I have one main goal in all of my writing. There’s a scene in the graphic novel Maus, Volume II where Art Spiegelman is complaining to his wife about all the challenges of his complex writing/drawing project, and she replies, “Just keep it honest, honey.” I love that: the simplistic yet empathetic response that boils it all down to one command—just tell your truth. The fact is, however, that in telling a story through writing, you shape it in some way. Shape, alter, distort, shift, exaggerate, review, translate, organize —these are all words that can describe what happens when you write. You arrange your “truth” in the best way you can to communicate it well, but in the very arrangement, it becomes something new. Not less true; in fact, sometimes it is only in the arrangement that you find the truth, but it does change in some way. As Spiegelman admits to his wife at the end of that scene in the book, “in real life, you’d never have let me talk this long without interrupting.”
I do try to keep it honest, and this leads me to my high point this week, which came today when I collected my students’ culture poems. After sharing some sample poems, including my own (https://makingitdaily.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/claire-culture/), I described my process and pleaded with them to shut down the negative voices that would inevitably arise to tell them what they were writing was bad, or untrue, or too personal, or too forced, or too whatever, and to just write, to share a part of themselves, to just keep it honest. I put it out there, and then I held my breath. The poem was their homework, and after giving them twenty minutes in class today to fine-tune their writing, I collected them. I couldn’t wait to peek, and I was not disappointed. Some were turned in folded up and face down, while others were thrust eagerly into my hands. One student, in his characteristic confidence, announced to me across the cafeteria: “I totally rocked my culture poem!” Another covered the computer screen when I walked by to check in; when I read his poem tonight, it almost made me weep. Here was a student who I thought I had pegged—quiet, composed, bright but complacent. His poem showed me I had no idea what really lies beneath.
I haven’t even read them all, but this assignment has humbled me as I suspected it would. Halfway through senior year with most of these kids and meeting a handful of them for the first time (it’s a second semester course where 18 of them have stayed with me from first semester), I needed to see them in a new way, and the best way for me to get there was to show them a new side of me. I am stunned and a little giddy that the risk paid off.
That kid whose poem made me want to weep? I can’t share it because it’s not mine, but it was about his potential—the potential he feels he hasn’t met. His words are weighted down with enormous sadness and the cold shock of recognition. The thing is, though, that the poem, as written, is perfect. This is the second year I’ve had him as an English student, and it’s the finest piece of writing I’ve ever seen from him. I will tell him so, and I will try to honor and encourage the impulse that led him to share it with me and his peers. It is his truth, for now.
And this is mine.