I went to Half-Price Books on Saturday an hour before they closed to put off doing what I’m supposed to be doing just a little bit longer: writing a blog post, reorganizing my thesis, doing my homework,washing my dishes, doing my laundry. I found the book There Goes My Baby! of For Better or For Worse comic strips that had republished Lynn Johnson’s “Lawrence’s Story,” a story about a teenager coming out to his parents.
Last week I posted about how this comic strip helped me understand creativity and expression in a harsh world, but yesterday was the first time that I actually got to read the spread rather than just read Johnson’s commentary about it. Filling in the blanks between the comic strips featured in Johnson’s commentary were the actual moments that fleshed out the plot.
I knew about the major beats: Lawrence comes out to Johnson’s son Michael, Lawrence comes out to his Mother and his father kicks him out, Michael drives Lawrence back home and it all works out somehow. What I didn’t know was all the in-betweeners of Michael punching and kicking street signs out of anger at Lawrence, or finding out it was Lawrence’s step father who kicked in him out rather than his biological father, or how Lawrence ran away to a 24-Hour donut shop (Johnson and her family are Canadian).
The focus on Michael’s struggle rather than Lawrence’s surprised me the most. I understand that Michael was a primary character of the comic strip and Lawrence was only secondary, but the focus still soured in my mouth as I whispered the text out loud to myself in the comedy section of the bookstore. Still though, through my distaste was some of Johnson’s wisdom on writing bleeding through the misguided panels.
Michael was caught writing in a diary about Lawrence’s situation by Elizabeth, his sister, who makes fun of him because only girls keep diaries (Johnson 114). Michael defends himself and Elizabeth responds with “So what’s the point in telling stuff to a diary? It doesn’t have any answers!” to which Michael responds with “I know… But it helps me understand the questions” (Johnson 114).
This is great advice, right? Writing to understand rather to explain is where we’ve been taught to begin our research process and is the advice we pass on to our students. We call this practice all kinds of things like brainstorming, annotated bibliographies, free writing, and literature reviews. Writing isn’t always about persuasion, but it’s usually always somewhat about making sense of things whether that sense be for ourselves or our readers. It’s when we become our own readers that this gets complicated for me.
The last book I read for pleasure was David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. I never had much of an affinity for diary-keeping or recording my life. I usually find myself writing by hand in a notebook everyday a drawing, poem, or some form of expression, but I quit writing to figure things out in my own life because my hand is slower than my mind and realities often prove to be too painful. Sedaris does devote a lot of time to recording his life, funny or not, but I feel like he maintains the same school of thought.
In the introduction to Theft By Finding, Sedaris writes, “The early years, 1977-1983, were the bleakest. I was writing my diaries by hand back then. The letters were small and fueled by meth, a typical entry would go on for pages – solid walls of words, and every last one of them complete bullshit. I’ve included very little of that time in this book. It’s like listening to a crazy person. The gist is all you need, really.”
Seven years just gone.
Your hand being slower than your mind is usually the purpose in the practice for diary writing. If you’re forced to write things out, you’re forced to linger on the expected, waiting for the expected to arrive in the mind before arriving on the page. But, what if you just can’t bear the wait? You know it’s there and writing for discovery doesn’t meet the same end as it used to. What used to be cathartic is now just boring self-indulgence.
Sedaris records but doesn’t seem to digest the information. Rather, he just lets it happen. I remember hearing interviews of him talking about his diary-writing not as formative but as impulsive. He must record the next day, not to understand it but to get it down. That being said, though, the diary-keeping is not in excess as his entries, through edited for publication, are clearly thematically brief.
Michael seems to understand writing can be reflective and exploratory at the same time. I know Sedaris must understand this, but writing to understand the questions of our present life doesn’t seem to be his main gig, nor mine. I like to write in the abstract, but not if it’s my own anymore. I’ll try not to journal about financial insecurity or my rocky family. But, I’ll sure write a poem about how I can smell people’s laundry through their dryer vent on my walk home. The moment was beautiful. The people doing laundry probably didn’t think about how the block smells like a chemical springtime on a mountainside, but there I was standing in the meadow right there with them.
These are the moments that typically linger a little longer in my mind rather than anything big or “worth fussing over.” I wonder that with all this training on critical reading and applied creative thinking why my mind has shifted to value the little things. Obsess over the little things, rather. Currently, I’m blaming it on emotional displacement. It’s easier and much less stressful for me to think about the smell of laundry than developing a broader lit review for my thesis, but am I ignoring my problems? Or am I channeling simplicity like in this Bjenny Montero comic:
Sometimes, I’m jealous of Michaels – people who can still write to explore the heavy present. Sometimes, I think Michaels are early Sedarises – seven-year, meth-fueled freewriters getting nothing out of it. But, I know my jealousy is in the right place and my ignorance is just comfort food. I know I need to relearn to expect the system and cope with the present if I want to succeed in academia. I’m not even in a Doctorate program yet, but I still feel like my mind is swollen from retaining and juggling big ideas. More and more, though, as a student, I find myself choosing the fog over clarity.
Johnson, Lynn. There Goes My Baby!: A For Better or For Worse Collection. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1 Aug. 1993.
Sedaris, David. Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. Little, Brown and Company, 30 May 2017.