I recently saw a billboard for a foster care program that suggested that foster parents can rewrite the life of a child. I have a visceral reaction to the ad. Its text and the haunting eyes of the child who was hoping to have their life rewritten bothered me all that day. In the end, I realized I took umbrage with the two main assumptions of the ad, namely that our stories can be rewritten and that that is something someone does for us.
These assumptions, or their close cousins, are pesky and ubiquitous in many of the teacher stories coming out of the U.S. prison. It is hard not to hope that the process of writing will somehow whiteout the pervasive horrors of abuse, neglect, hunger, and fear common in the stories incarcerated writers have to tell. Coming to grips with the reality that I cannot really make things better and cannot substantively enter the pain of others makes the work seem futile, small. And it is. So then what?
In my marginal notes from my most recent day teaching inside I found a little out-of-context phrase about tattooing scar tissue and it seems to be that non-fiction narrative about pain might have similar conditions and constraints.
In browsing the web, I have learned that scar tissue can be tattooed, but that it is better to wait. Old scars take ink better than newer ones. And, when tattooing scar tissue, design choices are important. Scar tissue, for instance, might be a decent canvas for a wizard beard, but not the subtle details of a human face. With scar tissue, there is no rewriting, only writing over. And that writing over is mindful of the buckled and discolored surface on which the words are etched. It takes into consideration that lines drawn on scar tissue thicken and become blurry.
In my last post, I wrote about my frustration with the fiction some writers produce in what is supposed to be a narrative non-fiction class. Those stories always feel, to me, like a fundamental disrespect of the space where other artists are doing really deep work and bravely bringing raw pieces of themselves to the group. I see now, that fiction, for some writers, can be understood as a stopgap, a placeholder at the table while they wait for their scars to be old enough to write on. I see now that each artist has to control every aspect of such writing—each much choose the right time to write and make the design choices that make the most sense on a surface whose furrows, folds, and taut patches co-author meaning.