The first time, there were just three of them, my used-to-be-friends, with their wild hands latched onto my arms like vines imbued with dark magic, pulling me down to the earth; their fists turned into impossibly hard knots of bone, like so many dead stars crashing down from the sky against my head, shoulders, chest, gut; their feet stomping breath from my lungs, as if they were boys suddenly reduced to nothing more than steel toe, steel toe, steel toe.
It was the darkest three-foot section of the school, just outside the gym doors, where the hallway zig-zagged back into the locker room. . . .
That’s how my memoir would begin. If, you know, I started at fifth grade. Actually, I’m in the process of writing a fictionalized account of that very story.
I’m not sure if all writers have been through a “bad childhood or a good childhood interrupted by several years of badness” as Piers Anthony suggests, but there’s a good chance they write, to some degree at least, to better understand things they’ve either lived through or witnessed.
I know that’s true for me. I write to make sense of things that, at least when they occur, just don’t deem to make any sense sometimes, like bullying, but I also write to have a voice, as I’ve mentioned before, as a way of expressing myself in the hopes of being understood.
In looking back on my life, I’m pretty sure my need for understanding and, especially, for being understood started during those dark days of fifth grade or became magnified then.
While speaking to students in Spalding University’s MFA program, Jacqueline Woodson said we tend to write about that time in which we’re stuck. Perhaps we do that because we’re still trying to make sense of things that defied reason.
Mr. Bones likes to spew words of wisdom which Gabe remembers throughout the novel. As a result, the crotchety old man is with him always, a mentor to him even when they’re not together, even when Gabe must overcome challenges on his own. One of the things he states to Gabe is something that is true for most of us as we grow up: “You’re still young enough to think it all ought to be the way it ought to be, only, that ain’t the way it works.”
Maybe that’s one of the hardest things about being bullied, the way it’s so not the way it’s supposed to be. We shouldn’t have to thank people for being civil to us, for not abusing us. But when you’re on the receiving end of bullying, even the most basic things, those that are merely the way they should be, often get appreciated as being more.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned about bullies over the years – there are myriad potential causes. It’s not just some black and white phenomenon. It’s not just one thing about you or about them that gets the whole thing started.
A few years back, I interviewed 125 random high school students as part of a poetry project for which I received a grant. Not only had nearly every one of those teens either been bullied or knew someone who had been, but most of them admitted to having bullied other people, sometimes because they were concerned if they didn’t that things would turn on them, that they’d be the subject of bullying.
One of the reasons I’m writing the memoir is to try to understand each of the different kids who had bullied me. And the weird thing, after all these years, is that I’m pretty sure none of those people even remember doing what they did. I see some of them as adults with their own kids and they go out of their way to be friendly with me. I don’t hate them, don’t resent them. I simply want to try to understand what happened to them to make them act that way when they were young.
I will say that there’s a good chance I’d be a different person today if not for them and, ironically enough, some of my best traits (like profound empathy and sensitivity for others and compassion) are probably a direct result from those dark times.
Of course, so are my inability to say no and my need to put everyone else first (which is a positive trait to a point) and most of my biggest mistakes. One of the reasons I put off the pursuit of my writing until now is because of that very thing, but my resilience and my determination and my pluck and my stick-to-itiveness most likely took shape back then as well.
My desire to understand, which is in part why I write, blossomed under the bruises on my flesh. But so did my need to be understood, or more specifically my need to not be misunderstood which might just be one of my top five most irksome things.
“The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” ~ Stephen King
One of the many paradoxes of being an artist, I believe, is having that desire to understand and to be understood, while looking at life from a different perspective than most people which often sets the artist up for being misunderstood.
I believe one of the biggest obstacles to actually pursuing your passion for art is not just that the art itself may tend to be misunderstood, but the fact that the pursuit of that art, the act of following your creative dream, is often misunderstood by just about everyone the artist knows. Including, at times, other artists.
“One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.” – John O’Donohue
Such is understanding.
It’s an intimate and essential connection. Without it, you can feel isolated, alone. But it takes that special listening, not just to the words, but to the very soul of the other person.
