You write, and plan [the book] afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive. I don’t mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them. — Barbara Ueland
Today I will be talking to a group of researchers about my book. As I planned my talk, I found myself wanting to sound high-minded and erudite. I wanted to use big words and have profound purposes. I wanted to make my project sound intellectual and deep and complex. I felt like I had to justify what I was doing.
Instead, I wrote this:
Goal #1 – Tell the stories of these people.
How did they spend their days?
Who did they love?
Where did they go?
Goal #2 – Find their descendants.
Goal #3 – Understand my place in this story.
That’s about it. The truth of why I’m writing – to tell stories, to find, to understand. I could make this all about greater scholarship on slavery and understanding this horrible system’s legacy to our country; I could talk about racial injustice and my own culpability, and I wouldn’t be lying or inflating my project – those things are elements of this work, too.
The deeper, more honest reality, however, is that I want to know these people, to know where they are now, to understand who I am because of them.
This work is personal. It’s about stories and history and identity and truth – personal, real truth. I can’t prove this work with science or even historical fact. I can only write it.
I take comfort and great hope in these words from Ueland:
You don’t have to prove it . . . . Say it. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.
So I write without the strictures of proof or expectations. I write to find truth for these people and for myself. It feels worthy. It feels like freedom, in some small way, for all of us.
What about you? Why do you write? Whose truth are you seeking? Are you trying to prove the truth? Can you?
Note – The quotes from Barbara Ueland can be found in her great book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit. It’s a key title for any writer’s bookshelf.