By Judy Clement Wall
When I first decided to take myself seriously as a writer, I was writing fiction. Only fiction. I was in my thirties, in the midst of getting my creative writing degree, writing short stories for workshop classes (which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the best place to decide to take myself seriously as it made the whole critique process much more painful). I wrote only fiction for years, and while I think to varying degrees writers are always present in their work, I most often wrote about things I’d never personally lived through – being a single mom, for instance, or a rodeo girl, or just plain invisible.
Then one day, on a crazy whim, I publicly declared 2011 would be my “year of fearless love.” That year changed everything. It changed how I think of love, how I act on my impulses, how I move and operate in the world. Throughout 2011, I set myself monthly goals like hugging 28 different people in the 28 days of February, consciously loving myself through May, writing love letters in October, and I blogged about my experiences. During that time, I began writing more personally, on the blog and especially off.
What I didn’t blog about (but did fill page after page after page of my journals with) were the behind-the-scenes effects of the love project on my personal relationships, particularly my marriage. My husband and I had been through a very difficult period, and we were struggling to find our way back to each other, and while my blog was definitely becoming more personal, my situation at home wasn’t something I ever considered blogging about. I felt the disconnect of that decision. I was writing weekly about love – big, fearless, beautiful, heartbreaking love – without ever mentioning the most important relationship in my own life. I knew it was the right thing; we were too raw, too breakable. But it was like living two lives, balancing precariously, trying to write meaningfully about love without writing about the love that meant the most to me.
I’ve always loved reading fiction, but more and more over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to the fearlessness of writers telling their own stories, as openly, as honestly, as nakedly as they know how. In 2010, Laura Zigman, a writer I follow (and adore) online, wrote a post to explain her months-long absence from her blog. While she’d been gone, her mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was sick for five months before she died, and Laura wrote about that time so bravely; not just about the brutal regiment of caring for her dying parent, but the emotional turmoil of reconciling the mother she’d grown up with and the woman who now needed her care.
I thought a lot, too, about my relationship with my mother — how complicated and, in so many ways, how disappointing it was — and how I would feel when it was finally all over and I’d have to face the fact that I’d never been able to fix it and make it work. Friends who’d been through similar situations told me to say everything I’d always wanted to say to — to hold back nothing — but the problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Even worse was that I feared the reason I was holding back then and had always been holding back was because I didn’t have anything good to say.
Laura’s words rocked my world. I cried because here was something I understood, absolutely, deep down, beyond my ability to express it. My relationship with my father has always been difficult and tense and – yes – disappointing. I have often wondered about what will happen at the end of his life. How will I feel? How will I mourn? Will I mourn? These are such hard questions to grapple with and even harder to talk to someone else about, because everyone thinks there is only one answer: hash it out. Say everything. Clear the air. But in my heart, I know that isn’t true – there isn’t only one way, and sometimes what you hope for is a less-sad ending rather than a happy one.
I felt intensely grateful for Laura’s piece, for her heartbreaking acknowledgement that we’re complicated, that love is weird and murky and it hurts and sometimes there aren’t any easy answers, and I’m not a freak for not knowing how to feel about my dad.
In February, I decided to summarize my fearless love year in a collection of essays. I knew going into it that writing about the year honestly would be a challenge for me, and it has been. I regularly brush up against what I’m willing to reveal – about myself and about the people in my life – but writing these essays has become a journey in itself and I’m grateful every day I sit down to write.
Recently a friend asked me how my husband feels about the essays, and I told her that he’s supportive because he is, but he’s nervous too. He’ll read them all before I publish them; I can’t do this any other way. My mother, who I love dearly, asked me why I would want to tell my personal stories to the world. (I love that she thinks “the world” might read my work. I didn’t correct her. I like to pretend.) She asked because she’s a very private person. My whole family is. To her, it feels like I’m airing dirty laundry, and I get that. But then I think of Laura Zigman’s piece (and Dear Sugar, and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life“, and Michael Lockhart’s honest, searching posts about his mother’s fight with Alzheimer’s, and Annie Neugebauer’s pieces here and on Beyond the Margins about writing through her grief), and I think that our stories connect us, that we are made stronger in the sharing, more whole, more sound.
That’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’m finally getting personal.
(The Love Essays will be available on A Human Thing in June.)
JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a freelance writer and course presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. Her short stories, essays and reviews have been published in literary journals and on some very cool websites like The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review, Lifebyme and Beyond The Margins. She recently finished her first novel, BEAUTIFUL LIVES, and here at FoW she chronicles the ups and downs of writing for publication. Judy writes about living creatively at Zebra Sounds, love at A Human Thing, and is a staff writer at Milliver’s Travels.