Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Guilt of Writing

I can imagine that it is quite difficult to be the partner of a writer, or at least a writer like me. My life and writing are one. I can't separate the two. Does that mean everything I write is true? No, but it's connected to me, my life, and those who are in it. As I've written before, my greatest inspirations come from my everyday life. I don't write a lot of fantasy work or things not grounded in the everyday. Yes, my everyday is not necessarily "normal" to everyone. Not everything is truthful, but it is often a combination of truth with slight exaggerations or downplays, or mixed with current events, pop culture, or other literary or historic references.

I've been luckily, because Dustin has never been upset or frustrated by my use of him and our relationship (at least he has never told me so). I probably could never be with someone that would care. For me, writing is how I think through experiences both good and bad.

In late October of 2008, I lost my grandfather. I had just moved to Orlando a few months before. I had been unemployed for five months and had just gotten a part-time job at J. Crew (if you can't tell from that line, this was a huge low-point in my life). My father called me at about 5 PM on a Friday to tell me my grandfather had died. He had been sick, so it wasn't unexpected. I was having a Halloween party that night at my apartment with about 15 to 20 people coming. I processed the information as best I could and went on with the festivities. No one at the party knew my grandfather had just died, but Dustin. I still put on my corset and heels and drank too much. You see, I'm not very good with emotions or with outwardly dealing with situations of that nature. A few days later, I wrote a poem about my grandfather titled "I'm supposed to start with the last time I saw you." The poem came to me easily, even though it's an extremely emotional piece. It's a strong poem and one I'm proud to have written. This was how I dealt with his death.

I channel my life and thoughts through my poetry, but I don't want you to get the wrong idea, because I don't like the term "poetry as therapy" and that's not what I'm doing. What I'm talking about is a method of living and surviving. Writing is my method of staying alive. Without writing, I don't know where I would be or how I would have survived the last two years, which have been some of the hardest of my life.

There is, however, a guilt that comes with this. Because I write poetry with the intent of publication, I often feel a twinge of guilt when I use something upsetting or a family tragedy or death to make a good poem. I feel even guiltier, because this is often my first thought.

A perfect example of this happened just a week or two ago. A girl I went to graduate school with at Florida State University was killed while crossing a street on campus in her motorized wheelchair. We were not close friends, but I knew her, spoke with her many times, and had a class or two with her. When I learned of her death, I was shocked and saddened that such a horrible thing had happened, but I also immediately thought of a poem I've been working on. It is a new poem that incorporates snippets of car accidents and thoughts on religion, and her accident fit perfectly as an ending for my poem. This may sound coldhearted or insensitive, but I don't mean it that way. It's my way of processing and thinking through such horrific events, but it is also the "writer ear" inside me. I know when I hear something that just works.

She was a writer herself and might very well have understood this feeling. I don't use her name and I didn't do heavy research to make it accurate, but she's there in my poem just like my grandfather is alive again in his poem, and a version of Dustin is brought to life over and over again in various poems.

When I teach poetry or writing of any kind, I always tell students that you should write about the thing you fear most or feel you shouldn't write about. Maybe this is just us writers letting ourselves off the hook, or maybe there is something powerful in the fear and guilt that comes from typing those forbidden words and thoughts.

-Stephen (Guilty as Charged)


  1. Yep. Write or die. Those are basically our only choices. And it's writing about those things or situations that we fear that make our fiction or poetry or whatever interesting, give it a tension that readers are drawn to. My fictional protagonists invariably are characters thrown into situations that I've been afraid might happen to me but never have. Exploring your fears through writing is, I think, an important part of any artist's process, no matter the medium.

  2. Writers incorporate their whole lives into writing. It would be like asking a painter to keep his or her eyes shut...