TEDxBratislava - Leone ROSS -- 5 things writing has taught me about life

Uploaded by TEDxTalks on 16.06.2011

Good afternoon. The first thing I need you to know is
that the fact I am barefooted is not some kind of deep Jamaican
cultural statement, it is simply the mistake of a woman
who should not have worn high heels this morning
to come to TED. So good afternoon! 6 00:00:21,788 --> 00:00:25,562 A couple of weeks ago I did a calculation and I realized
that at 41 years old, nearly 42, I have actually been
working with writers and writing for 39 years.
Yes, since I decided at about 3 or 4 that really the purpose of my
existence was to tell stories and I was that kind of kid
and my father said he once came into my room and found
me tearing off my books, you know the stick books
they make for toddlers with the thick pages.
So what are you doing? I said I am looking for more words!
So I was that kind of kid. My aunt Caroline also likes
to tease me that it actually took her quite a long time to get
me out of the book or away from paper into the world.
So I thought it was kind of appropriate to come here today
and simply share with you the top five
things that I think writing has told me about life.
Number 1 – Illuminate the darkness
When I was a kid I was more inclined to
write from a point of view of vampires than fairies.
When I became an adult my first
novel in part dealt what happens
to a group of women when one
of them is raped. And quite understandably
a lot of women who had read the novel
came to me and thanked me for it. But my favourite feedback
was actually from a man. I´ve done
a public reading and at the end
of the public reading a little man
came to me, very small, very old
Jamaican man and he grabbed my
elbow and said that girl in that book
when she got raped that was a bad thing
and I said yeah. He said I feel it for her
I haven´t thought of anything like that
before. And then he went away and
I thought yeah that´s part of why I
like doing this. Because I want people to
feel for each other. I want people to have
compassion for each other. One of the things
I feel I´ve always been doing is buzzing around
a bit like an insect since I was a little girl.
Not something noisy like a bee or mosquito
but something as in Britain they call it
daddy long-legs, it´s very silent and
gets into strange little dark corners
paying attention to complicated emotions
that people are experiencing.
What does it feel like to live with someone
who cheats on you? What does it feel like to be homeless?
What is the emotional experience
of wanting to sleep with a married man?
What is going to feel like if you decide to sell your body?
These are some of the things that I have written stories about
and asked myself about and I think to myself
why are you doing this? And I think what
I´m trying to do is illuminate the darkness.
I´m trying to shine a light on secrets, ´cause
I don´t believe in secrets. It doesn´t mean I don´t believe
in privacy, someone spoke about privacy earlier,
I do believe of course that people have a right to share
what they want to share when they want to share it.
However, I don´t believe in the kind of secrets
that keep us dark from ourselves.
The kinds of secrets that we don´t even
tell ourselves, the kind of secrets that we
don´t have courage at 2 o´clock in the morning
to go I am lonely or I am afraid or I am ugly.
And I think one of the things that literature can do is to
increase our tendency to look at our own darkness.
Even if none else can see it, even if we are not ready
to show it to anyone else. Rather than choosing
repression or rather than choosing resilience
to actually say to ourselves This is who I am
and this is how I am feeling. So it´s one of the things
I think is very important what literature does.
Another public reading I gave, a woman
put up the hand, by this time I did my second novel,
it was sensually about a man going mad
who was homeless, she put up her hand
and said I hate that character. And I said okay.
´cause I was fine with that, I have no problem
with passion, my problem is apathy.
So she was angry I was cool.
She came to me afterwards and said
I really hate that character! I am thinking
well I´ve worked hard on him but okay
but alright you entitled to your opinion.
She went away, she came back with her friend and
and she came to me and she said I hate that character and I know why,
I said why? She said Because he reminds
me of me. And her friend nodded
in approval That´s alright.
And then they went off and I thought
yeah that also why I do it, so we can
illuminate the darkness and look at
ourselves and give ourselves a break.
So that´s the point number one.
Point number two, yes, yes sex is great, yes.
When it´s done well. But I am making
a larger point here, and actually potentially
more important point. I don´t mean what you think I mean.
I went back to my old high school about a year ago
in Jamaica and I noticed when they asked me to
speak to the students, they only allowed me to
speak to the students 16 years old and older.
