You Learn to Write With Integrity

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Niah Caves, Sarawak, Malaysia.

You are an undergraduate Creative Writer without quite knowing the meaning of the term, but that’s okay, because it’s fun — fun to read innovative contemporary fiction, fun to speak with professors who have Published Things, fun to sit and write a story for homework. It’s fun except when it’s not, and then you really have to grit your teeth when workshops run terribly or when you know your story blows but you waited until the last minute because you hated it or, worst of all, when the hot-shot professor casually states that he’s not even sure Creative Writing can be taught to undergraduates and that comment stays with you for a while. You question it but keep the question to yourself, head down, words attempting to be loud. You see your friends start talking about MFAs and you know, deeply, that you are not ready for a graduate program — not mentally, not professionally (whatever that means).

You can’t even call yourself a writer without sneering the word across your tongue.

You graduate with honors because your degree was academically straightforward and you’ve always worked hard in school — you were told that was what you had to do to succeed. As you cross the graduation stage, you are handed a roll of paper meant to represent your diploma, and the empty symbolism of your reward feels somehow significant. You get a series of jobs — freelance copywriter, barista, tutor — that pay the bills if all three jobs are pursued concurrently, and you are always tired. Too tired to write, of course, or experience any of the things you should be experiencing on your gap year. That’s what this is — a gap between now and the ultimate goal, grad school. The MFA. Legitimacy. And yet you write nothing beyond some idle, half-serious bullshit that you immediately delete because it feels so grossly pointless, all of it, your waste of a degree and waste of brain-space that thinks you can make up stories and people that matter. You remind yourself that you are largely sheltered, that people in places are dying because of atrocities you have only heard about and cannot picture as part of the real, hard truth of living. In this mindset, of course you stop writing. None of it matters in the real world, where other struggles seem so much louder than you own. You remember that one professor who said writing cannot be taught. You figure you might as well remain silent.

On your endless commutes, you listen to podcasts about writing and read about writing and talk about writing to your old classmates, many of whom are in the same amorphous place as you are. You linger in the terrible space of “What now?” for what feels like too long. At some point you stop talking to your classmates, even, because at a certain point you feel you’ve reached the maximum number of complaints you can make about the ambiguities of life and your role within it.

A year passes and two very important things happen. One, you listen to a podcast interview featuring Mat Johnson. He shares things you’ve heard before, but it is the genuineness in his voice that surprises you, especially after consuming so many interviews where it seems as though the writer is in a perpetual state of mental anguish and self-hate. These qualities may be true for Johnson (they are true for many people), but you focus on his authenticity as he discusses the things that matter to him about mixed race and identity — and the difficulties he has faced finding a “place” for his fiction and experiences. Despite those difficulties, he did what you could not do — he continued writing and producing because he believed, and continues to believe, that his ambiguous background — and the thoughts that bleed through it — matters. And it does. By exploring that ambiguity, Johnson is expressing a contemporary truth. He is offering a mode of understanding to people whose lives are not clearly defined; he is speaking about the people who are composed of torn-off pieces of many different labels. He believes in this endeavor. You are jolted into awareness as you listen because you, too, have struggled with ideas of mixed identity that make you feel unqualified to discuss — but they are your struggles, and true for a growing population of people, and they carry weight. You think about your own labels — woman, Latina, Californian — and consider the fact that you’ve never felt comfortable labeling yourself a writer because you’ve never felt as though your experiences and thoughts are truly worth sharing — and even then, who would read them? Who would care? You think about these questions in terms of Johnson, and you realize his answer: he cares, so he writes.

Two, you are tasked with the responsibility of writing two letters of recommendation for a student who is receiving educational consulting at work. This is your first big task as part of the team, so you tackle it fully, ghostwriting on behalf of the professionals who have asked your student to write her own letters. So, in a sense, you pretend to be a student pretending to be her professors, and you realize halfway through the writing that you feel completely, irrevocably wrong. Even though you are assured that writing on behalf of recommenders is common, you don’t realize until after the fact that you essentially sold your skills and pushed aside personal convictions (idealistic, romantic notions of the role of recommendations) to get a job done. You feel like you did when you were copywriting freelance blog posts for faceless companies — like you produced nothingness, just worked for an hour on something that would never impact the public consciousness, never reveal the truth of a single layer of humanity to another soul beyond the admissions representative who would glance, passingly, at the effusive praise of your empty writing.

The word “integrity” enters your mind and you turn it around in the area of your brain normally reserved for existential crises. You pick the word apart and wonder why it sticks. “Integrity,” you say as you speak to your boss about your reservations. “Integrity,” you say as you stand up for yourself and your writing, thinking of Mat Johnson and his sense of purpose, thinking of that professor who said writing cannot be taught. “Integrity,” you type into the glowing keyboard of your Mac at home. This is what it tells you:

integrity

            [in-teg-ri-tee]

noun

  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principals, chiefly in regards to your worth as a creator and your (presently tenuous) ability to state, loudly, that your beliefs, perspectives, and life matter; they belong in the conversation of human existence because no other person     is you, and you are able to share yourself as a person who subverts labels and lives       somewhere between woman/Latina/Californian because only parts of those labels truly             define you.
  2. Honesty, not only in your own abilities, but also in your own writing — because that vulnerable, steadily growing strength is what will remind you of your own personal      legitimacy.

You consider the stories that have sprung up from your multifaceted experiences as a second-generation, none-Spanish-speaking, Hispanic female. You think about the time you spoke in your professor’s Mixed-Race Novel class about growing up marking “Mexican” on scholarship applications but knowing, absolutely and entirely, that the truest label that can possibly describe you is “American.” You remember how openly the classroom of other mixed-race students accepted your perspectives, saying that they, too, felt shoved somewhere in the middle of two camps. You are not a writer of women’s fiction. You are not a Chicana. You are, if anything, a Californian human who has felt the seismic shifts of receiving something like a National Hispanic Scholar Award and wondering why you have to be identified by your race and not your accomplishments. You are, you are, you are — and you must write every detail you have noticed about the world around you, every person who has lingered in your mind, every experience that lends itself to story because, as you remind yourself, everything will be filtered through your unique lens as a middle class, Inland Empire, mixed-race-mixed-culture individual, and that alone means that your writing has something important to say. You write forever and don’t even begin to capture the smallest portion of your existence — and yet, that’s okay, because you have no reason to worry or doubt your ability to work. You have integrity. You believe in yourself and the stories you want to share.

You agree that writing cannot be taught. It must be felt, and that cannot be taught in a classroom or through assignments. It must come from an unshakable place of the writer’s mind that is self-sustaining, autonomous, and receptive to the surrounding world. Another professor once told you that the writer does not matter — the story matters. The reader will not know anything about the author, but the reader will know the world you create and the experiences you allow them to feel.

You believe it. And so, you write.

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “You Learn to Write With Integrity

  1. I just read your article on being estranged from your dad. You have no idea how sad that made me for you and your dad. You are doing untold damage with your silence..to both of you. You may not know it yet, but you will. When he passes away unexpectedly and you’re still stonewalling him, you’ll live with a regret so huge it will crush you to pieces for the rest of your life. It happens, trust me. Unless he was abusive to you growing up, you should talk to him, set up boundaries, but talk. To give up on one’s parents is a huge mistake. Nothing teaches us more lessons in life than learning to get along with a difficult parent. There will come a day that you will need him and he will be dead. Do not do this. I am the sister of an estranged brother, what you are doing is crushing another person’s entire spirit. 😦

    • Hi Jill, thank you for writing and for your honesty. I appreciate hearing about estrangement from another person’s perspective — you’ve offered an important reminder. I wish you well!

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