The Telling

Two figures standing at the window, peering out at nothing as they share a cigarette in the dark. One speaks of the old world sorrow and the old world grief, speaks of that which still troubles the soul years after it came to pass. Speaks while the other listens, his kindred in the moment.

Why does he share?

In his introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five (part-autobiography, part-psychedelic take on the horrors of war) Kurt Vonnegut offers a possible answer, sharing the story of Lot’s wife, morbidly curious as she flees the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.

The speaker shares because it still clings to him, and because he can’t let go. Because even as he reaches for the promise of the new world, he stands rooted in the old world grief and old world suffering. The telling is a hollowing experience that he craves: An exorcism through the story or the page. To tread forward—excise the past.

That the value of writing is catharsis is oft-championed by those who believe writing must be authentic. Not that writing cannot be fantastical or fictional, or even that a writer can only write what he lives, but that the writer must capture an authentic experience: A piece of humanity, felt by someone, relatable to anyone; yearning for release.

But so often, even after the telling, the past remains. So often, the speaker in the dark leans against the window frame, little changed. After telling this story for the umpteenth time. Recall Slaughterhouse-Five’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, whose feet still freeze blue in his apartment years after his miserable trudge through the snow as a prisoner of war.

So it goes.

The listener however—

Sylvia Plath wrote Lady Lazarus shortly before her death by suicide in 1962, describing her fatalistic attachment to death once every decade (she died at 30, on her third encounter with death). The telling did not change her, did not loose her bonds to fatalism.


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

But in her readers, it inspired reams of writing. The radical feminist, challenging the monolithic patriarchal oppressor. The fatalistic human trapped within cycles without choice: Is the cycle enduring, or can it be broken? In this case, the death of the author is literal.

Plath ends her poem with this:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air

Often, we write and create because of that which binds us. The nostalgia which binds us to past experience. The idealism which binds us to the dream, or binds us to an elusive future yet to be. The patriotism that binds us to home.

The telling might not change the storyteller, might never erase the bond, but hopefully, the telling changes you.