A lot of people I talk to say that they hate writing. “Writing is difficult” or more commonly, “This sucks.” Even as I’m writing this, I realize that writing does suck. It’s hard to truly articulate what you want to say. Sometimes it’s not as much trying to say what you want to say, but it’s more saying what you feel. It’s like wringing out a wet rag. No matter how hard you twist and contort the rag, the rag is still wet. There’s something still there. After exhausting your efforts, there are still a few drops left that you’ll never get out. It’s frustrating. It’s like getting to the bottom of a container of ice cream. The only way to get every last drop or the last scoop requires using the spoon in an uncomfortable way. Sometimes, if you’re the one finishing the ice cream you might think, “This will be so much easier if I just licked the container clean. I paid for this, or someone paid for this, and I don’t want to waste anything.” The only problem is that licking the container puts you in a vulnerable position. It makes you look weird and it might be against protocol. It might offend people. It might make you a social outcast. But, sometimes the last scoop of ice cream is worth it. Writing is hard work all the way to the end and as arduous and painstaking as it might be, the end result can be indescribably satisfying. What I’m getting at here is that writing is a way we can express how we feel and oftentimes it’s hard to say what we really feel. It’s a way to make sense of the world, our lives, our problems, our insecurities, and our overall predicament as humans. It is, in every dimension, a straining endeavor.
I had a conversation with my mom the other day about acquired tastes. My brother was trying to get his wife into Spongebob. She was not all that impressed, but my mom assured her that Spongebob is an acquired taste. After watching a few key, classic episodes my sister-in-law admitted that it was starting to grow on her. I’d have to say that writing and expressing one’s self is the same way. It takes exposure. A spray tan is not a real tan. If you want the real thing you have to go out in the sun. It might hurt the first time, but you get used to it and you see results.
My first real exposure to writing came when I was ten years old. My family had recently experienced the death of my oldest sister and everything that accompanies the unexpected passing of a loved one. I had been to funerals before. Grandparents come and go. The elderly die. Old age kind of does that to people. My sister was in her mid-twenties. It didn’t make any sense at all to me why any of this was happening. In the weeks following the funeral, I had classmates who would come up to me and say, “My grandma died. I know how you feel.” All I could think was, “That’s not the same.” That’s not saying that I didn’t appreciate the effort made on their part to comfort me in a time when I so desperately needed the help. It was noted. The fact of the matter was that nobody I knew really knew how I felt. I had my family. They knew how it felt, but outside of my immediate family I felt like there wasn’t anyone who really understood what I was going through. Ten-year-old kids don’t normally experience the death of a sibling like I had. I felt like the carpet of my childhood was pulled abruptly out from under me leaving me on my back staring up at the ceiling, wondering why people died, why there was a carpet to begin with, and questioning whether or not it was even worth getting up off the ground.
With this event came feelings of loneliness and isolation. I spent a lot of time in my room after school listening to audiobooks, drawing, reading, writing. My mom bought some modeling clay for me and I used it to make people. I would sculpt faces. I would look into their inanimate eyes and wonder if they knew what I was feeling. I craved the comfort of commiseration. A simple, “That must be so hard. I’m sorry that happened to you.” A few months later, my parents got me a journal to write in. I wish I could say that I was devout to my diary, but I really didn’t know what I should write. I didn’t really feel like anything I had to say mattered. I’d write every once in a while, but it was so infrequent that every entry was an apology to anyone who would read it saying that I was sorry that I hadn’t written in so long. Life happened and I didn’t really see the point of writing it down. I got the support from my family, but I still felt the pressure of solitude building up in my chest. Would anyone truly understand how I was feeling?
