Tag Archives: why we write

Freedom to Write: On Truth, Courage, & the Right to Write

The writer’s relationship with the truth is a curious thing. Today, I’m thinking of writing’s power after hearing about pianist James Rhodes’ legal victory for free speech. He is finally legally allowed to publish his memoir detailing extreme abuse and frequent rapes inflicted on him as a boy.

It offends me that he had the courage to write this searing book on his abuse only to have some asshole of a judge ban it because it’s “offensive” material. What a cruel irony.

Truth won this week. Writers should rejoice.

James Rhodes: Pianist, Author, Free Speech Hero. Photo from Herald Sun.

James Rhodes: Pianist, Author, Free Speech Hero. Photo from Herald Sun.

As writers, those of us with the courage to rip off the Band-aid and expose our wounds to others, we change lives. We inspire people with our struggles. Not just me, anyone who does it. The writers I admire most, even bloggers, are people who dive head-first into the human condition without apology. Fear, pathos, doubt, rage, lust, angst, pettiness — it’s all who we are. How dare you sanitize that?!

So many people are comfortable with glossing over their ideas so to be palatable to the broadest spectrum of people. They are who I find offensive.

Those who would tone it down, dress it up, soften it, take the edge off — they feel to me like betrayals in wartime.

Life may not be war, but it’s certainly a struggle for all of us. Everything we do is measured and weighed in ounces of joy, heartbreak, satisfaction, or any other emotional currency you devise.

Sanitizing that so it can be swallowed by the least open-minded of us offends me to my core.

Writing close to the bone can’t be done by everyone — it’s too hard. The more harrowing and authentic it gets, the harder it is to push through it. Being truly honest with yourself is challenging enough, but pressing “publish” and sending it to the hungry hoards — that’s truly daunting stuff.

I don’t know how my writing has evolved over the years — I’m too busy doing it to analyze it. I can tell you that what has definitely changed over the years is the reason why I write so openly. I’ve learned no matter how open and honest I am with my words on a page, my readers are never in my head. They’ll never experience the world as I do, be in a moment with me. And I’m grateful for that. In that way, being open doesn’t feel like being laid completely bare, no matter what my end-reader might think.

My fingers always filter my experience. I keep a little for me, share a little with you, and we both get what we want.

What’s also changed is that I’ve learned the value of sacrificing that part of my experience for public consumption. Much of the time my words just fly by folks, like dust on the wind. Hopefully, it finds those who need it at the time.

Nine years ago, I wrote about my mother’s death in a way that ripped both the Band-aid and some skin off. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. After struggling with the words for three weeks, I published it, it went out in the world, and fell silent thereafter, like an echo in a dark cave. Or so I thought.

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Now and then I’d meet someone who’d mention that post, how it moved them or changed them. One day, I got a PayPal email. A woman in Germany sent me $500, to this day still the biggest donation I’ve ever received. She wrote that she cried for half an hour, then went and sent it to everyone she knew. She finally found something that explained her grief over her mother’s death in a way that others could understand.

For me, that was a life-changing moment. It was as self-affirming as having a blog post go viral with 250,000+ reads in a couple days. I know, because I’ve been there too.

Having one person, though, say I finally put words to a pain they couldn’t voice — I mean, that still gives me shivers now. When someone pulls me aside at an event and tells me what my words meant to them, I play it cool, but inside I’m doing cartwheels.

Because that’s what we fucking do this for. That’s why we probe the dark places. That’s why we risk sharing them. It’s not enough to understand what’s going on with us, or seek understanding. Helping others do the same, that’s the pay-off.

I’m no guru. I don’t have life figured out. Lord knows I’m trying. But that’s the thing. Life isn’t one-size-fits-all. What’s right for you won’t be right for me.

For example, I got friends with the perfect family life. Several friends are doing parenthood and marriage in such a fabulous way that I know, if marriage was my thing, I’d do it just like them.

That makes me vomit a little, though. It’s great for them, but the mere thought of that life fills me with nauseousness and unease.

You know those moms you hear about who start out good, but come apart in a haze of addiction and depression because they feel like the kid wrecked their life, and they hate themselves for it because they also love the kid and know just how much they’re fucking that child up?

That’d have been me. If I were a mother, I’d love the kid, but I’d spiral into a depression I’d then chase with alcohol and drugs in hopes of taking the edge off my self-loathing. As a result, I’d neglect my child, my child would grow up knowing that they were the reason for my self-loathing.

I laugh at people who say “Oh, but you don’t KNOW that.” And you do? Come on. This is my head.

Does it make me evil, knowing this about myself? Or does it make me courageous to admit I could never be Suzie Homemaker? Either way, I don’t give a shit, because it’s simply what’s true. I’ve decided against doing that to another human being. Good for me.

