Tell Your Truth Through Writing

I am one of those people who is constantly daydreaming. It’s almost an ailment because I am always thinking of different “what if” scenarios. I’m sure I am not alone in this. In fact, I’m positive that as a species, the ability to wonder and to allow our minds to create possibilities is one of the ways we have evolved to this point in history. I say this because one of the things a writer attempts to do is to put into words these “what if” scenarios and different possibilities.

And that is where the problem arises. If only it was as simple as copying what is in our heads and pasting it on a sheet of paper. Not to mention the greater issue which is that these words feel lifeless, these scenarios that excite our minds are rarely ever as exciting on paper perhaps because the act of writing requires one to flesh out the idea, to fill in the gaps which are bypassed by our consciousness and through this tedious act of unpacking a scene, we are left with something that is dull, bland, without wonder because our original aim was sensational pleasure rather than an attempt to say something that is truthful.

To say what is truthful to you takes courage because you open yourself up to the scrutiny of others. Yet, it must be done. One of the pleasures of writing is to discover who you are through your writing. By not aiming for the truth, you deprive yourself of this pleasure.

As Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

The natural question that arises from this is how do we go about doing this? How do we tell the truth? Where to start?

For Lamott, the process starts at our childhood.

Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.

This task can seem overwhelming because there isn’t a clear direction, nothing to focus on. So, you must create your own boundaries so you can zoom in to a specific time period of your childhood and get a truthful picture.

So you might start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. Move on to first grade, to second, to third. Who were your teachers, your classmates? What did you wear? Who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked? Do you remember how when you’d be floating around in an inner tube on a river, your own family would have lost the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so every time you got in and out of the inner tube, you’d scratch new welts in your thighs? And how other families never lost the caps?

Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

This exercise is useful because it makes you unpack your own life, your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and most importantly, your own truth. It is not so much about the event that is being described rather it is the perspective of the individual describing the events that make the writing unique.

So, you must sit down with a piece of paper in front of you or a laptop screen or even a typewriter and write as honestly as possible. You must do this every day, around the same time, creating a routine which allows you to be open and vulnerable but more importantly, truthful.

Short Story: Familiar Breakfast

It was dark out but the boy was awake. Eyes closed, he listened to the familiar sound. It reminded him of a beating heart, his own whenever he was in trouble, the pulse-quickening, thumping louder, clouding his senses with each beat, what started out as quiet and peaceful, rhythmically natural, changed, guilt-ridden, the sound was full of anger. Anger that seemed to have been there for years and was now being let out, savage, it came out uncontrollable. The familiar sound was outside his room. He turned to his side, turning his back to the door and to the sound, burying his ear deeper into the soft pillow which cocooned around him and he lifted the blanket, engulfing himself underneath, covering his other ear. The low moan of the familiar sound seeped through the door, through the cracks which allowed for the hallway light to crawl in, the sound came up from the floorboards, it stood beside him, yanking at his blanket, moving him aside so it can lay beside him and put an arm over him, the old familiar.

The boy curled his knees up to his chest, one hand still holding the blanket, pulling it tighter over his head, his other hand tucked underneath his hip, the nails digging into his skin, the pain used as a distraction but ultimately another failure like all the things he did. The familiar sound was oddly comforting because it was always there, reliable and true, never late for class, unlike him, always prepared, unlike him, always working, unlike him. The odd days, when the sound was not there, he would still think about it, the sound was in him, in his thoughts, the rhythmic pattern imprinted in his mind, the tune playing like his mother’s jewelry box which when opened always played a simple piano beat and just like that, each time his mind opened to those thoughts, the familiar sound would play, accompanying him in the dark.

Today, his mind didn’t need to recollect the awful, the sound was present on its own, it had come to serve. It was here to remind him of how poorly he had done in school. His mother had seen his report card. She didn’t speak to him much after that. He heard her tell his father and he didn’t speak to him either. No sweets today, no ice cream today, early to bed, lights off and for punishment, he had to hear the familiar sound much sooner than normal, much louder than normal but it was his fault, like normal.

