I have a situation. The situation is real, bursting, alive, emotion-filled, and fueled by drama. I can’t say anything concrete about the situation because, if I were to divulge any specifics, I’d have yet another situation. The situation in question was caused by my sharing details about a previous situation, so I need to be very, very careful. Since I process experiences and heal from them through writing and sharing the results, I wrote this essay about it all…. though, in the end, I probably wrote more around it than about it.
How do you write about a situation without actually writing about it? It’s tricky. Fiction is fabulous, but, sometimes, real, verifiable life — the kind of event that we could prove happened, if only we’d used recording devices at the time — is even more fabulous. Or, often, fabulous isn’t quite the word. Frequently, actual life is striking because it’s chilling, frightening, disturbing, or razor sharp in its peculiarity. With fiction, writers often avoid the truly bizarre, because they’re afraid it won’t be believable. When something bizarre happens in real life, we know it’s believable. If anyone says, “Hey, that never could have happened,” the writer knows otherwise because it did happen.
Sadly, though, with unique and odd real-life situations that involve actual people behaving with their very particular brands of cruelty, people who know them may recognize them. If the people written about remember the acts in question, they will certainly recognize themselves. The writer can change every other possible thing — place, time, circumstances — but the soul of the matter must be accurate, or there’s no point in exploring the event at all. And, if basic accuracy sparks rage and desire for retaliation among those who recognize the actors in published writing, enormous problems can ensue.
The problem is not public shame; distinguishing details were disguised. The people written about will only be outed if they out themselves. I suppose it’s a question of internal anger that can soon turn into outward expression. I get it. I’m certainly not proud of every action I’ve ever performed. If I read an account of some embarrassing thing I said or did, I’d be mortified. If details were changed enough that I couldn’t be identified by other people, I’d realize that no harm had been done to my reputation, and I’d calm down quickly. Depending on the situation, I might even be honored that something I had done was deemed interesting enough to make it into someone else’s writing. If my behavior had been captured because I had deeply hurt another person, I’d consider that fact very seriously. If I thought I had truly been heartless or cruel, I would step back and examine the circumstances… and vow never to repeat that behavior.
At the moment, I have a situation that stems from my writing about another situation. I could call it a meta-situation, but I used to get really annoyed when black-clad people at my college used the term “meta.” So I guess I’ll call it a situation that encircles another situation. I want to write about this encircling situation because I feel caught up within it. This affair has spurred people to play hardball with me and with someone else. It involves harshness that bounces off of previous harshness, and it has led me to feel extremely uncomfortable about seeing people whose presence didn’t used to bother me.
How much have I said? How much have I not said? I’m quite certain that I’ve said something meaningful, and yet, I haven’t described any scenes. There is no storyline here. I have stayed away from the story, much as I’d love to share it. To share the actual story now would court disaster. I wouldn’t dare. I shouldn’t dare.
Writing with shackling constraints is an unusual experience for me. Normally, I bust out with ease, expressing what I want. I change identifying details if I’m describing unflattering or personal qualities or events, but the gist of the story flows with few boundaries. This is quite different. I’m sharing a mood, a sense, a desire… but not a narrative thread. There are people behind it all, but I cannot hint at who they might be.
As I consider my formidable restrictions in writing this essay, I’m reminded of various writing exercises I’ve heard about. People have tried writing long pieces that completely avoid the letter “A,” or that use no commas. I’m also thinking about people who cook around various dietary restrictions: vegan diets, raw food diets, low-sodium and/or low-fat regimens, avoidance of carbohydrates, strict adherence to the Jewish laws of kashrut… there’s nearly endless variety of possible culinary restriction.
I have found delightful food at kosher, vegan, and raw food restaurants. Often, I feel like a special creativity is sparked by stark constraints. I’ve been particularly amazed by some restaurants that are completely raw and vegan: these places follow incredibly restrictive rules regarding ingredients and food preparation. The flavor is often strong, rich, and complex, and the plating can be delightful. For that matter, I’ve often loved styles of dress that have come out of religious restriction, like Jewish and Muslim modesty laws. Beautiful head coverings; loose, flowing garments… some religious people develop exquisite personal style within their dress codes. Shackles can beget spectacular forms of expression.
I’m not suggesting that this essay is particularly rich or wonderful. It is what it is, and I’m in no position to judge my own work. But it feels distinct from other pieces I’ve written. It’s tauter. I haven’t let loose like I usually do, and, somehow, each word seems to have more power. Or maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe it’s more that each sentence seems fuller with unstated suggestions. I can’t pour it all out, so I have to rely more on implicit thoughts suggested within the words I use.
I can’t fully be myself; I have to hold a whole lot back. But maybe, in holding back, I’ve discovered a new side to myself — a subtler, more nuanced side. Or maybe I’m just turning into one of those irritating people who try to see a benefit within a problem. Even that would be new for a cynical soul like me, and there must be a positive side to seeking the good even when things are seemingly off-kilter.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.