Things You Shouldn’t Write About

hiding in the Peace Corps

“Nazi! Slave owner! Child molester!” the man shouted into his bullhorn. He stood on the sidewalk. He wasn’t allowed to come any closer. The man knelt beside his daughter, about 6 years old. “See that lady over there? She kills babies!”

I sipped my coffee. I looked over at B. “I saw the movie Amelie last week.”

B. nodded to the group on the sidewalk. “Isn’t that French? Don’t tell them that.” B. is an 86-year-old man.

I gave a small laugh.

“Killing babies isn’t funny!” the man shouted.

B. and I both sighed. We talked more about movies. We tried to ignore the man who took photographs of every license plate in the parking lot. A car pulled up. No one got out. B. stood up and waved. He wore his blue jersey that read escort across the front and back. We would joke the jerseys let the others know who to shoot.

A young woman and her mother got out of the car. They said hello and walked inside. The woman in charge of adoptions also walked by. She got baby killer too. They called her that every time. “I try to tell them I’m in charge of adoptions,” she said. “They don’t listen.”

Another girl arrived. She marched over to the group (all men except for the little girl) and yelled at them. When she came back, she stopped where we sat on lawn chairs. “Don’t you get mad at them?”

B. and I shrug. “They’re entitled to their view of things,” he said.

“I don’t think it helps,” I said.

Sometimes a boyfriend or husband would go over to them and shout, too. A few times, a woman would go over there, take their reading material, talk quietly, and then go into the clinic anyway. Once in a rare while, the woman would turn and leave. About half of the woman told us their stories.

The group on the street consisted of a few middle-aged white men. Sometimes a pretty blond showed up to give fliers to people who opened their car windows. And sometimes a few Catholic women stood across the street, held Rosaries, and prayed. One of the men had never married and never had a girlfriend. That’s what he told people who asked. Otherwise, he never said much, and he never shouted. For one Saturday a month for almost four years I stood in front of that clinic and I never heard his voice. He was there no matter the weather from 6:30 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. The other men never said anything as much as they shouted. Nor did they come as often.

A nurse came out of the clinic. She walked over to the man with the bullhorn. She asked him to keep his children from climbing the stone wall around the sign. The stones weren’t stable. The children could fall and hurt themselves. The man put the bullhorn to her face. “You’re baby killer! You can’t tell me how to raise my children.”

The nurse looked up at the sky. Then back at the man. “Sir. That wall isn’t stable enough to climb on. That’s all I’m saying. The children could fall.”

“Look at her, children!” the man said. “Don’t listen to her. She likes to kill babies.” His children–the little girl and two boys–run away screaming.

“Also,” the nurse said. “This wall is on our property. If you don’t keep the children from the wall, I will call the police and have you removed for trespassing.”

The nurse then came over to us and asked if we’d like more coffee. When she went inside, the man called B. and me Nazis.

Standing in front of the woman’s clinic was scary. Telling people I stood there is scary. You can’t know who is going to stand there quietly and disagree or start shouting and who-knows-what.

But for all the hate, bile, and threats dumped on B. (a retried librarian) and me while we shared stories, drank coffee, and ignored the shouting, sharing my writing is scarier.

How stupid is that?

The odds of being shot while sitting at my laptop now are remote, after all. Of course, both actions take a certain belief in what you do. I believe in writing. I believe in trying to get published. But I stare at my stories and am filled with enough neurosis and dread to flood a small nation. Why is that?

I was willing to face the reaction I got at the clinic, but to face reactions to my writing…

What scares you? What has scared you that you went and did anyway? (Like me writing this to you.)

16 thoughts on “Things You Shouldn’t Write About

  1. John Keats said it pretty well, and when I read it the first time, I began to understand what he meant and each successive time I read it, I fear it more, but do it anyway:

    WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
    Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
    Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
    When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
    And think that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
    And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
    Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
    Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
    Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

  2. I have too much to say about this for one comment. I’m going to blog about it – maybe tomorrow. Today I have to prepare for and attend a meeting of my writing group, something I look forward to immensely and am also scared of.

