co-existing in a narrative, or how do you write nonfiction w/o being an asshole?

Personal essays are my favorite kind of writing. When I was first introduced to the work of Chuck Klosterman at the Governor’s Honors Program in 2006, my mind was blown wide open. I didn’t know that you could write about things that really happened to you. I didn’t know that you were allowed to mine your personal experiences to entertain others and to take some of the pressure off of yourself. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs changed my life that summer. Forevermore, I was going to write about my truth and my life.

You can’t always control what’s engaging about your life or your truth. I tried. In my college senior seminar program, I wrote about two things: my nerdy pop culture opinions, and my tragic love life/blossoming depression. I liked writing about the first thing more. I desperately wanted praise and acclaim for my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings. That’s who I wanted to be. To Tolkien and Star Wars as Klosterman is to metal and the NBA.

And those essays did okay, I guess. But they didn’t seem to make an impact on my classmates or professors the way that my writing about the harder stuff did. More than once I received the following peer review: “This is really funny. Are you okay?” For better or for worse, funny and not okay have become integral parts of my artistic identity.

It’s meant a lot to me to have platforms to write about my experiences with mental health. It’s been very therapeutic, and it’s meant the world to me to see people sharing my blog posts on Facebook because they relate to something I’ve written. I crave personal essays myself, because I’m fascinated by how people cope with their shit and how a victory looks like something different to each one of us. I believe that the best personal essays make us laugh, cry, think, and learn. I believe that personal essays help re-stoke our own little fires of empathy.

But I have stories that I don’t think I’m allowed to tell, and I don’t know how to reconcile that. Our biopics don’t just star ourselves, and how do you cast the supporting players in your life? How do you cast the characters that were your bad guy? Do you bury your truth out of fear of hurting others? How do we write nonfiction that casts others in an unflattering light? Some of my favorite personal essays to read are about relationships, not just an individual.

I have stories that I’d like to tell. I think that writing them would be a very relieving process for me. If I’m being completely honest, though, some of these stories I just want to tell because I think they’re excellent stories. They’re romantic and gripping and twisting and heartbreaking, and I cherish them even when they’ve hurt me. I think I could write them well, and I want you to read them and share them on Facebook and tell me that I did a good job.

What if those are my best stories? I don’t even know how to begin to feel about that possibility. Do our best stories have to be our most torrid ones? (I have a lot of questions for you today. Sorry.) Will I always be better at writing about heartache than I am about The Lord of the Rings? Should I kill my sad darlings and just endeavor to get better at writing about The Lord of the Rings?

I was called a coward once for telling a story that was very hard for me to tell. That story was otherwise really well-received, but it caused at least one person pain. If I could go back in time, I don’t know that I would have done anything differently. But that comment has impacted everything I’ve been willing to write ever since.

I’m proud of that story. I think I was brave for telling that truth. I don’t come off particularly well in it. I didn’t intend to attack anyone else in writing it, but I hurt someone all the same. Which one counts more? Is it on me to make those intentions as crystal clear as I can, or does that compromise the truth? How many details does a reader need to make it count as The Truth? Who are these stories for? Am I being selfish? These questions run through my mind every time I write anything.

In lieu of answers, here’s a little baby story about The Lord of the Rings:

When I got home from the movies in the wee, wee hours of December 18, 2003, I wrote a letter that I never sent. It was to Peter Jackson. I needed to capture on paper everything that I was feeling in that moment. Because I was electric and I was dead all at the same time. This thing that I’d wanted more than anything in the world was real and it was over, and I didn’t know what waking up the next day would feel like.

I was so in love with Peter Jackson in that moment. So inexpressibly grateful for what he’d created and for it meant to me. I was also terrified that one person could have so much power over me. Almost angry that I had come to be so defined by our relationship; idol and idolizer.

So, well past midnight in my high school bedroom, I peeled the doll hair off of my toes and wrote a letter that I would never send. I just kept it to myself.

Everything is real and over in an instant, and we have to wake up the next day. Maybe we do have to be extra careful with the stories and the truths that we share. The stories that are so precious that there’s no way to capture them on the page. Maybe some day enough time will have passed. Maybe it’s just on me to continue to learn to carry these stories on my own, and to keep them to myself. Maybe I just need to find other things to talk about.

There are so many things I want to say. There will never be enough time.

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