I watch videos of Lin-Manuel Miranda talking about Alexander Hamilton the man, about musicals and hip-hop, about how all these things pivot on the dream of the wordsmith.
Whether the orator, storyteller, rapper, singer, or writer, so many of us dream of communicating not just the intellectual concepts, the things represented by our words, but the feelings we have around them—not just at the time of recitation or composition but of all our bloody badges of courage and shame that led to us understanding words and feelings in particular ways.
I read Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ all in one night. Another night I read all of Art Spiegalman’s ‘Maus.’
Other nights, I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, Tad Williams’s Otherland series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series. I’m often stuck abed now that the doctor who has been seeing me as a favor for my chronic pain condition has discontinued his services, so I am left with constant pain and no way to manage it. Without insurance, without Medicaid, and with the charity clinic putting me on a waiting list to be most likely rejected by a low-cost pain management clinic, all I can do is lie and read.
Other nights I read Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick.
Some nights I read ‘Wasted’ or ‘Madness’ by Marya Hornbacher, ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah, ‘Guts’ by Kristen Johnson.
Others it’s ‘Wintergirls’ by Laurie Halse Anderson, ‘Cinderella Dressed in Ashes’ and ‘The Grimm Diaries’ by Cameron Jace, ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and particularly the essay on ‘The Odyssey’ afterward by Diana Wynne Jones, ‘From Girl to Goddess’ by Valerie Estelle Frankel, ‘Trickster Makes this World’ by Lewis Hyde, ‘Healing the Mind through the Power of Story’ by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk, ‘The Illustrated Sourcebook of Signs and Symbols,’ by Mark O’Connell and Raje Airey, ‘The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking’ by Matthew Hutson, ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Bright-Sided’ by Barbara Ehrenrich,’ ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal, ‘The Midnight Disease’ by Alice Flaherty, ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield, ‘Creativity, Inc.’ by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, ‘Silences’ by Tillie Olson.
When I was eight I read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ Actually I read a lot, but ‘Animal Farm’ was memorable in that I lay down on the floor at the end of the last sentence, burst into silent tears, and stayed weeping for about three days. I will never, ever forget the first book that made me cry, nor the horror I felt when I saw in my head a pig walk on its hind legs through the door. I couldn’t articulate the hopelessness I felt, the deep and profound grief. This all while being in total ignorance of what the allegory was supposed to represent.
I knew absolutely nothing about the history of communism around the world, the recent history of Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Commission, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Cuba, Mao Tse-tung and China, Baader Meinhof and the Red Army Faction. My knowledge of the purpose of the Berlin Wall was next to non-existent, in spite of a day-long in-classroom didactic where an arbitrary strip of duct tape divided the classroom and our three-grade combine class was split in roughly half not allowed to cross without obtaining a special visa from the teacher to, say, use the computer in what we referred to as ‘East Berlin.’ Those sorted into ‘East Germany’ could not get travel visas to go anywhere except to the ‘East Berlin’ computer.
My point is that George Orwell’s work didn’t depend on me having a literary analytical mind nor the political acumen of more than a concussed goldfish. It didn’t even require critical thought about my own emotions, inner life, or thoughts about why I was bawling for days on end and haunted the rest of my days by a pig on hind legs framed in a doorway. That book still wrung out of me exquisite game-changing despair and pain I have never really recovered from.
That’s why fairytales and folk tales and parables and religious stories exist and are passed on to children, even by those who are carriers of the ideas and feelings but not conscious ones. We don’t know why it feels imperative to pass these highly charged things on to the children but something in us impels us to keep on handing it down to those that come after like a sacred trust.
And that’s my point. We don’t have to understand in order to feel, and intellectual understanding in fact blocks empathy whereas art engenders it.
