by Marie Hansen
I thought I might have to sit on the floor. I heard that people did that sometimes, at the more well-attended AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) events. Of all the panel discussions I had circled in my massive conference schedule, I thought this was the one with the potential to be packed. It was on memoir writing, and Cheryl Strayed was slated to be part of it. Yes, Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame, lesser known as my favorite author. Suffice it to say, I was excited.
The event was even better than I expected. Strayed said a couple things to which I (mentally) exclaimed, “That’s exactly what I say!” One of those moments happened when she was talking about one of her favorite authors, Edna O’Brien. She said that what she loved so much about O’Brien—and I’m paraphrasing here—is that she articulated truths that Strayed didn’t know how to herself. I was excited by that statement, because it mirrored what I’ve said about why Strayed’s writing is so spectacular. Except I’ve used the more informal—though still accurate, in my opinion—terminology, delivering a truth bomb.
By “truth bomb,” I mean a phrase in a book (or other piece of writing) that resonates with you so acutely you feel it on a cellular level. I started using this term when trying to describe how I felt reading Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Strayed is so skilled at delivering truth bombs, in fact, that her best ones were gathered and published as the quote book Brave Enough. Reading a truth bomb is a moment of raw understanding and pure relief. You’re at once connected—with an author you may never meet— and able to view your inner experience with sharpened clarity. Some moments in life feel like a brush with magic; for me, these fall in that category.
I think truth bombs hold the most power when we’re in pain. One morning two autumns ago, I, without fully realizing what I was doing, sought out a truth bomb. The latter half of 2015 was rough for me. In the summer, I stopped writing, in part because I had said something hurtful to someone who cared about me and thus decided I didn’t deserve to write. Who was I to write about life, when I didn’t even know how to live it right myself? (Of course, the story is more complicated than that, as it always is, but that’s how I told it to myself at the time.) By fall, I decided it was time to give writing another chance. One morning, I began to dip my toes back into the writing pool—or rather, I was staring skeptically at the water from the edge—and I started by browsing some websites that had previously inspired me.
At some point, I started searching for something that spoke to what I was going through. Although some of the facts of my life had changed since the summer, including my decision to give writing another shot, my overall emotional state really hadn’t. I was haunting myself. Some of the decisions I’d made over previous months were too often at the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to emotionally tolerate them, let alone accept their fixed presence in my past or forgive myself for them. In my emotionally charged, all-or-nothing state, I was also angry in a way I rarely wanted to acknowledge, because I believed I would be much more comfortable if I could just blame everything that happened on the other person, which part of me did.
This is all to explain why, while browsing those sites, I started to type words like “regret” and “guilt” in the search bar. Enter. Though at the time I didn’t totally recognize what I was looking for, on another level I knew that words that resonate can wrap themselves around our pain and even change the DNA of it. The relief that a truth bomb can provide—even for just a fleeting moment—is powerful.
To be honest, I didn’t find what I was looking for. Which is not to say I found nothing. I came across thoughtful, honest essays on regret, acceptance, and apologies, but none of them wholeheartedly rang true to what I was going through. At the time, I’m sure I used this as further evidence that I was broken in an especially unique and messed-up way. But in the months after, another thought came to me, and it popped up frequently throughout the week of the conference where I got to see Cheryl Strayed: maybe I get to be the one who writes the thing I was looking for.
Being a lover of reading, I sometimes have a sense of being overwhelmed in a way that I bet is pretty universal. There aren’t enough free hours in the day for me to read everything I want to. Being a writer, I feel similarly—though more neurotically—overwhelmed. With all the talented, thoughtful writers putting work out there, what’s the point of me doing this? Many possible responses come to mind, but the one that rings most true to me is based on that experience of not finding what I was looking for. There are infinite stores to be told, and therefore infinite possibilities to connect with other human beings where our truths overlap. Maybe those essays I read online that day didn’t resonate with me on a truth-bomb level, but I can see the potential for Strayed-sparkle that they hold for someone else. And maybe someday, when I take my face out of the rearview mirror, I’ll be able to tell the truth I was looking for that day. And in so doing, rattle someone at the exact moment they need it.
By the way, I didn’t end up sitting on the floor during Strayed’s panel. The conference room was pretty full, for sure, but I was able to find a seat near the front. At first I was surprised, but then I understood. There were a number of talented writers presenting simultaneously in rooms across the convention center. Strayed’s work is full of truth bombs for me—and many other people, in the room and out, I’m sure—but others perhaps found their truth in the work of the author speaking in room 407. And so, they were exactly where they needed to be. And so was I.
Marie is a twenty-something writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she spends her days working in a treatment program for kids with behavioral and emotional challenges. She is known the trail of glitter she leaves behind and her exceptionally fluffy cat. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Gurl.com, and Girls’ Life’s website.