I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve spoken with have said that most people they know “just don’t get it.” Sometimes, even those people who get us, even our closest friends, don’t get our need to create, let alone the process itself. To them, we often appear to be doing everything but work. And, in some cases, that perception can be problematic.
Although we may only imagine that others perceive us as people who choose to play all day, some people actually do seem to believe that. After all, when they’re on a computer it’s for Facebook and Twitter and for games. They see computer time as escape time and when they see you on your computer 14 hours a day, they sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between what you really are doing and what they do. And that can lead to tension, even resentment.
And it’s not like we can really expect anyone else to truly get it.
It’s not easy to comprehend just how difficult it is to write a poem or a short story or a novel, unless you’ve done it. And it’s almost impossible to know how very nearly impossible it is to create with all the distractions you have to navigate each day, with all the pressure to do something more practical.
Even other artists, those who may be struggling or who are not practicing regularly, can also be un-supportive.
I’ve been fortunate in so many ways. Back when I was being bullied, I had a close, supportive, loving family and I know that’s why I came through the experience a better person, a stronger person. That’s not to say it didn’t mess me up a bit and that I don’t have a few unresolved issues (but I’m trying to resolve them through my writing, trying to find understanding and forgiveness of others, though mostly of myself).
I’m also lucky because my family and friends, at this very moment, might not get what I do or why or how, but they support me unconditionally. The only thing they know is that writing is important to me. They seem to get that writing is me listening to and setting free the music in my soul and that is all that matters to them.
It takes a special person to allow you to be yourself (even though maybe it shouldn’t) and to allow you to do a thing day after day that they either aren’t doing themselves or can’t do or have absolutely no interest in doing.
Of course, some artists are hyper-sensitive to the perception they believe others have of them, which can also lead to struggles. I know writers who feel paralyzed because they’re almost certain other people look down on them or see them as being frivolous, as wasting time, and they become so consumed by the need to break that perception that they can’t produce anything which they then realize might seem like evidence to those people waiting for them to show some proof, some sign validating what they do.
That’s why the absolute best thing I learned from a mentor of mine was to identify my intentions for writing in the first place. Once you do that, once you can answer the question what am I writing for, you can let that intention be your guiding star. The other extrinsic motivators become much less significant then, though they don’t just disappear.
That’s where I’m incredibly lucky. I’d guess that most of my family and friends don’t “get” why I love to write. They don’t understand how it feels or how compelled I am.
True friendship, true love, that’s when you support and encourage someone even when you don’t get it, even when you don’t understand. Simply because you know how much it means to the other person and that’s enough.
Most of my family may not understand how it feels deep down inside when I write, but they do know I love being at the page, writing, creating, and that’s all that matters to them.
And I cannot thank them enough for that gift.
Revisiting those moments of badness, exploring the seemingly inexplicable, in an attempt to understand, in an attempt to make some sense of things is hard enough, but doing so without the support or encouragement of the people who mean the most to you, that can be extremely debilitating and isolating.
In some ways, I want to thank those people who bullied me. Chances are you’ve forgotten all about it, though I continue to be compelled by those acts in the hopes of helping other people endure. With the hope of providing other people a lens through which to see themselves when they experience something similar, so they don’t feel completely alone.
But I especially want to thank my family and my closest friends for not merely accepting that this thing I am finally allowing myself to do is important to me, but for acting as if it is also important to you simply because of what it means to me. Thank you for that.
I also want to thank myself, which may sound odd (it sure feels odd writing that), but I want to thank that part of myself that is finally ignoring the distractions and that has given the rest of me permission to pursue my dream. I can’t even tell you how many talented artists I know who don’t have that permission from themselves.
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that’s why he never understands anything.”
Sometimes we spend too much time in our heads, I know I do. Sometimes that’s a result of a need to know, a need to understand, sometimes it’s the result of a need to feel less, a need to be in control.
Writing allows me to get out of my head while using my imagination and my memories, it allows me to feel without the fear of completely losing control.
Every now and then, it also helps me to understand. Other people, sure. But mostly myself.