I have just finished Maus.
It’s difficult to read a book like that, subject material aside, because it is a story that demands self-reflection while at the same time suggesting you might be a bit of an asshole for doing so.
The reason it’s such an excellent book is because it draws you in and affects your life. The reason it’s difficult to read is because it, at the same time, asks “who are you feel that this affects you, you who have never known hardship?”
There are many types of hardship.
I haven’t known many.
I meet up with friends sometimes. Sometimes they’re authors, sometimes they are not. They tend to have stories to tell: people they have loved and lost, ambitions they have never reached, problems they have always had or wish they didn’t have or sometimes wish they had.
Sometimes I talk about writing, sometimes about video games, but not often do I offer up stories of my own.
I sometimes wonder if I have any.
My parents are well-to-do and humble, still together after many years. Both my sisters are successful, happy and talented. I wasn’t abused, I didn’t have a hard life, there was no messy divorce or broken home to inspire me. My relationships have all ended quietly and without a lot of agony. My biggest concerns throughout the day are alleviating a crippling boredom that will turn into depression if I let it lie, but this is not so big.
To me, at least.
I have a good friend. We have been friends since the sixth grade. He has had a rough life. His family life was difficult. He enlisted in the Marines right before 9/11 and went to Iraq. He has seen some stuff. His family life is still complicated. He has stories, many of them I am certain I have not heard yet.
His stories are also difficult to listen to.
They are good stories. I can tell this because they invite me to think about what I would do in such situations, what I would not do, why I have not done them. But because they are good stories, they are complicated and they say “who are you to reflect on this?
And sometimes, with guilt or depression or sadness, I ask myself that and I don’t have a very good answer.
I can’t really offer up a reply to “I saw good friends of mine get blown apart” or “I watched my family kill itself” aside from “today I felt kind of sad.” This is not a reply I choose to offer.
So, when I am asked “who are you to reflect on this,” I am silent.
Sometimes, I meet people who very much want to be writers. Sometimes, they say a lot of things about their lives and their problems. They are stories, yes. But they are not good stories, because they are not complicated. They have hardships, I am sure, but they don’t know how to tell them.
But when someone asks them “who are you,” they are not silent. They say “I am a writer, I have this qualification and this idea and I will do this and I will do that and the story will move people this way and this will happen and I know it because this idea is a very good story.”
I don’t think they are liars. But I don’t think they realize they’re wrong.
Frequently, to say “I am a writer” means to be silent.
It’s very strange. The people with the biggest, most fantastic stories rarely ever seem to write them down. They tell them, sure, not always freely, but they never seem to write them down. And the people with the strongest, most incredible voices never seem to have anything to write about.
Some folk have things happen to them. Some folk put them to words.
There is the difference between some folk and writers.
And that difference is silence.
Veteran’s Day is very recently over. When it comes, I advise people not to shake a soldier’s hand and say “thank you for your service” and then “see you next year.” I don’t know if that helps soldiers. I think they appreciate it, but does it help them? I don’t know. I’m not a soldier.
But I do know that silence helps them. Listening helps them. Sitting quietly and hearing what they’ve seen and what they want others to know helps them. Giving them a moment to share a moment that they can’t otherwise share and have to carry forever helps them.
Not just soldiers. Poor people. Hungry people. Sad people. People who think they are not sad. Hard working people. People who think they are hard working. Grandpas. Grandmas. Kids. Young men who call themselves bad names because they want to cry because there is no young woman in their lives. Young women who look always to a distant goal and keep walking toward it and every time they look up, it is a little further away.
Silence helps them.
I get uncomfortable when people ask me what I do for a living. Not on the subject of writing (on that, I can go forever), but when it comes to me, when people say “who are you,” I have a hard time saying what that is.
When I started writing, I vowed I wouldn’t talk about it until I was published. I didn’t want to be someone sitting in a café, sipping coffee as I stared at a blank computer screen, waiting patiently for someone to ask what I was writing so I could explain this vast, great idea I had and why I was staring at a blank computer screen instead of writing it down.
I wanted an unglamorous life. I wanted to be hunched over in the dark, cans of diet coke stacked at my side, staring at the word “corpulent” and feeling sad that I couldn’t think of a better word. I wanted writing to be a chore, to be a labor, to be something hard.
Maybe out of jealousy?
But from this, I learned that it’s silence, not words, that make a writer. It’s listening, not talking, that makes a storyteller. It’s other stories you draw from, not your own. You can’t help this. You look at the hardships of others, you read about people dying in camps, you hear stories about people who go to war, and you reflect on these and wonder how they affect you.
And then the story—or sometimes just yourself—asks “who are you to reflect on this?”
And if you are a writer, you say nothing.