So what’s wonderful for my friends would probably destroy me. My story, though, isn’t the prevailing mantra we hear in the media. Instead, we’re told family is the ultimate reward in life, that an existence without children means no legacy will follow us. What idiocy.

This is why we need different voices in the mix. We all have different truths. From the things that define us through to the roads we should take in life, there is no one universal account.

I never would have imagined I’d be packing up my life to be a nomad, but somewhere deep inside me, I wonder how it took so long to see that this was what I needed to do. Writing about this “pre-journey” phase has been teaching myself a lot about who I am and what I need. Sharing that with others, I think, is a great dialogue to begin.

Maybe, thanks to following my journey so far, someone somewhere has already realized they’re trapped in a life not right for them. Maybe my reasoning has helped another person create a bold new dream for their life.

I don’t know. I don’t care. I’d still write about it anyhow. Catharsis is its own drug.

In the end, putting my story on page is probably powerful for someone, somewhere. Maybe I’ll never meet them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I have the right to say “This is my life. This is how I see the world.”

Speaking to our experience, sharing with others, that’s what humans have used their words for since time began. How can a court steal that right from anyone in our supposedly western, free society?

James Rhodes fought for our right to own what has happened to us. To share what has been done to us. He fought for our ability to have community, empathy, and understanding with others.

And he won. Today, all writers, and all readers, are the richer for it. Thanks, James.

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The Creativity Conundrum

“Either it’ll move me
or it’ll move right through me.”

– Gordon Downie

Lately, life dictates that I consider my creative avenues and where my priorities lie, like anyone who choses a creative life to pursue.

By DAVE DONALD from THIS Magazine

The “money” route is easier. Always is. Paying rent’s so rewarding, never mind buying food.

But I was raised Catholic. Religious allusions are never far from mind, especially where the proverbial root of all evil is concerned.

The devil I know — that of paying rent, taking an easy way out with a “Yes, master, and how low should I bend?” kind of agreeability — is hardly shameful. Better writers than me have sold their soul and ink blotter just to make it through another dry period.

Then there are pompous but admirable asshats who never figured out how to sell out, like James Joyce and his times sleeping on a cot in the back of the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co. Poverty’s a suit a lot of writers have worn with pride.

I don’t know.

I really struggle with this, even though I’m pretty sure I know where I want to go, where I need to go — where I will go.

In my long and storied past, I’ve made the mistake of trying to sell out and capitalize on my writing, the bad way. I fucked that up. It messed with me creatively, it robbed me of excellent chances, and left me with creative scarring and a bruised ego.

As this opportunity approaches, I’m left considering my options. I’ve also got risky big projects in mind for proposing, but I need to wrap my head around each. And develop serious guts, say no to other things, and believe in my outcome.

I don’t think my creative dilemma comes down to a matter of soul or integrity, though. It’s not such a high-minded ideal, though artists over the centuries have made it seem as such.

I think it’s a really matter of pragmatism and/or individual work methods.

If you want to do something to the best of your ability, you must do it with the entirety of your focus. Spreading yourself thin and making yourself a jack of all trades is great if you’re content to be well-spread over life, but for those of us who have ONE goal, ONE dream, doesn’t it make more sense to pursue it 100%, rather than diverting efforts?

I don’t want to live out my days writing ad copy or jingles. I have a journalism degree. I have a vision.

You may scoff at the idea of “journalism” today, but I sought my degree out of worship for everyone from HL Mencken to Samuel Clemens,  all the way through Barry Farrell, Lester Bangs, Hunter Thompson, on up to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and anyone else who threw their voice into the social fabric that built our world.

I went to school out of belief that a single story or photo can change the world, like when the photo of a head on a stake in the Congo in 1880s became the catalyst for the first-ever worldwide human rights movement as the beginning of the Congo’s Rubber Genocide was establishing itself. (See Adam Hochschild’s brilliant King Leopold’s Ghosts to learn about this under-discussed attrocity.)

Fuck TMZ and every other site that denigrates that which I studied out of my own foolishly naive and youthful reasons.

I still believe in truth. My truth, your truth — whatever, so long as authenticity defines it.

The heart wants what the heart wants, and I know what I want to do now.

I just hope financial necessity doesn’t force my hand. At this point, it’s not.

In the end, I don’t have to prove or explain myself to anyone. I need to respect myself in the morning and feel like my life has a clear direction. That’s it. You want my shortlist for basic emotional needs? That’s where mine starts.

There is limit of compromise for anyone. You have yours, I have mine.

Creatively speaking, Gord Downie’s nailed it for me in The Tragically Hip’s song lyrics that opens this piece.

If it doesn’t move me, it will move right through me.

Creatively, I need to care. I can phone it in, I just find it hard to live with myself when I do.