So I was talking to a friend the other day (and I realize I have a bad habit of starting random sentences with the word ‘so’, as though the topic needs justification) . . . (and now I’ve derailed my thought.)
(Let me try again.)
I was talking to a friend the other day on the topic of love, and was suddenly inspired to explain myself from Jane Eyre. I was telling her she would need to be like Jane, who loved without letting those whom she loved define what her love should be. To truly care about someone is not to be molded by their “If you really loved me, you’d. . .” To love someone is not to give them what they want over regard for what is right. To love someone is not to agree to be conformed to their preconceived images of who you should be. To love someone is to hold to yourself–what you believe is right and what you believe is true. Because otherwise, you aren’t truly giving them your love; you’re giving them a lie, something you don’t really believe in, something that isn’t really you and isn’t really from you. The only way to really love is in truth.
Jane Eyre, as the unrealistic portraiture of piety, nonetheless illustrated the grievous struggle of loving someone, and yet not pleasing them. Of caring profoundly and deeply for them, and yet not doing as was asked–pressured–guilted–bullied– of her to do. It hurt. And when we read it, we hurt, because we know what it’s like to have to make that choice. And when Jane stands firm, we feel such a wash of relief–because, in our hearts of hearts, we know that those kinds of lies can’t lead to happiness. As much as it is a torment, especially in the moment of sudden vulnerability, to say “no” to those we really do care about. . .we really do know how that story ends. And we really don’t want that for Jane. Or for ourselves, even though we’re scared to death that we don’t have the guts to be so resolute. . .or maybe even because we’ve already been there, and failed, and regretted it, and don’t want to see that replayed in ourselves or anyone else.
What makes writing worthwhile? Is it “being realistic”? Does it only count if it’s non-fiction, and really-true? Is it only okay if it’s fiction if it’s Inspirational (in your best announcer’s voice)? Does it have to be something you agree with? Is it supposed to be shocking and controversial, in order to be worth anything?
I write. . .sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Sometimes bluntly, sometimes more obliquely. I want to write well. What does this mean?
In my experience, it means writing the truth.
What does that mean?
My sister paints, and although her talent is already high, you can see her skill improving. The realism she is able to achieve keeps growing. Yet we both sit around and complain about these art instructional books, these books made not by artists but by technicians. Technically, their realism is awesome, but their pictures are dead. There’s no life to them and no reason to look at them. They’re void of the truth that echos within us all.
My sister–she seems to understand mood. I don’t mean she’s moody (that’s me), I mean that her paintings–even the ones that frustrate her because she got the perspective wrong here and the shape was off over there–compel you from the inside because they grasp ‘the way it makes you feel.’ When you see her skaters on the frozen pond, let’s face it–the painting is too small, the figures indistinct. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot to actually look at.
But it tells the truth.
When you look at it, you know, you remember, you recognize inside of you what it is like on those winter afternoons rapidly fading to evening. You know the feeling of cold air inside of your nose. You know the camaraderie of playing outside with others. You know how exhausting it is to fight the snow and the layers of clothing, but how exhilarating to actually be outside and alive, and moving.
I don’t know how she does it. With the colors, I guess. (Well, obviously; she’s painting, all she has is color.) With the lighting. I don’t know. It’s this intangible thing that makes everyone say, “Wow!” even while she says “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it too.” And as she explains the flaws she thinks she sees–well, she’s right. She’s not technically perfect. It’s not exactly realistic. But she captured a piece of the truth, and shares it with you, the viewer. Our ears prick up, because we can hear it resonating within the part of us that can’t be measured.
When I have found good writing, I find the same thing. You don’t look for perfect realism. You don’t insist it can’t be made-up out of someone’s head. What you look for is the truth, the thing that says–“I don’t know how you did this. With words, I guess. Obviously; that was all that you were using. But somehow, you captured something that I thought only I knew. And if we’re finding the same thing, independent of each other, it’s a piece of the truth.”
When I write, I want to write like Jane Eyre was written. No–not a Gothic, Victorian love story. Not a society-challenging critique. Nothing so brave and daring as all of that. Although–actually, maybe more brave and daring than all that. Because, essentially, in order to tell the truth, you have to stop hiding yourself. You can’t proclaim something that will send shivers down the spines of those that hear it and still stay safe inside of your own little shell, where you keep cloistered away who you really are.
You have to have a lot of courage to stand up and firmly say, “This is who I am.” But until then, you really don’t have anything of value to offer. Scraps and facades and pretensions and trying to figure out what people want and how to give it to them. . .it’s bad writing. It’s bad living.
Jane Eyre has helped me explain part of the truth. If any of my writing is ever to be so valuable, I have to learn not to hide. I have to learn to not chicken out and pull back. I have to not listen to the St. John’s and the Mr. Rochesters that would tell me what they want, what I should do. I have to insist on who I am, and not flinch away. It’s the only way that anyone will ever read anything I’ve written–fact or fiction, stark or flowery–and say, “Oh, . . .I don’t know how you did that.”