“You’re killing me,” said Kacie.
She sat across from me in my office. Pale complexion, freckles, thick orange shoulder-length hair. She wore gray sweats, one leg tucked beneath her. She had written an essay about her intense response to a book she’d read two years earlier: The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell (1999). In her essay, Kacie focused on one of the student diarists who had written about being caught shoplifting. The entry had skewered Kacie. As a teenager, she, too, had been caught shoplifting.
The previous week Kacie had shared the first draft of her essay with three of her peers. I came by the group, knelt beside them, and listened to Kacie read. That’s when I learned she had chosen to write about this low point in her young life. In the draft Kacie skirted the actual shoplifting incident. During discussion, her peers, too, skirted the issue. I knew Kacie from the semester before. I had read her writing and respected her perceptions and willingness to push toward truth. The group spun its wheels, talking around what was and wasn’t on the page, primarily admiring Kacie for choosing to write about such a topic. I rarely break in on small-group writing conferences, but this time I couldn’t hold back. “If you’re going to write about this experience, Kacie, you’ve got to go all the way. You’ve got to describe it honestly with detail.”
A week later, Kacie sat across from me after reading her revised draft in which she had done just that. I felt her fear and anguish. She described getting stopped by an employee just before leaving the store, being guided into a room, and having her purse searched, which revealed the stolen items, none of which she needed. She described calling her mother, telling her where she was and to come pick her up.
“There’s been some trouble,” she’d said.
“Just come. I’ll tell you when you get here.”
I was proud of Kacie’s work, of her courage to take on this topic she’d carried for five years and never talked about. I was proud of her willingness to go to this place armed with language to explore, examine, and, I thought, maybe exorcise the worst of it, emerging with a deeper understanding of teenagers. Kacie had described the scene with honest detail up to her mother’s arrival. At that point, Kacie wrapped up the essay.
“When your mom realized why you called,” I asked, “what was her reaction?”
Kacie swallowed, shifted in the chair. Her voice quavered. “Mom was disappointed,” she said. “She was ashamed and hurt.”
“How did you know that?”
“I could see it in her face.”
“Let me see that, Kacie. Let me see it the way you saw it.”
Kacie pinched the bridge of her nose, wiped tears with her knuckles. “You’re killing me,” she said.
There’s a famous quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
Kacie did that in her final revision. This material was hers. As one who writes, Kacie knew what she had to do. If she hadn’t spent it all, her essay would still have been good, but it wouldn’t have been memorable.
You don’t have to write about the “tough stuff,” as my friend Ken Brewer called such topics. You can be fulfilled writing about topics under the bright sun as well as topics from the heart of darkness. But if you choose to go to those dark places where lie agony, shame, or fear, go with purpose and courage.
A few years ago I attended a spoken-word poetry festival at Evanston Township High School in Illinois. The host of the event was the late Jim Flanagan, a retired high school English teacher and poet himself. After one student’s stirring performance, Jim stepped forward but didn’t introduce the next student. He kept our attention on what we’d just witnessed. He pointed out the courage the girl had demonstrated in telling truth with words and delivering them with passion.
“There’s courage on the athletic field, and we don’t diminish that,” Jim said. “But what we’ve experienced today, this is the sport of the soul.”
Whatever you choose to write about—and I, for one, hope you write about it all—don’t hold back. Dive into your experience and perceptions with openness, honesty, and commitment.
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Tom Romano's new book Write What Matters: For Yourself, for Others.