Friday, April 8, 2011

Thank you, Maya Angelou

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

picture from Maya Angelou website

This quote by Maya Angelou appeared in The Writer's Almanac, April 4, 2011. The brief article commemorates her birthday, which also notes April 4 as the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, on what was then Maya Angelou's 40th birthday.

Once a friend took me to hear Dr. Maya Angelou speak at event held in a university arena, a large venue so that thousands could see her in person. Maya Angelou seemed small against a backdrop where competing teams in sporting events devour that space, a poet's tiny voice crying in the wilderness.

Unimpressed by the speaker, for me the best part about being there was being there with my friend. 

Now, years later, a connection between Maya Angelou and me sparked when I read that quote, as if an arc of current suddenly breached the philosophical and physical, as well as theological space that separates us.

I bear an untold story. It helps to know that someone understands that agony, the weight of bearing. 

Every day I confront my writer self with the question of whether I will ever tell that story. If I write that story, will someone publish it? If published, who would read it? Does anyone care either way?

In a way, I wish I had someone else's story to tell. I continue a love affair with reading other people's stories. Captivated, I fully appreciate the writer's ability to tell their story well. Reading The Pioneer Woman's Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, I wish I had a frolicking love story to tell. 

Reading Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood, the writers chronicle the literary journey from book to film. The story shows through Margaret Mitchell's experience how a book takes on a life of its own, quite apart from the author's best intentions or hopes or aspirations.

That's what scares me. What happens when a writer releases his or her words to readers? Best line from Back to the Future, "I don't think I could take that kind of rejection."

However, I want to write the book I was born to write, to somehow tell a coherent story that makes sense of my life. Rather than report facts or record incidents, I need to craft the story. But I have been trained to write reports. About writing, I still have a lot to unlearn. 

The reporter me has a just the facts detachment, a kind of third eye, which keeps me a safe distance from the emotional pain of a childhood fraught with uncertainty about everything. You never know what's behind Door Number Three. Surviving a tumultuous, extended period of confusion, all I ever wanted was to feel safe. 

Writing about your life is not safe. 

What has occurred to me though, looking in the rearview mirror, all the really dramatic stuff happened at the beginning, as I held on for dear life to my mother's flapping coattails.

Near the end of her life, knowing she would die with cancer, my mother wrote a brief summary of her life. "My checkered life," she called it, and while not her obvious meaning, if I envision a chess board, I can see that my mother never did anything in an ordered way.

Yet in living my life, I have tried to overcompensate for her disorder. A curious tension between us continues long since her departure. 

Thus, I bear the burden of an untold story inside me. My story involves the most interesting person I ever knew. I seek to honor the life that my mother lived because with all her wild and random choices, she managed to shape mine.

Today, I have Maya Angelou to thank for inspiring me to keep writing.

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