Posts Tagged ‘secrets’

I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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Writing about The City of Lost Children and little girls’ notions of romance has made me think about a star-crossed love affair from my own childhood.

I thought I was over the loss, but I wasn’t.  When what you had was a secret and what you lost equally secret, you don’t ever get to grieve.

To avoid grieving, I’d half-convinced myself I never felt the things I felt.  When I finally acknowledged it, I was like Doubting Thomas, touching the wound in my own side for proof.  I thought it would be unbearably painful, but it wasn’t.  It turned out to be a relief and full of joy.

My Secret Twin

My Secret Twin

I thought I would never be able to do justice to the story.  I thought I would not be able to reveal the Truth and have it believed.   The man I loved is long dead and defenseless, and I feared it would open him to ridicule or blame or condemnation.  As a writer, you can doubt your skills, but don’t doubt the power of your story to convey Truth to your readers.  Stories carry themselves.  The handful of people I’ve told the story to now…they understand in a way I didn’t really hope for.

I thought all secrets were bad.  They’re not.  Some are beautiful.  Some are so beautiful you want to share them with people.  Others are so beautiful you want to keep them secret.

If kept long enough, I assumed all secrets went one of two ways: dissolved like a baby tooth in cola or burst like a swollen appendix, leaking poison into your body.  Many of them do, but others turn to scars, badges of honor on your skin.  Others yet turn into fantastical things, like an absorbed twin encased within you.  Strange, yes.  Disturbing, yes.  Still, somehow wonderful: a fellow traveler you’ve carried in your flesh.

Of this secret, I have wondered if it were a little bundle of hair and teeth, sealed up inside me, my fetus in fetu.  Or perhaps it’s more that I’m a chimera.  The only thing left of that younger me is her blood running in my veins.

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