February 11, 2012

Becoming a Great Writer

I went to grad school to be a journalist. Turns out that writing on deadline makes me itchy. I switched to editing, which suits my anal retentive tendencies and rule-following predilections. Like so many that work in the background, I secretly lust after the spotlight.

Clearly, that’s not a big surprise to you. I did START A BLOG. There are few so obvious “Look at me! Look at me!” moves that one can make with regard to writing. This blog gives me a tiny, supportive audience made up almost exclusively of family and friends. If I top 100 readers on a post, I get pretty excited.

Recently I’ve come across some amazing blogs/memiors. Writing that just blows me away in the grace of their prose and their beautiful honesty. I read these posts and memoirs, and I get sad. I get sad because when I look at these writers they all have some EVENT in their past. They’ve survived something that transformed their view of life.

One night, I found myself wondering if I can ever become a great writer without going through that emotional hurdle. I have never been and hope to never be a drug addict or alcoholic. I’ve only ever had two boyfriends (I’m married to number two). My parents are happily married. I was a good student. I have good friends. I have a wonderful husband.

I’m brushing my teeth, thinking about how my life is too good to be worth reading about. You know, Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Just think about how messed up the lives are on every top-rated drama on TV. No one wants to hear about how you don’t fight with your husband. Halfway through scolding myself for bemoaning my happiness, I suddenly think, “Well, three of my children did die last year. That sucks pretty bad.” And I can’t tell if it’s a testament to how far I’ve come or how far I have to go that I felt like somehow that wasn’t good enough to count for literary brilliance. Is my experience of loss so commonplace that it doesn’t differentiate me? I’m not sure how I could compare the number of women who have had miscarriages with the number who are alcoholics. I am certain that doing so will answer none of my questions or doubts.

The circumstances of your life or your loss or your tragedy are actually not so important. Truthfully, we only want to hear about the bad if there is a promise of good afterward. That’s why people hate Romeo and Juliet. They die. That’s not supposed to happen. They’re supposed to overcome the odds and be happy. Maybe that’s why I find myself admiring these women who have survived. Not because of what they overcame but because they overcame at all.

Losing my children won’t magically make me a better writer. No tragedy could do that for anyone. Perhaps it simply provides a different view of life. One reason people quote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” is that you can’t understand love until you’ve felt it. You also can’t really describe love until you’ve felt it. If writing is about “Show; don’t tell,” then you have to experience life—all of life—to write well.

Before I lost those babies, I was sad when I heard that someone had a miscarriage. I was sad in the way I am sad when I hear about a tragedy half a world away that happened to people I don’t know. It’s sad in the abstract. I understood a little better when I had H. But it wasn’t until my own heart broke that I truly knew what it meant. It changed me. My world has levels of sorrow and empathy that never existed before.

Here I find myself written into a corner. I would dearly like to take you on a nice path back to the beginning. I’d like to claim that I can be a great writer, that I’ll keep plugging away if you’ll keep reading, or that it’s all a bunch of rubbish and greatness has nothing to do with your life history. Or maybe I could put a happy spin on it and say that the spirits of my children will gift me with more emphatic prose and everything happens for a reason bullshit. I’m not sure any of that is true.

I do know that we are wise not to wish for other’s lives. They often contain dark hidden corners we wish had stayed hidden. I know I’ll try to remain thankful for the relative tranquility of my life. I know that I’ll keep writing to my tiny, but kind and loyal, audience. I know that I’ll try to remain honest. I hope that you won’t get sick of hearing about my kids—all my kids. Your children are as inseparable from you as your own hands.

It’s not much of a pledge in terms of grand writing. I can’t guarantee a happy ending, and I hope to Hell and back that I’ll not have to share too much more bad news. But there it is: a new credo for a new year. Tell the truth. Feel the pain. Live life.


  1. Dear Jaime,
    thanks for putting into words what I have not been able too. Thanks for you honesty and my tears.. I needed that...

  2. I love this post, Jamie. I think most of us aspire to be great at the things we love, and there's nothing wrong with that. Sure, few of us will be "great" in that famous sense, but think of what you are chronicling in this blog. In a sense, you're a journalist of your own life, and when you look back on what you've written, I think you'll be proud. I'm looking forward to reading more of your writing, and I promise to never tire of hearing about your kids.


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