Last Wednesday I was ecstatic to read my writing professor's critique of my final long essay, which I wrote about Noah being a cop. My professor was hugely encouraging--he told me I should stick with nonfiction, because I have a talent, he says (do you hear that? it's my bell, and I'm ringing it)--and that he wants to help me send out that particular essay for publication. A wonderful, terrifying prospect.
I'm a professional writer and editor. I've had my work in print for several years now, but never anything really personal. I've had poetry published, but in poetry, using symbolic language can cast a protective veil. In personal essay and memoir--at least good personal essay and memoir--honesty, transparency and self-awareness are not optional, they're essential. It is the most vulnerable flavor of writing there is, because criticism and argument and backlash aren't just about your craft or your opinion, they're about you. (Yes, this subject warrants this many emphatic italics.)
Jim over at Sweet Juniper wrote a post that in part discussed how some urban activists criticized his work documenting the city of Detroit, accusing him of painting a portrait of the city they simply didn't like. My essay incited some similar sentiments (say that three times fast).
Everyone in my class is supportive, constructive and heartfelt, so I didn't feel personally attacked. But I was surprised. They know me, and they even know Noah. I wasn't expecting my personal truth to threaten and incense like it did. Maybe now I know a little of how Noah feels every time he puts on a uniform: People stop seeing him, so flooded are they by their politics, their prejudices that police officers are politicized and prejudiced. Everything stereotypical about a cop? Noah is none of those things. And it doesn't matter one bit. I'm sure this will be a controversial statement, and at the least an unpopular one, but here goes: Police officers are just as discriminated against as any minority.
There's a neighborhood that Noah used to work which is ravaged by drug culture. People in my class had a problem with how I depicted that neighborhood, with ramshackle dwellings, addicted citizens, neglected children--even the fact that I used the term "drug culture" itself--and turned a scene where I literally described exactly what I saw into a derogatory commentary on race and class. But...it's all true. I wasn't commentating on a race of people or a class of people, I was speaking the truth of one street in our city. And the most frustrating part is, Noah has a stronger bond and more meaningful relationship with the residents of that street than any of the "activists" do. He's been in their homes. He's talked with them. They have confessed their sins as a parishioner to a priest, compelled by his willingness to bear honest witness.
He sees the people of this city at their worst, their lowest moments, in their most vulnerable personal circumstances. They confide in him, they rail against him; they thank him, they threaten him. Noah has arrested people who are more friendly toward and respectful of him than average citizens pulled over for minor traffic violations.
In the community at large, there is little empathy for police officers until there is tragedy.
One of the suggestions made to me by a critic was to incorporate some more "self-awareness" into that scene. That I should acknowledge my whiteness, my class; in short, to be apologetic for being the one to speak the truth of that neighborhood. Another critic referred to that scene as a place where "cop culture" was showing. Thankfully, someone else spoke up and pointed out that using the term "cop culture" was just as problematic as anything I wrote might have been. I can say from experience, until I was part of it, I knew nothing of real cop culture. And neither does anyone else who isn't a part of it.
It's exhausting to always be on the defensive, to be forced to overcompensate for other people's misconceptions. Why should I, when writing about my personal experience, have to acknowledge that there are cops who have made terrible mistakes, who are corrupt, or who just aren't good people? There are people in every community who make terrible mistakes, who are corrupt, who just aren't good people. Nobody should have to write an apologia for their entire race, their community, their species, as a precursor for being listened to. Everyone knows those stories, and they aren't ours. Few people know our story. Few people want to know our story.
Sometimes, the truth is ugly.
I want to read your essay. I promise I won't judge Noah, police, drugs, ramshackle dwellings, or your being a part of the human race.
I've been lurking around here for awhile, and I must say that your thoughtful commentaries are always my favorite. I agree that non-fiction is harder than fiction (just like stand-up comedy is harder than stage acting). It's YOU, and more than any other medium, people are being critical of YOU, which can be an awfully hard pill to swallow. (Sorry, no italics, so all caps'll have to do. :)).
I did a non-fiction independent study in college and I wrote a piece on a horrible experience I had on a trip to Egypt. Never had I felt more naked on a page, and each red mark from my professor felt like a personal slight. But, it makes us better, more honest people.
Anyway, my two cents. Thanks for writing! OH, and PS, your earlier post today about your son ALMOST made me ovulate. So sweet. :)
Thank you both for your encouraging words! I'm currently in the revisions process with my essay, but I'll share it with anyone who would like to read it next week, after it's done.
Put me on the list to read your essay! I don't want to get all deep on the comment section... so I will just say - I hear you babe and can't wait to read!
I would also very much like to be put on the list to read your essay. Ditto...what Amber said... :)!
Ha! I DID IT! I actually POSTED on your blog! YES! Awesome. :D! I'm finally rewarded for not giving up! HA!
Having just finished reading your essay I have to say I'm disappointed and surprised that you got this kind of feedback from some classmates. NOT ONCE while I was reading your essay did race enter into my mind. Not once. I pictured what the street you described must look like, and what the houses, and the yards, and the inside of the homes, must look like. Never through your candid description did I feel I was painted a picture of a specific race of people. Even now, after reading this post, I'm asking myself--what color were the people in my mind as I was envisioning them in the story (such as the baby w/o a diaper)? My answer: white. Because I'm white, and when no other indication is given, I guess that's what I default to. I'm sorry to hear you got feedback that made you feel otherwise. I, for one, hope you don't change a thing.
Thank you Thank you Thank you all for your support.
Also, a point of clarification: The version of the essay that I posted was revised from the one I presented in class. In that version, I indicated that the neighborhood was the city's oldest historically black neighborhood, and had lost much of its pride because of the drug culture that had overwhelmed that area.
Because I didn't want this to be a commentary on race in any way, I removed all reference to race and included the city website's description of the area: "severely distressed."
And finally, discussions of race and class issue are extremely important. And it's almost impossible to discuss police culture without race and class becoming topics of contention. However, that's not what I'm addressing in this piece, I think it's addressed enough by the media, which is why I altered that section.
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