Making Art Public
In June 2017, the piece of writing that “made me a writer” got published in an online literary magazine that I love called Hippocampus Magazine. What I mean by that is that I simply had to find a way to write this essay.
The piece, called “Maybe We Can Make a Circle” is about, at its heart, the day my dad was murdered in a school shooting by a disgruntled teacher. My dad was a small district school superintendent and, therefore, a public figure. The high school population barely exceeded 600, and the town population in 1994 was just shy of 4000. What I didn’t realize during the many years that I spent writing this piece and grieving my dad’s death was that this wasn’t my family’s story alone. The shooting changed the lives of so many students, parents, school employees, first responders, doctors, extended family members, and anyone who read a newspaper and felt the horror of this tragedy bumping up against their own lives. The story is/was/will always be an intersection in all of our emotional landscapes. Publishing this work made it insanely clear to me that we are all part of an acute shared history.
When I posted a link to the story on my personal Facebook page, to my surprise, people started reading the story; sharing it; and writing comments publicly on Facebook threads and privately through Facebook messenger, and via my professional email account, which is easy to find if you Google me.
Thousands of people read the story. Thousands of people.
I can safely say that nothing I’ve written before has been read by thousands of strangers, acquaintances, writers, family members, townspeople, etc. I will never know for sure just how many people read the piece, but I will say that I heard from dads whose kids I babysat when I was 12 and 13. I heard from my mom’s college roommate, the son of my high school basketball coach, a woman who was on the school board when my dad was hired, the boy I had a big crush on in middle and high school who never liked me back, my foreign exchange family in Spain, and the list goes on and on. The story even found its way to being featured on WordPress Reader. The lit mag’s website said it was shared over 2500 times just on Facebook alone.
At first, it felt really strange to know so many people were reading this intimate account of my life. I think all writers sometimes fantasize about being published, but the moment that happens the piece leaves the writer’s control and takes on a wild life of its own. I don’t think I was truly prepared for it. I was/am both grateful and terrified.
All of the messages that came in through various channels had one thing in common: Each sender told me a related story.
When I think about why I write and publish, this is the main reason. Because each story leads to another, and another. The stories that readers told me remind me that I am never all alone, even if I feel like I am at times.
It’s easy to forget that one person’s writing can shine a light into the darkest corners of others’ hearts and help them wrestle with grief, loss, uncertainty, shame, silence, and guilt or give them permission to speak by propping open the door with a related story.
So, if I ever wonder again why I write, then I must remember that I do this partly to be in community with other people. I do this to make another person less alone. I do this to help someone else feel understood. I do this because stories connect human beings, and they name the desire and fear that we all carry with us, and all the hope too.
In art, there is a “we,” and we need that community now more than ever to show that we are human beings composed of the same fibres and cells as the man or woman sitting next to us. We are all striving and scared as fuck.
Thanks to Hippocampus for publishing my story, and thanks to all the people who paused their lives to read and respond.