He stopped to speak to his guitar teacher, surprised as we were to see anyone else we knew at Joan Didion’s talk here in Herbst Theatre on a Thursday night in San Francisco.

To do what you were made to do

I stood just up the stairs waiting, unable to really converse small at this point, so stolen into Didion’s words and experiences as I was – the death of her husband, then soon after the death of her daughter.

As he returned to me, he said, “Mark is amazed that anyone can write about their personal lives like that. He thinks it’s private, shouldn’t be shared that way.” (Or at least he said something like that – it’s been almost 10 years.)

I couldn’t read his tone as he said this, but he knew (he must have known) what I would say. “I write about personal things all the time; it’s the only way I know to make sense of them.” (Paraphrasing Didion without even knowing it – “I write to find out what I think.”)

I write about them publicly because I want to be understood. Because, too, I want others to find understanding in what I say.

But I didn’t say that last part, or at least I don’t think I did. We walked out into the fog of San Francisco and caught the bus home.

On long car trips – and there were many in my childhood – after I had exhausted all the invisible ink games and read hundreds of pages, I let my eyes wander out the window. I watched the power lines traveling with us and tried to keep them in view for as long as possible. As they veered and tangented off to houses or off through the woods, I tried to imagine what was happening there. Who lived in that house? What did the kids do on days like this? Did centaurs live in that forest?

Then, I quietly began to sing under my breath. I began to sing the stories I wrote in my head, laying them against the power lines like notes on a music staff.

Now, given that I’m taller, it’s easier to watch the roads that run beside the one I’m on, to try to tug it close and keep it near, a parallel story to mine. When it winds away, I sigh, another story turning off from me.

When a guitarist (or a cellist or a pianist or a drummer) puts his fingers to the string, he plucks, or strums, or picks a story out of the notes. The plot spins in the air, and the tone wraps around us like a satin blanket. We find life in that story. We may not love it – but we don’t say that the music is too personal to be shared, that it’s private.

Even though it is.

This judgment, this critique comes to only those of us who work in words or images where others (think they can ) see themselves. Ours is the curse of the recognized.

To take my pain, or my joy, or my question, or my tiny, tiny winged hope and stretch it out into the curves and spikes of language. To tug at the world of life held tight into my chest, hidden there for fear or shame or the protection of forgetfulness. To unwind life onto the page. There lies my healing, my growth, my strength.

My greatest vulnerability.

I can’t help but do it. It is my practice. My work. My life. My song.