Any storyteller or writer or other wordsmith will be able to point immediately to the works that did emotional things like this to them as children, whether extremes be painful or pleasurable. We witnessed the blast, the fallout within ourselves and marveled that words could do this to us. Many of us were and are seeking desperately to put into words things we have been unsuccessful in communicating. The more unsuccessful we are the harder we strive, unless we give in to despairing silence.
We want, oh how much we want, to be heard, and to move the hearts and minds beyond those ears to connect with us on a deeper level, to share in what haunts us and demands to be expressed and felt and shared.
The fantasy about Alexander Hamilton overlaps with that in Orson Scott Card’s ‘Speaker for the Dead,’ in many ways. We who work with words listen to and watch things that move us greatly and fantasize about moving others, about taking others’ breath away just as ours has been, to hit that stride and sweet spot where the maximum amount of meaning comes out of the maximum amount of what we say, and reaches the maximum amount of open ears and minds.
I think, though, that all wordsmiths can also point with equal intensities of adulation and resentment to a handful of people with turns of phrase that made us want to turn in our word processors, our pens and pencils and quills and chisels. The ones whose work we loved but were so rarified in their skill that we felt that even striving to become anything like them would be an endless sea of heartbreak for us as failure would never give way to fruition. We love and loathe their work exactly because of how effective it is for us. “I can never be that good. Should I even bother to try?”
But still I want others to feel with me. Yet as a survivor of prolonged child abuse I was taught not to have and understand and deal with the emotions I had but to repress them in order to feel or at least perform others, until my actions became stolidly walled away from actual emotions, which would have to sneak over to infiltrate and influence me. I was taught that it was a survival imperative to, if I felt bad, act the opposite of how I felt. To fawn on and play up to the egos and needs of people hurting me so they would stop. To smile when afraid for my life of someone I’m speaking to, in order to fool them long enough to get to a safe distance. To say ‘okay’ when it isn’t so other people don’t hold over me the intimate knowledge of what hurts me the most and then hold their finger down on that button and claim injured innocence when I lash out because they won’t stop in spite of everything I say and do.
I was taught to fear others and I learned that lesson well. I was taught to hide away hardest when in pain so I would not be vulnerable to vultures and predators in my compromised state. I was taught to hide my mind instead of speak it, on pain of pain. I hid it so well even I cannot pick it out of the perpetual line-up in my head. It has grown and done things without supervision for more than thirty years, but there isn’t even a trace of haughtiness on any of the blank faces before me. No sense of triumph, no I don’t need anyone, especially you peeks behind the flat thousand-mile eyes. Not a chink to get inside the story of anything I see inside me anymore. It’s an elaborate find-the-lady game with myself, in a deck with all the queens steadfastly removed and immured in the laminated walls within me and papered over all alarming yellow. So much smoke no mirrors are necessary, and without vents or doors or windows, the brain-smog will never dissipate. Everything is a shadowy wraith, unrecognizable as either human or pig.
Who am I, what do I feel, what do I want to say to you, what do I wish you could feel?
The answer to all of these reduces down to one: I am so tired. And this may be the only truth I know. I blink and the figures and shadows vanish, scattered like flung seeds, tiny, insubstantial, gone.
I do not have the spoons to make videos or deal with the vast amounts of hate and bigotry generated by them. I was unprepared as one creator among millions to be such a target for malice, invalidation, and exhortations to ‘just kill myself’ from YouTube commenters, far in excess of those in similar circumstances seeking a connection or allies offering encouragement. Besides which my life has gotten even harder, and this is something people with privilege have difficulty understanding as not actually a representation of a lack of effort or will on my part, or deservedness.
I still need an outlet. It may just be writing for a while, and may make less and less sense. I notice that the more stressed and frayed my nerves become, the less coherent I feel even within myself and my thoughts on my own, and the less capable I feel of communicating this to others—and the more jaded I feel, that anyone in a position to do anything would rather step over my suffering so I shut up and die than anything else.
There are a lot of haters out there. And not a lot else, these days, for me. I struggle every day to survive and I wonder why.