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

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday // C.S. Lewis

Hello and happy middle of the week everyone! It’s time for Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen at Silver Threading. Each week bloggers share their favorite quotes to inspire and motivate each other to keep writing and working toward our goals. My contribution for the week is from the British novelist, essayist, and poet, C.S. Lewis.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, on November 29th, 1898. As a boy, Lewis was fascinated with anthropomorphic animals; he fell in love with Beatrix Potter‘s stories and often wrote and illustrated his own animal stories. He and his brother Warnie created the world of Boxen, inhabited and run by animals. Lewis loved to read. His father’s house was filled with books, and he felt that finding a book to read was as easy as walking into a field and “finding a new blade of grass”.

1069006Growing up Lewis loved Norse and Greek mythology, and Irish mythology and literature. He loved nature; its beauty reminded him of the stories of the North, and the stories of the North reminded him of the beauties of nature. His teenage writings moved away from the tales of Boxen, and he used different art forms, including epic poetry and opera. In 1916, Lewis was awarded a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Within months of entering Oxford, the British Army shipped him to France to fight in the First World War. His experience of the horror of war confirmed his atheism.

Lewis is probably best known for his series of children’s fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia. Set in the fictional realm of Narnia, a fantasy world of magic, mythical beasts, and talking animals, the series narrates the adventures of various children who play central roles in the unfolding history of that world. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures. In all Lewis wrote more than 30 novels.

Lewis and fellow novelist J. R. R. Tolkien,  author of the classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were close friends. They both served on the English faculty at Oxford University and were active in the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. Tolkien would eventually inspire Lewis’ return to Christianity.

On 22 November, exactly one week before his 65th birthday, Lewis collapsed in his bedroom at 5:30 pm and died a few minutes later. Media coverage of his death was almost completely overshadowed by news of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, which occurred on the same day (approximately 55 minutes following Lewis’ collapse), as did the death of English writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. This coincidence was the inspiration for Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.

C. S. Lewis is commemorated on 22 November in the church calendar of the Episcopal Church.

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

// C.S. Lewis

 

One of the reasons I keep doing these Writer’s Quote Wednesday posts, besides getting to learn about an awesome new author every week, is that I enjoy collecting little bits of writing advice like this. I like when an author gives a little tip that feels somehow more real, more right, than the “rules” you get in a high school English class. It’s even better if this author can tell you why this bit of advice is important in a way that you can understand, especially if it gives you that “AHA!” feeling.

People like to sound smart and profound, so your instinct is to make all your writing sound smart and profound. You do that by using words like “infinite” as much as you can, but when you understand that not every subject deserves a word like that you can see why you shouldn’t always use it. You learn that writing sounds better when you use the word that is right for what you are trying to say, not what you want to sound like. It’s a hard lesson to grasp but when you do it’s almost as if a weight has been lifted. You realize you don’t have to try so hard. It is perfectly ok, no, it is best, to use simpler words. Save the special words for when you are saying something truly special and those words will really pop!

To improve my ability to use the right word I work daily to expand my vocabulary. I read every day and I try to read something from someone who lives in a different part of the world from me, or who lived in a different time. I use a dictionary/thesaurus app on my phone. If I have to use a word too often I try to find an alternative. If I am not 100% sure what a word means I look it up along with its synonyms and antonyms. I follow a few blogs that focus on language, my favorite is Strong Language. I try to play word games on my phone like Words With Friends or Word Academy. Finally, I keep a tab open with Dictioanry.com’s word of the day up.

I squirrel these words away. I try them out in conversation here and there with friends. I come up with little stories that I can use them in. I do whatever I can to make them stick because I know that there will come a time when each one will be needed. I only have to be patient and never use one before it’s time has come.

For some bonus tips here is the entire letter written to a young fan of Lewis’, Joan Lancaster, in June of 1956 that this little tip is from:

The Kilns,
Headington Quarry,
Oxford
26 June 1956

Dear Joan–

Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.

About amn’t I, aren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!

What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’timplement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.

With love
yours
C.S. Lewis

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Original image: The majestic Orion Nebula imaged with the 2.2m ESO/MPG telescope.
via Wikimedia 

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

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The Importance of Sonder

The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

Do people, feeling, and lives exist when I cannot see them? Is anything important that is not important to me? Do people love, and hurt, and hope, and cry as much as I do? Do they think stupid thoughts and hear a voice that is theirs but isn’t theirs inside their heads? Telling them when to feel embarrassed or pathetic? Do others really day dream and wish for lives they can never live?

I people watch and I wonder what they feel when they go to bed at night. I wonder what they think about in the shower or what they wish for when they blow out their birthday candles. Part of me wants to know if what I do, and think, and feel is normal. Part of me has this crazy idea that no one else think or feels like I do. It’s seems too crazy an idea that there are whole stories and lives, just as complex as mine, going on all around me.

The amount of emotion and thought happening all at once, all over this world, is more than I can fathom.

Object permanence is the concept that a being can understand that objects exist even when they cannot be seen. But what if an object has never been seen? What if a feeling has never been felt? How can I ever know other people are as real as me if I have never felt what it is like to be other people?

Another part of this is my natural ego-centrism. I can never get out of my own viewpoint so it’s difficult for me to imagine any other way. I am the center of my story, the only story there is, as far as I am concerned. But every so often something clicks in my mind, the world shifts, and I clearly see, for just a moment, that everyone has the same story too.

There is no official English word to describe this feeling. Considering how strong and important a feeling it is I am surprised there isn’t. There is a new word though, “sonder”,  coined by John Koeing for his “Dictionary of Obscure Words, but it has not yet entered the greater public’s lexicon. I think it should though. If you’ve felt it you know it is a powerful thing, an overwhelming emotion, and can, for just a moment, change your view of the whole human race.

When it clicks, when sonder hits, it really is like being connected to every other person you can see. You can see that all around you epic and complex stories are being lived, only you are not a part of them. You will never even know them. You are nothing but an extra, a character in the background never to be seen or heard from again.

If it’s particularly strong, you feel it for the whole planet and your heart swells up in your chest and you suffocate with under it. You are overwhelmed by the the sheer amount of humaness walking around on this Earth.

If you’ve never felt it I urge you to go to a park, or a mall, or some other populated place and think about the fact that every person you pass feels, thinks, and dreams the same as you. The are complicated in all the ways you are and they are just as misunderstood. They have families and they fall in and out of love. They are hurting, they feel lost and scared, they try to be brave, just like you. They are nothing but extras in your story too and they will never be privy to the epic tale you are living either.

Think about that for a short time and you will feel it mixed in with a little love and a little sadness for each passerby, for all the hope and suffering they will endure.

Just like you.

*************

Featured image: The Nitty Gritty Rather Pretty…. by Devin Smith