I left my picture on the ground where u walk…
—text message poem, Guardian, Online, 5 December 2002
“Hector, I know you like to read, but it is not normal for a ten-year-old to spend recess reading books. I brought you here to tell me what is wrong but I have been the one doing the talking while you have remained silent for the last twenty minutes; speak to me, sweetheart.” My teacher was right. It was not normal for a ten-year-old to be reading The Arabian Nights while his classmates were playing soccer. What she did not know was that answering her question was going to take longer than twenty minutes. In fact, I am still figuring it out today. Maybe she did not expect me to figure it out; probably she just wanted me to speak up, to say a word or two at that moment. Probably she did not even want me to speak; crying would have done it. I could not. I could not speak out or cry. I could not express my emotions, my feelings, openly and freely. There were certainly more things I was not capable of doing. New in town and at school, I did not know what to make of my new classmates’ jokes about my socks. I did not know how to handle being away from my overprotective single mom for the first time. I did not like living with my uncle’s family; I could not help but hate my oldest cousin when she stole the gummy bears my mom sent me from so far away. But I could not speak up for myself. It was hard for me to express what I was going through, to simply say, “I am angry,” “I am lonely,” “I miss mom.”
George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” is a compelling retrospective in which the author, probably one of the most famous British novelists and essayists of the 20th century, expresses the reasons that motivated him to become a writer. As I read the opening lines, in which he describes how he felt undervalued and unpopular at school, I found interesting resemblances between his childhood and mine. What I find especially interesting is his assertion that there is an “emotional attitude” that fuels the pen of every writer before he or she becomes one. Orwell describes four characteristics that define this emotional attitude: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. He also says that the time in which a writer lives will also dictate what he or she writes about, and concludes his essay by establishing that his most meaningful works have been those that carried the political commitment of the time he lived in. As I decide whether or not I have what it takes to be a writer myself, I reflect on the emotional attitude that makes me write and the kinds of writing I look forward to reading. In particular, I wonder if that emotional attitude Orwell describes may affect our need to engage ourselves politically to the times we live in, the reality around us, and how that emotional attitude can also shape how we write and want to read about that age in which we are immersed. In my case, like Orwell’s, that emotional attitude is closely related to my childhood and the best means of expression at my disposal I had at that time: love letters.
Many of us who decide to devote our lives to political causes like to believe that we do it for the sake of helping others. Sometimes, however, much of what we do or write stems from unresolved personal issues related to our emotional attitudes. I like recognition, I strive for aesthetic beauty in writing and whoever bore the burden of reading my essays for University Writing this semester will know the pervading theme was political and historical. However, I struggle to fit myself exclusively into any of these categories. Writing, to me, is more of a necessity than a tool, a necessity to communicate, to speak up or act the way I could not when I was questioned by Teacher Margarita—a need to be heard.
I write because I am in constant need of finding somebody who can read what I write and identify with it, who can make my words his or hers. I want them to be with me now, at the time that I am writing, and thus also at that time when I was ten years old and I did not know how to express my emotions. I want them to let me know that I was not alone before and that I am not alone now when I remember. I need them to let me know that they are with me, for they lived the same things and felt the same way; they cried under their pillows for the same reasons that I cried under mine, however unjustified, however vain, however human. Unlike Orwell’s “sheer egoism” my need to write does not strive from my eagerness to be unique and special, but from my need to feel normal, to feel like everybody else.
My first meaningful experience with writing came with love letters. When I started searching for reasons to become a writer my old high school love letters seemed so distant and superficial in comparison with more politically committed initiatives that going back to them seemed vain. However, the more I have been looking into politically committed writing enterprises the more I realize that my current essays and my old love letters share a fundamental motivation.
When I look back at the essays I wrote this semester I see that this need to belong resides, in some essays more than others, at the core of the emotional attitude that motivated me to write them. In addressing the issue of discrimination against illegal immigrants in America I used my personal experience when I came to America from Latin America as a lens to describe the uneasiness that many immigrants feel when they come to a new world. As a matter of fact, I explicitly wrote that when I stopped living at home and came to the first world trying desperately to feel special and sophisticated, “I entered a new world where I longed to be the same as everybody else.” As I write these lines, I become aware that the circumstances surrounding me during the time when The Arabian Nightswas my best friend resemble the circumstances in which I found myself when I arrived in America when I was older: those being a completely new environment and a need to integrate with the rest of the people. This finding actually makes me wonder whether I subconsciously put myself in the position of immigrating to a new world, as I never resolved the internal conflicts that moving from one place to another created in me during my childhood.
