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Good Letters

I remember my mother used to go to bed for the day. The blackness of her mood seemed to darken her room. I don’t know why she left her door open. Maybe she knew, even in her unresponsive state, that she needed to be able to hear us. Maybe she thought it would be less frightening for us if we could see her. She was wrong. She loved us, but she was wrong.

We learned not to talk to her. We passed her doorway quickly, as if someone had died, as if we thought something might reach out from its depths and lay hold of us. Some days I wonder if something did.

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing is deciding what you will omit. Most of the first draft is usually dreck. The best may be the line you’re not even sure about, because you haven’t seen its like before, because it gouges deep and you’re accustomed to dribbling blood onto the page by the pinprick.

What the reader may need most is what you’re inclined to excise, because the terrible secrets of your life—those human truths that hold the power to make a reader see, with her quavering heart’s eye, that she is not alone—shame you, and undermine your cultivated, attractively broken image.

You court troubles, however, when you write that your mother is manic-depressive, that some of it rubbed off, that sometimes the world is so dark you can scarcely rise from bed, that it is dark no matter how early you start drinking or how late you sleep, the world is dark like the strangled light in your mother’s bedroom.

She might see what you write, and be wounded, and drag you back to that place where you manage your feelings so she can feel better. A friend may read it, and imagine he can help you by talking, because his is the kind of life in which talking makes things better.

And those are the people who love you. Who knows what one of the low-down bastards you have the misfortune of knowing may do with it. Maybe you’ve got a day job, and you have to consider how someone can twist something you write into a weapon. Maybe you are divorced, and you worry about what some cold-souled courtroom bureaucrat will decide your words prove about your parental fitness.

The most heartening thing I ever got from therapy was the realization that we’re in a generational struggle. My mother never molested her children, as was done to her, and I haven’t yet curled into a ball at ten in the morning and left my children to fend for themselves. My stepfather never beat me unconscious, and I haven’t burned any of my children with a cigarette lighter because I didn’t like the pants they were wearing.

Philo of Alexandria was right: we are each of us fighting a great battle. Some of us are fighting to make our children noble poets; others are fighting just to keep them fed. Some of us—maybe most of us, if we’re honest—do both, depending on the day of the week.

If you set about telling the truth about your battle, every sentence becomes a decision. Even if you are one of those philosophically sophisticated types who believes there is no truth, that we only know some variant of things by their not-ness, you still decide what to tell about what you think you have seen and what your synapses conspire to hold as memory.

Some advice I received about this telling, like many writers before me, is that I should write to my ideal reader. I suppose a body could agonize over that, but for me it was always pretty simple: my reader won’t leave. She may step away for a smoke, but she will come back. My words stick in her gut and she comes back.

The struggle, however, even when you are writing fiction, is that the other reader shows up. You know him. He’s the one who rolls his eyes at your inability to get past something you saw or something that was done to you. That reader is the pale preacher, the ringleader of the popular kids, the petty grammar god.

Maybe that reader isn’t in your head, maybe he is your very real enemy at work, or in your own family, and you weigh every word as a stone, and ask yourself how it will feel when he sends it careening into the back of your skull.

You weigh your words and you exchange the heavy ones for pea stone, because it is useful and civilized and isn’t worth throwing at anyone. You set out to build a temple, and instead you lay down a neat suburban driveway.

Sometimes there is a cost to writing the truth, if only in the remembering. This is why, I will one day explain to my sons, your father sometimes doesn’t sleep, and why most mornings he is quiet, and why some nights you wake to find his hand pressed to your heads, praying as much for himself as for you, that he might finish the race—not the best father or even writer, but a father who brought you a little further along, a writer who sometimes, at least, told something like the truth.

This post originally appeared at Good Letters on November 30, 2012.


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Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website is

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