When I was growing up my dad used to gripe often about how Bing Crosby’s son wrote a book about how Bing was abusive and how those were lies. Now, I’m not calling anyone a liar or an abuser (I wasn’t there and I have not read Gary Crosby’s Going My Way), but the book caused a feud between the brothers as well as big time anger from Bing fans everywhere. To me it is of interest because I always knew I would write a book about my dad (and him not being very nice to me) and now I have. And I wondered if he always knew, too.
“If any of you ever write a book about me, tell it to my face first,” my dad once bellowed.
But now my father has dementia. It’s a large part of my book. When I tell him I’ve written about my mother and my childhood and our family he says, “That’s great, sweetie.”
So — things change. If we’re lucky/unlucky/what-the-fucky.
There are several schools of thought on what to do about writing sensitive material about real people. The conclusion I’ve come to, for the most part, is that no one cares. I’ve heard it from several different writers I trust, including my mentor, Linda Sivertsen. No one gives a shit about what we’re writing. Our friends, for the most part, aren’t going to read our books. Hey, maybe if you live in a really enmeshed family, your peeps will read your book. But mine have only recently read mine (and I don’t know if any of them have finished it).
Here’s the thing — be respectful and be honest. Now, I’m not suggesting if someone was horrible to you that you should not share that. SHARE THAT. Do it. That’s the “be honest” part. But I’m talking about the smaller stuff. For example, I was editing my book and came across a part where I said one of my childhood friends was known to tell a fib or two. On this new editing pass that even seemed too much. So I added “innocent”: “…known to tell an innocent fib or two.” Because she was seven years old and if she read it now I would not want her to think I was calling her a liar. She’s grown into a wonderful woman and deserves respect.
Then there are the moments I’ve written about, like the ex-boyfriend who bit my arms and took up all the emotional space. I wrote honestly about that. And the narcissist in him will probably be thrilled I wrote about him at all. So I’m kind of doing him a favor. At least that’s what I tell myself when I think about him reading an honest account of our relationship. Because it’s a little scary.
But to get back to respect and honesty: to me, capturing to the best of my memory/knowledge what happened in my life and who was there is one of the cornerstones of good writing. I’ve seen writers embellish descriptions of people to make their writing seem “cooler,” and I’m always like, “WHY?!!!” To capture the truth of someone is huge. They say never work with children or animals because their naturalness will upstage you every time — the same goes for writing true characters. Making up characters is awesome (and obviously what you do in fiction most often), but you can also get a lot of emotional mileage out of just capturing someone on the page to the best of your ability.
Of course there’s that scene in the Netflix show The Crown (which I love) where Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) freaks out because his modernist portraitist captures the age and decay of his person. And the painter tells him he painted age and decay because he saw age and decay.
Joan Didion writes, “writers are always selling somebody out.” Yeah, that’s true. So, we deal with it. We breathe through the sensitivity that arises as we sell our people out on the page. But, like, let’s not make ourselves think we have more power than we do. I return to: no one cares. So like that dorky old “dance like no one is watching” (which is, admittedly, pretty good advice), write like no one cares. Because they don’t. It might feel like they do, but they don’t.
Ok, but like that’s not totally true either. The other night I was reading a piece from my book to my husband (for the first time in the two years I’ve been writing it) and he suggested I do not use a loaded religious word because it is secret and LDS people might get pissed at me. While I actually think this is kind of hilarious I decided to change the end of the piece and remove the word. The word wasn’t really doing much anyway and I wrote a better ending. So that’s a thing to think about: everything is an opportunity for improvement in your work. Don’t delete everything, but get creative and see what comes up. Consider an alternative to “my brother is an asshole,” for example. See where the writing takes you.
And then there is the piece about protecting (perhaps abusive) people about whom we’re writing, which I’ve discussed with several writing friends. It’s such a common scenario to find amongst writers, I think, because so many of us found a voice on the page when we felt like it wasn’t safe to have one in real life. So many of us are struggling with just letting ourselves have the freedom to tell our truth.
Here is what I do know: it is healing to get these stories on the page. The scared inner child doesn’t have to be the loudest voice, but she does need some tending to. My therapist has told me to put my hand on my stomach and say, “Shhh shhh.” Let that little inner scared kid know we’re here, and that we’re in the NOW and not THEN. And sometimes he/she does take you over and you just need to cry at the keyboard. But know you are giving her a voice, which is so often what she needs (and what we need). And maybe that’s scary, too, because it’s new.