The sound that was caused by him. He cradled himself underneath the blanket. He had noticed that each time he did something wrong the sound would be louder that night. Heavier too, playing longer, encore after encore for some time what sounded like clapping accompanied the sound. The lies he told his mother and father added to the sound, each time he told them he had studied for the test or that he was studying for it, or when asked, he said that he did well, it was easy, simple, not difficult at all, each lie building the sound, giving it strength, as wind does with engulfing fire. Those lies only made the familiar sound worse. If only he had done what he should have done, then the sound might have gone away. Drown the familiar. He turned his face, pressing it deeper into the pillow, hearing the heavy footsteps outside his room, thundering like the night it rains heavily, the distracting rain was comforting, when the drops tapped on his window then the familiar sound was harder to hear because he could imagine that there was someone there tapping on his window to take him away, fly away to somewhere magical, like the stories he read but then the skies would stop crying and the sound would still be there, familiar as ever before.

The familiar sound often started suddenly, a flash of lighting in dark clouds, it’s after image lasting much longer, however, but as suddenly it started, sometimes it stopped with a flash too or a loud crash. The boy carefully peeked his head out from the blanket, trying not to make any noise, thinking that if he did he might break the spell that had silenced the familiar sound. He uncurled his legs, stretching them till they reached the very edge of his mattress, his mother had said that they need to get a new mattress for him soon, her big boy was becoming a man, she had told him playing with his hair the way he hated it but she did it anyway. The sound was still absent after a few minutes but he had to make sure. Sometimes he had felt that the sound was gone but when he concentrated hard, he could hear the whispers. He had always wondered why the sound dimmed, barely audible as if it were self-conscious all of a sudden.

He left his bed, barefoot, the soft carpet masking his steps and yet he walked on his tippy toes, slowly, until he reached his door. He pressed his ear into the wooden face of the door and listened.

Nothing. No sound at all except that of his own breathing and pacing rhythm of his heart which had failed to understand that there was no soun—he heard it then, his heart had known before him, the familiar sound was there, just out of reach, but there, watching him and as if by him realizing the sound was there, it all of a sudden magnified, growing in size, the sound came rushing at him.

It drove him back in his bed, covering himself with his blanket, little child, he laid there, the sound speaking to him but he tried to think of how he could fix his wrongs. It wasn’t the first time he thought this, each time he heard the sound, at some point in the night his thoughts settled to fixing his mistakes and each time he promised himself that he’ll do better and make the right changes so mother and father could see and the sound could go away but each time he would fail in his promises just as he had failed in his classes. This time he didn’t want to make more false promises to himself. Instead, he got out of his bed again, went to the desk by the window where his books were. He picked up the history text and brought it back to his bed. The familiar sound kept the bed warm. He began to read it using the light from his bedside lamp. At first he read a page or two quickly and he felt the familiar sound quiet down but as he continued reading, the words came slowly, often passing through his mind without stopping, he had to double back, reread the passages, his eyes closing and opening, each time closing for longer and opening for shorter time and each time the familiar sound grew.

He told himself that tomorrow he’ll spend the day studying. He’ll take the books downstairs and read them in front of his mother and father so they could see that he was changing and they need not be angry anymore.

The next morning he went downstairs to the kitchen. The boy noticed the familiar scene. It was the kind he might have read about or seen at a school play. Everyone playing a role. The same scene followed the familiar sound every time and it tried to trick him into believing that the sound never existed. But he had heard it too many times to forget. His father sat by the window, his face shielded by the newspaper, his cup of coffee steaming beside him. His mother was busy making eggs for him. One might think it to be a perfect little family. He sat down on the kitchen table, his feet almost touching the floor now. His father asked him if he wanted to go to the park later. Mother hummed, her back to him, leaning one way on her hip, tapping her foot, the familiar sound of her humming could not replace the other familiarity. He sat with his head bowed a little, staring at the kitchen table, unable to look up to meet his mother and father’s eyes. Too ashamed to lock eyes with them but fathers eyes were covered too and mother’s as well. He remembered then that he had forgotten to bring the books down.