Writing Our Real Lives in a Time of Chaos
GrubStreet instructor Judah Leblang on the value of personal essay and the individual voice, no matter the political climate. Don't miss Judah teaching Personal Essay and Memoir Jumpstarter starting January 11th.
As a memoir or personal essay writer in the Age of Trump, I wonder why it matters—what is the point of writing about my individual experience, as the country seems to be lurching toward an abyss? Why would anyone care about my mostly un-fabulous life? Why should I? What’s the point of writing about small things, everyday events, while my fellow Americans have just elected a [fill in the blank] fascist, narcissist, misogynist, etc. to be our President?
As a gay man, a Jew, and a writer/journalist, I am thrice blessed when it comes to being at risk under this new administration. It can lead one to despair, on a deep dive into depression. I’ve resided there since the election, going through Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—though I haven’t really accepted the reality of Donald Trump as President-elect. My process has not been an orderly progression; I have ping-ponged back and forth among the stages in jerky rhythm, emotionally spastic, without much hope or vision.
Still, I know that I cannot hang out in a funk forever. As writers, we need to raise our collective voices. When I teach my GrubStreet workshops, I always begin with a reading from Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg’s insightful book on writing. In the short chapter, “The Power of Detail,” Goldberg writes, “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles…we are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”
Goldberg goes on to connect our individual lives to those murdered in the Holocaust, explaining that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, actually means “memorial to the name.” At Yad Vashem, the names of each of the six million Jewish martyrs are listed, along with other personal details. In a similar vein, she cites the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, and the importance of naming all 50,000+ American soldiers who died during the Vietnam War; each individual life has value. As Goldberg explains, “These people existed and they mattered.”
Ultimately, writing is about noticing, and sharing the truth of our daily lives, about taking up space. As we move forward in a nation that may not provide a sense of safety or freedom of expression to the most vulnerable among us–-immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, women, people of color, Jews–-we must use our voices to share pieces of our lives. That act alone, speaking our truth to power and claiming our space, may be a radical act.
Judah Leblang is a Boston-based writer, teacher and storyteller. His radio essays have appeared on almost 200 NPR and ABC-network stations around the US, and on several college and community radio stations. His column, "Life in the Slow Lane," appears regularly in Bay Windows, a Boston-area newspaper. The second edition of his memoir, "Finding My Place: One Man's Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond," was published in 2013.See other articles by Judah Leblang