Finally got a new writing assignment yesterday. I’ve been late with so many deadlines recently I was getting worried that editors had given up on me. But this is my chance to redeem myself, to do excellent work and hand it in on time. This time I will give myself time to polish and write something up to high standards.
I also should be turning my attention to literary contests. I have the deadlines on my calendar but somehow they nevertheless end up on the bottom of my priority list. I tell myself that essays are like long blog posts, and perhaps that’s how I should approach them. True to my recent struggles to write literary or narrative journalism (since I am, after all, doing an MFA in creative nonfiction), I have been finding essays much harder to write than I thought. I sit at my desk and try to force myself to be creative. It is, unsurprisingly, quite unproductive.
I had another insight recently to add to my ongoing list of revelations. I finally got around to reading Journey to the End of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight and some of the book is blowing my mind. I’m not crazy about the cursing, drugs, sex, etc. that appear in most of his work, but after getting past that I am impressed at his insight. The review I linked to above includes this:
Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith’s history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest.
It’s the honesty part that led me to a revelation that was part “uh duh” and part “aha.” I was at the Honda dealer for two hours yesterday waiting for repairs, reading the book and crying a little bit. I have been going through my own spiritual questioning, something I haven’t written about or shared really with anyone, mostly out of shame, and what struck me was the honesty with which Knight writes:
It was a confusing time for the community. If the ultimate good was to see Muslims accepted as positive contributors to American life, did that mean keeping our mouths shut? What did it mean for the writers and rappers and filmmakers – should artists be held to the same concerns as activists? What should an artist do when truth disagrees with justice? Are you a bridge builder or a truth teller? Warith Deen or Malcolm?
I don’t know if that paragraph resonates as much with people like me and Knight as it does with the greater American Muslim community – or American community, for that matter – but he cuts through all the bull that I hate, where American Muslims are constantly in defense mode, trying to market public perception of Muslims to please people who probably would hate someone whether they had Muslims to hate or not. The activism shouldn’t be done away with, but he is right that we shouldn’t defend ourselves at the cost of our integrity. What makes you “more American,” or “more Muslim”? Being real about the messiness of life as an American anything, or presenting a palatable message?
I cried because I realized that I have been trying to sanitize my own writing, that while my Chronicle blog is sincere and lets readers into my head a little, I don’t always write the gritty version of the “American Muslim story.” Some Muslims tell me I should “cover my faults,” and that may be a valid suggestion, but if you’re a writer and you have a platform, is it your responsibility to be “a truth teller”? I whine a lot about being middle aged and just starting out, but being 52 means that I have a lot of experience to share, that it’s been almost 30 years since I first started practicing Islam, and maybe I should write about the yucky stuff or the embarrassing stuff that happened between the time I started, stopped and went back to practicing Islam. I haven’t traveled through Ethiopia eating chat like Knight did, but I have sat in bars drunkenly telling people I was Muslim (bam! ha ha). Maybe my unwillingness to be honest is what’s holding my writing back in general. Today it hurts just to say “I have gotten drunk in bars.” But it is the truth, and I do not work in public relations – and maybe my experience matters to someone somewhere.