Writerland, Chapter 58: Maybe I Do Have a Story
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
Writers too often convince themselves that no no one wants to read their stories. In fact, I hear this lament so often that I can no longer count the number of times I have responded by asking whether they themselves would be interested in a story about a guy whose father dies and whose mother then marries his uncle, who may have had something to do with his father’s death, and oh yeah, he has a girlfriend with issues whose father talks too much.
Nah, they said.
Hamlet, I reply.
The point is that people read all kinds of stories, and not necessarily because they have a particular interest in the topic. Perhaps the best example that we’ve been lucky enough to publish is a story called Damage. Nothing we have published before or since has drawn the audience of this one story.
Damage came to us almost as an aside – very much in the vein of a writer not necessarily sure people would want to read her story, which I can tell you is far more welcome than a writer convinced that everyone will; a little humility is a good thing; not so, too much.
Its author, Mariya Karimjee, had been my student. After graduation she worked in the States before returning to Pakistan. In the spring of 2014 she was visiting New York, looking to line up freelance work, when she stopped by to say hello. I remember I was rushing to attend a colleague’s farewell party and so apologized in advance for not having much time.
We talked about story ideas. Mariya mentioned that she was interested in reporting a story on the enduring and awful practice of female genital mutilation. The story, strictly from a journalistic perspective, was not new and the challenge would be finding a new and compelling way to tell a story that people -- read: editors – might pass on because they felt they already knew it.
I had known Mariya for years, long enough that what she said next stunned me.
I could tell this story from a personal point of view, she said.
Are you telling me what I think you are telling me? I asked.
Yes, she replied, without elaboration or emotion.
I suggested we begin a correspondence, the approach we often use with writers – beginning the back and forth of letters to see where the story leads. Mariya assured me she would write. I hoped she would. She walked me over to the farewell party venue. I walked inside overwhelmed by what I had just learned.
There’s a point in the life of a story when a writer will consider sending that first letter, taking that first step, only to stop. Sometimes they are afraid and sometimes they convince themselves that no reader will care.
I did not hear from Mariya for several weeks. And then, an email arrived with what I thought would be the first memo.
It began: Washington D.C., July 2010
The first and only time I had sex it did not go well. I was twenty-two, a late bloomer by most of popular culture’s standards, and for the year my boyfriend and I had been dating, we’d skirted around the issue. He’d repeated that he was willing to wait, however long it might take me to be ready, and I’d chafed at his understanding.
“Don’t you want me?” I asked after another false start, our breathing heavy. He rolled off me gently, panting. “It didn’t seem like you wanted it,” he replied. He was right. I’d clenched every muscle in my thighs and squeezed my eyes shut when his hand climbed above my knee. That’s when he stopped. For the next two days he was rewarded for his patience by my unwillingness to kiss him back.
I couldn’t explain the crawls that I felt every single time he touched me in the wrong place, or understand the debilitating anger that I felt when he nodded understandingly after I told him I needed a pause. He’d had girlfriends before and I badgered him endlessly about their sexual experiences. He answered all of my questions patiently, never once lying.
It is not often that I can recall in detail the moment and setting when I read a submission or letter. But even now, eight years later, I can recall sitting at a counter at a falafel restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, reading Mariya’s memo on my phone.
After these conversations, as we lay beside each other in his king-sized bed, he would tell me that he loved me, that if I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. For him it was that simple. Yet while I listened to his steady, phlegmy breathing as he slept next to me, I’d be filled with an uncontrollable anger; I’d crawl out of bed and into the bathroom, where I’d stare at my face in the dingy mirror. “You should want him,” I told the wide-eyed girl in the reflection. The truth was that I had no idea what it felt like to sexually want someone so much that I was willing to lose myself to that feeling. I had no idea what it might take for me to let go of all of my fears about sex.
I knew what was to come, or so I thought. I knew it was to be a story about a practice so abhorrent that the word mutilation felt a woeful understatement. Readers will often steer clear of stories that will trouble them. And if ever there was such a story, this would be it.
But that is not what happened.
I finished Mariya’s letter and knew that there was no need for more. Somehow in that one letter she had told her whole story with an urgency and immediacy that editing could only undermine.
We did not touch it. My colleague Mike Hoyt, as fine a headline writer as I have ever seen, captured it in a single word – Damage - followed by a subtitle that told readers all they’d need to know about what was to come: When I was younger, someone took a knife to my clitoris and cut out a small but significant part of me. I blamed my mother. I despised her. I loved her.
To date, tens of thousands of people have read Damage. It was picked up in publications around the world, and I suspect the number of readers is far higher than we know. It was later adapted on This American Life. This suggests that the story was able to break past the network of readers with interest in the subject itself – advocates, victims among them – and had found readers who, had they been asked whether they’d want to read a story about this awful practice might well have declined.
I do not believe they read because the story was about sex – certainly not as described in that powerful opening. Rather they read and, most likely, shared it because the story was less about female genital mutilation and more about a daughter and her mother.
Just as interest in Hamlet has never been confined to those with an interest in fictional Danish political maneuvering, so too do the stories that stop us speak in ways both subtle and obvious about the universal, and with it, the difficult and painful ways we confront those we love.
It is important to remember this when you have a story you feel you must tell but which you are quite sure no one will care about. But if you have such a story, you have to ask yourself: is this story only about me, or about something of interest to me? Or does it transcend the obvious or the particular circumstances?
In an age when memoir feels all the rage, it feels important to remember that a story you are drawn to tell cannot just be your story. It has to be everyone’s. If it is, you will know it because, as happened to Mariya Karimjee, people will discover they need it.
If you’d like to read Damage you can find it here.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. Writerland, The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.