February 23, 2011

Stephen Elliott’s Bravery

Stephen Elliott’s daily email from The Rumpus is fascinating and deserves a blog post all its own (sign up for it on the upper right of the home page) ~ as The Rumpus is The Bomb ~ but I wanted to expand on something Stephen said in yesterday’s email, a subject near and dear to my heart.  Here's what Stephen said:
Someone said I was brave for being so open about things and I assured them I am not brave. A week ago I was in a cafe with a friend and he said he had that insecurity. Maybe from being bullied as a child. I thought, If you've never been deeply afraid, so afraid you were shaking and irrational and the strength drained from your body so you could hardly grip a pen. If you've never felt that then how could you know cowardice? And when someone told you they were a coward how could you dispute them. Unless you were able to say, I know cowardice. Unless you were able to say, I've stammered in front of an audience, been struck across the mouth without lifting my arms to defend myself, heard someone laugh in the background.
Let me back up a step. Once, when I was a kid, one of my older sisters said, “You don’t know what it’s like to really go hungry.” It’s something that has always stuck with me. I really don’t. Sure, I’ve been on diets, but I’ve never truly been without food, and I don’t think she has either, really. The point is that I’ve never lived where there is true famine or so poorly that I didn’t have access to food. That’s something I’ll never truly know.

That has to change you, truly starving, in a way that is irreversible. You take on a terrible knowledge about the uncertainty of the world that you can't know otherwise. Your body asserts itself and, I imagine, takes over your whole being. It’s one thing if you’re a religious asthete and give up food for those reasons ~ I think denying yourself in these circumstances is a badge of courage, part of the point of it all. However, if say you’re a breastfeeding mother and you can’t get enough sustenance to produce enough milk that your baby starves. My god. That brings with it a horrible kind of knowledge about humanity and about mortality. How can you live through something like that and still believe in the good in people and in the world? It reduces someone to a certain type of emotional poverty and poverty of hope.

I like the line in the above quote, “If you've never been deeply afraid, so afraid you were shaking and irrational and the strength drained from your body so you could hardly grip a pen. If you've never felt that then how could you know cowardice?” It’s easy to be brave when you’ve never really been challenged, and it’s also really easy to pass snap surficial judgment on people, which is much more about you than it is about them. As Stephen says, you cannot know courage until you’ve been so afraid your body has rebelled. (The only comparable thing in my life has probably been my fear of flying, where I’m convinced I’m going to die.)

So, like the above quote, how can you possibly think to know hunger if you’ve never been hungry, really truly hungry?

Having said that, I’d like also to assert the power of imagination. Even if you haven’t felt these things, you can imagine them and extrapolate from your own experiences. I think there’s value in that. Because what’s the opposite? Living comfortably in your own little world and passing judgment on others? And yes I do think it takes a certain amount of courage to reach beyond your comfort zone to try to imagine what life is like for other people, sometimes a lot of courage.

Writing about experiences requires this imagination. I’ve never been a man, but I try really hard to make my male characters authentic. That’s where the power of imagination comes in. Some things I’m better at than others, as are all writers, and I’ve been told I get some things more right than others. But it’s worth the effort even in the hard things, the points of view foreign to you, to try to bridge that gap. What’s the alternative? Books about you and only you?

And if these experiences are truly your own, something you know, you’ll be even more convincing in the telling of it, and you’ll let other people know what it’s like to truly be brave, to truly be hungry.

Question of the Day: Do you allow yourself to range widely from your own experience?

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