I was trying to inflate myself, make myself important in some way I hadn’t earned by tagging onto something noble I was told my parents had done. Though self-elevation wasn’t new to me, I was especially driven to it in the writing class I was taking with Frank Conroy because I was wowed by him, having read Stop Time, a book of his I loved.
This was going to be hard. On top of my deep need to get his regard, he was proving to be a direct and critical teacher who didn’t go in for babying anyone with soft and gentle warm-ups to the truth. That was someone else’s job. And while I’d somehow managed to get some affirmation from him on a few tame sex scenes, of all things, I’d tried my hand at in a piece of fiction I’d written the week before, he wasn’t buying this essay I was peddling about these civil rights activist parents of mine.
One problem was I really didn’t know anything about this heroism in my parents or the historic context in which it was carried out other than my impressions from what Tommy, my extra-alert older brother, had told me one day when I was in college. Tommy always seemed to glean things about what went on in our family that were not remotely on my radar. He was one of those parent listeners.
On this particular day he’d taken me aside and told me with a certain meaningful gravitas, based on knowledge he’d pieced together, that he was pretty sure Mom and Dad had been involved with the civil rights movement led by Edgar Megers during the height of the volatility when they lived in Mississippi the year Amy was born. What else would explain the decision they’d made to move right into the very heart of that uprising, mere miles from where three students from New York were to be killed for traveling down to register voters a couple of years later? They were not impulsive people given to rash decisions.
Being sympathetic to the civil rights movement, Tommy speculated that Mom and Dad must have been like moths to the fire. This move was a very brave and bold act, especially considering my father had been a Presbyterian minister at the time, which put him in a position of visibility with a pulpit from which to speak. And while Tommy could never get them to say much more about their time in the deep south other than how they’d lived in what amounted to a shack on stilts with snakes residing underneath; how there was a very poor black family who lived across the street in far worse conditions than they did; and how one day the neighbor lady had come to Dad in a panic about a big snake in the rafters of their barn which Dad took care of in a single rifle shot — an astonishment in and of itself and far beyond my imagination of anything my indoor, book-reading father had any knowledge of how to do, much less the skill to do in one try — therefore, the limits of their disclosure about what they’d been up to in Mississippi made any actual activism a matter of intelligent inference on Tommy’s part. But that was enough for me.
Think of it. Having an historically important heritage conferred significance. Listening to Tommy, the honorable acclaim of it all registered even as I had no idea who Edgar Megers was. In fact, given the hard time I’m having right at this very minute coming up with anything at all to say about him, it’s clear to me that I still really don’t know anything. Historic facts just don’t stick with me, so in a moment I’ll need to head over to Google. But this romantic, upgraded version of our otherwise undistinguished family was a different thing. This was something I could hang onto. Cling to, actually, considering how I teetered on the edge of a banal existence.
As it turns out, it’s not Edgar Megers. It’s Medgar Evers, and according to Wikipedia he was a black civil rights activist, field secretary for the NAACP and World War II veteran who fought to end segregation and, for his heroic leadership, was assassinated by a white supremacist Klansman. Truly horrific stuff to be so honorably associated with. And so with my own meaningful gravitas, I was hoping to leverage the substance of this connection between Medgar and my parents in the piece I was crafting so that Frank Conroy would see me as a writer who had something relevant to say. Which would make me relevant.
When my story came up for the class to workshop, Frank Conroy looked directly in my eyes and got right to it.
“What’s your point?” he said.
I didn’t have anything to say to that because other than wanting to be regarded as important — a motivation I was not directly conscious of, much less willing to admit — it turned out I didn’t really know, so he continued on.
“I have no idea what you’re trying to say. Why are you writing this?”
What a very good question. What is my point?
This wasn’t the first time the issue of points had been brought up. Back in those early days of our marriages, the gang and I went to visit Kaila and Dale, just freshly married themselves. Kaila was in the middle of a story. She told a good one, but she could also go long and it was taking her awhile to cut to the chase on this one. After a while Dale cut in.
“Get to the point, Kaila,” he said in his middle America drawl, a line that would become a catch phrase for years to come. It was funny, but besides being funny, there was also a certain existential quality to the directive I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Get to the point. Get to the point, indeed.
It was this existential quality I heard a few years later in Frank Conroy’s workshop. Yes, indeed, what was my point in telling this story of my parents? And, more to the point, what and where is my own story? Do I have one?
Well, I can tell you what my story is not. It is not The Glass Castle, Jeannette Wall’s life with utterly crazy but rather genius parents who dragged their children along as they chased certifiably insane schemes, alternately blowing through vast amounts of money then living in squalor. And It’s not Educated, another tale of complete home-life lunacy at the hands of survivalist parents who put their kids in impossibly dangerous positions then goaded them when heavy equipment from their metal scrapyard fell on their heads and other such like abuses. Still, despite all that, Tara Westover managed to get herself into Oxford and then Harvard and then publish this book. And it’s not Lab Girl, the story of Hope Jahren’s impassioned career as a biology research scientist who won millions in research grants, set up multiple labs, traveled the world uncovering the mystery of plant life and worked day and night with her longtime lab partner with whom she shared the kind of extraordinary rapport and witty exchanges I, for one, fantasize about, all the while battling bipolar disorder. And it’s most certainly not the story of the ultimate bipolar, Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, who alternates between truly impressive flights of fancy and dramatically desperate lows but who still manages to be an esteemed psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins while I, myself, am a sub-rate bipolar, very mediocre if, in fact, I have bipolar at all, which has been a maybe/maybe not but probably though in-the-end-who-actually-knows sort of thing for the past 20 years. I don’t even have one hospitalization to my name.
