When I first began blogging, I began all my posts without being totally certain what they would be about. I would ask myself questions without clear resolutions. I would probe hazy memories for meaning. Then I would set off like an itinerant mountain hiker, without a map, to explore them. I liked to get lost in my prose, to confuse myself, then forge a path to clarity as I went along.
I later learned I could speed the process if I wrote about something I knew for sure, an essay I could fully envision in its finished state, like how to plot a story or what a movie was about. I could just begin with a thesis statement like I had done for essays in college, then write an outline. Those blogs would usually turn out fine, but they were not fulfilling in the same way my inefficient, confusing meandering blogs were.
That was partly because with my pre-structured posts, I never “crossed.”
“Crossing” is a transition from chaos to clarity. It happens when you reread your work-in-progress to discover that you have been utterly confused in areas where you had once believed you were clear. Seeing your muddy thoughts translated into lucid language exposes them as the fiction, and sometimes the nonsense, that they are. This sets off cognitive shockwaves.
In some cases, you may have a flash of insight that turns everything you have just written on its head. Biases and deeply held beliefs are suddenly shaky; interpretations of memories change. You may teeter on the edge of heresy. Up appears down. Down appears up. For a terrifying and exhilarating moment, the world is a new place.
Something like this happened to me once when, as an adult, I wrote about being bullied by a gang of girls throughout the sixth grade. The narrative I had built since age 11 and carried around for many years was that I had been a totally passive victim and that I had not fought back. Plus, I believed that every part of that year had been terrible, a dark monochrome of pain.
But when I sat down and began to write about it, something changed. I reread my first two pages and realized something was off. My voice sounded forced. My prose did not ring true.
I kept remembering details that contradicted my narrative. I ended up tossing all my efforts aside. With an open mind, I started over. Afterwards, writing about the sixth grade was like walking on a seashore at midnight and finding seashells sparkling under a moonlit sky. Yes, the hurt had been there. But I remembered I had had a friend that year, a girl who like me did not quite fit in with my other classmates. She was a soft-spoken African American with large, sensitive black eyes.
We would walk around the track at recess and talk about the pitfalls of being shy. We made fun of how talkative people assumed shy people had no thoughts and how they stupidly believed that if you were shy at school, you must be shy around your family and best friends too. We complained about how the teacher held us up as role models for the talkative class to emulate, which, we agreed, had to be some kind of child abuse worthy of government intervention. Those conversations had made recess bearable. I had taken the friendship for granted at the time but from my adult point of view everything looked different.
As I wrote, I remembered how she had loaned me her coat on a bitterly cold winter day at recess, and how she had never once joined in the ridicule or acted afraid of my bullies the way the rest of the class had. Yet, I had been so self-absorbed at the time, it took me decades to realize what an extraordinarily kind person she was or how much I had enjoyed those conversations at recess.
The sixth grade was also the year I fell in love with writing. I also remembered many times I had not been passive but actually had fought back, including a fight in the hallway which had left me with a black eye, although my normally critical classmates had declared me the winner.
All of my inefficient verbal wandering had yielded priceless insights. An entire chapter of my personal history book had been wrong. I had not been a passive victim after all.
Why had I believed such a terrible myth? After the sixth grade, I had “needed” to believe my experience had been purely black to match my feelings in the aftermath. To do otherwise would have invited cognitive dissonance, the anxiety that arises when you hold two contradictory beliefs at once. I had edited out anything good because I had “needed” to justify the intensity of my pain. But, in doing so, I had actually made the pain worse and for many years I had lived with a crippling illusion. I had not been exactly unconscious of my friend or my fight in the hallway and my black eye, but I had banished those memories into the shadows of irrelevancy because they were bad fuel for brooding.
I wrote my new narrative to reflect my new, more nuanced understanding of my sixth grade year.
Changing my memory of the experience changed the way I saw the sixth grade and it changed the way I saw myself.
You interpret things differently as a child than you do as an adult; writing gives you a chance to re-examine faulty old beliefs, and that can be therapeutic. Especially when you “cross.”
