“What do you want to do, write for MAD Magazine?” my dad asked. Concern on his brow. Disapproval in his tone. “Why can’t you write about something else?”
I shrugged. I thought it was funny. My fifth grade teacher, however, refused to publish the political cartoon I had made poking fun at Vice President Quayle for misspelling potatoes (or tomatoes or whatever it was) in our school news paper. She said it was disrespectful.
That was about the same time I wrote an essay for a contest at school. We were supposed to write about our family. I couldn’t wait for my parents to see my winning piece, hanging in the front hallway at school for the whole world to read. “Although we’re not very close, we still love each other…” was the only line either of them spoke aloud. “Why would you write that?”
And so it began. Censorship. Criticism. I didn’t know what I would do with my writing back then. I just knew that I was good at it. All of my teachers praised me. I could put together a research paper or book report easily. And when I got to write about whatever I wanted to write about, that’s when I really shined. I didn’t know where it would lead, I just knew that it felt good.
In High School, I kept my poetry stashed in a folder in my locker so my parents wouldn’t find it. My English teacher frequently pulled me aside. “Are things okay at home? Should I be worried about you? You’re not actually suicidal, right?” I’m sure I scared her to death, but it was my catharsis, my therapy, my art. The words flowed from me, even back then, and brought a healing to my soul that nothing else could.
Since then, I’ve scribbled in a hundred journals, and on secret sticky notes, and kept volumes of things typed in every electronic device I’ve ever owned. At some point, about eight years ago, I decided to put myself out there with a silly little blog I called, Dysfunction Diaries.
I will never forget my first public post. I was so excited to share hilarious stories about my crazy family- ala my ‘Mad Magazine’ roots. “Renee, this might be the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.” someone commented on Facebook. “Maybe,” I replied. “Or, maybe I am on the verge of something genius.” That is where it all began. For every criticism, I received at least 10 compliments. This is still true today.
The tough part about writing creative non-fiction, is that it makes people around me a little itchy sometimes- especially the ones who tend to take themselves too seriously. Still, it’s the genre I’ve naturally gravitated to since I was a kid. Truth has always been stranger than fiction in my world. Although I do write some straight memoir work, mostly it is creative non-fiction- meaning that it’s based on a real story, but dramatized, embellished, exaggerated, and prettied up for comedic and/or dramatic effect. (It’s art, people.)
I think my toughest critics fail to realize sometimes, that when I’m talking about my crazy family- I’m also talking about myself. Clearly, I do not take myself at all seriously. I truly believe that laughter can be the best medicine. I also believe that there is a time to be humorous, and a time to be serious. Whether I write humorously or seriously about my past, my family, my divorce, spiritual, political, or social issues- I am putting my heart and soul on the page for the world to read. It takes a thick skin, and a certain amount of vulnerability to put myself out there for the world, but it is what I love. I am thrilled to do it.
Whenever I share my stories, I am amazed at the responses. It’s not just laughter, or the occasional criticism. More often than not, the reaction I receive is “Oh my God. Me too.” It’s amazing. By sharing little pieces of myself, and opening the dialogue with my story, people in turn open up and share pieces of themselves with me. This is why I do what I do. If my story can help, encourage, support, and/or inspire just one person, I am honored to share it.
So, to answer the question that has followed me from my elementary school days, “Why would you want to write about that?”. There are so many answers. Because, it’s true! Because, it happened to me! Because, it’s cathartic, healing, and therapeutic for me to write, and for others to read. Because, I own my sh*t, I’m not afraid to share it, and I do not fear judgement for it. Because, the story is like a parasite in my brain, and the only way to save myself from it is to put it on the page. Because, it can be of benefit to others who share my struggles. Anyone who has dealt with mental illness, abuse of any kind, married the wrong person, had their babies in their teens, grew up poor, has struggled with weight, substance abuse, loss… everyone can relate to something about my story.
Every experience in my life has brought me to this moment, and I have no choice but to take this leap of faith. I trust and believe that I was given this story, and the talent to tell it, with a purpose. My intention is never to hurt anyone with my work. Quite the contrary. There is no malice in my heart. This is not to say that the story is always a pretty one. Rather, it is an honest glimpse inside the heart and soul of me, with the sincerest hope that it will help and inspire everyone who takes time to read it.
I own everything that has happened to me. It is my privilege, my joy, and my duty to share it. It is my dharma- my purpose in life- to write, share, and speak my truth to all who can benefit from it. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. (And, to be clear… I definitely don’t want to…)