Poverty, class and writing


Bottle feeding Blacky and Bully, 1973

I have just finished a revision of Earth, my novel, using software (NewNovelist 2.0) that has helped deepen the plot. I am a poet at heart and plot is not one of my strong suits, although I willingly take on learning new avenues in writing.

The stronger plot (and all types of revision will do this) has deepened the truths I was trying to tell in my novel. The themes are richer and more to the point now. I was “beating around the burning bush” before, without knowing it, and now I’ve landed smack dab in the fire.

When you finish a novel, when you deepen your writing, expect to be in a foul mood. The truths you hit come so close to home, the home that is your heart and soul. The truths you hit stir the pot, stir the soul, open doors and boxes you’d closed long ago. Deepening your work is like accupressure; it pushes on those spots where the energy is trapped and afterwards, all hell can certainly break loose. Or all heaven. Depending on how you look at it.

My last blog What’s the point? Why write? was about the universal power of story, how telling stories brings us all together. I’ve been thinking a lot about that blog, about how each person’s story is so vitally important, how anyone who is silenced adds to the depression affecting us all. Every time someone’s voice is silenced, no matter where they are in the world, I am more depressed, my life is less joyful. That silencing affects every single one of us.

The issue most bothering me after finishing Earth is this: a few recent readers of the book have had a problem with “the poetry of the language meeting the harsh reality of farm life”. Earth is a fictionalized version of my life on a farm, where the mysticism of my childhood met with the brutal butchering of farm animals and wildlife. These readers said they couldn’t take hearing how light works its magic on the underside of a leaf and the next moment the mother has the intestines of a small animal dripping through her fingers. Well, sistahs, that’s the way it was. Sorry to not couch it in prettier terms so you could take it. It’s interesting that my well-traveled friends and colleagues, and mostly these are journalists, have no issue whatsoever with the light and the harshness together as one. When you get out of the bubble you live in, and really open your eyes to the world, when you willingly put yourself out there in the world to truly see what’s going on outside your own reality, you see there is poverty everywhere. People are being silenced because of it all over the world.

I spend my life supporting other writers voices, as a coach and a teacher. I am passionate that they should tell their story, tell it with passion, with truth, with honesty, with anger, with love. That I should come across anyone who would tell me that I cannot tell my story the way it happened — the rage is red hot in my gut. I must write about it here and now to purge it. Honestly, I have felt these people were trying to shame me. To shut me up. I felt it was a bigger issue, a class issue. The world shames the poor to shut them up.

I actually deal directly with this shame in Earth, how the shame and silence wove its way into the souls of my ancestors. How because no one wants to hear the stories of the poor, of the dirt poor, poor people have learned not to speak. I sense that as long as an author is educated and writing about the poor as “other”, well that’s acceptable. Don’t be poor and think you’ve got the class to write a novel. Well, to hell with the naysayers. To hell with them. I’ve told my story. It will get published.

I thought for a while that this problem with poverty, with telling the truth about poverty, was just in my mind, was not really what was going on. Surely not in today’s day and age. Surely we’ve progressed further than this absurd class-ism. But then on recommendation of a client, I got the book Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider (who coincidentally happened to be poor in Missouri, like me, and now lives in Massachusetts, like me). I opened it randomly, and happened upon a section on her experiences with being a writer and being from poverty.

She writes: “First, about the word poor. ‘Poor’ is not a bad word. Replacing it with euphemisms such as ‘underprivileged’ and ‘under-served’ are well intentioned and sometimes helpful, but euphemisms are also dangerous. They can assist us in not seeing. They can form a scrim through which ugly truth is dimmed to our eyes. There are a lot of poor people in America, and their voices are largely silenced.”

She also writes: “When I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing, I handed in a short story…It included a literal description of the two tenement rooms in which I had lived at age 13. I described the bare lightbulb that hung from a black cord….and I did in fact spray roach poison on a hundred or more roaches on the underside of our kitchen table. As they dropped to the kitchen floor, I watched how the females dropped their egg sacs and slowly died. I kept from throwing up by pretendting they were Hebrew slaves being killed by Pharoah in front of the Sphinx. I was Pharaoh. (The professor) wrote on my paper two comments: ‘A bare lighbulb hanging from a cord is a cliche’ and ‘The poor don’t talk about the Sphinx.’

This blog is a way to stand up to the naysayers, to say: “The poor DO talk about the Sphinx. The poor DO see the light of God one moment and a brutal butchering the next. We WILL speak about it whether or not you can take it. We will not be silenced any longer.”

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