This Thanksgiving season has been riddled with some weird stuff. Syrian refugees, ISIS doing stupid things, people hurting, shooting after shooting here in the US, and protests all over the place. It made it difficult for me to really feel thankful for anything, because I had this sinking feeling of guilt when I said I was thankful, and also it felt like avoiding the truth of our situation by pretending everything was okay.
Down in the basement of my parents' house, I found a plate my dad picked up a few years ago. It shows a family on a boat heading to Ellis Island. "I like to think they're our ancestors," Dad told me. We keep this plate up on the wall because we don't actually know what the family looked like that did come over here. They never took a photograph of themselves, and it wasn't until recently did we even know they were Hebrew.
My grandmother was raised Catholic from the get-go. A staunch Catholic Italian-Hungarian-American family on the South Side.
But I always knew I came from immigrants. Since I was a kid, my maternal Gramma told me all about her own grandmother, who sailed to America at the age of sixteen from Germany. She spoke no English, and she landed in New York just as the Draft Riots hit. She moved to Iowa due to the Homestead Act, and she did well enough for herself that she could sponsor Gramma when Gramma finally wanted to go to high school.
I always thought this was all normal. I thought everyone had an immigrant story. I live in Omaha, which was smack-dab in the middle of Homestead Act country. I live only about six hours east of where My Antonia took place, so most of the people I know are German American, Italian American, Irish American, Mexican American, or some-kind-of American. My best friend in high school was first generation Nepali American.
But with the dialogue opening up in the last few weeks about immigration, I have started to see that not everyone has grown up with the immigrant narrative. Not everyone has family that came over on the boat and succumbed to Ellis Island and had to start from scratch. A lot of people have never known anyone who has come from another country. And that is confusing to me.
It has made me take a long look at my WIP and my main character. It has made me infuse her life with the narrative that bore me into existence. And I have been reminded that no matter how boring you think your own life is, there is something different about you that only you can express in literature.
One time in a workshop, someone said, "I think everyone thinks their narrative is the normal everyday narrative."
"That's not true," another student said. "Mine was completely boring and normal. I was right in that regard."
Thus proving his point.
I've lived in all different kinds of neighborhoods, I've been friends with a bunch of different people from different regions, and everyone has their own story down pat. While I was traveling this summer, I listened to conversations on trains in Scotland with Indian ex-pats, and their normal was not my normal. They talked about America for a while and how traveling in America was so different than in Europe, they had a hard time understanding. "Can you imagine going on a holiday to some place like Disney World? What are you going to learn in Disney World?"
Here in the states we have funny cartoons about a satirical Paris, with weird accordion music and flirty skunk cats. There in Paris? They have a fascination with our Wild West here in the states that is absolutely not PC.
"No one would be interested in my life," we always joke. But what if we were? What if we shared our stories with each other, and we all became humans to one another? If we understand where we're each coming from, then maybe we can start to grow a little empathy for one another.
So write about how it is to live in Seattle. I don't live in Seattle, I have no idea. Do you live on an island? Do you know how many people have no idea how hard it is to be a teacher? Did you go through medical school? Was your dad a record producer? How many siblings did you have? Have you ever lived in another country? What sort of allergies do you have, and how do you navigate that? Have you ever felt completely alone? Have you ever felt completely insane? Have you never ever swam in a pool or swung on a swing-set? What decade did you grow up in? How many oceans have you seen? How big or small was your home growing up?
Share your stories. Share your ancestors' stories. Give perspective. That's what writing is for.
After some long thought about how to conduct this blog, I decided to make a significant change to the way I write it.
From here on out, I will update every Friday afternoon. This means one blog update for every week.
My original thought behind this blog was to keep myself motivated, keep myself accountable for writing every single day, and report to you in order to do so.
However, what has been happening is the opposite of that. I have been writing every single day, but I have not used the blog to do so. In fact, the blog has turned into a "when I can" sort of project, because sometimes you either keep writing on your book or you time out and set aside an hour to put together something ... anything ... about the day.
That means that my blog has turned into a grasp for straws. It means that instead of writing insightful, well-rounded pieces, I am forcing myself to write in an online diary that sometimes has to do with writing and sometimes has to do with what sort of cookies at what coffee house I consumed in the last twenty-four hours.
For this reason, I make myself a new goal, and in some ways a harder goal. Every Friday, I will update on my week, and then I will cover something that has to do with writing.
Thank you for being patient as this project evolves. I will see you on Friday.
I also have been studying how the songs are structured in order to make one full album or, in the best example of Lin-Manuel Miranda, how a full musical is formed. Miranda takes each scene as its own song with its own genre of music. Some scenes are way more musical theatre, others scenes use the history of hip hop and beat-boxing to show the growth of a character from boy to man. Last night while I was listening to the song where a Loyalist gives a rebuttal to Alexander, I realized Miranda had written it as a baroque piece, starting with the main melody and then using variations later on.
By looking at our scenes this way, we can flow like music. We can bring some sort of focus to detail to a chapter when it is so easy to rush through that second act or see the book as a full piece and not as separate parts in a working machine. There won't be any filler, there won't be any useless lines.
Now the problem is: what song do I use today?
I have set out to write a novel about two children who are knee-deep in the belly of war. Every day, my work in progress takes me into a world where evil men win, innocent children die, and characters have to learn how to find the light of hope when their reason for living has been extinguished.
Unfortunately, as I've gotten older, as our planet has continued to revolve around us, it turns out that this world I write about isn't fiction, but fact. And I don't know which is worse: that it happens, or that we who are left behind don't know how to stop it from happening again.
Today, Alex and I sat down and we talked about a plan if we ever found ourselves in a place like the Bataclan. It would not be unheard of. Aurora was a few hours away. My first day of student teaching, there was a school shooting. The mall down the street where I live was the site of a massacre on the day I opted out of shopping because of a head-cold. These mass tragedies are becoming so real, so frequent, that it is not a melodramatic precaution to sit down with our loved ones and say to one another, "I don't want you to shield me. I want you to live." Or "Of course I'll shield you. I can't live without you." And "Well, if it happens, we won't have time to know how we're reacting." So we say, "Please keep living if something happens to me. Please don't give up."
I've seen artists react to this over the last few days. Hans Zimmer linked the piece he composed for Aurora a few years ago. Lin-Manuel Miranda quoted his musical by tweeting "There are moments where the words don't reach." The thing about being an artist is that people look to art to comfort. We as artists look to our own art to find a selfish understanding. But we can also feel helpless. We are here for the reaction. We are here when things have already happened. We are the therapists, the effect, the attempt to embrace. But how can we embrace when we know it'll happen again?
I've lived my entire life with the idea that in the end, good will win. I don't know how it will manage, I don't know how it will survive, but somehow good will win. With every Beirut, every Kenya, every Baghdad, hell, every Doctors Without Borders hospital ... every Paris ... I become less certain that I know for a fact that good will win.
But the fact that we're still trying to make art, that's a good sign that there is something stubborn and something resilient in us as a species. I guess we just have to keep hoping.
What is this?
Dawson is an editor and writer and MFA student at Stonecoast. She writes stuff.