Silence in the Rough: When Your First Book Breaks Through to Truth
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
In my last essay I wrote about how to endure the fingernails-in-palms-inducing feeling of writing my first book and waiting for my family, friends, and ex-lovers to find out I’d written about them.
Now, two months later I need to be honest. The reason behind my anxiety was neither my ex-lovers nor my friends’ reactions to the book. In the end, my dissonance regressed back to my mother. I was worried more than anything about my mother’s reaction to my first book.
Ever since my mother began to drink my family swore a solemn oath: an oath of silence. You take this oath into your body like a black elixir. This oath lives inside you like a virus; it spreads through your insides like spilled ink. If left unbroken, you are forced to live with this oath, constantly scrubbing away at it, trying to remove the stain from inside yourself, convinced that you are the one who is to blame.
I refuse to carry this blemish inside of me anymore, and I accept the consequences that come with its expulsion. It had been two months since my book had been published. I had written about my mother’s drinking problem, my father’s estrangement, and a lot of other family secrets. I’d heard not a peep from my family. I knew my mother was overseas on vacation and I secretly rejoiced, thinking her absence would buy me some time: I would send her a copy of the book with a note written inside the front cover. I would tell her that whereas I was sorry that she’d be hurt that I was entitled to my truth. I was shocked however, to hear from a family member that my mother had since ordered the book herself on Amazon, after I’d explicitly asked her not to, because my publishers would not profit as much.
“So, she did read it?” I prodded a close family member on the phone.
A long pause. “Yes.” I waited a beat.
“Well, what did she say?”
Another pause. “What do you think, Maria? It broke her heart.”
My reaction that followed was not one I’d been expecting. Since writing the book, I’d treaded through a tumult of emotions: fear, excitement, dissonance, and sadness. But never once anger. Now I tasted anger, sweet and hot as brandy.
“Oh really? My book broke her heart?” I sucked in my breath and let out half of it, then half of the rest of it.
“I can’t believe you actually fell for that one.” I said. “Somehow, someway, I’ve been breaking my mother’s heart since I was fourteen years old. And something tells me that I’m not about to stop anytime soon, no matter what I do or say or write.” I felt rage blind me like a scarlet bandana.
“Moreover, just because I published a book in which two or three poems were about her, it does NOT mean that I sent out to willfully hurt her. In fact, isn’t that the narcissist’s national anthem? I think it is.”
Another pause from the family member on the other end of the phone. “All I’m saying, Maria, is that you didn’t have to be so…negative. The book was well-written enough.”
Negative. Negative? If I am recalling that time of my life correctly, I’m fairly sure it was negative, for all parties involved. I’m sorry if I don’t have a sunnier recounting of my mother’s destroying herself with drinking in light of my father’s absence. That was a time of terror, sadness, and secrets, I will never forget it, and I will never write about it with a more jocular disposition.
I realized, once again, with sadness, that this conversation was not going anywhere. That I could explain myself in a million ways, but just because I had broken my vow of silence, it didn’t mean that others had. I know that I’ve decided not to bear the weight of responsibility any longer, anymore than I mean to transfer it’s bulk onto someone else’s shoulders. I’m neither relic nor demon, and anyone who has actually read my book should know that. In the book the pronoun “I” that resurfaces is a very real, very flawed me. I would like to remind anyone who ushers me into silence that I am very present in this book, and that I myself am no angel, but instead a very real, very tragically-flawed protagonist. In A Hymn , the character is played by Maria Nazos as herself. And she is nihilistic, rebellious, naïve, and destructive. She has flirted with alcoholism herself. Say what you must, but please do not say that I’ve constructed a me versus them binary in my book, because I have not.
It is my belief that dirty family secrets are buried under rocks. When I lifted them up I was afraid; they were pale, writhing creatures squirming beneath dark. To write about them is to hold them up to light, to see the translucent edges of their pale wings, to see their beauty and ugliness at the same time.
Recently, I’ve been noticing a real tightness in my throat. I told my therapist about it in a recent session.
“I feel tense, “ I complained, “Like I’m all constricted and can’t speak my truth.”
“Maria, you’re not so strange” my therapist responded. “Tension in the throat is common, especially when you’re dealing with anxiety. What are you anxious about?”
“My mother’s reaction to the book.”
“How do you think she’ll react?”
I sighed. “She won’t. That’s the thing. I already know she won’t react with anything but silence. And I won’t hear from her for months after she reads the book. And the silence will be deafening. It’s be the worst thing in the world.”
My therapist countered: “Is it?”
The question hung in the air. It was not rhetorical.
I’ve now answered the question. Silence is the worst thing in the world when it is my own. Others may not engage me and I can’t make them. As a writer, however, I think the worst thing in the world is when Silence meets Silence. I would even rather that Silence collide with Awkwardness, Anger, even Hurt. In fact, I welcome it.
I also accept that whereas I never meant to hurt my mother, I also never meant to protect her. Conversely, I did mean to hurt her, and I did mean to protect her, too, but as a human, I embody a paradoxical existence. I wanted to hear what I will never hear: answers, apologies, explanations, and untangled myths. My publisher Wising Up Press encourages their books to always engage in conversations about what makes us human, so it’s synchronous that my book found a home with them. My intentions to “converse” were good, but my mother was the wrong subject to engage. What I really wanted was to have a conversation with my mother, to engage, to hear her own truth. The closest I will come to brushing up against the hard facts is by mining the truth with pen as my pickaxe that knocks up against truth’s hard edge until light spills out.
Poet and lyrical essayist Maria Nazos is the author of A Hymn That Meanders,published by Wising Up Press. She received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work is published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, The New York Quarterly, The Sycamore Review, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Provincetown, Massachusetts. You can find her at www.marianazos.com.