WWJD was written as Anna Lewis’ Master’s thesis in Creative Writing. The following is the first part of the accompanying essay, which we will be reprinting in serialized form in the days leading up to our production of WWJD.
The girl sat on the other end of the couch from me, facing forward and staring at the wall. She chewed her lip as she pulled her long sleeves down over her hands. She might have saved herself the trouble; I had already seen the long scratches on her wrists earlier today. That’s why I asked her to come talk to me.
“So, uh, what do you want to talk about?” she asked.
I had worked at the eating disorder clinic for almost four months, and confronting girls about self-harm was a regular part of my week. My role in the process was clear: discover the harm, confront the girls, deliver consequences, and finally report the harm to the psychologists—still it was different and difficult each time. This girl in particular posed a problem. To come down too hard on her was to ruin the trust I had built up with her over the last few weeks. Until yesterday she had been making progress at the center. I didn’t want to shove my authority in her face and alienate her.
I considered confronting her immediately, and quickly rejected the thought. She was too frightened and too fragile. It would be better to get her to confess on her own. This, of course, would be hard. I was about to open our conversation with a phrase right out of a Social Work textbook: “So Lucy, I noticed that you’ve seemed a little tense today. How are things going?” But I stopped myself. She was too clever for that. We would be talking in circles all evening. Instead, I took a deep breath and reviewed everything I knew about her. I considered what she had brought with her when she came to the center, what she talked to the other girls about, what she drew during art therapy—anything I could think of. I decided to take the long shot.
“Lucy, I was wondering what kind of music you listen to.”
“What?” This was not what she had expected.
“Yeah. I didn’t recognize any of the CD’s you brought with you. What kind of stuff do you listen to?”
“Well…” She gave me a quick, penetrating look then said, “Have you ever heard of Rammstein?”
I hadn’t, but I asked what other bands they were like. She began to speak of her music. At first it was slow and awkward; after all, it was and always is a difficult process to move someone from defensive to relaxed. We talked about nothing but music for about fifteen minutes. I asked her what she thought about the latest songs on the radio and she put a hand to her face in disgust. I saw a ragged, red mark on her left wrist but I ignored it.
Although I pretended to be as wrapped up in the conversation as she was, I weighed each word carefully before I said it. A wrong phrase or intonation could send her back into a defensive state. I asked her what she listened to when she was happy and she told me. I asked her what she listened to when she was sad and she told me. I asked her what she listened to today and she told me. I asked her why she had listened to that song. Well, it had been a hard day. Hard in what way? Well, she’d been remembering some things about her dad…
I don’t know how we did it exactly— but somehow, with just words and good intentions I had crossed over from being an enemy to another human who might understand. A minute later she shoved up her sleeves to her elbows and pushed her badly scratched arms in my direction, the way a child might show a scraped elbow to a parent to be kissed better. She told me, fully expecting I would understand, how her day had become so bad that cutting herself had seemed the only answer. And I understood.
Later, as I wrote up a report, I considered our moment of connection. It reminded me of reading J.D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters.” In the story, a boy named Seymour purposefully throws a rock at a little girl’s face. She ends up needing nine stitches and carrying the scar the rest of her life. His only explanation was that “she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway with Boo-Boo’s cat” (104). Obviously, this is an unacceptable reason to hurt someone; however, by the time I read up to this part of the book I had developed such a relationship with the story that not only did I understand why Seymour had thrown the rock, I might even have done the same if I had been him. I’m talking about that transcendent moment where you can understand something beyond your experience, where the mystery of another person is plainly open to your view.
I thought all this with my report in front of me. I wrote my last few sentences happily and thought, “This is how I can be both a social worker and a writer. Essentially we do the same thing: we reach people. In social work we call them patients; in writing we call them audience.”
Walter Benjamin stated: “Only in rare instances is lyric poetry in rapport with the experience of its readers.”
“Look at this!” I shoved a paper in my classmate’s face. It was my first semester as an English Master’s student. I had come across some essays by Dana Gioia and was panicking. My classmate was not particularly concerned so I pointed to one of the most alarming lines that read, “[poetry] has virtually no audience outside the university.” To me this seemed the greatest literary catastrophe imaginable. No respectable social worker could ever turn poet without an audience!
My peers were disappointed. “Of course poetry has no audience. Short stories have no audience. Most creative writing has no audience. Everyone knows that. If you want to be rich and famous, Anna, switch genres, maybe even programs.”
“I don’t care about being rich and famous! That’s not the point! How can anyone be content with an audience made up entirely of academics?”
My classmates were offended, and with good reason. It sounded like I was saying that readers such as themselves were not worth writing for. However, when considered from a social work perspective my complaint makes more sense. What if a social worker studied counseling for years and was then told he or she would only be able to treat other social workers, or worse, social work professors. All the social worker’s training was to treat an artificial or nonexistent patient.
For me, the problem of audience is not a problem of economics (who will pay me?!) or a problem of fame (I want my name on a t-shirt!). Instead it is a problem of being able to write at all. To counsel, you need a patient with a problem. You don’t even know how to start counseling until you see their face. To be a writer you need an audience.
To Be Continued…