“Happens to Be”

I love the expression “happens to be.”

We say it when we are pointing out something about someone’s social identity.  The thing we are identifying is held, by some groups, to be a pejorative.  Using the expression says that you are not one of those small minded people.  You are mentioning a distinction in passing, but it is not that important to you.  It doesn’t define how you see that person.  You hardly even notice it really.

Except you pretty much only use the expression in a context  in which the distinction actually is important.  You would probably not say, for example, “I handed my friend Julie, who happens to be a lesbian, the book.”  That would be weird.

You’re much more apt to use it when you’re speaking in a context in which the information about the person’s race/religion/political affiliation/gender identity is relevant. For example, you are talking about how the state of Virginia combined Martin Luther King Jr day with a celebration of Confederate soldiers and ended up with a compromise that pleases no one— “Lee Jackson King Day.”

One of your friends had something pithy to say about this and, by the way, she “happens to be” African-American.  In this context, you bring her race up because her perspective as a person of color is actually a relevant part of the story.

Yet you don’t want the listener to think you just go around all the time calling Lois “My Black Friend.”  “Happens to be” signifies that we’re comfortable with the difference we’re pointing out.  That’s what we’re trying to say with the words.  What we’re also saying, less intentionally, is that we’re uncomfortable talking about this difference.  That’s a lot of work for three little words to do.

Write from Where Souls Grow Warm

My father was a writer. He wrote speeches, articles, non-fiction books and beginnings of novels. When he passed away about six years ago he left stacks of papers, articles with underlines, material for future consideration and notes for creative works that will never be completed because he held the only key to decipher them. Then there were hundreds of books, dusty, moldy and underlined. As the writer in the family, I inherited— or made myself the inheritor of— these treasures.

Recently I was going through some of the books, deciding which I should read and which I never would. I picked up a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” and on the inside front cover my father had written these words: “write from where souls grow warm.”

On further reading, I found my father had crafted this gem from an observation of Bradbury’s; that when people speak from the heart they tell stories that rival any great author: “…they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets.”

People do not become poets when they speak from their minds— from what they know. They become poets when they write from what they feel. Empathy and imagination are, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, more important than knowledge.

That old chestnut “write what you know” is only partially correct.

Your writing will not be authentic if it is too much of a stretch, too far from your own experience. But there are different ways to experience the world, and different ways of “knowing” it.

We know the world not only through information and our rational minds, but through our senses, our emotions, our spirits. We breathe the world in, we ache to it, we vibrate to its rhythm. We feel it.

Bonni Goldberg, in her book Room to Write, posed this question to the writing teachers who call out “Write what you know!”

“It’s good advice, I’ve said it myself. But know where: in your heart, in your imagination, your physical life? There are several ways to know anything: experience, research, observation, empathy, association. You have to practice all your ways of knowing.”

Even the least autobiographical fictional story draws from the whole life of the writer, from all of her experience. It evolves out of her curiosity, her passions and her questions; in short, from the place where souls grow warm.

Writing is like putting all of your experiences into a blender, and making a new cocktail of them. When your subconscious has finished its work, you may find that you have a story that surprises you. It was not what your intellect would have urged you to write. It has nothing to do with your biography, and everything to do with your experience of the world. It is what you “know” in your soul, but not what you experienced in your day to day life.

Elif Shafak gave a wonderful TED Talk on the question of how fiction can overcome identity politics.

”..why is it that, in creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is ‘write what you know?’ Perhaps that’s not the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next. In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics. And that is the good news.”