The Thing I've Been Too Afraid To Do
Yesterday a friend came over to work on her Dungeons and Dragons character sheet. I am really into D&D these days* — the main thing I did during the lazy part of my summer was read all three of the 5E books cover to cover. I didn’t necessarily mean to do this, but you know what they say: once you get started with a textbook-sized informational tome of randomizing lists, there’s no stopping.
Initially, I got into Dungeon Mastering (DMing) because I liked the idea of having a hang-out with a bunch of my friends at once without having to actually talk about anything. It seemed like an efficient way to prove to six people that I enjoyed their company without using the words “lunch date.” I grew obsessed with DMing, however, when I realized it was just writing for a small public without public consequences. It threw me back to the pre-internet days of writing — which, for me, was in fourth grade.
Fourth grade was when I really fell in love with writing. I’d read every one of the The Babysitter’s Club books, and I knew that I was going to grow up to be Ann M. Martin — it was simply my destiny. When you are nine, you have absolutely no sense of a world beyond your own, and since all the other girls in my grade were into boring chump activities like soccer and make-up, I felt like I was a shoe-in for the job opening of “Ann M. Martin,” which would surely present itself to me on my 18th birthday.
I spent all my free time writing a long story in a spiral-bound notebook. It was about two orphans named Greenie and Fern who lived in an abandoned hotel. Greenie was mean (my guess is because her stupid dead parents had named her fucking GREENIE), and Fern was nice. They had a lot of skirmishes at school. At one point, they went to Venice. They had unlimited money and unlimited autonomy, and Fern’s boyfriend was exactly like the hunky boy in my second grade class who knew how to fix VCRs. Every 30 pages or so, I would round up some poor gaggle of bored loner-types at recess and force them to listen to this story. The kids tolerated my reading, and, when prompted, told me that the story was “really good” and that they “had to go to the bathroom now.”
This was before (1) I’d ever seen a “50 FREE HOURS!” America Online internet disc, and (2) anyone had really told me you could get writing wrong. When you’re nine, your teachers are just excited that you’re excited about doing a school thing. They don’t push you for realism or economy of language; you cultivate gold stars like it’s California in 1848.**
I don’t need to tell you that the internet changed everything. I loved it initially because there were tons of writing resources you could access out there, and because — and I realized this in 1996, before “blog” was even a word — you could self-publish. I started with a Spice Girls fan page, but it wasn’t long before I realized I could put all kinds of writing online, and people would read it. I taught myself HTML and self-published my pre-teen fiction, so old men in Tennessee could potentially read it and send comments to the Johnsons' Donutz9876@aol.com shared family email address.
My earliest public writing happened to coincide with teachers telling me for the first time that I wasn’t as good a writer as I thought I was. All of a sudden, I started getting comments in the margins: “confusing”; “is this the word choice you want to use?”; “awkward phrasing”; “that’s not how you spell museum.” And for the first time, writing was not the easiest thing in the world.
I am not saying that no one should ever critique anyone else's writing. This is just a round-about way of saying that I fell in love with D&D because it reminded me of being nine. Sometimes people in my campaign say to me, “Uhh, Sophie, what do you want us to say? It seems like you’ve already written this part.” And they are right and I have, and that’s embarrassing.
Annnnnyway, my friend was over making her character sheet, and she said that she was excited about playing D&D partially because she hadn’t been writing as much fantasy as she once did. She has been worried lately about mis-portraying people who look different than she does. And I get that; she should worry! It’s important to think about things like that. The more we come to understand the complexity of oppression, the more difficult it can be to write. Ultimately, that’s a good trade-off.
I don’t have to tell you that we are in the midst of some dark times. There’s an apocalyptic tinge in the air; the news is nothing but photos of unfathomable destruction. I’ve started teaching again, and I have several students who are personally affected by DACA. I teach high school journalism to kids who are upset and confused (and rightly so) about whom the first amendment seems to protect, and whom it clandestinely silences. I haven’t updated my blog in well over a month.
I’m scared to write. I am not alone: there’s nothing a person could say that can fix any of this. I am more aware than ever before of my privilege; I want to use it responsibly. I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that the most important thing a person can do with privilege is listen and elevate: listen to people who have been silenced; use your power to elevate their voice. But I wake up in the morning and I don’t always know how to do that. I try sometimes and sometimes I fail. It is difficult for me to remember that the world does not need heroes; it needs communities and networks of change.
And to build community, people have to be kind of healthy. It brings me joy to write. I like connecting with people in my life this way, and I always have. This is just one thing I do; it isn’t everything. In my fear of getting it wrong — fear that, to be fair, is not unique to this particular time and place — I isolate myself. You can’t criticize the people you can’t hear or see. But that’s cowardly, and for me, it’s apostasy. If there is one single thing I believe in, more than anything, it is this: We belong to each other.
You don’t need me to fix the problems of the world; no personal essay or Facebook update is going to do that. (Thank You Scott has been on my mind a lot lately.) But I need you. Period, end of sentence. I love writing, and I’ll get it wrong forever now that I am an adult and getting things wrong is the only way forward. I love humans, despite everything crazy we do to each other and to the planet. This is my way of belonging.
We belong to each other. I hold onto that like a damn branch dangling over an always treacherous current.
*When I was in high school, my boyfriend Ben Stevens used to ditch me on Saturday nights to hang out with his friends and play D&D and I just thought it was the worst thing possible. I used to make horrible mean jokes about it to anyone who would listen. I apologize, Ben Stevens. Like so many things in life, you were right and I was wrong.
** This was a California Gold Rush reference. I know. I am very smart.