WE ARE ONLY HUMAN
I have just returned from a few days at the Sewanee Writers Conference.
What makes any of us write? To have permission to talk to people in our head? Or because we don’t have another talent? For me, both are true. I love my characters and I love hanging out with them. Even when they do bad things and say bad words.
Writing is a very lonely job. When I go to Sewanee, I take my messy self. My insecurities, my worries, my fixation to find the perfect words to make my sentence sing and to be challenged and inspired by people who seem to have their “sentences together”. I am there because I crave the connection of like-minded people who live in their head. It is like attending a political convention where the mascot is paper and pen.
Weird things always happen to me there. But they have always happened to me. In my 20s people could come up to me and say, “what’s wrong with you?” They would say it in a challenging way. My southern manners generally kept me from most of my witty comments like “it’s perfectly obvious what’s wrong with me… What’s wrong with YOU”. In my 20s and 30s it was like I had stamped on my forehead “PLEASE, invade my personal space and tell me intimate things about you or ask me inappropriate questions”. It happened on planes, in coffee shops and bookstores. I have urged recovering alcoholics to attend a meeting. I have hugged perfect strangers and encouraged others to go to the doctor ASAP.
As I was leaving my 40s and 50s behind the questions changed. “Did you have polio as a child?” Or discovering that I wrote novels, “I’ve always wanted to write a story about my grandmother. What do I do?” The second question is always easier to answer. I utter a simple word “BEGIN”. The other questions require more.
During my stay a woman sat down at my table at breakfast. “Can I ask you something? Did you have a stroke?” Sometimes I have fun with this question. I often say some people have a stroke of luck… I had a stroke at birth. I could tell this woman needed more. “Yes” I said simply. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Is this what your book is about?” She asked. “No this is a novel. My memoir Dying of Natural Causes is about my stroke, my mama and my relationship with the men in white coats”.
She continued. “My sister had a stroke. She would’ve been 40 this year. She was petite, blonde and lively. Like you.” Her tears no longer stayed put. I took her hand and said, “this is what your sister might look like at 60. I will be 60 next week”.
I view these questions and confessions now as a privilege. Maybe she needed the same thing that I need when I come to this mountain: Human Connection.