This bland mediocrity was never more apparent to me than just recently when writing my bio for a panel I will be on at “Thrive,” Virgin Pulse’s big employee wellness conference of the year, wellness being my professional area. Picking up the last iteration of my bio, I stared at the page, kind of surprised by the humble, folksy tone I had adopted. Well, I would have to switch gears because “Thrive” was a different audience than the one I had apparently been writing that humble bio for, an audience calling for impressive credentials and deep coolness considering Virgin Pulse’s hip place in the employee wellness “space,” as they say.
Fingers poised over the keyboard, I cast around for the notable stuff. Nothing came to mind. There are no scholarly publications, no string of impressive credentials to hang my hat on beyond the humble master’s degree I earned so many years ago. I sit on no boards, national or otherwise. I do no honorable volunteering. There are no awards. All those years of creating ad campaigns when I was a marketing and PR person….I never submitted even one for competition. I never did any of that. It’s not my world and I just don’t have it in me, nothing extra. I’m enough of a project. My mantra is just let me do a good job, then go home, read a book, make bagels, watch some tv, take care of my stuff. Just let me re-balance and keep it together so I can carry my weight as a self-supporting, contributing member of society.
At some point along the way I finally decided to call this good. As for Thrive, it has not gone without my notice that I’m just a panelist, not a presenter. No, indeed, I’m not exceptional. My story is not exceptional. Maybe I can write, maybe, but what do I have to write about that anyone needs to see?
Un-exceptionality has always been my big fear. I wanted to be distinctive. I wanted to be set apart. So something singer songwriter Suzanne Vega said caught my attention. It was during that same time period when I was in graduate school taking that class from Frank Conroy, that Lee, my former husband, and I, went to see her perform in a little club in Georgetown. She made a comment about her voice, acknowledging how unexceptional it was. She had no great range, no spectacular vibrato, no knock-you-out rich-bodied sound. Still, she’d come to appreciate what it could do.
“My voice is like a pencil. It’s plain but perfectly useful,” she’d said. “I don’t pretend it’s anything else.”
You can be that transparent? You can actually be who you really are and allow people to see that? That Suzanne Vega was willing to put her un-exceptionality right there on the table and still sing anyway stuck with me. Like Writing 101 basics. Use what you have. Write what you know.
Myself, I had rejected these uninspiring tenets and had been waiting for better material, the material I wanted to be associated with. And so in the meantime, after all those decades I yearned to write, was sick with the need to write, was told by a therapist I better start writing to settle my soul, it was a revelation to realize when my memoir, The Organization Project, finally erupted out of me, that this — my common turmoil — was the material I’d been waiting for. It was a revelation to finally realize that these words I’m in the midst of writing right now are the ones I have been living my life to write, whether they are what I had in mind or not.
Though utterly common, I do see how a freshly sharpened pencil makes words look beautiful on the page in the plainest of ways. I have to trust there is beauty in that honesty, which is what I think my point is after all, the one I’ve been trying to get to. I think I have been sharpening my pencil so that in the end it can be said, in the most simple way,
She was honest. She was real. She searched for meaning.
She wrote it down.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.
Your writing often makes my head spin. “You can be that transparent? You can actually be who you are and allow people to see that?” These questions resonate off the page for me. My answer is yes with caveats such as never if too much to cloud the worthiness.
I agree there are definitely caveats to the transparency thing and what we put out there in terms of what we lay on people in the name of being who we are. There is still handling involved in terms of basic civilization and recognition of ourselves within an intricate dance of our own needs and others and truthfulness and honesty and so many other things. And I’m also aware of something else: probably some people get to be transparent and real about who they are and “get away with it” more than others for a variety of reasons. In the case of Suzanne Vega, there is still something about her plain voice for others. Also to be considered is what she shares and what she doesn’t. Who knows what other stuff is back there she’s keeping to herself. But beyond having something of value for the rest of us, just like all the annual report-style stories we do in our field and other profiles where people are allowing us to tell their stories and come out with their own often difficult truths, some people we are more sympathetic to than others — ones we are willing to identify with may be part of that, but ones who don’t turn us off or make us uncomfortable for a host of reasons is another. So the question of who gets to be sympathetic and who doesn’t….that always fascinates me and it also keeps the risk of being real very, very real. Is that what you mean by worthiness or something of what you mean by worthiness? Or are you referring more specifically to worthiness of writing/story telling and picking and choosing and what creates a clear and compelling picture and is relevant and what needs or is better off being left behind? As always, I love the discussion and so appreciate how you and your mind are always diving right in. And I am incredibly grateful and touched by your support.