As later course assignments restrained our possibilities, my personal voice was less conspicuous but my need to belong still present. In my research essay I addressed again the issue of discrimination towards illegal immigrants, this time from the conceptual perspective of deconstruction. Despite the fact that the approach was different, the tone of my essay did not change from my first one. Even though my original concern was to unveil the racist nature of a selection of anti-immigrant discourses, the main claim of my conclusion was actually a cry to help illegal immigrants to integrate with the rest of the American population. I argued that discriminating against illegal immigrants and impeding the legalization of their status does not help the process of their assimilation into our culture. Even though discrimination against immigrants is a real problem, and my concern was genuine, I might have been unconsciously projecting my own need to integrate into American culture on all illegal immigrants.
Nevertheless, unlike Orwell, the pieces of writing that inspire me to become a writer now do not come from my intention to change the lives of others. Looking deeper into my emotional attitude toward writing, I see that my need to belong may be understood as a manifestation of a far more desperate cry: a need to feel loved and a difficulty in expressing affection. During my early years of adolescence, whenever I fell in love with a girl, I was not even able to see her face to face, let alone talk to her. Writing was the only means through which I felt confident approaching her. I started writing my first love letters when I was nine years old. I was successful when it came to expressing my feelings with metaphors and far-fetched analogies. My peers started to respect me a little and asked me to write love letters for them; my Literature teacher even called me the poet of the class. They all seemed to like my love letters, except for the girls to whom I wrote the letters. The muses that inspired my words did not want to share the same tables with me during school lunches. For them, the thought that somebody they barely exchanged words with had irremediably fallen in love with them to the degree that my letters attested was not a tribute to their beauty or my devotion to their beings, but an act of sheer freakiness.
And they were probably right. In the same way that I was projecting my need to belong with illegal immigrants, I was probably projecting on these girls with whom I fell in love a need to be acknowledged and desired. This is probably one of the reasons why my love letters were full of passages with details about their eyes, their hair, or the way their mere names gave meaning to my life. I was actually begging loudly to be noticed myself. My words could be seen now as a trap in which I expected others, especially those girls, to notice me, my needs, and my feelings, through the seductive praising of their own qualities.
Love letters have a special meaning for me as a person and as a writer, even if they never worked for me. That is because they never worked until I received one myself. When I was 18 years old I received a love letter from a girl I did not know. She signed the letter with her name, Adriana, confessing that she was in love with me. As I opened it and read through all fifteen lines that someone I had never seen before had carefully written for me, I was enthralled. I felt for the first time that my ability to express my emotions did not matter anymore. Her words were sweet, her tone sincere; she even had a beautiful spelling mistake on line fourteen. I loved the fact that even though the letter lacked any contact information, she had completely exposed herself. She had made a statement. Adriana had perpetuated a feeling she could not take back. I, on the other side, was completely shielded. It did not matter if I took twenty minutes to react to her words after reading them. Everything that was important would reveal itself naturally. All I had to do was to choose a comfortable and quiet place and listen to her. Nothing could be wrong. She loved me. For all I knew, nobody deserved my heart more than she did. No more acts or fears; I could just reread her letter over again. As a matter of fact, I did. I read her letter for days, over and over again. I read her words with delight for I knew they confirmed that I was not the only person unable to confront somebody important to me in person.
Adriana never wrote to me again. Was it a mistake? Did she mean to give that letter to somebody else? I tried by all means to find out who she was but nobody I knew had heard of her. I spent much of my school time looking for her. Perhaps I still am. Whenever I read a book or an essay I am looking for clues to that love letter, for hints of those words that are carefully, if even mistakenly, written just for me. I look for the confirmation in somebody else’s life, fictitious or real, that I have not been alone. I look for a writer who, like Adriana, is able to unknowingly make me feel that I am not the only person unable to express my emotions and frustrations fluently at all times.
Unlike Orwell, many of us do not have an innate facility for confronting difficult realities. Our skills to express our feelings, especially in speech, are one of those realities that writing negotiates. Hence, writing presents itself to us as an opportunity to step back, take a breath, and express our emotions. Sometimes we are unable to better communicate our feelings through writing and we end up concealing our emotions to others and to ourselves, even more than our speech would. Sometimes, writing does serve as an instrument to bring those emotions to the surface, and we do it in such an expressive way that our words transcend our experience; we are able to involuntarily elaborate little love letters that other people are waiting to open up and read.
Not everyone likes love letters; some people actually hate having to write them, even to people they love. However, for those of us who do like them, every time we go to the bookstore and pick up a book we do not know much about, we close our eyes and hope that within those two hundred pages there will be clues to a message coming from somebody we do not know and whose emotional attitude we cannot even suspect. An anonymous human being who has carefully crafted a message directed to us and the experiences we have lived. That is the kind of writing that I would like, and need, to do.
Orwell, George. “Why I Write.” Gangrel. London, 1946.