My niece’s wedding hadn’t even started and I was tearing up. Because look at my sweet father’s back-of-the-head! So much vulnerability there. Yes, all the clichés are true about him getting older and having Alzheimer’s: he’s smaller, he seems older when I see him every few months, will what’s going on in that head remember me next time? He also kind of leans to the side these days and looks at his hands. He rarely initiates conversation, whereas he used to be the first one spouting about politics or whoever in our family was persona-non-grata at any given time.
He cried while he sang me “Happy Birthday” this year.
Luckily it was such a relief to move to a softer place with him that I let a lot of that old stuff go. Writing a book about a lot of it has probably been helpful, too. Writing heals, what up.
It was looking at the above photo that started the second wave of waterworks (the day of the shooting in Las Vegas). Earlier in the day I had read a post from The Nelson Treehouse Family (Treehouse Masters is one of my favorite shows ever) in which they wrote, “In times as dark as these, it can be difficult to keep hope alive. For this, we look to the trees as a reminder that resiliency and strength can be found if we continue to reach for the light.” Their tenderness helped me move into my tenderness.
I went to a beautiful Yoga Nidra workshop that night (dragged my feet, too, because I was, as my old roommate Shannon used to say, in my hidey-hole). But I showed up and the teacher, Caitlin Lanier, invited us to breathe, relax, settle our bodies into the earth, and go to a place that is pure consciousness. It felt so chill (except when my stomach gurgled and my sweet body threatened to fart, but luckily I grew up Catholic so my sphincter only allows farts out in public if I’ve just had a colonoscopy. Side note: I really appreciated when I had my colonoscopy last year that they had a white noise machine in the recovery room — I would have liked to have known this before when I was stressing that I’d be creating a whole bunch of brown noise in front of a ton of people in a gallery-quiet room).
I got home from my Yoga Nidra class and while casually scrolling through Instagram saw someone had liked the photo I took of the back of my dad’s head. So I looked at it again, zoomed in to take in the gentle curve of his ear, and then cried again.
The next morning before I woke up I had a nightmare that there was a shooting in the supermarket I was in. The supermarket was having a party and everyone had wine. I was hemming and hawing about whether to drink (as I often do, post-cancer, because the docs only want you to have three drinks a week) and my sister Karen was like, “Just get yourself a bottle of wine.” I went looking but they had only recently restocked the rosé and it was room temperature. So I found this other “reserve” section, that some markets have. A guy I knew from high school was in there. He is developmentally disabled and I instantly hoped I had never been an asshole to him back then. In my dream he was struggling with his jacket, so I went to help him. He did not want my help. It must have been because I was an asshole, I thought. Even in my dreams I can’t leave myself alone.
I found a bottle of satisfactorily chilled white wine and started toward the register as I caught in my peripheral vision two guys with guns. Oh shit. As fast as I could I climbed down the two carpeted stairs in front of me and tried to squeeze under a display shelf as the sound of a machine gun bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-banged so close to me. I knew they were too close for me to get away. But at that moment I also remembered I was dreaming and rolled my eyes back in my head to wake up (that is my patented wake-up technique — feel free to use it).
All of this is connected through vulnerability. I could tie this all up and say hey, we’ll still be vulnerable because there is strength in that. This guy who feel so powerless (assuming I know anything about perpetrators) and shoots out two windows in his fancy-ass hotel room and then kills lots of people is the coward. Obviously. Someone wrote about how this is clearly white privilege. I think it does illustrate an extreme example of the anger and fear a person who has normally been “in power” feels when his seat of said power is being threatened. We’ll know more in the coming days and months. Even if we don’t want to. There is no sense-making in the senseless.
Speaking of — I also woke up thinking about how people say “everything happens for a reason” and how irritating that is when you’re witnessing a massacre, or hurricanes destroying entire islands, or Tom Petty’s daughter raging back at Rolling Stone for reporting her father dead before he was. Reason? What’s the reason? There is a reason WHY these things happened, like this guy is horrible and mad and our gun laws suck, we’ve been destroying the environment and climate change seems to be responsible for super storms, bad reporting. But the idea that everything that happens is being held up by magical birds like Snow White’s bathrobe is just another way not to feel the depth of what’s happening. Sure, we can make meaning later, and find the picture that the broken pieces make, but I don’t believe that all the pieces were placed here by God into a box emblazoned with a Thomas Kincaid painting we get to see if we just look hard enough and place everything together as its been intended by God’s golden jigsaw.
