O God, why you hanging out in that old violin while I’ve been waiting for you to pull me through? — Amos Lee

The strings thrum with heartache as he sings. It’s like pain sits at the back of his throat, and he can’t help but to sing it. I hear this in almost every singer-songwriter I like – Amos Lee, Patty Griffin, Damien Rice, Ellis Paul, Jonatha Brooke, Brett Ryan Stewart.

I wonder how I translate this to the page. I have no guitar to highlight a crucial pause, no harmonica to ache out the emotion, no drums or bass to mainstay the structure. My only tools are little blobs of ink letters shaped into words to curve us around the edges of emotion.


As I heard Damien Rice sing “Rootless Tree” this morning, I slid back into my own heartaches. I drifted into those moments when it felt like I couldn’t breath, when all I could imagine was going back even as I had no choice but to go forward. I have no idea if he was really singing about his own pain, but I imagine he was – I don’t know how you write that true when it’s not yours to write. (That’s probably why I only write nonfiction). But as I pushed my way through this humid morning and his perfectly pitchy voice sung into my ears, I thought about why I don’t feel like I can write about my own broken heart that way.

Some of my hesitation is, I think, about protecting people who I have loved. In some ways, these stories are theirs, and I have no wish to hurt them with my words. I do believe that art should heal, not harm, and so I pull back to be sure that I err on the side of protection.

But as I always tell my students, these stories are also mine. I own them more than anyone else does. I hold fast to the knowledge that we can only live our lives if own our stories. Still, I pull back.

There is definitely a careful line that I need to follow when I write about other people. I need to respect them and our relationship by holding back when what I say serves no benefit to anyone beyond me or when I am betraying a confidence with which I have been graciously entrusted. I also need to be prepared for the response when I put our stories on paper. No two people’s experience of the same event is ever the same, and no two people’s interpretation of that event is ever the same. That’s the bliss and agony of humanity.

Still, I need to be more brave and lay these things out there to live beyond my memory.


Maybe it would help if each of my pieces came with a soundtrack. Someone could write an amazing strumming pattern to back my language with a riff here or there for emphasis. An amazing bassist could lay down the rhythm to keep the piece moving forward while digging into the ground of life. Someone could dig out that old violin and soar a few notes over my words. That would be beautiful and powerful and, well, not writing – that would be music.

I’d just hide in the notes. I’m not a musician; I’m a writer.

So then, I must write. . . and let the ache linger in my own voice as you hear it speak from the page.