Guest Post: Bill Elenbark on Running, Writing, and Resilience

Today I’m pleased to welcome fellow Resilience writer Bill Elenbark, with his thoughts on the piece he wrote for the book and his writing-journey through coming out.  Come see him and the rest of us at Word Up this Saturday from 3-5 PM!  Here’s Bill’s story:

My first class in graduate school for writing required a multi-genre piece featuring pictures or music or poetry interspersed with prose and I chose to write a story about my running career, such as it was at the time, inspired by a piece in Runners’ World and thinking that I had a story to tell about the way I hated running despite being an athlete all my life but how I came to love the sport after multiple knee injuries derailed all my other athletic involvements.  At the time I wrote this story, a band called Wolf Parade had a song called “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” on their debut album and I thought that could be the backdrop for this story, the multi-genre interspersing of the lyrics of the song with the story of my first 5K race and my knee pain and how I’d gone from hate to love of the sport of running.  The song featured references to the singer’s father, though, which proved difficult to incorporate into my story, particularly since my father wasn’t a runner himself and our relationship through sports was often contentious.  I wasn’t prepared to reveal so much in my first class back in college and I certainly wasn’t ready to talk about my sexuality, not to strangers, so I largely glossed over the difficulties between my father and myself growing up and I didn’t mention that I was gay.  The story focused mainly on running and was adequate enough to garner praise from my professor.  But it felt incomplete.

A year later in a fiction class, I wanted to share a novel that I was working on at the time, a semi-autobiographical screed that really wasn’t very good but was highly personal, about a not-so-young man who’d hidden his sexuality all his life and the difficulties he’d faced in his quest to stay hidden.  I knew if I shared an excerpt of the novel the parallels between the narrator and the author would be easily seen and these strangers in school would know some of my truth, a truth at the time that remained largely hidden.  But the writing was too important to me not to share it, to have someone else read it – finally – and not some edited version like the runner story that failed to show any real truth.

On the day that my story was being work-shopped, another student’s work was shared, and by odd coincidence or some stroke of fate, his story also dealt with gay characters, gay high school students who were trying to stay hidden.  I freaked a bit when I read his story – cursing my luck that someone else would have the same theme – but I was comforted to know that I wouldn’t be alone.  It’s always tougher to believe you’re all alone.

When we got to class, the professor made a comment about the night having a “theme” and a few students laughed, uncomfortable laughs, while I sank down in my seat.  The other student’s story went first in the workshop and although I thought it was pretty good, the professor had some harsh words about the way he’d tried to trick the reader, the way he’d hidden the reveal that the characters were both male in an obvious way with neutral pronouns and choice phrases that she felt were cheap and unnecessary, a common device that needed to be removed to elevate his writing.  Then we took a break and while half the students left the room and I tried to brace for an evaluation of my story – fearing the worst – the professor called the other student up to her desk and asked him flat-out if he was gay.

I felt my head spin around and my eyes dart to hers – I couldn’t believe what she asked him.  And I wanted to hear his answer.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not be gay.  But he told her he wasn’t.  And she told him she didn’t think so, not with the way he was writing the characters, and that she has some close gay friends who would probably be a little offended by a straight male writing this way about these characters.  I don’t know what she meant exactly but she turned to me, still hiding in my seat, and said those fateful words no one had dared asked me straight out before:  “Bill – are you gay?”

I nodded.  She asked if his story offended me and I said it hadn’t and I’m not entirely certain why it would but he left the room and she maybe smiled at me but I tried not to look at her, or at anyone, for I’d just been outed for the first time in my life.  And it scared the shit out of me.

The class returned to hear my story.  We had to read the opening page or two and then the other students gave their opinions followed by the professor’s opinion while the author remained silent, not responding to any criticism but merely taking notes and taking it all in.  I don’t remember the other students’ comments, but none were really negative, and I don’t remember the professor’s comments, but hers were rather positive but I do remember the end of the class, this fear that I had, that all these strangers suddenly knew something about me that many of my closest friends still didn’t know.  I grabbed my bag and I waited, I didn’t want to walk out with any others, I needed to be alone.  But I didn’t time it right – the professor stopped me for a quick chat about nothing – and I ended up walking out with the other student whose story was read and another kid in the class, also male.  They complained about the professor and I joined in but they both said they liked my story and left it at that.  Then I think we talked about the Phillies.  They didn’t mention my sexuality, it didn’t matter to them.  And for the first time in my life, I started to realize maybe it didn’t have to matter so much to me.  I finished the rest of the semester without any comments from anyone about my sexuality and a semester later, a girl from that class befriended me and eventually shared her sexuality – coming out to me at a restaurant on campus, one of the first people she’d ever told.  She was a lot younger than me and assumed I’d been through all the horror of coming-out but we ended up becoming friends and going through it together.  Which never would have happened if I hadn’t shared that story in fiction class.

A couple years later, still in grad school (with a full-time job it took a long time for my writing degree) I decided to revise “You a Runner” for a memoir class my last semester at school.  All my friends knew about me by then – at least the ones at school and many of the ones from outside – and I decided to truly tell the story of my athletic career and its relation to my father and how our relationship was strained for so long until the moment I came out to him, and from then on we never fought again.  This was the story I wanted to tell, the story that mattered to me, the one about a difficult childhood and adolescence steeped in sports and my father’s belligerent coaching, the one in which I could never be myself, where I could only survive by staying hidden, but when I finally gathered the courage, after years and years of waiting, the act of being true to myself changed the love my father had for me in a positive way and for everyone else, it didn’t really matter, it didn’t have to mean everything.  So it does get better.  Sometimes it takes a long time.  In my life it took a hell of a long time.  But it does get better.  And at some point you forget why it all seemed to matter so much.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

For more from Bill Elenbark, check out his website here: www.vaguespace.net.   And if you can’t come to the reading, you can still get Resilience here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18926125

Advertisements