Recently I’ve been working on two personal essays, which is new terrain for me. For help and inspiration, I’m reading Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. This post is in response to one of the writing prompts in the book: “What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer?” (19).
Over the years I’ve expected different things from the books I read. When I was a child I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Curled up next to the heating vent in my bedroom, I travelled across time and geography. To the 19th century American frontier in the Little House on the Prairie books. To Quaker life in old Philadelphia in Thee, Hannah. To the Swiss Alps in Heidi. And to all the periods of American history covered by the American Girl series. I was fascinated by the past and I loved to imagine living the lives of my favorite heroines.
As I reached puberty, I looked for female characters I could identify with or aspire to be like. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series provided glimpses of teen life and romance. I idolized the author of the former, Ann M. Martin, once waiting in line all day at the mall to get her autograph. All I knew about her was that she was a writer who lived in New York City–exactly the life I wanted to have when I grew up.
In high school I didn’t read much outside of the required reading for school. I did discover Sylvia Plath in the tenth grade, after a friend wrote a book report on The Bell Jar. Like the book’s heroine Esther, I was depressed. Thus my appetite for female writers and characters who articulated my feelings continued. I also found solace in the teen alienation and rebellion depicted in novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
In college I read to find out how to be in the world. The friends I made through Livejournal, who were mostly other literary-inclined young women, introduced me to classic feminist texts as well as writers like Anais Nin and Anne Sexton. In my college English classes I devoured plenty of fiction and some of it–Mrs. Dalloway in particular comes to mind–saved me during periods of major depression. Outside of school I dug into nonfiction and memoir, hungry for women’s voices and lives.
When, at age twenty-four, I moved to Prague to teach English, I rediscovered fiction as a source of escape, comfort, and companionship. Just before I left I met the man who is now my husband, and he gave me his well-used paperback copy of Middlemarch. Lying on my narrow, hard bed, I sank with relief into this great huge novel. It warded off the loneliness I felt, having come to this foreign country by myself, without knowing anyone.
Today, my reading expectations have realigned themselves with my childhood. I read to learn about the world, past and present; to experience countries I haven’t yet visited and cultures I know nothing of. I could get this information from nonfiction books, too, but literature–by which I mean fiction, poetry, and memoir/creative-nonfiction–provides something different. It places me in the life of another person and makes me empathize with that life, all of its experiences and choices. Literature reminds me of how small the world really is, a discovery I first made when I visited Israel at age twenty to meet one of my Livejournal friends and saw that the life of a girl living on the other side of the world was still very much like mine. I revisit that discovery when I read, which right now means Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. And sometimes I still read for the comfort of finding women like me, who have felt what I feel, and whose lives I can learn something from and emulate. But my focus has shifted from the internal to the external.
My writing has been moving in the same direction. It’s become less directly autobiographical and, when I do base stories on real people and/or events, I’m better able to spin them into fiction–up, up and away from the original facts. I may not be able to convincingly transport my reader to Nigeria, but I can take a Nigerian reader to Philadelphia and the lower-middle-class suburban landscape I grew up in.
As a writer, I want to provide a strong sense of place as well as the political/economic/social setting. I want to write realistic, complicated characters, especially women and their many choices and conflicts. And I want to draw my characters from all races/classes/walks of life. From my prose I expect clarity, beauty, and original imagery. Physical descriptions of people, weather, and landscapes can be a challenge.
In the personal essays I’ve been working on, I expect my writing to resonate beyond my own life, to illuminate a broader truth or truths. And I hope it comforts someone out there, maybe one of the questioning young women I used to be.
These are admittedly lofty expectations to hold myself to. How will I achieve them? By following my writing motto: “Never never never, ever ever ever, give up” (from the Center City Philadelphia Bikram Yoga studio).