I thought, yes, yes, I know what this is about
I write about sex, yes, okay, fine.
And I realized of course that I have been somehow
of course interested in human sexuality and one
of the things is that I write erotica. It´s only one of the
things I do. And again when I was that kind of kid,
my grandmother tells me that once she was giving
a tea party, I was about 7, and I came and walked around
and looked at the quests she had and said
you have a penis, you have vagina,
you have a penis, you have vagina,
and she said Yes, dear and sent me out.
But funny thing is this: Only about a quarter of the work
I do has anything to do with explicit sexuality.
So I found like scarlet woman before me
that the little goes along way
I developed something about reputation.
My favourite word is a swear word. It´s a 4
letter word beginning with F and ending with K
the musicality of which has been compromised
somewhat by Hollywood movie over the years
and the kind of word that TED doesn´t want
me to say out loud, oh I wish I could.
Anyway, I like this word, but I like
this word not just for its initiatory nature
but for a most simply writing reason.
I like it because it is so complex. It takes the whole
continuum of emotions with it.
Think about it, these wonderful four letters
that can express the irritation of stubbing your toe
or the beautiful vista of a mountain range
or the gorgeousness, the darkness, the complexity
between two people. One little word, four letters
that I am not supposed to say to you.
I ask my students often: What do you think
about bad language? What do you think of sexually
explicit language? Why do we call it a bad language?
What´s that about? And they tell me
a variety of things. I ask them why do you think
that the writing sex is one of the easiest ways
to be dismissed as a consequential or intellectual
inferiority. Now do I look intellectually
inferior to you? But I write about erotic moments
and eventually my students even in 2011
work around to the following idea
you are a woman, well, maybe
I am a writer first and the writer condemns
no word. They simply asked what is my intention
to my reader. Writing sex is a very serious business
it is intellectually challenging business.
Do you know how it is to come with
sexual similes that don´t involve trains
going through platforms as explosions, waterfalls…?
Really challenging. I also write erotica
because I feel that there is no better barometer for life
than sexuality. That space can be all about
tenderness and love and violence and politics
and taboo and everything in between. As a woman
writing about sex just told me to stand
from my believes. Being a woman writing
freely about sex means a time when the woman
is walking free through the world.
Number three – one little thing at a time.
In 2000 I stopped writing novels. Every
single time I came to the page to write
a novel I could actually hear my own teacher´s
voice. I teach creative writing, I teach people
how to write novels. I could hear my own voice
going: the purpose of the first sentence in the
story is to get intention of the reader. You can´t
write. And I became extremely overwhelmed by
the novel form. I thought about writing one and
I couldn´t and I thought about everything that
makes a novel so complex and interconnected
and the cause and links and similes you
have to check and research you have to do for
the character and I thought about all of these things
and I couldn´t do it. I banged out a lot of short stories
but I couldn´t write a novel for a long time. So I decided
to take some leave from my university trying to get over this.
So the first thing I did was I went back to my childhood
instincts went to a local park I lay down on my stomach
with a pen, not a computer, pen and some paper and
I started writing and it felt as if I was recovering
from some illness. I wrote The sky is blue, the grass
is green, I am crap, the dog barks and I joked
but it was serious, this felt as if I was reclaiming
my voice. So every day for weeks I went to the same park
to the same place and give myself the same task
to just write what was in my head and what I saw.
And slowly my sense of humour started coming back
and my aesthetics started coming back and in the way
that happens to writers a little character was talking
to me and was bringing my air and his finger smell
like pepper and he started telling me a tale.
And I thought yes, I´m doing it. And time was passing
and hundred words became two hundred words
became five hundred words became hundred thousand words
and at the same time I recognize that all of my girlfriends,
and this time my male-friends too, were going through changes.
That kinds of changes that come from that stage in your
life when you are in your thirties to late thirties
you begin to think Who am I married to? How do
I feel about my children? And this career, do I really want it
anymore? And I began to realize that the ones that were
surviving and getting through the
difficulty will take in on this same principle
on little thing in the time, one little word,
one little emotion, one little challenge, when it is too
big, cut it in half and deal with half.
So this novel was working for me. Hundred seventy
thousand words at that point, but then something
else happened.
Number four – writing teach me about life.
