WRITING LIFE: Writing My Way Out by Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge

My writing career peaked at age seven. I had been hunched over my dad’s Apple IIc for weeks, clad in my  pajamas, weaving together every nursery rhyme and fairy tale I knew. I made Jack a farmer in a town called Dell, who failed because he refused to diversify from beans to livestock; I moved Goldilocks out to the suburbs to look for a mid-size rambler; I put Cinderella to work for Merry Maids, only to be swept off her feet by the CEO. As the dot matrix printer screeched, I felt a satisfaction I didn’t fully understand. I knew I had created something that made me laugh, and that seemed rather wonderful. I do not remember if it made other people laugh (a detail that now seems mildly significant), but I felt proud. I had written for the sheer joy of it, without wondering what might come from it or whether anyone else would approve. And I haven’t done it again since.

Through my teen years, I made several abortive attempts at keeping a journal. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty I managed to fill three-quarters of one slim volume. These entries, written with an increasingly self-conscious eye towards what one “should” journal about, came in spurts—long paragraphs one day followed by months of silence—and are most easily navigated by whatever boy I was sublimating my desire for at the time. Regarding John: “We need to spend more time together.” On Josh: “Josh wanted to take a picture with me… Josh told me I was his hero…” Lucas closely follows Josh (“truly an amazing person”), and even authors a guest entry. In college there’s another John (“We spend so much time together. So why am I jealous?”) who consumes pages and eventually makes another guest entry. When I read these now, I am dumbfounded by the pages and pages of talking around the thing, like the genteel lesbians in Tennessee Williams’ Something Unspoken. Around the time I moved into a single dorm room with a high-speed internet connection, my journal went silent. For four years I say nothing because I cannot talk around the thing any longer, and I dare not speak it directly.

The next entry picks up the month after I finally speak my truth to my family. I write a new name in my journal: Darren. The writing in this section is different. It is worse. Less poetic, less polished. It is broken sentences and stream-of-consciousness questions that circle back on themselves, reflecting the paralysis I felt, trapped between my Evangelical family and my new love. Prior to coming out, writing had been a way to hide from myself. I had spun sentences into an elaborate mask I felt I could own and control. When the mask wore thin and I finally dropped it at the age of twenty-three, my writing took on a different purpose. Following Louise DeSalvo’s guidance in Writing as a Way of Healing, I leaned on the definitiveness of words, hoping they might lead me out of the murky morass my life had become. In that time, I could not tell left from right or top from bottom. But I knew that verbs followed subjects, and were sometimes followed by objects. I put one word down and then another, practicing writing the things I had been afraid to say my whole life—so afraid that I had even forgotten the desire to say them.

Most days, I am still just practicing this.

Since I began writing seriously, the challenge has been to balance the honoring of my rediscovered voice with the reality that not everything it has to say is ready for the larger world. I’ve inflicted my navel-gazing and philosophical bemusement on innumerable editors and agents who I assume must find them as interesting as I do. It is hard to see this voice rejected because it took so long to call it out from the shadows within me. Like a seven-year-old who wants to wear his favorite pajamas for the class picture, I thought my most unvarnished self would be something everyone would admire. Many, many rejections later, I feel more like the parent of that seven-year-old, who knows that he must find a way to make the child presentable without crushing his spirit; who knows that it is fine to have favorite pajamas and to wear them often, but that other venues call for other presentation.

My first novel, started seven years ago, still sits on my shelf, stuck somewhere between its pajama and penny loafer stages. It is caught in arrested development like a teenager who cannot tell where his parents end and he begins. I’ve had to practice coming to terms with that, too—realizing that this literary child may not be the one who grows up and wins the Nobel. This may be the one who stays home and lives a quiet life among a small group of friends. The challenge is to love that child anyway—to find the right way to push him towards the best version of himself without pushing him to be something he is not.

My prose still does not flow as freely as it did in my pre-coming out days. I often end up staring into my screen or out of the window in a kind of paralysis, not because what I’m trying to say is so painful, but because saying anything—that is, saying it truthfully, saying it well—is so damn hard. I am still hampered by the fear that the things I write will be read by my relatives, my students, my husband, and that they will be misinterpreted, or even properly interpreted, in ways that I’ll regret.

One of the first lessons anyone learns in a fiction class is that you can’t protect your characters. It is the mistake of the novice to create a world and characters we love and wish to protect. If we write around obstacles to shield our beloved characters from any true harm or from making choices that might cause readers to judge them negatively, it makes for shallow fiction because there is ultimately nothing at stake. Nice Guy Suffers Medium Setback and Emerges Even More Likable is not a compelling story.

But I see now how protection – for myself or the characters I put on the page – can also lead to a life without resiliency. Only experience can teach that when we fall we can stand back up, that when we hurt it does not mean we are dying, that when we are alone it does not mean we must be lonely, that when we fail it does not mean we are failures. Even if I bruise or hurt, in my life or on the page, I want to discover the joy amidst the struggle. I want to remember, as I continue to compose myself, that the real worth of the story is in the writing of it.

 

Jonathan Freeman-CoppadgeJonathan Freeman-Coppadge is fiction editor at Oyster River Pages. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Fatherly, and Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf & Stock). He lives and teaches at Groton School. Find him on Twitter: @jdcoppadge.

 

 

 

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