I took a class on the personal essay and memoir at a weeklong writing conference this summer. What attracts me to these conferences is not just the focus on writing, but on the variety of people I meet. Last week’s class included three widows, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a professor of physiology, a Jewish-Buddhist turned Secular Humanist, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, a conflict mediator, a motherless daughter, an adoptee, and a pastor. The essays we wrote reflected the diversity of our life experiences: a heart-wrenching account of aid work in Haiti, a one night stand, a stripper who boarded her horse at the writer’s stable, a journey of self-discovery through the choice of men’s cologne.
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” reminds me of what becomes clear in every writing class I take. Although we are a diverse people, celebrating and singing our unique songs, every atom of mine is yours as well. Or, in other words, we are deeply and intimately connected through our biology as well as some universal truths about the human condition. These universal truths always arise in the writing workshop: our human desire to know and be known, to be accepted, respected, appreciated and loved; every person has a story to tell; everyone knows pain, suffering, grief and loss; everyone has the power to create, but, like a muscle, our creative side needs to be exercised in order to realize its transformative potential.
Whitman’s words also remind me that we don’t just belong to ourselves, even though our individualistic American culture tells us otherwise. Because of our shared biology and the universal truths of our human condition, we belong to each other. Which means we are responsible for each other. Each writing class I have taken has had a very skilled teacher leading it, but everyone in the class bears a responsibility to each other. The doctor’s oath of “do no harm” could be our oath as well, especially while offering critique on personal writing. In class we practiced how to share space and air time with everyone in the room. We practiced attending to each writer and his or her needs. We practiced offering constructive criticism in a way that could be received well and truly heard. We practiced respect. It wasn’t perfect. Some group members were more responsible and sensitive than others. But this is the challenge of every class, every group, every community made up of fallible human beings. The hope for me, though, comes in the desire to gather and in the connections made across difference—connections we had not realized before, but that always exist among a people who belong to each other.