by Alysia Sawchyn
I am not a crier.
This is not to say I have never cried, but that I do so very rarely. My consistently dry eyes are the stuff of legend, part of family history: “Even as a baby, you hardly cried,” my mother says.
The first creative writing class I took in college was in fiction. My teacher was acerbic and pointed, with long, dark hair and a gaunt face to match. He announced on the first day that if we earned As or Bs on our first stories for workshop, he would ask why we were in his course and not in the next of the sequence. If we did not like it, we could leave. Though his pedagogy was not the most nurturing, I crawled out a better writer. My prose was tighter, plot lines and images less cliché.
His first lesson for us baby writers: The most important characteristic of a piece of writing is that it be entertaining. The reader must enjoy the experience. This, he said, was our primary responsibility.
My lack out of outward expression extends beyond my interactions with others to my response to art of all kinds. I find this surprising because, though I engage deeply with characters, though I feel such emotions, those feelings rarely manifest.
The first book that brought me to tears was The Good Earth, a novel by Pearl S. Buck about a family in early 20th century China. It was a scene somewhere in the middle that did it:
A man, alongside others, robs a wealthy man’s house and comes away with jewels. Most he sells to buy land, but his wife, his hardworking and plain wife, asks if she can keep two pearls for herself. She does not set them into jewelry. Instead, she keeps them hidden away to look at and hold in her hands from time to time, a small luxury. As their family becomes wealthier, she does not work any less hard. Eventually, they are so wealthy that the man takes a concubine. To woo this new woman, he asks his wife for her pearls. She hands them over without complaint.
What my first creative writing professor did not cover (or if he did, I do not remember it) is that in addition to entertainment and escapism, we also read to identify. We read to find ourselves outside of ourselves. Finding glimpses of our character or experiences in the pages of books means that we are not unique, and thus, not alone.
It is only by reading, sometimes, that I am able to understand myself. The words on the page thrum chords inside my chest that sound like memory, that resonate like a tuning fork, and I say, quietly, “Oh.” This echoing feeling is one of the reasons why I write, why I try so hard to tell the truth about myself and my experiences, perilous and frightening though they may be. If I hadn’t known of others’ suffering when I was younger, if I hadn’t been able to find myself in the pages of books and read my way out of girlhood, I doubt I would’ve survived my teenage years or known that they were something that necessitated survival. For example: I learned from Sula how to feel abandoned and how to take that inside myself and churn back out equal parts rage and love. This combination led to an interesting adolescence, but it was better than the alternative disappearing.
There is something about suffering, about sacrifice, that affects me deeply. I notice this most often in female characters—Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, JoAnn Beard’s narrator in relation to her husband in “The Fourth State of Matter,” Marina in Let Me Explain You Something, are just a few more examples—even when it is not the main concern of the writing. Perhaps I notice this because I am a woman. Or perhaps it is because of my mother. She gave up her family and country when she moved to America to attend graduate school with my father. She had a child she didn’t really want, but one whose birth convinced her family to speak to her again. This daughter, this mixed blessing, was consistently embarrassed by her mother for the first ten years of her life.
It’s likely my mother did not know about the heavy, leaden child-shame I carried, of being different, of having a different mother. It is my hope she did not because the reasons for it were petty, were couched in a child’s constant fear of rejection by other children:
- My mother is beautiful with short, asymmetrical hair.
- My mother and I have different last names.
- My mother has arthritis that leaves her fingers permanently bent at the tip, that forces her to point with her middle finger.
- My mother must always repeat her first name when introducing herself.
It is not easy to write prose or shape characters to be so realistic they are entertaining or identifiable. The creation of these requires pulling from life and experience, regardless of genre. Perhaps writing is selfish. We catch and translate the small, unguarded actions, voices, and expressions (invariably distorting something in the process), eliciting pleasure in their shaping into lines and curves across white space. If we are lucky, we gain materially from these secrets, becoming professional hunters of vulnerable moments.
I also cried while reading “Into the Country.” It is an essay about faking, then learning, to love bird watching, innocuously placed—the third piece in the second section—in the collection Southside Buddhist. The tuning fork sounded.
I am a vagrant. I have lived in a dozen cities, met hundreds of people, and never until the middle of a page, in an innocuous line of dialogue, had a met a woman, a parent, either real or imagined, who had the same name as my own mother. At the time, I assumed that this was the mother-in-the-book’s real name, but have since discovered that writers tweak in memoirs to protect the ones we love the most.
What is important is not the name.
This is a large, beautiful world, and surely there are thousands, maybe millions, of other women on this earth who share the same name as my mother. Many of them are likely mothers, too.
What is important is that I had forgotten until that moment how badly as a child I wanted to have a mother who was like my friends’, how badly I wanted to belong.
I recently read an essay from a collection of Buddhist writings—“The Art of Awareness” by Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche—that posited the following argument: Art is most effective, is most true to itself, when it is conceptualized by its creator as “an offering to the observer, rather than a statement of our ego’s own splendor.” I wrote it on a sticky note and taped it to my laptop.
Of course, the book was a gift from my mother.
Here: I will show you my life so that you can see yours more clearly. I will give you my family so you can love yours more.
Alysia Sawchyn is a writer currently living in Tampa, Florida. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review and Midwestern Gothic. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, and you can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther.