Today we have a guest column, brought to you once more by Chicken Vortex. Normally, I'd use this space to tell you what it's about, but he and I had an interesting chat about it after he sent me the link--it turned out that I got something very different out of what he wrote than what he thought he put into it. So, I present it without comment so that you all can interpret its message you see fit; make of it what you will, but I suspect you'll find it worth reading in any event. Below the break, CV's story.
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and writer (1906-1945)
I almost died once.
It wasn’t anything fantastic like you see in the movies, but real life usually isn’t like that anyway. I was 13, I think. It was at a youth activity of sorts. People were playing tug of war (you know the game, where two groups grab onto a rope and pull in opposite directions to see who can drag the other past a certain point first), and for fun they decided to have all the kids go up against all the adults. At the time I’d never played tug of war before, and wasn’t interested in trying, but they pressured me into it in the end. I knew we were obviously going to lose, so I decided to place myself last in line and stay out of the way.
Just like I thought, as soon as the whistle blew, the adults gave one hard tug, and all the youth on my team fell over in a way that seemed almost intentional. When my team collapsed they all let go of the rope, but never having played before (and having expected my team to put up a bit more of a challenge, honestly), I had foolishly decided to wrap the rope around my torso to ensure it wouldn’t slip from my grip, and as a result couldn’t get it undone in time. As the adults continued pulling I became pinned in the back of the group, and while everyone else laughed, I started screaming—both in pain, and due to the fact that the air being crushed out of my lungs was literally forcing me to do so.
I don’t really know what happened next. I didn’t have any friends at this event, and all the leaders were on the far side of the rope killing me, so I was alone. No one could hear me over the noise everyone else was making, and the only air I could get was during the brief moments when the adults had to regain their footing before tugging on the rope again. Soon I started blacking out each time the rope constricted around me. After doing this four or five times, I didn’t regain consciousness.
...Well I did, but not until after they’d stopped. I woke up some indeterminate amount of time later, lying in the exact same place on the ground with my ribcage hurting like crazy and a group of people staring down at me like dumbfounded cattle. One of the adults helped me up, making some dismissive joke about how I had them worried for a second there, and led me over to the sidelines to sit down. No one tried to pressure me into participating anymore after that.
“Whether or not you write well, write bravely.” - Bill Stout
I’ve never told that story before. As a matter of fact, not even my parents know about that, and I’m sure if they read this they would have some very concerned questions. That was over a decade ago, however, and I’m fine, though I’ll admit that writing about it still has quite an effect on me. I’m shivering slightly. Sweating as well. This is a reaction caused by a human’s fight or flight mechanism, where the blood in our extremities rushes to where it’s needed most—namely our torso and legs. I don’t know if any of you are feeling that way now as well, but even if you aren’t, I hope you at least know what it’s like so you can appreciate what I’m talking about. Even after all this time I still have an almost corporeal sensation of the pain where my ribs cracked.
I’m guessing you all have stories like this, though, don’t you? Something powerful that you can’t forget. Maybe it’s not flashy. Maybe it doesn’t mean much to the world, but it means a lot to you. I want you to think about it for a minute. Really. After you finish this paragraph, stop and close your eyes and recall a time in your life where just thinking about it brings up feelings that force your eyes back open. Go ahead.
...Did you do it? Did your heart beat harder and the room get a little warmer? If so, good. Do you know what that feeling is? It’s genuine emotion. It’s honesty. You’re a real human right now, and despite all the rules and regulations of good writing, that’s the most important thing. Being genuine is heroic, and it’s all that matters in the end.
“You must write for yourself, above all. That is [your] only hope of creating something beautiful.” - Gustave Flaubert
There are a lot of things that can make writing better, but the same thing can be said about all aspects of life. You want to be a chef? An architect? Some kind of crazy cage fighter? Good. Then learn everything you can, keep practicing, and I have full faith that you can do it. I’ll be sure to bet on you in your next match. But no matter what you do, never, never let the things you’ve learned suffocate who you really are.
Rules teach us how to do things, but at the same time they risk making us lose the most important aspect of ourselves in the process; who we really are. Perhaps a cage fighter learns about figure four chokes and different types of guards beforehand, but do you think that he’s going through those lessons in his head while trying to stop someone from ripping his arms out of their sockets? Do you think I was thinking about the best way to free myself while I was being ripped in half? No. That would have been a distraction. All I was thinking about was breathing. The only thing that mattered to me was the feeling of air in my lungs, and I didn’t care how I got it. Just. Keep. Breathing.
In life we learn a lot of rules. I might even go so far as to say that’s all we learn, but we need to remember that rules aren’t what define us, nor should they be what define the things we create. When writing (or just living), the most important thing for us to do is allow ourselves the freedom to forget the rules. Don’t let the pressure of right or wrong cause you to stop your own heart from beating. Any writer can follow the rules, but to be the absolute best you can be takes truth, and that’s a whole lot harder to do than simply obeying what you’ve been told.
“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” - William Saroyan
I consider myself to be a fairly even-tempered person, but I do get angry now and then. Often I try to control this, and it ends up simmering far too long for my taste. Something I’ve discovered, however, is that if I don’t try to remain agonizingly calm — if I allow myself a moment away from civilization to scream and go stomping around and whatnot, the frustration I would have internalized like a colony of clostridium botulinum evaporates in minutes.
Allow yourself to be free. To feel real life. Not the gritty makeup of what the world tells us is real life, but your life, then write what you know, the way you know it, and don’t let anyone stop you. It might be scary at first to find out who you really are through your words, but I have a firm belief that as the slag burns away, there will never be a monster underneath. Only a purified soul that you can catch a glimpse of before the world obscures it again, and hopefully when you do, others will get to see it as well.
I like quotes. As a writer, I find that they can constantly say what I’m trying to say in an infinitely better way than I can. So let me leave you with a quote of my own, in the hopes that perhaps through it, you might gain a better understanding of the thing that means so much to me. There are better ways of learning than being torn in half, after all. Thank you, and as always, it’s been an experience.
“Do truth.” - Chicken Vortex