People get sick. Massacres happen. Our gun laws suck. We’re destroying the planet. Our president doesn’t care about anything but money. Major religions have been letting us down for centuries and the minor ones are often cults.
When my therapist’s husband died she said someone told her, “Well, it’s for the best. He’s in a better place.” He had been killed in a car accident. They had two young sons. “For the best”? Are you fucking kidding me? So, you can believe things are “for the best” and “everything happens for a reason,” but please try to do better when you comfort your people going through said things. Listen.
“We’re here to learn” isn’t something I’d say to someone who’s just lost her husband either. But at least thinking that way speaks of a bit more agency and suggests we have to do something. Sing for our enlightenment supper. Of course then when you pick through those feelings your fingers start pulling up on chunks of emotional cement (in my opinion). Because it all starts to feel really hopeless.
“More guns!” “All lives matter!” “People just need to treat each other better. ALL people.” “Fuck the planet.” “Get over it.” And how about if we didn’t hold our heart like a fist?
We can look to Australia for how after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre the government restricted the availability of guns and then the number of gun-related homicides and suicides dropped by 59-65%. So…we can look to that. But it doesn’t feel like anything is going to happen.
So, like, in Las Vegas, where were the good guys with the guns that gun enthusiasts say will protect schools and the like? If good guys with guns prevent bad guys with guns from shooting everyone, where were they?
As Caleb Keeter from the Josh Abbott Band (who were playing at the Route 91 Harvest festival that day) says, “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd Amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL licenses, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”
One country musician changing his mind on gun control per 58 people dying is not a sustainable ratio. It’s a start. Maybe he will touch more people and they will wake up to the idea that the last thing we want is a machine gun to kill deer, etc. Clear shots = better meat. So, why does the average (or deranged) citizen need access to these weapons of war?
I mean, I don’t have access to nuclear weapons and I’d be in big trouble if I did. The average citizen isn’t supposed to make bombs. Why? Bombs do less damage than an automatic weapon! Oh, right. Money. Smith & Wesson. The NRA. Bombs don’t make anybody any money.
And yet we are so terrified of legalizing marijuana! If we care so much about money (that “if” is used really loosely) we should be head over heels for legalizing marijuana. This country could make so much money! But of course guns keep us scared, whereas marijuana might make you a little paranoid (and usually of cops or the government). If we’re scared, we’re pacified. Not to start sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but if the the theory fits…
Look, I’m just wildly speculating now. This whole thing started out about vulnerability. About my father’s head. I wrote all this and then I started listening to the Wu Tang Clan (because I originally named this post “Protect Ya Neck.”). I tried to figure out how I could weave in Wu Tang with all this and it just started making me think about the prison industrial complex and legal slavery. And that I can’t make sense of it all. So I’ll ask some questions instead.
We need intersectional feminism, but how? We need to let go of our white privilege, but how? We need to improve our gun laws, but how? We need to treat the environment better, but how? We need cops to stop killing black people for no reason, but how? We need to have a safe place to be vulnerable, but how? We need to totally reset our whole prison situation, but how?
I guess since I can’t figure it out right now I’m not supposed to. Again — trying to make sense of the senseless. I’ll gather my people to my bosom. I’ll protect the necks and heads of those I love as much as I can as well as my own. I’ll protect the heads and necks of my fellow people as much as I can — those I don’t know yet. I’ll boom out my feelings when I can. I’ll put my nose to my inner wrist and feel its softness and smell the oil-blend I rolled on earlier my sister sent me. I’ll remember I exist.
When I get super anxious sometimes it’s best to get super micro and/or super macro in my perspective. The other day I got really big picture on my shit and just remembered the simple fact that we exist. Here, now (oh shit now I have Jesus Jones in my head). But yes. We exist. I exist. I exist. That is the reality. And that even though we can be major piece of shit dingleberry assholes who kill and destroy and lie and fuck up (I’m not making a great case for our existence) we DO EXIST. It is the thrust of the life-force that is strong. David Sedaris wrote a piece about trying to drown a mouse and how hard it was because the body’s will is to survive. It’s the mind that makes us want to die. But the body’s reality is existence. Of course until it dies, yeah, yeah, I could go down an entire other anxiety hole there. BUT my point is — we WILL gasp for air if its taken away. We exist. Somehow this is comforting to me during hard times.
