Writing Life

It all started at a writer's conference in Minneapolis earlier this year. There I stood, shivering, cheap red wine clutched in my trembling hand, leaning against a fence outside a run-down warehouse in a part of town our Uber driver scoffed at. "There," he said, his accent thick and meaty. "You want to go there? Well, okay, suit yourself."

Yes. The air was chilly and my teeth chattered, but the night was clear and the stars were brilliant overhead as a group of writers talked about....well, writing, of course. We writers love to talk about writing.

I had one question in mind as I faced a group that included an ex-junkie, a slightly-hardened reporter who worked a beat long enough to know things, and an ex-Marine. A female ex-marine, which is a tough thing to be in the heightened testosterone zone of people preparing for war. These three people? They've lived. They've lived tough. They're tough on a level I can only dream of, and can never emulate.

Can I write the hard stuff, never really having lived it? How can that work?"

All three of them write from that level of toughness, penning prose that's hard-edged. Sharp. Gritty. In a way I can only dream of, and can never emulate successfully. Or at least, I don't think I have yet.

So I asked a question, one that's been on my mind before, but one which I'd never had opportunity to ask. I asked: "Can a girl who's lived a relatively sheltered life....a cushy life really...how can she write like you guys, when she doesn't have those hard-edged experiences on which to draw? Can I write the hard stuff, never really having lived it? How can that work?"

Their responses were encouraging, of course. This was, above all, a kind and generous group of writers. They spoke of imagination. Of fiction. Of finding your voice despite your own doubts.

But still. I wondered. Can I ever write something hard enough, something true enough, when I'm not writing from my own experiences? How do I write a life of mediocrity, and make it...not mediocre?

The next day, still at the conference, I sat in the front row at a panel called "Writing the Body." Filled with brilliant and beautiful women like Native American poet Joy Harjo and LitReactor's own Lidia Yuknavitch (among others - this was an amazing panel of women), they seemed like they'd seen everything. Heard everything. Felt everything. 

Rape. Molestation. Beatings. Prostitution. Addiction.

Things I cannot even imagine experiencing, they've experienced and endured.

I sat there, mouth slightly agape, in awe of these women. These writers. These writers who advocate telling your stories, no matter what they are. Who advocate voice over silence. Who advocate taking action, making changes, making a difference.

These women who live the words my daughter loves to say: Never give up, and never surrender.

It was one of the most powerful moments I've experienced as a woman, I think, hearing these writers share their tales, but still, I was wracked with doubts about myself. When Lidia had us all stand up to find our own voices, it felt fitting that, after several days of travel, my asthma was acting up, so when I opened my mouth to speak, all that came out was a short, harsh croak. 

My life experiences already didn't feel like enough. Suddenly, neither did my voice.

But somehow I left that conference room feeling powerful. Engaged. Loved.

That's the kind of women they were. That's the kind of woman and writer I want to be. 

Still, I wondered: being little me, with a voice like a frog's and the life experiences of suburbia, would I ever be enough?

I read two books immediately after returning home from the conference. Joe Clifford (the ex-junkie from the warehouse party, who's sweet and lovely and kind) has a novel called Junkie Love, a novel based so directly on his life that he often signs it with the words, "Spoiler: I live." In the "novel," the narrator, a junkie, is awful. He lies. Steals. Fucks. Shoots stuff into his veins that should kill him...but somehow, he lives. He endures. He turns his life around, and turns himself into something better. Something good.

The book is devastating in its honesty, terrifying in its experience.

I could never write that book, I don't think. I've never lived that life. I don't know it, not at all. Between you and me, the only "drug" I ever tried was pot, and thanks (again) to my asthma, I never inhaled a successful toke. Instead I coughed out all the smoke, lying on the floor of a cute boy's dorm room, thinking, "Well, if this what drugs do, no wonder Nancy Reagan told us all to just say no."

No. I could never write Joe Clifford's Junkie Love. It wouldn't be true, no matter how good my imagination is.

Nor could I write Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir, The Chronology of Water, though at least on one level we share a similarity. Swimmers both from a young age (though she'd have kicked my ass), we feel more at home in water than on land, a feeling not everyone can understand. 

But that's where the similarities end. With an abusive father, an addict mother, and an absentee older sister, Lidia, too, has endured. She has lived. She's driven so far down a path of self-destruction, it's hard for me to imagine. Still, my main takeaway from Lidia's memoir is this: Wow. Whatever she's gone through, she's come out...amazing. Strong. She loves fiercely, with a vengeance, and I want to learn to be like that. I want to love like Lidia. And I want to make my readers feel loved, just the way she does.

She lived through the fires of hell to get there, though.

I've never even lived through a single-alarm blaze.

How, then, can I write a book like that?

I've been thinking about this ever since. 

How can I write books that mean something? That say something? 

Maybe I can't, with my quiet little life in southern suburbia.

No drugs. No abuse. No fires of hell to burn me.

We write because we have to, not because it's easy. We write our lives, in all their chaotic glory, in various shades of disguise, because we have to tell our stories.

Plus, let's be honest. I write about the zombie apocalypse. About a girl-turned-monster who wants to save the world. About wars on faraway planets. About a soul lost in the fires of the Holocaust, and a girl lost in the fires of religious extremism. These are not the stories of my life. Of my body.

Am I doing something wrong?

But as I've thought, as I've pondered, and as I've dug in a little deeper, I've come to realize: No, I'm not, because yes, they are.

I may not be writing memoir, and I may not be writing stories set in the here and now, but in all my stories, I write from a place of love. Love is what I know, what I understand. It's what I've experienced, again and again and again.

I write about mothers protecting children: in an apocalypse, in a holocaust, in a war on faraway planets. I write about this because I have a daughter, and I know the love of a mother. The devotion. The willingness to move heaven and hell to make sure your child is safe and warm, and I know the fear that comes with falling short. I've watched my child succeed, and I've also watched her fail. I write about these things because it's what I live. It's what I know. They are the stories of my life, camouflaged.

I also write from a place of curiosity. I know curiosity well, too. I live it. I ask questions all the time. I wonder about others, about the things they believe, the things they do.

My curiosity often focuses on religion, and the horrific actions some people take in the name of it. I question how a person could believe in a God who advocates slavery or death. These are questions I've asked myself for years, and I play with them in my writings. I explore them. Maybe these are not stories of my body in particular, but they are stories that come from my questions, questions that are as much a part of who I am as are my fingers and my toes. Thus, they are my stories, camouflaged.

I write, too, from a place of fear. Of hiding.

I write about characters hiding themselves, for when I was small and blonde and Jewish in a mostly-Catholic town, the words, "Oh, you're Jewish? But you don't look Jewish!" were music to my ears. I'd passed as "normal," at least for a while, which was important since in my childhood imagination there were always Nazis hiding in dark corners, waiting to take me away. Now I find myself writing characters who are also "passing" in various ways — looking for "normal" in a world in which "normal" is an ever-shifting target. Sound familiar? This, too, is a story of my life. Camouflaged.

These are the things I write about. These are the things I believe. I tell my stories of myself, of my body, of my life and my fears and my dreams. They are camouflaged, yes. Altered. But they are mine.

Perhaps they're not raw enough. Perhaps they're not jagged.

But they are mine.

I can't spend time worrying that my life isn't enough. I can't regret the things I haven't done. I can only tell what I do know, what I have experienced.

We write because we have to, not because it's easy. We write our lives, in all their chaotic glory, in various shades of disguise, because we have to tell our stories. Even when we worry that our stories aren't enough.

They are enough. Enough for us to have to tell them. Otherwise we wouldn't be writing them. I'd do well to remember this, and to forget the feelings of inadequacy, of regret. I am enough, and so are you. So tell your stories, however you want, and I promise: they'll be enough.

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Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler June 18, 2015 - 12:38pm

Writing what you know:

When I first started writing I wrote someone who was more or less a mirror image of myself and wrote about what I did for work, wrote about the school I went to, character sketches on some friends of mine.  That work, turned out to be incredibly dry now that I look at it.  

As I continued to write, as the years went on, I started to ask myself if I was writing what I knew.  The answer was no.  I had to redefine, for myself, what that meant.  So I created some characters in some stories that clearly weren't me.  The result was a strong female character that clearly is nothing like me.  I'm physically weaker than most men and tend to shy away from physical confrontation.  I wrote my mirror opposite, but with it came the emotions that I knew.  Emotions that were worked into the fabric of the story to explain why she is the way she is.  

So writing what I know doesn't necessarily mean physical experience over the course of life, to me it is the emotional responses that come with those experiences.  Nice article.  I too feel like I am doing something wrong when reading something outside my jurisdiction of knowledge, but that's why we research subjects.  

Let the love flow into your pages.


leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. June 19, 2015 - 4:33am

Aw, I adore that. Let the love flow into your pages. I'm gonna steal that and remember it and it's going to make me happy. Thank you.

And thanks for sharing your experience. I always love to hear how other people do it; it's alwasy great to know it's not just me. :D

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 19, 2015 - 11:05pm

I'll read more later to get more of gist when I'm more awake, and then edit this post when my answer makes more sense.

What helps me is this, drawing from what you know partially, while drawing from what others know for things you only experience in stories, while still barring in mind some aspects of the fantastical.

Like a magic realism very doubtfully has experienced a talking cat, but they could easily have had a family member who was an inspiration in their life, of which they draw some of the lessons they have learned.

Plus with Voreth's Promise Saga, wow I was such a bitter and angry person. (This was first written before I had gotten gender therapy), and so much of the book focused on the negative thinking of wishing for girl you've crushed on to crush you back later and you reject her, with you loving another woman in a world where trust has replaced love as a side plot.

Yes in a YA novella. I wasn't exactly at the height of maturity then.

Science fiction can easily still be memoirs as well, like this book while dystopian science fiction, is really a reverse memoir. Or the passive experience of others problems through indirect knowledge, and how sheltered people must adjust to a new life. I'm glad I wrote it to add to the larger personal meta-narrative, but not a novella I'd repeat.

I prefer more family stories now, with fairies that eat peoples hearts, and make changelings their castles servants. Well Ok, I'm never going to totally loose my dark bent. But it's knowhere like it was.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 20, 2015 - 1:32pm

Great column, Leah. And yes, I know what you mean.

For me it all comes back to emotions, on-the-body physical descriptions, body language/gestures and imagination. As in I may not have done X that my character is doing, but I think it would cause Y emotion, and that I do know, and I can describe how that feels mentally and physically, how it makes a person react to another in tone and gesture. In that respect writing is a mirror, only its a twisted warped and sometimes unrecognisable reflection we create. If that makes sense? 

And oh, I love Lidia! Words cannot describe the beautiful sorrow and heartbreaking power of C.O.W.

Junkie Love is on my want to read wish list :)