I Hate Writing About My Life

By Ijeoma Oluo

“You’re going to be in my book,” I said to my friend as we sat down to drinks, “I just want to give you a heads-up.”

There will be a lot of people in my book, and I don’t plan on warning them all, but this friend is likely to appear in only one story, and he’s not the hero.

It’s about an argument we had years ago — a brief exchange that he barely remembers but which still haunts me today. An exchange that still informs my relationship with him. I’ve never told him how I feel about the argument. If I was good at talking, I wouldn’t need to write.

I wrote about it, not because the issue is unresolved — although it is — and not because I still hold hard feelings — although I do. I wrote about it because it will illustrate the broader point I’m trying to illustrate in that chapter. Like so many other important people in my life, I’ve turned him into a plot device.

I gave him a heads-up because I didn’t want him to find all of this out when he read my book. But few others will get this basic courtesy.

As a writer, I live two lives — I am two selves. I can stand with my heart cut open and bleeding, cursing the world, and at the same time I can say, “Remember this, the way the blood feels. It will make a good story when you want to talk about pain.” I make notes of my fear in the midst of panic attacks. I apologize to friends for harm done while cataloguing the color of their anger.

I float outside of myself at parties. “How does this look?” I ask myself, “What is really happening here?” I am not good conversation. As I walk down the street I see strangers and wonder, “Was that the commenter who said I should get over slavery? How many of these people would agree? What would I need to write to convince them otherwise?”

I regularly dig into my body for my greatest hurts. I hold them up and examine them, crying, while wondering, “Is this relevant? Will this advance the conversation I’m trying to have?” It is personal and professional at the same time. It is excruciating and unfeeling at once.

I will borrow the hurts of others. Shine a light on their flaws, examine their mistakes — all for the greater good. If it did not happen, if the reader cannot see it happen, then they will not care. This justifies my thievery.

Last week I wrote two essays on death and depression. These issues expose the unhealed wounds of my soul like no other. The first essay was written two feet on the ground, a clinical perspective of the issue. “Can you make it more personal?” my editor asked. “Not today,” I replied. But then a reader asked the same, “Can you write this down?” and so I reached back to my editor and said, “Let me try.” And I dove into myself and pulled out my pain and the pain of others (that I have no right to) and I wrote another essay. And I cried for two days while at the same time wondering if the page views were high enough.

I was like this before I was a writer who wrote. I lived within and outside of myself, cataloguing every hurt, analyzing every conflict. I stored it all within a library that I didn’t know why I needed. It kept me separated from and forever tied to other people. I remember complaining even as a child that everyone wanted my thoughts, but once they got them, they would leave. I didn’t realize I was supposed to be charging for the service.

Poor, fat, black, girl. You survive by letting the little things slide, by laughing off the cruel jokes, by accepting the offers of token friendship. But I just kept taking notes — the first time I was ever called fat, the first time I was ever called a nigger, the first assault, the first thing I ever stole — and filing them away for some future use. Before I started writing it all just sat there under the surface, dancing behind my eyes, the small flicker letting everyone know I was not to be fully trusted.

When I give lectures to writing students I tell them to not get discouraged if they do not enjoy writing. “I hate writing,” I say, “It’s horrible. It’s hell.” They are shocked every time, but I mean it. I often finish essays feeling like I’ve had to cut away a part of myself in the process and burn it as an offering. I have finished essays sobbing inconsolably. I’ve also found myself staring at the record of my deepest pain with the cold eye of a morgue technician. I don’t know which feels worse.

I am not a martyr, and the world would continue on just fine without my words. My writing is selfish in nature. I have a point to make and I will use my life and others’ to make it. I am a writer, like I am black and a woman. But there are painters who don’t paint and writers who do not write. I write because if I don’t, the words build up like bile and the catalogue is a waste. I write regardless of the consequences because it serves me to do so. I’m paid to do so, and in the end I am even praised for it. Not many people are regularly congratulated for their pain and are likely too busy living to suffer from the lack of it.

A friend asked if I was referring to him in an essay I wrote on abortion, when I was talking about advice I’d received from a friend when I found out I was pregnant. “Yes,” I answered. He told me that the way I wrote it down isn’t how he remembered it. Of course it isn’t, he’s not a writer, he’s just a person trying to help a friend. Even as he was asking me about this essay just a few days ago and I was trying to make amends for painting him in an unfavorable light, I was thinking, “how fortunate that this is happening now, because I was planning on writing about what being a writer does to your relationships anyway.”

I don’t know if I’m a slightly shitty friend who’s unable to fully engage with the world because I’m a writer, or if I’m a writer because I’m a slightly shitty friend who’s unable to fully engage in the world. But I know that asking the question can make a good story.

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Lead image: flickr/Toshiyuki IMAI

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