Writers must have a tiny, undiscovered organ that makes us salivate when we hear certain stories.
The account I heard of a tragic childhood event could have been the premise of an entire novel. As told in a few sentences, the story immediately suggested how an infant's death might resonate through four or five generations.
The incident belonged to a memoirist, for whom it was not fiction. The version she chose to tell supported her tale of personal growth, leaving aside for the most part the rich plot implications already percolating through my imagination.
I wonder if I could use that, I thought.
No, writers don't have an extra organ. We have a disease.
Last week, I spoke at length with a man who is bi-polar, recently spent time in a psych ward and just discovered that the therapist he likes is not covered by his health plan. He lost his phone while in the hospital and lacks the Minnesota ID required to get a new one. He has some supportive relationships and participates in programs that help him, but they are spread across the metro, which he travels by bicycle.
The day before, he had a flat and his repair failed, leaving him shaking in frustration beside the path until another cyclist saw him and, in an exceptional act of kindness, helped him get back on the road.
The story would be better with more of the details but I am still feeling my way here in the Peace House.
For years in this blog, I have been sharing accounts of my shelter and day center encounters with people who have experienced severe disruptions to their lives. I've also written a novel that draws upon knowledge gained as a volunteer.
Some of the people I've written about know I am a writer, others probably see me as just another grey-haired volunteer. The organizations I serve know about this blog and have never asked me to do anything differently, so I take that as a sign that I haven't overstepped.
They think of what I'm doing as outreach, awareness-raising, lifting the scrim that obscures the issues related to homelessness.
But in this new place, I find my role as listener altered. I'm not an unpaid worker who is tending the door, wrangling preschoolers, handing out towels or scrubbing toilets. The conversations I enter aren't incidental to my assignment—they are my reason for being here.
And that makes me question anew how much of what I learn I should disclose. If community members are conscious of a writer in the room, will it affect their comfort or inhibit them? I tell stories, but maybe some don't want to be in the story, even if it's told with empathy and tact. And I certainly don't want to become an institutional filter. Been there, done that.
People who have been placed in a category we call "homeless" know all about selective context, of having the details of their lives either exaggerated or left out, of being a character in someone else's narrative—whether it's fundraising for a cause, representing a point of view about social breakdown or simply playing the dead body at the opening of a "Law and Order" episode.
I'll have to find my own proper place in these stories, too, if I am to be an authentic participant and not just a fly on the wall.
Whose story are we telling here? It's something we should talk about.