Reading through an anthology on writing and social action, Fire and Ink (here), I came across the following. It’s a reminder that writing from the heart first requires us to learn how to listen, how to hear other truths, to learn to hear the vulnerable honesty of those who “take your word” that you want to stand with them and bear witness. The truth in this piece is powerful, and it reminded me of the work I am fortunate enough to engage.
If this doesn’t touch you, you have no soul.
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You Gotta Be Ready for Some Serious Truth to Be Spoken
-- by Debra Busman
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for some serious truth to be spoken. When you ask students to break silence, to bear witness, to connect the meaning of their own personal lives within the larger societal frame, you gotta be ready for the truths that fly out, crawl out, peep out, and scream out from underneath the thick walls of practiced silence. You gotta be ready for stories of border crossings, coyotes and cops, night beatings, wife beatings, baby beatings, date rapes, daddy rapes, gunshots and chemo, pesticides, HIV, AZT, protease inhibitors, and the pink-cheeked 19-year-old who says, “Hey, next Tuesday I’ll have five years clean and sober; can we have cake in class?” You gotta be ready for stories that start out, “Ese pinche Columbus didn’t have no stinkin’ green card.” You gotta be ready for the straight A student who has to leave school because her INS paperwork hasn’t come through yet, and the social security number she gave at registration was the first nine numbers that came to her mind, and she cannot get financial aid because she is “illegal.”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for all the stories, whether you want to hear them or not. When you ask students to speak the truths of their lives, you gotta be ready for the Stanford-bound future teacher of America who writes about being kicked out of the Navy for being too racist. You gotta be ready for the sweet-faced, curly-haired lover of Jesus who writes stories of his days as a violent skinhead, beating up Blacks, Jews, and queers. You gotta be ready for the stories the young man cannot share in class, scribbles slid under your office door, 4:30 a.m. emails, telling of his father’s rage, the belt, the whiskey, the steel pipe slammed down hard on the thin nine-year-old boy body. The father’s last words, before he left the child cowering in the corner, his back broken in two places: “Be a man, you pussy. I better not see you cry.”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for war stories quite unlike those CNN sound bites of “precision bombs” and “surgical air strikes” spoon fed into the comfort of our living room TV sets during Desert Storm. You gotta be ready for the glassy-eyed, refer-smoking closeted ex-GI to suddenly bust out with long held stories of ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage,’ stories told through choked sobs about retrieving the remains of his eight buddies, all under 20 years old, from their burned out carcass of a tank, bombed the night before by ‘an American mistake.’ You gotta be ready when he tells the class, “Man, you guys gotta know, war is not the fuckin’ video game you think it is,” when he tells stories of standing guard duty with no ammunition, stories of surrendering Iraqi soldiers shot en masse, thumbs and ears cut off for souvenirs, bodies bulldozed into shallow sand graves.
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for these stories to share classroom space with the one by the retired prison guard, now a minister and a college student, who writes of his experience as a young African American police officer on the scene with five white sheriffs in 1960s rural Mississippi when a 17-year old gas station robbery suspect, a young Black man whose family he knew, was thrown in the back of a squad car, handcuffed, and locked inside with a 120-pound German Shepherd police dog that was ordered to attack. then, when the writer describes the ensuing screams, beer bellies, spit, and cigars, the white laughter, the blood, the horrific carnage told 40 years later with such immediacy and precision, you can only hold your heart and say, “Oh good lord, why did I ever stress the importance of using sensory details, concrete language, and vivid imagery?”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready to hear the stories held in private silence the past four years by a young woman working in the local Rape Crisis Center, stories about rape, domestic violence, child sexual abuse -- things she says she didn’t think you were “supposed to talk about in college,” at least not until she took a women’s studies class and Intro to Creative Writing. It means you gotta be ready for the young Japanese-American student who kind of drifts through class, quiet and respectful, suddenly shocked into consciousness by the poetry of Janice Mirikitani, suddenly alive and angry and writing poem after poem about Executive Order 9066, model minorities, identity, resistance and rice, practically busting down your office door one day in excitement to tell you he finally realized what he would write his senior paper on. “The camps.” he says. “I’m going to write about the camps. Both my grandmothers were sent to internment camps. I’m going to interview them over break, get their stories, get the truth of my history.” Then you gotta be ready when he slumps in your office following spring break, crestfallen. “They wouldn’t talk about it,” he says. “They told me everything else, all about their lives before the war, how they decorated their houses, how they fell in love with their husbands; they told me all about my parents when they were babies, about their family businesses. But they wouldn’t talk about the camps. They just shut up, looked at me funny, and said, ‘There is nothing to say.’ It’s weird, it scared me. Like whenever I brought it up, they just turned into other people, like they weren’t my grandmas anymore. They are 80 years-old. I don’t want to hurt them, so I had to stop asking. What am I going to do? My project is ruined. I have no stories.” And I have to tell him, “No, your project is not ruined. There are worlds within those silences. Your story is just beginning.”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for the young blonde girl from a private high school in Sacramento’s suburbs who rolls her Mabeline eyes the first day of class and says, “Is this going to be one of those course where they try that multicultural crap down your throat?” the same girl who, weeks later sits weeping in class, heart and mind open, listening to shared stories of INS thugs and deported grandfathers and pesticide-poisoned baby boomers, wheezing from asthma. Stories about cousins orphaned by police bombs dropped on fellow family MOVE members, seven- and nine-year-old brother and sister taken from their home, sitting in the Philadelphia police station, surrounded by cops watching the bombing live and in color on TV news, laughing, telling the children, “See those flames. See those tanks. That’s your daddy inside there. That’s your daddy we finally got right where he belongs.” And the young, blonde, private-high-school student, who truly believed California always belonged to the United States and that racism ended with the abolition of slavery, or at the very least after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, turns her face to the class, Mabeline running down her cheeks, and says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. They never taught me about any of this. I’m so sorry. I just never knew.” And her workshop buddy, Aisha, the self-described Pan Africanist revolutionary, takes the girl in her arms, rocks her softly. And Carlos, sitting in the back, can’t help but shake his head, muttering: “Damn. And they got the nerve to tell me that my people are ‘under-prepared’ for college.”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means you gotta be ready for the student who, having just listened to your best rap on the wonders of metaphoric imagery, says, “You know, Professor Busman, I mean I don’t mean no disrespect or nothing, but, you know, all that stuff you been saying about metaphors and similes and shit, I mean, it’s cool and everything, and I can see it working good in some poems, but my poem, you know, when I talk about that cop smashing the side of Bobby’s skull with his stick, well, I don’t want people to think that that noise sounds like anything other than the sound of a motherfuckin’ pig’s billy club crackin’ up against the side of brother’s head. I mean that’s the sound. It don’t sound like nothing else. I don’t want people thinking it sounds like something else. And, that line where I put my fist into that concrete wall out behind County General, I don’t want people thinking that that feels like anything other than a fist into a concrete wall. Sometimes things ain’t ‘like’ anything else; they just are what they are and the reader just gonna have to deal with it. You know what I’m saying?”
To teach Creative Writing and Social Action means that you gotta be ready to learn at least fifteen times more than whatever it is you think you have to teach. It means you gotta be ready to accept the fact that you can never really be ready for all the confusion, the grief, and the wonder that enters the classroom when students take you at your word and believe you really do want to hear the full and messy truths of all their “wild and precious” lives.
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My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Adler, F. P., Busman, D., & García, D. (2009). Fire and ink: An anthology of social action writing. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.