Most of us are vulnerable to the solipsistic notion that our sufferings and joys are exquisite. My ex-wife once attended a seminar, a Christian women’s retreat, in which the keynote speaker opined about the peace of God. “Most of you have never truly known the peace of God,” the speaker told her audience. “You may think you’ve known the peace of God, but you haven’t.”
The speaker had the peace of God in a headlock. She wrote a book about it, after all.
She’d experienced her dark, or at least dimly lit, night of the soul and lived to tell about it and write about it and tell about writing about it. And somehow along the way she came to think that this set her apart from other women––women who’ve buried children and suffered infidelities and survived breast cancer, but who hadn’t found the time, in the midst of grieving and raising their children and maintaining something like order in their homes, to write books about it.
And so in strode the writer, knowing none of them from Eve, to instruct them on the peace of God.
We writers must cast out lines, thin strings with paper cups at their ends, along which we whisper our secrets in hopes someone will listen. We whisper our secrets in search of some unburdening, of beauty birthed from ashes.
They are our secrets, the dirty or noble or inscrutable acts we’ve committed or witnessed or endured, and they can only ever be ours. The only reason a reader cares is because something in our words speaks to the truth of her own life.
Recall that gut-twisting scene in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie and his mother leave his mentally handicapped brother George in an institution:
“I failed to distract him from the terror of the place and of boys like himself. . . And now he realized that we would leave him and he began to do with his soul, that is, to let out his moan.”
Maybe none of us has abandoned a child to such a place, but when Augie describes “the bristles” of George’s hair between his mother’s hands, and George moaning as he obediently sits on his new bed and watches them go, we see a child we have loved. We hear that child moaning, and our hearts break.
Bellow has whispered along that thin trembling thread and we can’t help but imagine with horrible clarity the sounds our own little brothers or sons would make, how they would watch us walk away. Bellow needn’t tell us with great specificity how Augie feels. He need only describe a mother holding her moaning son’s head between her hands, and we know the true and terrible shape this would take in our own lives.
Or consider the beginning of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, when she describes the view from a hospital window. This could be any city, she tells us. Imagine the response that would evoke in a writing workshop. What city? Where am I? Give me the by-God who-what-where-when-how-why.
Then Welty describes the pools of water on the flat roofs of the buildings below. Those water pools are like mirrors reflecting the sky above. She whispers this small thing and now we are there at the window, because we all have looked down at a rooftop and seen those pools of water.
Maybe we never really considered how, yes, they are exactly like mirrors turned up to the watching sky, not until Welty whispers to us, and so we sigh in some part of ourselves, because she has whispered a thing we know is true. We have seen it for ourselves, but we never realized we were seeing it.
Welty lost her father to leukemia when she was twenty-two. The Optimist’s Daughter follows events set in motion by the death of the protagonist’s father. How tempting it is, when we write about suffering we have known, to imbue it with an aura of uniqueness. How tempted we are ––writers and readers––to make our own suffering the axis about which this fallen world spins.
Telling a story along that thin thread, however, means abandoning the notion that the world pierces us more deeply, that our hearts sing more loudly. What if the opposite were true?
What if the reason there are television screens in every godforsaken corner of the U.S., and rampant alcoholism in Russia, and endless electronic distraction in Japan, is because the average man and woman need something, anything, to tamp the intensity of bearing a soul in this soul-crushing age?
What if we writers are able to tell stories of hurt and joy only because something in us is dulled enough to look them full in the face?
What a mission we might have then, to introduce the truth of brokenness and redemption to our brothers and sisters terrified to hear it. We’d have to whisper our little truths of moans and water pools in hopes that our stories would turn others back to their own hidden stories, thereby sparking that blessed epiphany we readers have experienced and which keeps us coming back to the writers we love, the epiphany that can be summed up in this way:
Yes, I have felt this too, and I see you have felt it, and so I am not alone.
Tony Woodlief lives outside Wichita, Kansas, and is the author of a spiritual memoir, Somewhere More Holy. His essays on faith and parenting have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and WORLD Magazine. His short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image and Ruminate. His website iswww.tonywoodlief.com.