This advice echoes in my head decades after hearing Billy Crystal offer it to his fictional writing students in “Throw Momma from the Train” (one of my all-time favorite movies).
Every so often I consider this advice and wonder if it’s true and if it’s sound.
As a writer, I would say it’s partially true. I am always writing; though not always on paper or even out loud.
To be more precise: Every single day I concoct stories. I observe the world around me and wonder: Is the world good? Evil? Is this a woman I admire? Trust? Is this a man I love? Resent? Is this a job I see myself doing in the long term? Is this a group I want to be vulnerable with?
They’re not truths, as much as we might believe the stories to be true. And our stories are ever evolving.
However, what distinguishes me from you and other human beings, all of whom create stories all day long, is I choose to weave them into words and present them on the page as if they are real. This makes me a writer.
What distinguishes me even further is that I can’t change my story once I’ve published it. And, sometimes I wish I could.
Every published writer eventually understands — often the hard way — that her stories live long after she’s decided they are no longer true. Eternal humiliation is the sacrifice writers make in exchange for the glory of being listened to.
Since I began chronicling my life experiences in a public forum like a blog, I’ve learned there are feelings and personal experiences I might have been better off keeping to myself. Looking at blog posts I wrote three years ago is almost as mortifying as leafing through the journal I kept in 9th grade; the one that’s peppered with love poems only an angst-ridden teenager living in upper middle class suburbia could write.
The difference is you can’t chuck the evidence. You can’t, like I did with all my journals, lock up your old blog posts in a trunk in the attic until you’re old enough that nothing embarrasses you; not tripping over the crack in the sidewalk, not farting in public. No, until they ban the internet, it’s practically impossible to clean up all the breadcrumbs you’ve left behind in blogs or YouTube videos you thought were funny at the time.
And so I imagine it will also be humbling when I look back at the blog posts I wrote about adjusting to life in Israel. When my kids are fat, but happy, will I laugh when I remember how I fretted so about chocolate spread for breakfast and launched a smear campaign against the Israeli crack den for kids (aka the makolet, or minimarket)? When I am finally at ease at a party here will I make fun of the girl who went to such great lengths to understand the conversational nuances and make meaningful connections here? When I one day decide to be a Jew Bu or an atheist, will I look back and judge the girl who got hyped up about her emerging Judaism? Will my husband use my words against me when I tell him how much I hate it here and that I have had enough; that I want to go back to the States?
Will I wish I never chronicled my experience? Never shared my stories out loud?
There’s something distinctive about writers: We can’t stop telling our stories. Not even if we try. Not even if we promise this will be the very last time we wear our heart on our virtual sleeve. Not even if we swear up and down that’s the last secret we’re going to reveal. Not even when we get hate mail or ugly comments. Not even when our hearts beat hard in our chest and our breath quickens and every instinct in our body says, “Don’t hit ‘submit.’”
We can’t stop. “A writer writes, always.” Not just because he wants to produce something worth reading; not just because he wants fame or recognition; not just because he needs to pay the bills.
Deep down, a writer knows the story he tells is not just his story. It’s our story. It’s the story of the human experience. It’s the story that binds us to one another. And he is simply the messenger, and sometimes the sacrificial lamb. He offers himself up to you, risk of humiliation and all, so that your eyes or your heart might open.
So be kind to writers. Our words are both our passion and our poison. Our duty and our despair.
Jen Maidenberg is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.This was first posted on her blog on May 7, 2012.