You will need help. In May 2009 I woke up
one morning and it felt as if someone was
using a hot hammer to pound my hands.
The pain radiated from my hands into my
wrists and all the way up, in both of hands
into my elbows. I generally have never felt pain
like that before. And I tried to breathe and I thought
of calling my best friend, who is in the audience.
And I thought about calling my mother
And I thought it is three o´clock
in the morning and I tried to breathe.
And I cried. And eventually as soon as
I could I went to my doctor and I said
something that I was gonna say almost
constantly in the next two years: My hands hurt.
Eventually it was diagnosed as something
called repetitive strain injury.
At that point it didn´t matter
I was 2/3 through the novel that I worked
so hard to get through and I couldn´t bathe
myself, I couldn´t wear rings, I couldn´t
shake hands and writing seemed absolutely
impossible. And I was so bitter, I can´t begin
to tell you how betrayed I felt by the universe
that my hands had gone. Look at how much we
all use our hands. I couldn´t walk down the street
and swing my arms easily. And then what happened
is that I realized that almost everybody was trying to
help. Oh, boy. Splints for these hands, massage,
aromatherapy, meditations, my local cab driver prayed for me
every week, I love him so much, he is such a sweet man
and none of it worked. Every single man I know, and
some that I don´t, walked up to me on the road and said
Love, you got to use that technology, you know that
technology that you use, and you´ve got to get voice
recognition software. Now, I instinctively knew that the
voice recognition software would be like making love
in an raincoat and I know that it can work for some
people but not for me. See me with my feet
on the ground like this. Anyway, I tried the voice
recognition software, it didn´t work. You know
what you do, for those who don´t know,
you put the headset on and it translates the words
to a computer, remember, you are listening to me
I have combination of a British Jamaican American
accent. Where do you think I was gonna find a voice
recognition software? Globalization no, it
hasn´t reached to that point. So one morning,
I did give it a try, one morning I found myself
yelling into this headphone AND, AND, AND,
GOD DAMN IT! And it kept writing error, error
error, God damn it! I threw it away... The final offer was
from my baby brother, who is gorgeous and
wonderful and who came home with me
and decided to act as my secretary. Bit like Barbara Cartland,
the romantic novelist, who
apparently dictated all of her novels and
I always suspected that woman had
no soul and I knew it when we tried this dictation.
Eventually my poor brother had to leave, it didn´t
work either. And then I sat in the middle
of my livingroom and my hands hurt
and I didn´t know what to do and I though everybody´s
tried to help and nothing has worked.
And then I realized something really important.
None of those suggestions have taken away the pain.
But there was plenty of help and in fact I was
in minority of one. All of these people believed
that I could write this novel, every single one of them.
So I got down on my tummy and I turned on some Jamaican traditional music
names like... and I did it! I wrote 55 000 words and finished
that novel in three days.
So it brings me to the final point really. We all flow.
Across those three days when I decided I was
going to do this I entered into the state
I call the flow. Someone once came to me,
an acquaintance, and said I heard
you don´t believe in God and I said yes
kinda brought by the communist - liberal
I am not sure about the whole God thing
And she asked me very important question, i thought it was beautiful, she said:
So what do you do when you need to see
something greater than yourself? So what
do you believe? And I realized that I believe in flow.
My experience
of the flow is sitting in front of the computer
and dancing. The flow comes to you
when you are so sure in this moment.
It is an entire moment of concentration
and self-believe. It simply comes from
repetition, from doing whatever it is you´re doing
over and over again. I´ve seen athletes to do it
and we all probably know this moment
when you dig deep in that last mile.
But I thing that all of us can enter
the flow, this space of concentration
and self-knowledge and self-believe.
I think it is entirely possible to round
the corner and look at the river
and go put your toes in it
and feel as if an old primary emotion
which I think is really really old one,
which we´re just vassal for something
larger than ourselves. I think it is really
important that we all understand that
we can enter the flow. Some people call
it prayer, some people call it meditation,
some people call it orgasm and I call
it writing a good book. Because it is this
moment in which you do not question
whether you´re writing or doing or feeling
is okay, because you are okay
in this single precious moment.
And if I have ever written anything
that made anyone feel okay,
this is a good life. Thank you.