Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Be Afraid To Go There

---------------Don't be afraid to go there.
-------------------------------Harlan Ellison

I watched two movies today that stressed that as an essential element of writing.

This morning before sleeping I watched Freedom Writers, the story of Erin Gruwell a young teacher in Southern California who defied her school system's conventional wisdom that the at-risk students assigned to her were unteachable and her job was nothing more than to 'discipline' and 'warehouse' them until such time as they dropped out or reached graduation day or in many cases fell to the gang violence rampant in the area.

Not even allowed to give them textbooks or novels from the school's supply because 'the vocabulary is out of their reach and they would just damage or loose them anyway' she works two part time jobs to pay for books and field trips for them.

The lives of these kids, 14 and up, were unimaginable to this upper middle-class woman fresh out of college. They were growing up in what was essentially a war zone with blood feuds going back generations. Early on they let her know she had no right to demand respect from them since she knew nothing about them nor they about her on which to base the trust from which respect rises. So she gave them blank books and required they keep a journal, writing about their life past, present or future.

She made sharing the content of their books absolutely voluntary so they could be free to be brutally honest. Those who wished her to read their entries could leave their journal on the shelf of a cupboard she kept locked when not in the room. To her amazement the majority of them left the books for her. They were craving the ability to tell their stories; to make themselves known; to make themselves heard; to speak their truth. By giving them the power of their words she gave them the ability to re-create themselves, to re-envision their place in society, to counteract their despair with the confidence that there was after all a future for them beyond age 18.

In the process she turned this class of 30 odd students balkanized by their African American, Asian, Caucasian or Latino ethnic origins into a group who, by the end of the school year, self-identified as family.

Later their writings were compiled into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary. It became a bestseller and many school systems had it in their libraries and their curriculum since it was published in 1999. And many of them have faced challenges from parents, school boards and teachers who deemed it inappropriate material for children due to the graphic violence and language among other things they considered damaging for a 'child' to be exposed to. Ironic considering the fact that the stories had been written by 'children' the same ages as the 'children' these zealous keepers of the gate thought to protect so where was their umbrage and demands to remove those children from the lives they lived that no child should be exposed to?

Ah but then how could they have known if no one was telling the stories other than condescending journalists and sociologists and members of the legal system with their 'facts' and 'figures' and 'explanations' neatly wrapped in the contempt that is the birthright of the American middle class? But it takes as much courage for those sheltered middle class members to look unblinking at the raw reality of the lives depicted in that book as it took for those kids to tell the stories.

The most valuable lesson Erin Gruwell gave her students was that fear could be faced. By being willing to look straight on at whatever they wished to share with her she taught them how to 'go there'. There where the pain was. There where the fear was. There where the shame was. There where the disgust was. There where the anger was. And eventually, there where the love was. There where the hope was. There where the respect was.

After the DVD finished, I got on the library catalog and ordered both The Freedom Writers Diary and the memoir Erin Gruwell later wrote about the experience.

Then this evening I watched Dreams with Sharp Teeth streaming on Netflix, a documentary honoring the writer Harlan Ellison where he talked about the hard work that writing is because of the need to dredge the stories out of the depths of your own worst memories and nightmares. He bemoaned the tendency of much of the media from publishers to producers to shy away from depicting the gritty reality that life is. He said in effect that writers who can't confront conflict or continuously censor themselves out of fear of some future reader taking offense have no business in the business of writing. For the very purpose of art is to wake you up and show you yourself.

These two movies are part of my October revving up for NaNoWriMo. Besides refreshing my memory of the elements of craft by rereading Burroway's Fiction Writing and Ray's The Weekend Novelist among others, and prepping for the writing by making lists and sketches of scenes, characters, settings, related historical events, time lines, maps etc., I go looking for pep talks and advice on the process and purpose of writing stories.

I think today I have already found the motto that will see me through November:

Don't be afraid to go there.

Fear of conflict, confrontation and giving offense have been the primary self-censoring motives for me since I began writing at age nine. Whenever I was plagued by writer's block and could not attribute it to plain laziness or a perfectionistic fear of making a mess or making mistakes, it could be traced to one of those three.

Thanks Harlan Ellison for this timely sock in the kisser.

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