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Making it Personal

(Author’s note: Lest you think I’ve been taking lots of naps, watching television bloopers, or making my own granola or something, I wanted to include my first assignment from my writing class; a personal statement of sorts. If you’re a repeat offender here, I apologize for all the overlap. There will be no quizzes, but you may be able to sleep with me for extra credit.)

In the third grade I wrote a poem titled “The Sympathetic Rose” which was full of big words that didn’t make much sense when strung together. But it sounded really pretty. My teacher had it published in the school newsletter, and with modest fanfare my writing career was born.

When my mother died in February, I came across the poem in a stack of clippings and photos that she had saved. It was copied from the newsletter and glued on layers of red and yellow construction paper; the center of a sunset. I must have given it to her, and it both delighted me and broke my heart to see it again. She had been unpredictable in her encouragement of me, and I never really knew how she felt about my writing. But that stack of papers contained every high school literary magazine, every published poem, every award, every news clipping that even mentioned my name.

Following the success of “The Sympathetic Rose”, I wrote poetry all through my grade school and high school years, winning “Young Writers” awards and the hearts of English teachers along the way. I read and read; a book a day wasn’t uncommon. I read several grade levels beyond my age. And though in the rest of my life I was shy and quiet, I excelled in school, filling out my afternoons with after-school activities and writing. Encouragement from teachers came easy. It seemed I was destined for poetic stardom.

Fear, however, derailed my writing education in college. Worried that I would never make a living as a poet, I looked around for a more practical major, naturally choosing sociology as a rock-solid, financially secure career path. While my education lacked the study of literature, sociology provided me a prism through which to view society. I learned to deconstruct group customs and behavior, focusing my attention on gay culture. There was a lot to deconstruct.

My alma matter, New College of Florida, placed a high premium on writing. In fact, paper writing was the major factor in grading, and it was one of few undergraduate schools that required a thesis for B.A. completion. It’s funny, I hadn’t made that connection until just now; all of that college writing and my current interest in non-fiction, but there you have it. My thesis was titled “The Sociological Effects of AIDS on Gay Men”, and though it may not have contained the most solid of academic arguments, my advisor uses it as an example of how to write a thesis. I’ll take what I can get.

Following graduation, I moved back home to Minneapolis where I continued writing poetry. It was there that I met some writers visiting from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in NYC, and through them was exposed to a poetry slam. I never considered myself particularly aggressive or competitive, but I won that first slam, tasted blood, and proceeded to kick poetic butt at any available slam for the next two years. It was the 90’s.

Eventually, though, it was clear to me that the best poems didn’t always translate into stage winners. Subtlety was often sacrificed for the spectacular. Did I really want to contribute to an atmosphere of competition among writers, an atmosphere already saturated with jealousy of one another’s success? As if it meant less for me. The poets I was reading; Mark Doty, Lynda Hull, Carolyn Forche; their work would not have won a slam. You had to sit with their poems for a bit, and let their skill and imagery settle in you like leaves falling from a tree. I became a bit disillusioned. I was also getting too old for the “Young Writer” status. I had to compete with older writers, with their wealth of experience, in contests and publishing opportunities. For someone used to winning, it was a bitter cup of reality.

Fear of failure kept me from the blank page, though I was busy pursuing another passion; acting. I loved having a small part in bringing a work of art to life; inhabiting a character and staying true to the playwright’s words and intentions. The same dialogue over and over, yet each night like a revision of a rough draft; each performance providing an opportunity to discover nuances that would strengthen the character. Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Tennessee Williams, Nicky Silver, (where were the women?) were all writers I admired.

I met a man and fell in love. We moved to San Francisco. I had a few journals with promising beginnings, nothing more. A few months turned to a year, then several years. The longer I went without writing, the harder it was to call myself a writer.

In November of 1999, my mother was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. ALS seemed to me like someone’s idea of a very cruel joke. It gradually kills the neurons that command the body’s movements. Over time, limb by limb, the entire body shuts down. Within six months her speech and swallowing muscles failed. I heard her speak for the last time. She needed a stomach tube to eat and a tracheostomy to breathe.

For me, her diagnosis triggered a hard look at my life. At that time my days were dark and small; I was addicted to alcohol and crystal methamphetamine, hiding it from my partner, adrift in a life that I hadn’t visualized for myself. I returned to Minneapolis for six months to spend time with her. I rented a small studio apartment near her house without a TV or a computer. I got a library card and in my free time read voraciously: short story anthologies, horror books, Virginia Woolf, George Saunders, Martin Amis. Anything to take me out of my skin for awhile. But it was nonfiction that mattered the most. Rick Bass’ “Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism” showed me that writing could serve a greater need than the personal; Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” soothed my troubled soul; David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” made me laugh out loud. In the midst of real pain, real stories did it best.

I returned to San Francisco; my mother wanted me to live my life. In October of 2000, with a lot of help, I stopped drinking and using drugs. My five-year relationship ended; I moved out. I started a new job. Last summer I tested HIV-positive. I say these things not to garner pity, only to sketch for you the outline of the writer I was becoming.

As I began to emerge from crises mode, I stumbled upon this strange form of writing called a weblog. A weblog is essentially a personal journal posted on the Internet for anyone to see. What each weblog (or “blog”, for short) contains is particular to each author. Some (like mine) are straight-forward journals, some contain links to interesting articles or other sites on the Internet, some are photo journals or news-gathering portals. I began a weblog in December of 2001, and since then have attempted to shape and hone my skills at non-fiction, with mixed results. What I love about blogging, what has kept me diligent in writing, is the real and imaginary audience. Writing is a form of communication; I don’t pretend to write just for myself. People around the world email me to say they’ve connected with something I’ve written. They encourage me and engage me in dialogue. That immediate feedback is so rare in writing. The freedom to publish individually, without the authorization of an editor, publisher, or megamedia conglomerate, is liberating. Of course there are blogs out there that could use an editor. But there are also the occasional jewels, and these make the reading worthwhile.

On February 1st, two years and three months after her diagnosis, my mother died while I was on the plane to Minneapolis, surrounded by her friends and family. Writing held me together, gave me hope that I could call myself a writer again. My only goal was honesty; what was it like to lose her?

I’m thirty-one and I’m not sure the world needs my memoir. At least, not yet. I guess you could say I’m starting out small; daily entries in my weblog could provide rough drafts for further exploration. Life has proven to me that the best-laid plans are easily rendered inconsequential. Something more amazing could be coming. I just want to write. Even more, I want to learn. I want to read good work, I want to see my flaws. I want to make people laugh, I want them to feel less alone. I want to write better.

Reading this over, I can see that I’ve written more about life events than the authors I’ve read. I wanted to explain how I came into nonfiction from poetry, and why at this time I want to write about real life. I am a product both of literature and pop culture. The latter requires an extensive filtering process. But Krzysztof Kieslowski’s movie,”Blue”; Stockard Channing’s performance in “Six Degrees of Separation”, the lyrics to “Hegwig and the Angry Inch”; these works of art have all influenced me, have led me to aim high.

In her essay, “One Nation, Under the Weather”, Lauren Slater wrote about reading an unfavorable review of her recent book by The New York Times. The reviewer dismissed her memories and writing, reducing her book into a simple category; The Illness Memoir. I worry, of course, that my writing could be that easily categorized, that it could be seen as self-indulgent, inconsequential. I’m sure I’m the only writer who has ever worried about this. Experience shows me that if you listen to enough people, you’ll never do anything your entire life. Listen for awhile, then write. What else can we do?

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