Not all of my crossings have happened while writing about childhood though. And not all of them “flipped” my original perspective. There was another time when my writing just led me through painful confusion to find clarity in a principle I had known but forgotten.
This happened shortly after a small publishing company had accepted my novel The Ghosts of Chimera. I saw this as a dramatic turning point in my writing career and I was especially looking forward to the professional editing, which I thought would be a priceless learning experience.
But there were problems. Due to changes going on at the publishing company, it took over nine months for the editing to even begin. And because the company was running short on editors, one of the co-owners of the company finally took over the editing herself. Still. I was beyond thrilled. I was expecting constructive criticism and was willing to do whatever was needed to make my book as good as it could possibly be.
However, when I finally got my edits and read them, I was crestfallen. The edits, many of them delivered in a snarky tone, seemed designed to shame rather than help me. The editor told me that a part of my novel was way too bleak — so bleak that she had become depressed and had to put my novel down for three days before she could resume editing. Her other “edits” were presented in the same scolding, and even contemptuous manner; taken together, they sounded like a scathing one-star Amazon review — the kind where the reviewer says, “The product should be stripped from shelves and never sold to anyone ever again.” It was baffling to have my book verbally shredded by a publisher that had already accepted my novel. I had been so eager to get my content edits from a professional in the hope of perfecting my story, but her acerbic delivery left me perplexed and disturbed. Even if my novel had depressed her, was it necessary for her to say that with such apparent disdain for a novel her own acquisitions team had enthusiastically – and politely – accepted?
I thought of setting my ego aside and making the changes based on her criticism, regardless of my personal feelings. I was an adult, after all, and mature, at least I tried to be. And although the scenes she appeared to dislike were meant to be sad, ultimately I did want my novel to be enjoyable. Yet my philosophy had been, “Write what you love, not what you think other people will love.” I had included my bleak scenes for a reason. I had included them because as an artist I had thought they belonged there.
Someone who had read my novel and loved it told me that “too bleak” was not a valid edit. I was not sure, so I decided to write a blog about it.
My writing was a feeble attempt to regain lost hope; at first I floundered in uncertainty. Flustered, I contradicted myself. I tried out different sentences to see which ones “sounded” true. When I reread what I had written, I was distressed to find that my shaky confidence showed. I was not sure what I believed.
Then, halfway through writing my teetering, meandering, inefficient blog, something clicked. I stopped vacillating and found clarity. The answer seemed obvious. Of course I was not going to take out the “bleak” scenes. If I did, not only would my theme of dealing with suffering through denial fall apart; my resolution would not be fulfilling. Removing suffering from literature because it was “bleak” defied the most basic dynamics of story telling. In art contrast created meaning. If I purged all the unhappy scenes, the joyful scenes that followed would lose all significance.
I started thinking, too, about all the literary masterpieces — some of them my all-time favorite novels like A Separate Peace — that were way bleaker than anything I had ever written, yet they had been, by far, the most powerful novels I had ever read.
I wondered: How many classic works of literature would have to be thrown out if all the “bleak” ones were removed from library shelves? Conflict was the engine of drama. Suffering drove character motivation. In literature no emotion was off limits. Not even bleak ones.
By the time I had reached the conclusion of my blog, I no longer felt stung by what the editor had said. If she had gotten depressed, that meant that I had been successful; I had made her feel something. The failure would have been for her not to care.
I had “crossed” from confusion to clarity and as a result, I made a painful decision. Instead of making my novel rosier for the editor, I ended the publishing contract and self-published my novel. As a result, it remained my novel, and it has been well-reviewed overall since I self-published it.
Not everything I write comes with an epiphany or self-discovery lying in wait. But that experience is part of what I always hope for when I write. Regardless of how it may appear to others, writing alone is never lonely. I always feel as though I am engaged in a dialogue. I write down whatever is in my head and then I ask, Is this true? Is there something I could say about this subject that would be truer? When I get a clear answer, especially a credible answer that challenges me to think in a new way, that is when I know my writing is going well. When my world turns upside down, when I question my grip on reality, when my most cherished beliefs are called into question, I know it is going great.