A year passed and I was in middle school. One of the assignments that the core teacher had us work on was an autobiography. It was a behemoth. I was almost twelve-years-old by that point. Twelve years is a long time, but how could you expect a twelve-year-old to compose a history of their life so far? Anyway, I decided to take this assignment seriously. I sat down and wrote every experience I could recollect from my long gone childhood. I was able to put into words the first time I got stitches. The blue plastic kiddie pools, the sprinkler under the trampoline, the genius of putting the pools on the wet trampoline and getting my younger brother to jump into the pools with me. The confusion, the pain, the blood, the rush to the the hospital in our old green suburban while holding a wet rag to my split chin. A damp dishrag draped my brother’s dirty blond hair as he held the split in the top of his head. The stitches. The shots. Don’t get me started on the shots.
I wrote about my dad bringing home a traveling family that had car trouble on their way home and needed a place to stay for the afternoon while their car got fixed. It was the first time I had ever met a black person. I remember realizing that race didn’t matter. Everyone has struggles. I remember eating dinner with this family. My parents had just signed me up to play youth soccer and I had just gotten my uniform. I had it in a little bag. I wanted to show it off to the visitors and brag a bit about being a soccer player.
I wrote about what it was like having siblings in college and how fun it was to have them come home for the weekend. Mom and Dad called it babysitting, but it was anything but. I remember when my oldest sister came home from college one weekend. My parents had gone to the temple and left her in charge. We played silly races in the backyard. Red Light, Green Light. TV Tag. You had to say the name of a TV show and sit down in order to evade being “it”. Watching movies. The Princess Bride. MTV music videos. The Best of Saturday Night Live. The Simpsons. Seinfeld. Playing Scene It. That night she was getting me and my younger brothers ready for bed. The only problem was that we weren’t tired and the sun was still out and it didn’t make any sense as to why we had to sit in bed. You don’t go to bed until the sun goes down. Everyone knows that.
After reaching back into my adolescent archive, inevitably I came to the year my sister had passed away. I fought it. It was too hard to bring those emotions up and share them with others. I didn’t know how to adequately express what I had felt, what I was still feeling. After a long time of struggling to say what would best illustrate the myriad of mixed emotions that spun in my mind, I finally emptied everything. I wrote about the car accident outside of Las Vegas. It was the first weekend in October, about a month before she passed away. I was with my sister and her kids. It was a Honda Odyssey Minivan. We were going to pick up her husband at the airport. Her kids were crying in the back seat. I unbuckled myself to go check on them and before I knew it, we were careening off the side of the road into a ditch. I tried to scream, but the terror choked the sound in my throat. Was I going to die? Were we going to die? Was everyone okay? How did this happen? Why did this happen? We were fine, nobody was hurt. As I sat and typed this experience, things became a lot more clear to me. I recalled the day it all happened. Halloween 2006. The scariest Halloween to date. One of my older brothers came into the room I shared with one of my younger brothers. He gathered us together and led us up the stairs and got us ready for school and drove us. I remembered the paramedics in the basement and the police officers in the living room talking to my mother. The confusion that congregated in that setting left me scared and unsure about everything. I floated to class. All I knew was that something happened to my sister. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that something was wrong. I couldn’t talk. I felt sick. My fifth grade teacher noticed something wasn’t right. She approached me and asked what was wrong. I started to cry. I told her something happened to my sister and that I wanted to go home. I sat in her office and cried. The kind of cry that you want to hide from others, but it comes out anyway. My classmates had no clue what was going on. Within the hour, my oldest brother came and picked me up from school and took me home. It was the middle of the morning. We went into the laundry room and started folding laundry. I was still confused. What was going on? It was me and two of my older brothers. I asked what what had happened. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way. It didn’t make any sense. “She attempted suicide in the basement.” Suicide? What? Why? I had an answer, but it made things all the more confusing. She had been life flighted to Salt Lake City with my mom.
