Humor, Honesty & Heartbreak: Why I Write What I Write

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I had the pleasure to speak at the Herrick District Library in Holland, Michigan, for the first time this week. There seemed to be quiet concern (I was later told) about my presence there, it seems, because, well, I'm gay. 

Shocked? No, right? 

I didn't buy into the consternation, either, because I always find such events to be an opportunity rather than a risk: I can change minds, I can change lives, I can open hearts, simply by being me. I never alter who I am, what I read, how I act based on where I travel: I am me. And that simple fact always has a profound effect.

The response at the library was overwhelming: A SRO crowd that laughed until it cried. And, after the event, hundreds of people waited to tell me that I touched their hearts and changed their lives with my humor, honesty and heartbreaking "human-ness." I call this the "3 H's", and it's what I bring to my writing. 

Many people emailed and asked that I share my opening remarks: Here they are. Now, go be you.


Our libraries, like our schools, depend on diversity of thought. To be surrounded by homogeneous ideas is to live in an isolation tank: The best books and authors are like the best teachers: They are literary, lyrical keys that unlock not only our minds but also our hearts.

I love to speak at libraries because they were a saving grace to me growing up in rural America. My grandma volunteered at our little, local library, and that is where I learned it was OK to read, to write, to explore new ideas. It was OK to be smart and creative while my peers were outside fishing, hunting or nailing squirrel pelts to oak trees.  

It’s especially fitting I speak here tonight, as the overarching theme here this summer is Everyday Stories. Perfect, really, because that sums up exactly what I do: I write about everyday life. I celebrate the mundane and minute moments that make life so magical and memorable.

The grand moments are wonderful, but I believe those are just the frame to life’s picture. It’s the little details that make the portrait of us so memorable. I believe it’s our failures, foibles and fragilities – rather than that façade of perfection that we strive so hard to impress upon others – that make us so unique and beautiful.

My M.O. in telling my everyday stories differs from most authors: I utilize humor. It is that way I make sense of a world that has often been hard to understand. It is my way of connecting and of understanding.

I’ve told this story, and I will tell it again: I learned the beauty and importance from telling everyday stories with humor from my idol, Erma Bombeck, a much-overlooked writer in American literature. I know I would impress you more if I said Hemingway, Shakespeare, Faulkner, or Franzen, but I’d be lying.

What I learned from Erma Bombeck was to channel your own voice and to never give up. This is a woman, mind you, who in the 1960s was ignored because those in charge believed what she had to say wasn’t worth reading. And yet this was a woman who continued to lock herself away just so she could write because she believed that what she had to say was worth reading. I’ve faced similar obstacles in my writing career because many have believed the same thing about me.

But what’s happened is this: Readers have been drawn to me and the everyday stories in my memoirs because – no matter how different we may be from one another – it is our universalities that bond us all, that make us human. We’re a society that tends to focus on our differences, when we should be focusing on our similarities, because we’re not that different. Our experiences are largely the same, and that’s what I document: Most of us do not engage in heroic acts everyday, what we do is live and love, succeed and fail, pray and curse, laugh and cry, rejoice in minor triumphs and cling to one another in times of loss.

What I try to do is slip in a lesson while you’re laughing, teach you something while you’re smiling, show you – while you’re giggling – that the chasm between us is tiny. I believe the best books are like mirrors: We are forced to take a good, long hard look at ourselves when we hold one in front of our faces. Oftentimes, we don’t like what is reflected back, when we study that image: But, if we are willing, we change as a result, for the better.

All of my books are based on everyday stories from my life and those of my family’s life, because I believe that those stories – our stories – accumulated over a long period of time tell a profound tale of human existence.

My mom – who was a nurse and a Hospice nurse – passed away a few years ago, and she was not only a woman who heard more everyday stories than most people ever do but she also taught me more in her final months, more about how to live and die with grace, than most folks have taught me in decades. She told me that we all make everyday life so hard, but really it’s so simple. “Our everyday stories are pretty much the same … she told me a few weeks before she died. “The sun goes up, and the sun goes down. And we have just a few, precious hours in between to live without regret, to make a difference, and to love until our hearts ache. It’s up to us to write a new chapter every single day.”