I recently taught a series of creative writing workshops for at-risk youth in the midwest. They’re new to writing, so part of our work involved writing list-poems in which each line began, “They say,” and “I’m afraid that.” The point was to identify what others might see when they look at us, and then experiment with giving voice to what’s underneath. Most of my students admitted this was terrifying.
So I was ecstatic about Donald Glover’s instagrammed messages, which came out a couple days before our last workshop. Here was a popular comedian, writer, musician, and actor, handwriting an impromptu “list poem” — going public with a detailed list of fears that read much like the penciled lines in my students’ notebooks.
So for our last meeting, I projected all of his photos. The students said it made them feel less alone, less stupid. We discussed how, in appropriate contexts, there can be power and bravery – and ownership – in vulnerability. I’d already told my own story: depression, violence, loss of faith. So here was another witness, saying, “It’s hard. Not ‘back then.’ Right now.” It was liberating. The students lit up. By the end, some were reading aloud:
“I’m afraid of how the world revolves around me when I’m awake.”
“I’m afraid my dad will never know about my accomplishments.”
Lying is lying. But as Adrienne Rich wrote, silence lies, too. By revealing difficult experiences only once they’re behind us, we leave unspoken the all-too-human sense of thick, dripping failure — relegating the worst of our experience to a vast silence. That’s why I love Donald Glover’s posts, and the myriad responses to it. It’s why I’m drawn to narratives in which the only hope lies in that they’re still being written. And since you should go read it, it’s why NPR’s Linda Holmes totally nailed the significance of currency in dealing artistically – and often publicly – with our demons.
I’m not advocating for some gross overspill of the deeply personal into inappropriate (and perhaps dangerous) contexts. I am advocating for the power of poetry, music, and art in general to speak dangerously: to give voice to the deeply human, to immediate terror. I’m advocating for its capacity to bear what we’ve deemed heretical.
“It’s very sterile and very misleading to hear about battles only from people who either have already won or at least have already experienced the stability of intermediate victories. It presents a false sense of how hard those battles are. It understates the perilous sense of being in the middle of them. It understates how scary they are…
“there’s no substitute, really, for the necessary honesty that comes with currency. “