting the reader, first, right?) And so I stumbled. But I also knew that it wasn't just about them. The potential reader. It was me. And I didn't need to be apologetic about it. It wasn't that I didn't want to offend anyone or that I wanted to increase some imaginary readership. It was that I truly wanted to understand so I could write something that meant something. That didn't ignore the realities—on all sides, if you will.
Because, I'll be honest: I've been there. Not the pitchfork/tiki/racist/hate part. But I've lived in the South, and I've lived in the darkness. There was a time when I blamed everyone else for all of my problems too. And I also knew that these people have been fed hate and racism their entire lives, and they've normalized it. They still live in the Civil War past and believe their freedoms have been taken away. They believe the government told them how to live their lives. And then they took their jobs. But they also were never taught to do anything about it. They have been taught to be so incredibly dependent on others that they don't even know how to think for themselves anymore. And most of them have never had the distance many of us have had. The opportunity to leave, to meet new people. They are stuck, and they have no way out.
Please, do not read this as my making excuses for them. They've had every opportunity. And by "they," we know I'm not talking about every single individual in the South. But I also know I've gotten to where I am because I was not deeply rooted in that life and those beliefs, I could see it for what it was, it bothered me, and I got out. And I get to talk with people every day who are making real changes in their own lives and others.
But in a culture steeped in tradition, it's easy to believe you're helpless. And maybe they are. How many of us are told to surround yourself by successful people? What's the difference that has made in your life? What if you have no access to successful people, except maybe those on TV, and one of them sounds a lot like you?
I am talking about writing and empathy, and how the two are linked.
And so, this is why writing can be sloppy, ugly even. You can't just say you have empathy and not be ready to go where that empathy will take you. Because sometimes you have to be comfortable with the discomfort of going somewhere no one wants to go. As I write this, I feel like I am making excuses for them, and that people will judge and critique me because they think I'm doing just that. It's also uncomfortable, because in my entire body, I feel and know that this hate is disgusting and despicable, and I think there is no room for it, and it amazes me these words and rhetoric still abound.
But that's why I spend so much time with words and rhetoric. We sometimes treat words with not enough respect, because it is a tool we all use. And because it's how we see and understand the world, it has the double-sided dilemma of being underappreciated and overused. (All cliches start as truth.)
How can you help someone when you're simply spewing rhetoric? Repeating empty words? Not fully connected with the words you are writing or speaking? It's like using your computer to tell a person shipwrecked and without Internet connection to watch the YouTube video on how to sail a boat. Seems laughable for the weight of the topic, but that's what it is.
A bunch of people giving their versions of the truth, but no one is listening. (Of course, another aspect of this is that many people's version of the truth is not their own, and that can make it hard to argue.) We're using the same words but giving them different meanings, and no one seems willing to take the time and care these sorts of words require.
If you noticed, a lot of the problem was caused by a lot of people saying a lot of things, or not enough things, or the wrong things. We have developed this need to say something immediately. The really thoughtful things I saw or heard said came days after the news broke. But there were still plenty of other platforms on which people just felt the need to fill space.
It's one of the other things I talk about a lot: this need to always be saying something. But you don't. One of the best ways to be heard over all the noise is to not talk all the time. For example, we all rejoiced when Obama finally tweeted something (and, he even quoted someone else).
And so another thing we're seeing, that writers should be meticulous about, are the use of words. Words that are being thrown around without much care. One of the things I've been wanting to do when I finally had the time was to look up the words everyone was using. Were they using them correctly? What were the connotations behind these words? Is it fair to use them? What are the emotions these words strike in the hearts of others? Am I prepared to embrace the power in that word?
Words are powerful. The words we use are important.
This is a care I don't see taken very often. But it also shouldn't keep us from writing. Using words and writing them are a wonderful way to explore your connection to them and the rest of the world. It even gives you a chance to question your own opinions or beliefs. Do I really believe this? Or am I just using words that I'm hearing everyone else use? What do these words mean to me? Are there other words that are more honest?
Another important detail to remember is to be aware of where you are right now. There was a piece of me that still felt like the journalist I was (and yes, might honestly always be a part of me). I thought, I needed to be the voice, the reporter on the front lines. I should be the byline people are reading. I'm the person people should be going to for answers.
But that's not me anymore. On several levels. I don't have an automatic platform with built-in readership. I'm not writing on deadline every day. And those might be good things. Or they might just be.
And so, for many of you, you have to look at what you are in the position to do, right now.
Some of you are healers. Some of you are coaches. Some of you can help us breathe and be present.
And each of these skills and services are so very much needed right now.
I am a writer. So I want to write. It's the thing I feel like I can do in this world. Others may organize. Some may speak. We have to understand our purpose and our strengths.
And right now, perhaps our distance is our strength. And yet, in fact, I almost felt guilt for my distance, but I also knew that it is that distance that benefits me right now. I do have time to stop, breathe, and think. I don't have to react. And I think those in the midst of Charlottesville right now could use some distance. I'm sure some of the people are wishing for a pause. A chance to breathe and think about what to do next. But they are caught up in the emotions. Trapped by the crowd.
Our strength lies in our not having to act right now. I know it's hard with the constant information and group think, but really, right now is a perfect time to stop, think, and wonder: What can I do? We don't have to act immediately.
And so, in my distance, I took the time to be honest with myself, and I reached in to explore the words. And it wasn't pretty at first. Far from it. (This post should show you that.) I wanted to show you that it's okay to write anything, or not write anything, and be okay with the ugliness of it, if that's what comes out. But I went from feeling helpless to feeling inspired. From "What can I do?" to "What I can do." Period. A change in the order of the same words, and different punctuation, and all of a sudden, it was clear again. It made more sense. And as you can see: I'm writing.