Somewhere in the middle of my fifth draft, I realized I was full of shit. Not that I was lying. I wasn’t. But I wasn’t telling the whole truth, either.
The draft was for an essay on being engaged — specifically, on choosing a ring for my engagement. Having gone through a painful divorce, and being a single mother for the previous four years, I had complicated feelings about the subject. Complicated feelings are what personal essays were made for. The challenge is finding your way to the center of the tangle.
After my first marriage ended, I threw my simple gold wedding band out the window of a moving car. I was driving down a country road in western Maine, where I lived at the time. It was a split-second decision, an entirely impulsive gesture that I thought might bring some closure to the betrayal I felt. I was right. It did. As the ring sailed into the ditch, I felt a certain lightness.
Years later, after my boyfriend and I decided to get married, the idea of choosing an engagement ring angered and frustrated me. Whenever I went into a jewelry store, the rings I saw were big, expensive and showy. Nothing seemed to suit my personality, my experience or my perspective on what it meant to be engaged. I started to reject the concept of engagement rings altogether. What did it mean anyway? Having a diamond on your finger has no bearing on a couple’s commitment. A partner can still cheat. A partner can still tell a lie.
Like any other essayist, I decided to write about it. The essay turned out to be one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written. It also turned out to be one of my favorites.
The first four drafts struggled to answer the essential question of the essay: why. “I’m not sure what’s keeping me from finding the right engagement ring,” I wrote. “Maybe it’s the prescribed traditions of getting married that make me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the commercialized implication that a big shiny diamond means he really loves you.”
Those things were true, but they weren’t my truth. A wall existed in my writing, just like the wall that existed in my heart.
By the fifth draft, I started to think my feelings had more to do with that ring in the ditch than anything else. Divorce had been devastating, and I was terrified to let myself be that vulnerable again. Personally, my defense mechanism is to reject anything that scares me. I do it in real life. I do it on the page.
The word “essay” comes from “essai,” which is French for “try.” In Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, author Dinty W. Moore says the essayist’s job is not to answer but to explore. “She investigates, keeps an open mind, goes wherever the thought may lead, and, in fact, may end the essay having still not reached a final conclusion.”
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says the purpose of writing is “to expose the unexposed.”
“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must,” she writes. “Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words.”
When I write, I’m never sure where the words will take me. I might have some idea how I feel about my chosen topic, but the act of putting my thoughts on paper is revelatory. Each draft delves a bit deeper, uncovers another layer of meaning, until I understand my subject — and myself — a bit better.
It’s never easy. Some days, I write around the heart of the matter. I tell myself, for example, that engagement rings are stupid, that they represent a commercialism and concept that I want no part of. But if I keep digging, picking and scraping away at the top layer of those feelings, the truth seeps out from inside of me, as vital and elemental as my own blood.
After scrapping the fifth draft of my essay, I stepped away from the computer, got a pencil and a fresh legal pad, and wrote for twenty minutes about why engagements rings scare me. “I want to want that ring,” I wrote. “I really do. But I’m afraid that if I get used to the way it feels, the way it shines on my finger, then everything will disappear. The notion of forever scares me, not because I don’t love the man I’m engaged to, or because I doubt his love for me, but because the future often brings disappointments. People change. Promises get broken. And I’m not sure I’m strong enough to say goodbye to another golden dream.”
I chose a ring, eventually — a vintage band with four small diamonds in the shape of a clover. Without finding my truth about the subject, I doubt I would have been open enough to see the ring for what it is: a symbol of how lucky my boyfriend and I are to have found each other. We married on Dec. 21, 2013.
In creative nonfiction, tapping into truth is essential. Robert Root, author of The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction, says it is both the ends and the means of the genre. “In nonfiction the writer ought to be pursuing truth,” Root writes. “What’s the point of recording or reporting or reflecting if it doesn’t get the writer closer to a better understanding of the way real events, real experiences, real lives — including the writer’s — work?”
Lamott, who is shameless when it comes to finding her deepest truth, says to “write straight into the emotional center of things.”
“Write toward vulnerability,” she writes in Bird by Bird. “Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act — truth is always subversive.”