Michele Leavitt on Bravery and Words

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the memoirist, Michele Leavitt.

8184355Michele Leavitt is a former trial attorney the author of the memoir Walk Away, and the 2013 winner of the inaugural Michael Macklin Poetry Prize, and 2010 winner of the William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize from The Ohio State University. She’s a high school dropout, former trial attorney, adoptee, and hepatitis C survivor who has taught writing, literature, and critical thinking in New England, Japan, Florida, and Idaho.

Walk Away is an unflinching and inspiring story of how Leavitt lived through the violence of her adolescence, how that violence haunted her through her escape to college and law school, and how she ultimately came to rise out of it to a place of possibility.

Her book-length poetry collection, Back East, won the inaugural Michael Macklin First Book Prize and was published by Moon Pie Press in 2013. A memoir excerpt, “No Trespassing,” won The Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction, was published in The Journal, and received a notable listing in 2011 Best American Essays. Other recent works of poetry and prose appear in venues including Guernica, The North American Review, and Catapult. A high school dropout,

A high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, recovering English teacher and former trial attorney, she now lives in North Central Florida, where she works in a program dedicated to helping women over 50 achieve economic stability.

Her poems and prose are published in a wide variety of print and online journals, including Guernica, Medium, The North American Review, So to SpeakHEArt: Human Equity Through ArtThe Humanist, The Journal, Mezzo Cammin, and Passager

I highly recommend you check out her blog and her Medium page for personal stories on life, and love, and pain, and writing.

“Telling my story is possible not because of bravery, but because I have the words to tell that story now.”

— Michele Leavitt, Memoir, Bravery, & Facebook

I have been silenced, by others and myself. I have felt the fear of speaking up and speaking out. I have shut myself up tight not wanting to say things that couldn’t be unsaid, not wanting to tell my story or reveal my pain. I still feel this way now but words are coming to me easier every day and the more they come, the faster they come, and the more insistent my silenced-self gets.

But it never feels like bravery.

I had no words for my pain, my gender, my love, my wants and needs, my dreams. I couldn’t describe my anxiety, my panic, my hope, and my rage. I spent many years at a loss for words for who I was and where I had come from, and I learned a lot about silence in that time.

I’ve learned that silence is not your friend. It cannot protect you, and it will not save you. I’ve learned that silence is a liar. My silence made me believe I didn’t matter, that I was hopeless and alone. I learned that silence leads to loneliness, and loneliness is some of the worst hurt we can inflict.

I have written some personal things and burned with embarrassment and shame wishing I could gather my words back up and stuff them back inside. I’ve falsely believed that my silence was a place of comfort and I have falsely been called brave for the clumsy, and ugly, and sometimes quite selfish and cowardly ways I have shouted myself to the world.

I am not brave. I am weak, and afraid, and tired, and unsure all the time. I am not brave, I am only at my wit’s end. Hiding hasn’t helped. Keeping it all in hasn’t helped. Ignoring it hasn’t helped, and wishing it away hasn’t either. Below the surface the pressure builds. The guilt, the depression, the anxiety becomes too much and I have found the writing is the only relief. So, I tell my story little by little, and for no reason but because I have to, and people have thought I am brave. I am not brave.

But I am trying to be brave now.

There are things I am not ready to say, but that must be said soon. Maybe at first, it was only for me, now, then it was for me, then, but it is becoming increasing for us all, throughout time. I really do want to have some purpose. I want to be of some help to the world, and these words are all I have.

But no matter how hard it is, and no matter how afraid I feel, and how I fight through it, I still don’t feel brave. I feel compelled and through that compulsion comes practice and with practice comes clarity and skill, and maybe that makes it seem that the words come easily or that I, and all writers who write hard things, are brave when we really have very little choice in the matter.

I am grateful for the incessant need to write. I would never write if it weren’t for it. If I had a choice to be brave or not, I most certainly would not. To be so vulnerable and weak is my worst fear but something bigger than fear works in my mind. I have no name for it though, but it doesn’t feel very much like bravery. In fact, it may only be another kind of fear, a bigger and badder fear, death.

To go to my death having lived with such secrets, to live like a ghost before I become one, is the worst kind of waste, shame, and sin. I only have one life, and I am afraid of not living it more than I am afraid of anything else.

So, I tell my story and to do it right I learn the words and learn the way. The words are coming now, sometimes faster than I can write them, and sometimes at an agonizingly slow, drip, drip, drip but they are coming.

I am still learning to speak, and I have so much more to say, but there are new words now and new ways to use them. I am grateful to those who bring the words to me, writers who have come before, some longer than others, filling my head with all the ways a thing can be said.

I am grateful to those who have taught me the power of words. Words are what humans have to wield against one another, ourselves, and the passing of time. Words are all we have to get what is in us to the outside. Words are the things that change reality. That is why so many are afraid and so many seek to silence. Words are all we have that can survive time. Words can be a salve for the past and a preventative for the future. They shape our minds and our world. They are the closest to magic we have.

If I ever give anything to this world at all, I hope to give you all a few words to shout, to whisper, to share, and to stand up and stand on. If I ever give you anything I hope it is the knowledge that you need never be silent or afraid of words. Words set you free, in the end, after the pain and the work. I hope I can give the lesson to myself one day too.

In the meanwhile, search through your silence. Find the person who made you afraid, find the reason you cannot speak, start there to find the way to freedom.

At first, the words will not be perfect. They will shake from your grasp and fall to the world in ways you don’t mean, but practice makes perfect. Repeat, refine, and restate as often as you need, until you get it right. Until someone understands.

Throughout history, words have been made used, stolen, eradicated, given new life, and gave life in return. Go out and make some words of your own of your own. Find the power to define yourself, your world, and your experience. Don’t worry about brave or cowardly, only worry about what must be done for you to feel alive and real. Bravery comes later, I hope.

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Biographical information via Leavitt’s blog and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash