I ask myself this question a lot these days in the wake of an election, a year, that left me, and so many others, feeling lopsided. For years, I’ve used writing and reading as a way to cope. Now I’m reaching for words and finding none. I’m staring down the calendar and waiting for the date that my debut novel publishes, and that question keeps coming back to me. Who cares? It’s just another story published on a Tuesday in June. Not political, insightful, timely. Just a story about a small-town, young woman in love with the wrong woman and the consequences that follow.
Much of the pre-publication process is about connecting with the work, easy enough when it’s just you and a computer. Once you get into the marketing and promotion phase, it’s about connecting with an audience. I find it hard to feel that my voice is worthy of being out in the world among so many literary greats and during such a volatile time in our country, because who cares?
I never dreamed of being a writer when I was younger. I was too busy focused on things like: Is there any food in the fridge? Will someone break in and murder me? Will Mom come home tonight? What will my stepdad/Mom’s latest boyfriend be angry about when he comes home? What sassy thing will my mouth say that will get me into trouble this day?
It always seemed like someone was trying to keep me in my place, to keep my mouth shut. There were the boys at La Petite Academy (fancy name for a daycare, no?) who assumed no girl could swim across the pool. (I did.) The neighborhood bully at Allied Gardens apartment complex who warned me to get off the merry-go-round (because he said so). I spun round and round as he eventually walked away, other kids moving aside, dodging his fists. There was the apartment manager who forbade her daughter to hang out with me because I was a bad influence for dumpster diving, recording dirty jokes on my Culture Club cassette tapes, and other unsavory actions (allegedly, never proven). I was that girl and had the pedigree to prove it.
My mother was an alcoholic and a substance abuser. She didn’t like being home. My stepdad didn’t like children. She liked bars. So did he. That left my brother and me to fend for ourselves most nights. We moved around a lot before we eventually settled in with our dad in high school. We moved when Mom gained a boyfriend or lost a boyfriend or a husband. We were the new kids in the classroom almost every year. Each new classroom whittled away my voice. I merged deeper and deeper with the wallpaper until I felt like I had concealed myself, like a chameleon hiding from predators.
I stopped speaking so much. When I did, it was quiet, so quiet. But even that wasn’t enough. When I shared a bedroom with my brother, he yelled at me for breathing too loud. I got so good at barely breathing that a nurse later on in my life took my blood pressure and asked if I was dead.
Within me I carried rage and confusion and frustration. Rage at how no one seemed to understand me or care what I had to say. Confusion at why I didn’t seem to fit in no matter where I went. Frustration that everything I wanted to say stayed on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it all down, not willing to draw anyone’s attention because that often meant invoking their anger.
Everything I couldn’t say out loud or to someone’s face, I wrote down, either in journals or as stories. In writing and reading, I discovered who I am. A female guitarist in a basement in Allston lit the match that I might not be “normal” like other girls. Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body grew that feeling into a flame. Before a relationship, I wrote. During and after a breakup, I wrote. Sometimes poems, sometimes screenplays, eventually novels. Thoughts to purge, stories to distract. While on a trip to Alaska, my girlfriend ghosted me before anyone called it that. Through the car window, I watched the scenery pass in silence. I listened to my aunt’s stories about death and drugs and all the ways that people can find to get into some sort of trouble. That’s when the trouble began for the protagonist in my novel. Another escape, another distraction that would become the novel that will be published in June.
I carried that thought with me into the Writers Resist event in Boston this weekend. One of the speakers reminded us of what Toni Morrison said: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Maybe another girl or a woman who has lost her voice, who is afraid to speak and even breathe. Maybe another writer. Maybe these words will catch on the wind, spread like wildfire, or simply catch a spark and fizzle out. I can’t know. I can only let go of care, of fear. I can only release them.