  3. I used to think it was the possibility of failure that scared me, once I shifted from writing-for-me to writing-for-others. In retrospect, though, I think the possibility of success scared me even more.

    Lawsuits. Book-signing tours. New people, new temptations. Could I manage it all and stay sane and happy and anchored? A lot of people don’t, you know. To be fair, a lot of them do, but how strong was I? Would I be able to hold the center, to keep the new from sweeping away the old?

    It’s what I like to think now, anyway.

    But my very best stories I’ve always saved for myself. 😉

  4. I think that the risk is very different between your (very laudable and brave) escort volunteerism and sharing your writing. Writing is sharing your soul, your most secret self, what you have put so much into and love like a veritable child–and to have it rejected would be a pain that would be harder to recover from than getting shot. Injuries are just physical pain; emotional pain permeates everything.

    1. True. I knew I wasn’t any of the things the man called me. I worried only for my physical well-being. But writing–egads! If I’m called an idiot, a wannabe, a bad writer… well, I can’t believe these things aren’t really true.

  5. What a great story. Thanks for sharing it.

    I am afraid to share my writing, the stuff that means the most to me. I think that’s why I keep most of it locked up, hiding. Every time I got close to taking the big steps, I decided writing was a stupid idea, selfish, unrealistic, and i would change my direction. Afraid of what critics would say. Afraid of what all those people from my college will think, the writers, the professors, the wannabe writers. The adviser who dumped me because he thought I wasn’t good enough to write a book of poetry, and never wanted me to split the project between poetry and fiction anyway. Blah.

    I’m tired of being so scared.

    What about you?

    1. I’ve thought about writing about this time in my life for a long time, but was worried about it. Such a dangerous subject and I was afraid of what people would think or say. But I still think I did the right thing, and that helps.

      And yes–I’m tired of being scared, too.

  6. I’ve never been to a protest, although I am profoundly pro-life. That seems like a scary place to be and being in the thick of things doesn’t sound appealing at all to me.

    I think there are a lot of things that are scary to me. Some of them I’ve had to face. The abusive boyfriend, the hateful ex, having to defend yourself because someone else decided to hit you. Those are scary to me. All you can do is get through them as quickly as possible.

    1. This was after laws were passed about how close protestors could be, so it wasn’t like a clinic in the 80s. It wasn’t that crazy. I’m profoundly pro-choice, but I never wanted to argue with the people on the other side. I was never going to persuade people standing in the street and that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to help women feel safe whatever they chose.

      You’ve obviously had scary things happen and know how to face them and keep going. What else can anyone do if they don’t want to be defeated? Get up and keep going.

  7. I started to reply, like, a half-dozen times. I’ve even got the germ of a very detailed reply in a note stored on my cell phone.

    This is a tricky set of questions for me because I’m so generally fearful about so many things. Not genuinely fearful — not phobic, not like one of the recluses who never leaves his house because, well, who knows what might happen? But fearful enough to be immobilized by indecision.

    (The Missus believes this is partly because I’m what she considers a classic Gemini: of two minds about everything.)

    I think the fear of submitting my work must partly be a child’s fear of facing consequences — not fear of the consequences themselves, but of facing them. (After all, what would be the greater calamity to me — that my work goes forever unpublished because it was rejected? or because I never gave anyone the chance of accepting it?)

    An ex-boss, many years ago, once told me I could possibly get away with just about anything because I was likable. Which is a nice and convenient thing, I guess. But with submitting my work, I’m doing it in a vacuum: the editor cannot be charmed by my boyish grin or my mischievousness jokes or the way I (don’t) comb my hair or by this or that. I’m not there to help it out at the moment the thumb wavers between up and down. It’s gotta stand on its own. Poor, fearful, shivering story. (Poor, fearful, shivering me.) What I create on paper, to have life, has to live it on its own. The thing is, I haven’t just CREATED it, like it’s a separate being: I’ve transferred pieces of myself to it.


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