You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell…But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in response to a story sent to him by the daughter of a family friend and aspiring author (Full Letter).
I didn’t know how to write when I started To Dad: From Kelly. I had no formal training, no creative arts education, an inability to even spell the word grammar, and a complete misunderstanding of how the comma should be used in the English language. Despite my shortcomings, I had emotions. I had a heart shredded by my father’s death and a blackened-blue soul wounded by the loss of the man I considered to be my best friend. Inside me were many bitter, raw feelings that I had repressed for twenty-nine years. Now, they screamed to be released so they could fill those pockets of my heart emptied by unrelenting grief. And I had tears—many, many tears.
The story I wanted to tell wasn’t much, but I did have emotions. Turning these emotions into a memoir turned out to be the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Pages—three, four, or five at a time—suffered thanks to my angry, ready to rip hands when I would reread my words and see that although they were honest, they weren’t nearly honest enough. I junked these pages and chapters and started over, staring at the yellow and pink sticky notes with the words “Emotion and Honesty” that I tagged to the inside of my notebooks and stuck to the white walls of my apartment. What I lacked in talent or practiced skills, I hoped to compensate for with vulnerability and truth.
I dove to depths of my personality I never considered before I started writing. Every morning I stared at a blank computer screen or empty notebook, listening to Mumford and Sons’ Ghosts That We Knew or Brandi Carlile’s What Can I Say. Tears, sometimes in a sprint and other times in a marathon, raced down my cheeks. I covered my head with the hood of my green sweatshirt while my brain bargained with my heart to keep certain feelings from escaping into the world from the isolated places I had always concealed them. Deeper and deeper I went until the crying and rawness inside me somehow subsided. My heart, with all of its battered and emotional soldiers, won its battle versus my head. Honesty prevailed.
While writing my memoir, I finally understood what Bob Dylan meant when he compared Like a Rolling Stone to a “long piece of vomit.” My guts erupted into each chapter, and I confessed (or maybe acknowledged) items that I previously skirted. I admitted my regrets over not confronting my dad’s addiction to prescription painkillers, and I confessed how a fear of people seeing me fail has shackled me since my first attempt to ride a bike. I asked Dad why he never found fulfillment post football, and I wondered why we chose to conceal our fears and vulnerabilities rather than admitting them and possibly developing a richer father and son bond. After almost twelve months of writing, I exhaled and realized that I owned a better understanding of the blonde-haired, out-of-shape, uncertain man staring back at me in the mirror.
I spent nearly thirty years running from my emotions. It took seemingly endless angst-riddled hours and some advice from F. Scott before I finally learned to embrace them. To Dad: From Kelly contains the honest emotions that I hope can carry the torch for my writing despite my lack of both know-how and talent.
I believe we all have an honest, emotional story to tell. If you feel compelled to do so, please share yours with me, and I will continue to share mine in future posts.