sticks and stones

Words will never hurt me.

Almost five years ago I published a collection of short stories and a novel, and exhibited my artwork in my first solo exhibition—all within the space of a year. Yes, I was manic.

I had not read either of my books since then, and have only looked at some of those early paintings because I recently restructured my website to make way for new ones. With the novel, my feelings are pretty straightforward: I am afraid to read it. It is largely autobiographical, and was my way of processing the loss of my oldest and best friend (so you can imagine there is a lot of anger and sadness there). I will get around to it eventually, just not now.

My paintings are easy. I simply cull. Any painting that no longer accurately represents what I want to say (or was painted badly, frankly), I simply take down from the website. In the studio, I reuse the support, paint something new. It’s like the old one never existed.

But my short story collection. This has haunted me in the last couple of days. Now that I have some distance from the stories, I feel like I can be more objective about them. I have reread the collection. Some are good; one or two are very good. And a number of them are not very good at all. I know I was writing filler stories by the end, trying to get enough pages in to complete the collection. I was not paying attention to quality. I was accepting mediocre writing.

But that’s not the worst of it. The thing is, those stories will never go away now. They cannot be edited or culled. I have to live with them as a part of my creative output forever. My one solace has been that very few people will ever read them, and fewer will judge them (because most of my readers are family).

Until yesterday. A family member on my partner’s side had started to read my stories, and took umbrage at one of them. She was heartbroken. Which, frankly, breaks my heart.

It is true that there were connections between characters or events in the story and people or occurrences in real life. But I never meant them as character assassinations. It was more an exercise in borrowing this and that to build a story that was ultimately about psychological and behavioral reactions to feelings of inadequacy.

But how to explain this when someone only sees themselves in something you’ve written?

My body was overcome by icy-hot tingles when I heard the news. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so ashamed—of my work, or putting it out into the world at all, ashamed of my manic self. I felt exposed. And weirdly, I felt humiliated. Understandably, I felt misunderstood. Again. (Which, in a way, is also an emotion explored in the story in question.)

How do I deal with that? How do I deal with my own horrible feelings as well as those of my family member? How can I take away something that was written and then published? How can I keep readers from being hurt by my fiction? How can I atone for what I’ve done in a manic episode?

Words cut deep. And somehow, words are never enough to make things whole again.