On Writers and Saints
“God, this is awful, Kari. This is truly, truly awful.”
My boyfriend doesn’t like everything I write.
“I'm not upset that you wrote any of this. But why are you publishing it? This is a fucking hit piece.”
He really didn’t like an essay I wrote about my failure to forgive him and my former friend (who is now his other girlfriend) for getting physically involved with each other in my home without my knowledge.
It was not a hit piece, though I suppose I can understand why he would read it that way, given his position in the thing. It was not an especially compassionate or measured piece, I admit. It was a piece about pain and anger and my own struggle (and inability) to let go of those feelings.
I’m a writer. I write about things. I’ve been trying to write about this thing for a year.
Good writing is not always measured and compassionate. Was the piece I wrote good writing? I don’t know; it’s hard to judge the value of your own art. It was, at least, one of the first things I’ve managed to write about the situation that I personally felt had any value as a piece of writing.
“It's mind-bendingly obvious to me reading it that the piece itself is an example of how shitty you are at forgiving people.”
That was rather the point, yes.
I’m not a perfect person. I make no claims of sainthood. Here, if you like, is a litany of some of my faults: I’m an arrogant, know-it-all bitch. I’m stubborn, often to a fault. I hold people to extremely high standards. I’m inclined to fits of pettiness, and I tend to hold grudges basically forever (which a unicorn recently called me ugly for). Despite having spent years preaching to my students constantly about how there’s no shame in needing help, I’m lousy at asking for it for myself. I don’t have much interest in privacy. I will brook almost no opposition to my right to do as I fucking well please.
When I shared the piece I’d written with my boyfriend, I expected we’d need to have some conversation about it. I expected to talk about my struggle to forgive him. I expected to talk about the fact that what I’d written was in many ways a simplified-for-public-consumption version of my feelings, not a nuanced reproduction of my actual complex feelings. I offered to let him read it before it was published, so we could have those discussions. But I did not expect the vehemence of his actual response. I did not expect to end up in a massive blow-out argument about how his other girlfriend would feel about my having written it.
If I had believed it would cause my boyfriend undue pain to hear me talk about him in the way I did, I might have chosen not to write it, not to publish it. I did not believe that. I did not say anything in it that I have not said or would not say directly to him.
I considered very little about my former friend / his other girlfriend, or her feelings, when I wrote that essay. When my boyfriend called it a “hit piece” against her, he was giving me a lot more credit for thinking about her than I deserved.
But I did write it knowing full well that it might be uncomfortable or distressing for certain people to read. I don’t believe it is my responsibility to protect anyone I might ever write about from the potential discomfort of finding themselves in my writing. I know that my former friend will never be comfortable with me writing anything about this. I’ve given her as much anonymity as possible, but I don’t believe that I owe her my silence about this part of my life or her role in it.
Still. Perhaps a better person would have chosen not to write it, not to publish it, to gift her silence from those who have hurt her. I am not that person.
I don’t think it is possible to be both a writer and a saint. Pain is fertile ground for writing, and I have always cultivated much of my work, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the seeds of my own experiences and feelings. Writing is how I process emotions. It is how I explore ideas. It is how I connect myself to the world. I write, therefore I am.
The majority of my most personal work, historically, has been poetry. I have always felt free to write about anything, almost entirely without moderation, in my poetry. But who reads it? Nobody reads poetry except other poets.
Perhaps I should feel less free to write about whatever I choose when I’m writing in a format people might actually read. But that doesn’t feel right. I don’t think that’s how it should work. Maybe that does makes me irresponsible or callous. Maybe that’s what a lot of writers are, who mine their words from the bedrock of their own life.
But I cannot only ever write about the comfortable things. I cannot hand someone else the right to decide if it’s ok for me to tell my own stories about my experiences – especially when that someone else is a person who has caused serious and lasting harm to me and my life.
She thinks I’ve caused the same harm to her. My boyfriend thinks I’m perpetuating that cycle by writing about it. I think I’m just trying to live my own life, and I won’t make my choices contingent on the comfort of a person with whom I have no relationship or contact whatsoever.
I’ve never aspired to sainthood, but I’ve been writing my pain – and my happiness and my love and my anger and my fear and my everything – since I learned to put words on a page. I’m not a saint, I’m a writer. I don’t know how to be the former. I don’t know how not to be the latter.