I like to think of myself out in the cosmos, amongst the stars, existing. Maybe because out in the stars that’s all there is. We haven’t fucked it up yet. We’ll figure out how, eventually, I’m sure. But a lot of us will really care about not fucking it up, too. That’s something, right? For now, however, I’ll exist here on earth and when I can, naively hope for the best. At least I’m not always preparing for the worst (like I used to), for my own sanity, even if it could be my own privilege that allows me some respite. But that is what I want for all of us. The privilege of life — which some people don’t understand doesn’t seem like privilege because we simply exist. But to people whose lives are threatened on the regular (and come from generations whose lives have been threatened on the regular) just living a simple, safe life seems like a right they’ve never been afforded.
I just had a thought — if your friend was hurting really bad about something — say their child was just killed, you wouldn’t be like, “ALL people whose children were recently killed are sad.” If your sister broke her leg you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, but I have a hangnail, and that hurts, too.” Or maybe you would. If you were an asshole. So — how about don’t be an asshole. Look in the face (or the back of the head) of your fellow humans and try to hear their experience. I know it’s hard and I know it hurts, which is why it’s way easier to say all things happen for a reason, all lives matter, etc. Why do we buy this when it’s said by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben (or John Cumming or the 1793 French National Convention), but not in our real lives: “With great power comes great responsibility”? Let’s just try to be a little more responsible. I’m trying and failing a lot of the time. But sometimes in the moment deciding not to hold our hearts like fists is the best we can do — and maybe that’s good enough because it allows us to really see each other.
Grateful I got to write my column for 12 1/2 years and grateful it is ending now. And that I got to do the ending well, that it taught me how to find my voice and practice and get better and fast. And that I learned to get more confident at it and stopped worrying if I was good enough.
Grateful the Cambridge/Boston era taught me its lessons/my lessons. All my schooling there — literature, film, screenwriting. Grateful for the education. Grateful for amazing meals, a warm bath of socializing and blurred edges and comfort after my mother died and post 9/11. For my apartment and getting to be creative there, start a blog, hone my voice. Grateful for learning what to avoid creatively, like signing on to other people’s projects b/c I didn’t trust my own.
For my young adult years, going to college, loving, my first real true love relationship, the authenticity and integrity of feeling in heartbreak, the true connection shared.
For meeting and forging a real life with Brent, the ups and challenges we shared there. The beautiful cats we loved and had to help usher into the next life.
For forging true friendships that continue to blossom.
For my enriching yoga practice that blossomed there thanks to finding Jenn F's classes.
Grateful for the gorgeous retreats and finding my heart center again and learning to TRUST it.
For the challenges, being scared, scaring myself, learning what I want and DON’T want, who I want to be and DON’T want to be and who I want to be with and don’t want to be with.
For learning it would never quite be “my place,” and that I could never quite get it to care about me and what I do the way I would like to be cared about. And, as such, allowing me the relative anonymity to get as creative as I wanted. Yes, I felt stuck a lot, too, but that also taught me how I don't want to feel.
For the fun times — like running karaoke, drunken nights, beach times, dinner with peeps, playing SUC shows (especially the daytime ones) and feeling connected to the community.
For the east coast upbringing and its responsibility for my sharp wit and also the lessons about softness.
For the grace running through all of it, how life gently showed me the way, met me where I was, urged me along.
For the lessons of last year [I basically yadda-yadda-yadda’d the cancer — but that’s what I’m talking about here]. And for seeing that the culture of entitlement and ambition is an illusion — real for those people, sure, but not aligned with my truth.
For the walks by the Charles River, dips in the sea at Crane, full moon skinny-dipping at Walden, Gardner Museum, The MFA, Fenway, BU, oysters.
Getting to just “be” for a while. As long as it took.
Thanks to my homegal/love/writerly buddy Casey Erin Wood and her Ruby Slipper School of Magic for this prompt and mentioning gratitude for the endings. It really helped me to seal the old chapter with some gorgeous melted wax and a heart signet.
What are you putting the seal on? I highly recommend taking a mindful moment to appreciate where you have been and how much there is to be grateful for within that and where you are now because of it.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.