I spent Halloween day with a friend. I dressed up like Howie Mandel. Deal or No Deal was a brand new show and I thought it would be funny to dress up as him. My friend’s mom took us to the store. We bought a bald cap. She used a toe ring as a substitute fake earring. I trick-or-treated like everyone else, but everything was a haze. Masks. Costumes. Nobody knew that I was hiding more than a full head of hair underneath the bald cap. I remember stopping by my house and feeling like it was some alien place. It was different. It wasn’t what I remembered it to be. I spent the next day at one of my friend’s house. [I don’t think I have ever truly thanked the Davis family for letting me stay at their house and helping me have a good Halloween especially considering the circumstances. Thank you for helping a scared ten-year-old boy feel normal during a time when my family needed the help] After the first day, I ended up just going back to my house. My oldest brother and his wife were there. Each of my younger siblings were with different families in the neighborhood for the week. My brother and his wife were watching this show called Lost and a new show called The Office. Even though it was November, the air was heavy and hot. It was a Wednesday. It had been a couple of days since the incident. I called my mom using our home phone. I wanted to know if everything was going to be alright. The words, “she’s probably not going to make it,” snatched my breath. The doctors were doing all they could to save my sister. She was still alive, just not that responsive. They were going to lower her body temperature to see if they could do anything else. But, it didn’t look good.
Through tears I said sobbing, “No! No! This can’t happen!” My mom said that we were going to fast and pray for a miracle. Later that night, my brother, his wife and I knelt in my parents bedroom and prayed. We prayed for a miracle. The rest of the week was blur. But, I remember sleeping on the couch in the living room on Saturday night. Early the next morning, I was starting to wake up. My brother was at the door talking to a close friend of my mom’s. “She didn’t make it. She passed away early this morning.” It didn’t seem real. I was definitely still sleeping and I just needed to wake up. I went back to bed hoping that I would wake up from this week long nightmare. To my dismay, it was as real as the blanket I was hiding under. It was as real as the bald cap I wore earlier that week. It was real. It had happened and there wasn’t anything I could do.
My parents came into the house and told us that we needed to get ready for church. I did. I went outside dressed in a white shirt, slacks, and a tie. I watched my oldest nephew jump on the trampoline. The same trampoline I had split my chin on. Split. Cracked. I thought about how things would never be the same. No stitches this time. Not even the strongest stitches could mend the hole that was in my heart. I turned around to go back inside. One of my older sisters was there. I looked at her. My eyes still red. She knew. I knew she knew. No words were spoken, but we both knew. We both felt. We hugged each other and the dams broke. I hadn’t been able to express how I felt that entire week. I tried to play it cool and be strong, but sometimes strength gives out. We went to church and my dad let everyone in the congregation know what had happened and thanked everyone for their love, support, and for their help during our family tragedy. I wrote about the funeral, how surreal it all felt. I wrote about how I had to be a pallbearer because one of my older brothers was serving an LDS mission in Singapore at the time. I remember carrying the casket with my other two brothers.
I realized as I wrote about this experience that I had been carrying this experience with me for the last year and a half alone. With time it got heavier. After writing about this experience, I felt that it would be a good thing to talk to my parents about it. After talking to my parents, we started having open family discussions about how everyone was feeling about our sister’s passing, and other trials we were going through. As I was able to talk openly about my feelings and receive validation about my emotions, I felt the weight lift. I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore. I knew for a fact that I had people I could confide in and rely on. I came to see writing as a way for me to make my voice heard and also help others feel comfortable talking about their struggles and provide them with the courage to talk about their feelings. That’s why I write. I write to be heard. I write so others can be heard. I write so others can find solace in the fact that they aren’t alone in their experiences. Everyone has a story to tell and that story is important.
I have had many experiences since then that have reaffirmed to me the importance of listening to stories. Listening to others’ unwritten memoirs. Almost four years ago, I was a brand new struggling missionary in the Philippines. I didn’t know the language or the culture. I was lost and I didn’t feel like anyone knew how it felt. I was the only native English speaking white 18-year-old for miles. If it weren’t for the more seasoned and tremendously compassionate company of a 21-year-old pasty white ginger from North Carolina who was willing to listen and validate the struggles of a freckled, frightened, foreigner, I wouldn’t have stayed in the country and completed a life-changing two-year mission. [Quin Volpe, thank you forever. You will never know how much I needed that exchange. You gave me the confidence I needed to become the missionary the Lord needed me to be. Mahal kita!] I wouldn’t have met a young mother who wanted to become better and raise her children with a knowledge of Jesus Christ and the promise of something better than what she had. I wouldn’t have “barged” into the home of a family of six who had been hiding from the missionaries for nearly a decade only to find out that what we had to share with them was exactly what they had been praying for for years.
