Write and Die
My friend read my last blog post and said he liked it. “What are you going to write about today?” he said. “How about something not about adoption. You need to write about something different so you can have a wider audience.”
I have a problem with being told what I need to do, but I’ve been working at being less reactive and more receptive, and so I just hummed a response, but then, because working at means I’m not there yet, I said, “I don’t know if I have anything else to write about. I am what I am, know what I mean?”
I felt like a baby whose parent was trying to take away her binkie. The subject of adoption was mine, and yet, like a binkie, maybe it was something I was supposed to outgrow, give up. I’d stopped blogging daily a few weeks ago because I had that very belief. I’d let myself write all I wanted to about adoption for a year, and I was embarrassing myself. I didn’t grow up to be a broken record. I wanted to be a “contenda” for…something awesome! Something wonderful. Something that, when I was on my deathbed, I’d feel I’d spent my spark in a worthwhile manner.
I ran my best mile time in high school as a freshman. 5:34. One time when I was a junior, I think, I was racing the mile and, at the first curve of the third lap my coach excitedly yelled at me, “You’re on a 5:20 time!” I don’t remember if I slowed immediately, but I did eventually because I thought, Oh, no, that’s too fast. I think I ran a 5:40 something that day. (I’ve forgotten so much in my life, but not these mile times.) There was a limit to how good I could be, and for some reason, in my head, 5:34 was my comfort zone. I didn’t threaten people with that time, didn’t put myself at risk of being excellent or standing out. I was good enough.
Did I want to be better? Or to use different language that doesn’t rate me as a human being, did I want to perform better? I think if I had known there was a distinction, that running a faster time wouldn’t in fact make me a better person, I might have been more open to pushing myself. If this logic makes no sense to you, that’s because it’s not logical. Welcome to my brain, the brain of an adopted person who, more than anything, fears abandonment and loss of loved ones.
What would have happened if, for example, I’d been like Chrissy Kelly on our team and ran a five-minute mile?
I would have gone home and felt even less like I belonged. I would have been better than anyone at the dinner table—I would have been a track star, and that was not tenable, for we weren’t a family of stars. We were normal people, doing normal things. It wasn’t something I consciously thought about, but I understand myself and my behaviors a lot better now at 52 than I did at 18, and although I still have many of the same struggles, at least now I have language to see and name them.
The deeper truth is that my family was not made of normal people doing normal things. All of us had the abilities to be stars in one way or another—one brother could easily outrun me while wearing army boots and smoking a cigarette and the other brother could play any song he wanted by ear on the piano. My parents were both brilliant and beautiful and could have chased dreams they put aside to live the suburban family dream. So for me to stand out in any significant way would have been to break the unspoken agreement that we would all stay at or below the same basic sea level of life (one where our talents were not fully realized).
My mother’s only book, it’s worth noting, did make the cover of The New York Times Book Review, but this happened after her death. So, you see, the family agreement was taken seriously.
I’m thinking about death because I just watched the documentary Obit. I watched the New York Times writers talk about who merits a Times obit, and I felt such an ache every time the newspaper itself showed up on screen. The Times font is my childhood; it is the language of my parents. I catch my breath at the sight of that font the same way I do when I first walk into a church.
I want a Times obit.
To get one, you need to be a celebrity, a politician, or a person who has a really good story that somehow impacted the world. You need to be a star.
My friend said I needed to write about a topic other than adoption so I could have a wider audience. Why do I need a wider audience? What am I going to do with it? Would my Times obit say, Anne Heffron was a writer with a really wide audience? Maybe, but with the internet being what it is, and bloggers and novelists and screenwriters scrawling enough words to cover the universe with This is my take on it all, I don’t think the number of readers I have matters much. (Unless, that is, I reached the millions or billions, but even then, what if I write about kitchen sinks one day and global warming the next. What’s the heart of my writing? What’s my gift to the world?).
One thing that I’ve noticed in the Write or Die classes that I teach is that people’s voices and passions are right there, and yet the people are so busy trying to be other, trying to run from the story of a life lived, that they miss the glory of their own self, their interests, loves, obsessions.
Our lives are right in front of us, and more often than not we’re so busy trying to look for something, anything!, other than the familiar, we lose the light of our truest desires and settle for cruise control when we could be tearing up the pavement with our deep attention.
Sometimes I see someone else wearing an article of clothing I also own, and, more often than not, I think, Oh, ugh. That is so…familiar. So not cool. However, when it was on the rack at the store some amount of time previous, it was a different story: it was like, I have to have that! That will make my life better. That will make me stand out. That will make me prettier, more successful, etc. etc. etc. (Or maybe it was a quick purchase and it was more like, That will make me not naked.)
I think I was born to write about adoption. It took me 51 years to find the confidence to write about a subject I thought was to be inconsequential, narcissistic, childish, and it took me a year to feel I’d written my allotted amount. Time to move on, Grasshopper. Time to find a new topic so that people don’t get sick of your voice, your message, you.
What drives me to teach writing is my conviction that everyone is a star. Truly. I see it when I look at people. I see their story, their bright light, and so I do massage, I teach writing, because these are different ways to the same goal: help people relax into their magnificence so that others can really see them.
All my life I saw my mother’s star, and I felt it was one of my life purposes to help her realize it. I failed for she died before she finished her book, and so I carry that passion now to my own life and to everyone I came into contact with—I want everyone to have a Times obit. I want us all to be stories that inspire others.
My mother carried her obsession with Louisa Catherine Adams for almost thirty years before she finally let herself write about her. The same amount of time, coincidentally (?) I carried the story of adoption. Once my mother let herself write, even though she didn’t have a PhD. Even though people with her credentials didn’t write historical non-fiction that got published, she lived a life that seemed completely fulfilling to her, even when she had cancer, even when she was editing on morphine, even when she was creating notes for others to follow so the book could be completed after she died. And her book realized all her dreams. It even made The New Yorker.
I wish I had a different topic to be obsessed with, like, say, cooking. People wouldn’t accuse me of being angry or ungrateful if I wrote about tapas. People wouldn’t say I had no story if I wrote about cooking omelets. I wouldn’t accuse myself of those things.
Having an obsession can be exhausting. Looking at the familiar can be like bathing in your own shit after a while, but there you have it. We live in the world of what is new and sparkles is better than what smells like age, but adoption is what I have, and so I’ll just keep at it. I’ll be the person who wrote about adoption. There are worst things. I could be the person who walked a lot every morning and ate plenty of salads. I could be the person who never knowingly killed another human being.
I got a present in the mail today. It was a phone case filled with liquid and pink sparkles that move like a glittering sea. It wasn’t something I would have ordered for myself because it was so…shiny. So girly. I took my old case off as I stood at the mailbox and snapped on the new one. I loved it. It was so me.
I’d taught a Write or Die class to a group of adoptees, and, once, to illustrate a point, I’d mentioned how I never wore sequins even though I loved them because, when I was younger, my mother had made her disapproval of my sparkly clothes clear, and so I dressed to please her, like a boy-girl, even now when my mother has been dead for years. Andrew, one of the writers, had heard me, and he’d sent me this gift.
This is why I will keep writing about adoption even though it probably will not earn me a wider audience: I was heard. More than anything, I want adopted people (all people, but one step at a time) to feel heard because so many of them didn’t feel heard as children, don’t feel heard now, as adults, mostly because they’ve stopped speaking.
Your voice matters. Your obit matters. You matter.
Say it. Whatever it is, for god’s sake. Just say it.
Let’s blow the roof off the house of life and see what happens.
See you in the Times.