Life just doesn't turn out the way we think its going to most of the time. I remember looking at my daughter's high school yearbook the year she graduated. All of the earnest expressions of hopes and dreams made me feel so bittersweet. All those beautiful young people thought they had it all dialed in, thought they could do a little hard work and their lives would turn out just the way they planned.
Most of us adults know better by now.
Part of what makes life fun, for sure, is the unexpected twists and turns that it can take. I've gone down totally unplanned routes in my career as a writer with great results. Blogging is one such path that I never planned but I'm glad I took.
But sometimes those unexpected paths can not be quite so awesome. I'm ruminating on all this because I've been staying at the home of my former writing teacher and now friend who is facing the most incredible obstacle imaginable–caring for a husband disabled by a brutal disease. Three years ago when I first had lunch in their home, none of us ever would have thought this would be in the future.
I'm humbled and chastised and really at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of what they are going through. Any concerns that I might have had before–worrying about losing a few pounds, wondering when I'm going to hear from an agent, obsessing over lost connections–seem incredibly trivial now.
I shared the experience with my very wise friend Deidre. She said that one of the most important things we can do is bear witness. As writers, this is fundamentally our job. This doesn't mean we don't jump in and help a friend caregive, or save people from a burning house, or reach out a hand to someone in need. But while doing all that we need to bear witness also, to tell the tale, to bring the story home and share it. Bearing witness validates the experience in some very basic way.
I remember very clearly feeling so helpless after 9/11. The thought occurred to me that it was my job to bear witness. And yet I felt there was little for me to say. After all, I was on the opposite coast, far away from New York, physically, mentally and emotionally. But I felt so compelled to write something, anything. All I could do was write my reaction, how it felt in the little microcosm that is my self. I began to write and the essay I wrote was ultimately published in a national magazine, which pleased me no end because that enabled me to bear witness.
At the same time bearing witness can feel trivial. Years ago, in the very first creative writing class I ever took, I remember listening to a classmate describing his pleasure in reading a story about a graphic designer. He loved it because the graphic designer in the story had tools. (This was back before the days of computer dominance.) He said that professions that actually needed tools appealed to him so strongly because as a writer, you really don't need much beyond a pen and paper. Our process is to take words from our brain and transfer them to paper and this can feel very ephemeral, and even unreal. We don't have tools to ground us to our job, and this can make the work feel unimportant.
And yet stories order the world. Stories describe the world. Stories, in some ways, create the world. Telling the story, bearing witness, can be the most powerful thing a writer can do. The trick is to find some kind of balance between bearing witness and getting in there and doing whatever you can to help. Its important not to get so wrapped up in writing about life, that we don't act in life.
And yet, with all these words I've just written, I still feel a bit at a loss about it all. Which is why I'll be returning to help again soon.