I cried in the parking lot of a grocery store the other day. It was an incident that gave me pause—crying in a grocery store parking lot has a different flavor to it than, say, crying on your couch. It suggests that not all is quite right in your life, perhaps. That you should step back and reassess some fundamental things.
But in that moment and the days that followed I had no interest in taking stock of how I had managed to become the sort of person who can be brought to tears in public while holding a shopping cart. Instead, what I wanted to do, what I just couldn’t stop thinking about, was writing about the thing I saw that made me cry.
The impulse was strong enough and familiar enough to make me wonder why I have it. Why was my first instinct to write about this thing that had upset me? Which is really just another way of asking—why do I have the impulse to write at all?
Seeing as this is a question both George Orwell and Joan Didion have already tackled, I’m aware that the world is probably all set, at this point, for “Why I Write” musings. But every writer has a slightly different answer to give, whether it’s ideological fervor or questions that won’t leave them alone or, if you’re Virginia Woolf, the quest to perfectly and completely capture a human consciousness.
My answer hasn’t always been the same. When I was younger, the stories in my head were usually motivated by what I’ve always thought of as the Get Out impulse, sort of like what Orwell describes in his version of “Why I Write.” They were stories about life being better, different, more exciting. About me being better, different, more exciting. Or about people finally seeing me (or someone like me) as the exceptional being I had always secretly been.
I don’t think this is uncommon. Stories with escapism as their lifeblood don’t often get to call themselves “literary,” and anything aspirational finds itself squarely in the “genre fiction” category, but these stories are everywhere and we need them. I like Tolkien’s take on escape--that he means the word like someone getting out of prison. For the first and largest chunk of my life, that was what writing meant to me.
But something shifted, and now I’m bagging my groceries at Aldi and I see a small girl pause at the space where the automatic doors have opened for her and behind her with the cart is her father and he yells at her to move and for days I want to write about it.
This girl was older than my own daughters, but not by much. She had on a puffy jacket and a pair of sneakers. Her legs were skinny and her jeans stopped above her socks. She was still of the age where children often seem totally unaware of their surroundings and are likely to do something like stand still in the middle of a doorway, adults lined up behind them.
It was her father’s voice that made me look up and notice them—a triple volley of words shot out so fast she had no time to respond to any one of his commands.
“Go. Go! Go!” louder each time until he was yelling, and I wasn’t the only person looking. The hard edge and bare anger he displayed was unsettling, but it would have been easier to dismiss without her reaction, her hyper-awareness of him and all the other people watching. She had the posture of a child who would like to disappear. And that was what I wanted to write about—a little girl who got yelled at in a grocery store and looked like she wanted to disappear.
What her father did in that moment seemed at once normal and horrifying to me. Normal because it was a universal harshness of which every parent is capable. Horrifying because of the amount of pain it seemed to cause her, pain that radiated out exponentially to make all the pain I’ve caused my own children and all the more egregious abuses children suffer seem completely unfathomable in that one moment in a grocery store.
I wondered if he was having a bad day, or if this was every day of her life, as it had been many days in mine.
I find I write a lot of stuff like this. Moments of humiliation, large and small. Attacks against which we are incapable of defending ourselves, for whatever reason. And here’s why: once they’re written down, they’re different. I’ve gotten addicted to the alchemy of writing, where those moments of pain and humiliation become beautiful and useful. I can remake those moments entirely, take their teeth out, turn them into something that will make people feel seen and make people see if they haven’t seen before.
I can feel the transformation happening right now as I write this, and the change is sharper the more I focus on the details—the little bow clips swinging at the ends of her braids, the curled shoulders, the way her momentary pause became a frozen posture of shamed confusion as his voice got louder, and the clips, the braids bouncing around her face as she finally stumbled forward and complied. Frank, unmistakable sadness in the one flash of her face from the back seat of their tan car as it passed in front of me on my way to my trunk.
This is why I write: so she will not disappear, so my own pain and others’ can be made into something other than cruel weight. And even here, I’ve told you more about myself than I’ve told you about her, like a writer often does. I’ve betrayed my sensitivities. And yet, these words are the only offering I have. The writing impulse, not perfect, but steady, drives to me to try, to write, anyway.
Looking for something similar? Try, To Remember a Stranger: On the Hospitality of Thought
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
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