We all have struggles. We don’t always need solutions. We need to be heard. Telling our stories, whether that means orally or written, and listening to others’ stories allows us to connect with one another and grants us the chance to commiserate about challenges or accomplishments. It allows us to be human with each other. As difficult as it might be to write or tell our stories, the payout in the end is incalculable and might save your life.
Writing and listening can change lives. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things We Carried, a collection of short stories about his experiences fighting in Vietnam, said in an interview that the reason he began to write was because he “want[ed] to touch people in a way that stories can touch them.” He continues saying that, “literature… really touches individual people, and real lives, in the real world, and contributes to their lives, it does something to their lives. That’s what I dreamed of when I began writing. I dreamed of touching some fifteen-year-old kid… some grieving mother.” In addition to this, O’Brien says, “if [literature] is any good, it can make you feel a little less alone in the world. Someone else has gone through this, and it gives you some late-night company, with your memories and your sorrow. Literature does touch people. It’s not just to be read in English classes.” [I’ll provide the link to this segment of the interview at the bottom of this article if anyone wants to watch it] I wholeheartedly agree. I’m not saying that everyone should become an author and write books, but I am saying that everyone has a story to tell. Reading or listening to someone else’s story, along with telling our own, gives us the chance to create connections and construct collectives of individuals who are able to empathize and validate.
As a high school student I had the chance to read many books. I’ll admit it completely. I was just like any other high school student. I complained about having to read books for my English classes. It wasn’t until I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front that I really started to enjoy reading and really solidify my love for writing.
Salinger’s Holden Caufield really resonated with me. I related to him. He loved writing, and he was a teenager trying to figure out his place in the world. The way that Salinger wrote the dialogue in the book impressed me. It wasn’t full of long words or passages that were difficult to understand. It was written as if it had been written by a teenager. He was speaking my language. Not only that, but Holden had seen and known, or at least claimed to see and know, the uglier side of the world and wanted to protect his sister Phoebe from it. This book left a huge impression on me as a writer and showed me that even an angsty teenager can have a story to tell.
Remarque’s semi-autobiographical war novel depicts Paul Baumer and his classmates who are urged by a school teacher to enlist in the German army in the opening months of World War I. After joining the army, they realize that war isn’t as glamorous and honorable as they had read about in books. They experience the horrors of mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, and the destitution of the trenches. The moment in the novel that impacted me the most is when Paul has to spend the night and most of the day in water-filled crater with a French soldier who he kills while trying to defend himself in the hole. He speaks of reaching into the dead man’s breast pocket to find a picture of the man’s loved ones and other items that suggest that the man he killed was not much different than himself. He had similar fears, interests, and he too probably had no idea what he had gotten himself into when he joined the army.
Stories like these, my own, and others from people who have confided their struggles in me have helped me understand that each person has something that they carry with them. They have experiences that we don’t know and we won’t be able to truly understand them unless we listen to them, validate them, and give them the chance to be heard. You have a tale to share, I have one. The guy in your neighborhood has one too. The lady at work who keeps to herself does as well. Writing might not be your “thing,” but I can promise you that writing and sharing your story with others can not only help you sort through the crap that accompanies the low times in life, but it can most definitely help others who are struggling with similar things. Like Tim O’Brien said, we have the power to touch other people’s lives with the stories we carry. If we take the time to write them down, share them, listen to them, and validate, we can, while atop a solitary patch of dirt on this spinning rock in space called Earth, find friends and fellow humans with whom we can commiserate and who can comfort us in the times when we need it the most.
Here’s the link to the video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C48fWkljK28