A series on thinking through Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write
We have developed ways of coping with our oppression in society. We cover up our true self with things that do not truly reveal our thoughts and beliefs, unless we are in the presence of like-minded individuals or persons we can truly trust.
And, people desire, hunger to be trusted. People hunger for truth. People want to read truthful writing, writing that hurts, writing that makes us see our troubles in other people’s lives, and to read things that are new and different. To see other people succeed in life makes us believe that we too will succeed. And we can learn from one another's failures.
Writing must be about trust and truth-telling in order to write something truly worthwhile that people want to read. Readers don’t mind reading about a character who hides her deepest thoughts from her boyfriend, but readers do mind reading writing that hides those deepest thoughts from the reader. The reader is someone to trust; therefore, writers must bear all to the reader, as much detail as possible, as much truth.
In order to get to this truth-telling, a writer must understand the differentiation of self from other. In Lacan’s “mirror-stage,” a child goes through a stage where she no longer sees herself attached to her mother. The child differentiates her body from her mother's. She no longer needs the mother for sustenance. She begins to see others in this way too—that people are not the same as herself. Others have their own ideas and feelings and experiences different from her own. When she healthily progresses through this process, her interactions are like mirrors for the other person. The self becomes the “mirror” for other people to see themselves. When her friend tells her his problems, she reflects his feelings back to him, but does not take them on herself. She is not attached to him. She empathizes, sees times that she too felt such intense grief, but as his friend, she listens and says, yes, you feel this way; I am here to hear you. Her needs are different from his. Her thoughts are different, as his are different. She sees him and holds up a mirror for him to see his own feelings; thereby he sees and feels that she truly listens to him.
Too often persons do not healthily pass through this stage. A mother does not reflect back her child’s feelings. She is afraid of or hurt by those expressions of self that the child uses to claim her “voice.” The mother wants to protect her child from the outside world: teachers will not want to listen to a demanding child; and society will squash emergent rebellion (think of the police attacks in NYC during the peaceful Iraq war protests or Rodney King or Kent State in the 1960s). So a mother squashes those expressions of “spirit” herself by teaching how to be a proper child in society. The mother sees herself in the child and cannot hold the mirror up to the child. The child-self and mother-other do not differentiate and the child learns to cover up “spirit” in favor of mother’s (or father’s, teacher’s, friend’s, fill in the blank's) desire.
So the child learns to cover up the truth with timidity, aliveness and excitement with glibness or clichéd, hackneyed, overused expressions, and genius with strain. The child tries her best, but she has learned that it is not appropriate or pleasant to say the hard, cold truth (and we call it hard, cold because it might make someone anyone upset). We cover up because we do not want to make waves, we don’t want to be seen, singled out, made fun of, picked on, beaten, killed, maimed. Truth does not have to be hard and cold (this is an attitude toward a belief which we can change).
It is absolutely necessary to see the self (author) as differentiated from the other (audience) to be able to speak to the audience. The unfolding of a story is to give enough information up front, to let the reader know where the story is going, the topic and where it will get to. To “hold the mirror up to life,” otherwise known as verisimilitude, is to show the audience the truth of human experience, so that the audience can see through your words to their own experiences, their own truths that they themselves cannot speak (Salman Rushdie, exiled from his own country, speaks truth for all those who do not speak their truth). Writing, then, becomes a movement toward communal truth. We celebrate MLK Jr. day because MLK Jr. risked his life to speak truth, and his words have affected a nation and people.
Jeering and kidding is another way of communal covering up of truth. The jeering of others contains a truth that says, “don’t you dare say this,” (you could get killed, exiled, lost) or it is a surreptitious way of putting people down. We don’t want to be part of “those” people, so we go along with the group, with the person jeering so that we’re not the one made fun of. We get real perfect, we also grow shy, timid, and passive, or we become aggressive (do the jeering yourself or get jeered at). We get angry, ready to explode at the moment, to have all the answers.
• prompt: what is your earliest or most vivid memory of jeering that changed your beliefs? when you knew what you had to do to fit in? what happened? what was your personal result? why did you change?