A Moment's Safety
Everyone who has lived even a short time on this planet has suffered something. It’s the rare person who makes it to high school without the divorce, the alcoholic parent, the distant parent, the needy parent, the bully, the breakup, the poverty, the sterile wealth. Anything at all in our life has the potential to form a kind of question whose answer, ungiven, becomes the hole around which our life quietly circles. Many is the writer then who returns to this question in his or her work. Perhaps the writer does so consciously, wishing to explore or exorcise, or just as likely unconsciously—the woman abused as a child finds herself heroines again and again drawn into violent relationships. As writers, you must always go where there is heat, but as I finished Townie, Andre Dubus’s recent memoir about growing up poor and surrounded in violence, I was reminded how important it is not to become too attached or too enamored of your own story of suffering.
Always remember this: all your supposed suffering already happened. At this moment, all that hurt you, all that mistreated you—none of it is actually happening to you. You are safe. When you write, you are a sitting at a desk alone, and there is no one by your side to hit you, or leave you, or insult you. At the desk you are perfectly safe, and it is from this vantage that you are able to see your old suffering anew.
It is tempting in the writing to wish to return fully to that moment of suffering, to become the victim again, and in so doing show the world what was done to you so that the world will finally wake up and take notice and put an end to such things once and for all. It will seem like the truth, and yet it will be a kind of lie, for in truth you are safe. In truth, you went on living, and only the memory can hurt you now. Should you reach a point, as Dubus did in Townie, where you can at last look back on what happened and forgive, look back on your own suffering and see your own quiet role in it, then you will have something to offer the world besides an opportunity to say, “We’re sorry;” then you might have the opportunity to show someone else who is suffering that they are safe, that they are alone with a book, with this new friend, and no one can actually hurt them there.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.