[Non-fiction today. I’ll get back to my stories next week]
I had an argument with my husband this morning about his response to the first draft of something I wrote. He was being honest, those are his words, questioning why I expanded on a perfectly good short story. I think he thought he was complimenting me, but phrases like “full of yourself” and “just writing more words” took away a lot of the warmth of that praise. I’ve known since we were dating that he shoots from the hip. He told me that even his mother used to gently remind him it wasn’t necessary to speak every word that crossed his mind. For the most part, I appreciate knowing where I stand with him.
I’m new to fiction writing. I like what comes out on the page. I like that I can go to sleep at night thinking about a picture or a character, and wake up in the morning knowing that something happened, and have the first line ready, like the key to a door. This process scratches an itch that has been right between my shoulder blades, just out of reach for years. So I can understand his perception that what I get out of it is the pleasure of creating, that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of it, and that therefore the results are open season for his critique.
But he’s wrong.
While I was stewing on our argument, I read a blog I’ve been following. This is a confessional blog, where the writer expresses their sadness, shame, and loneliness. I usually hit “like” to signify that I’m listening. It’s a little weird to “like” someone’s admission of failure, but that’s been the tacit agreement of our blogger/reader relationship. Today, I’ve been composing, and then not posting all kinds of advice for this stranger. I want to say, I know depression! I have been there, I fall into that hole from time to time. I never have the courage to talk about it in raw form while it’s happening, and I admire your courage! And maybe you should reach out to someone – try volunteering, it helps to help others. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You wouldn’t talk to a child like that, stop yelling at your inner child. I want to say, I am your friend, you are not alone in this world. Treat the pain like a wave, watch how it recedes, it is not constant. Move when it’s at a low and you can escape before the next big one hits.
But I’m not really a friend. If this person tried to harm themselves, I wouldn’t even know where to send help. I won’t go to their house for tea. I won’t invite them over for barbecue. Maybe we wouldn’t even like each other if we met in person. This person does not need me to provide advice, but to be there listening. Like me, the kind of honesty they need is the homeopathic dose. Just a few parts in a billion. We are both vulnerable to criticism. We’ve both poked our heads out into this anonymous world to try something new. I’m baring my imagination and the blogger is baring their depression, to see what happens, and we are both praying nothing bad happens. We are easily swamped.
What I want from my husband right now is the “like” button. I want to be encouraged, unconditionally, until I’ve had enough of this under my belt to have confidence. Because this tiny fire I’ve been making by rubbing two sticks together goes away with the slightest breeze. The moment he questioned my work, I lost the spark. And it’s a lot of work, making that fire. I have to steal time from my kids. I have to say no, I can’t play chess right now, and no, I can’t help you make cupcakes. I have to stay after work when I want to come home, and write a paragraph on my phone when I’m grocery shopping. This all takes ego. I have to believe that it is worth doing, and that I am not just fooling myself. And that little voice that comes to me when I wake up is very shy. If I insult it or lay a heavy blanket of defeat on it, it goes back inside and mutters to itself incomprehensibly.
We made promises to each other when we married. They were standard “in sickness and in health” vows, and I didn’t think much about them. I knew he had an illness, although I didn’t know what that would look look like when neither of us were young anymore. I looked him straight in the eye and vowed to stick it out. He knew I had the blues, but probably not how often, and I don’t think he knew what it would mean to be tied to someone who falls quiet. We agreed to be honest with each other, but we should have spent some time talking about what that means, because the definition of honesty is fluid. Does it mean you say everything you think, as you think it? Does it mean you say what you feel, and feel what you say? Does it preclude kindness? If I could rewrite our vows, I think it would just be that one: I promise to be kind to you.
I want him to “like” me and hold his advice for now. Just as my advice for that blogger might be helpful some day, but it’s not what they need right now. And maybe my husband is right, and I’ve wasted two chapters on a story that has ended, but I’m not ready to know that yet. Our lives are short, but not so short that we have to reveal the truth at the moment it appears in our minds and mouths. Sometimes the truth is sweeter when it has time to ripen on the mental vine.