State of the Arts: the currency of stories

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

I write to make sense of the world. When I discovered that I wanted to be a writer at 12 years of age, I did everything in my power to ensure that I merited that title. I wrote stories. I read. I wrote some more. I then branched out to poetry around the time I turned 14, and haven’t looked back since. 

Deciding that I was a writer and holding to that decision proved to be fairly difficult, especially in Myanmar, where creatives who dared to speak out against the military regime that held and abused its power found themselves arrested and thrown into prison. Perhaps because of the fear that these arrests invoked, perhaps because they believed the notion of the starving artist, my parents tried many times to talk me out of the career I chose for myself. 

But I was obsessed. I could imagine no other path for myself. I knew – and still know, to some extent – that this is what I was meant to do. 

I dedicated the rest of my life to this venture. I studied in Australia. I tried my hand at writing articles. I kept writing poetry, kept writing and rewriting my longstanding work-in-progress, performed poetry, and watched my writing develop. Heard my voice change as the world around me changed. 

I decided on Sewanee because I knew that the beauty of the Domain would offer creative fodder. The English department would provide inspiration in the form of literary work; and the creative writing certificate would help me hone my craft in a classroom setting. I took an introduction to playwriting class my first semester, and watched as the play I wrote for my final assessment get published in an undergraduate literary journal. 

At the start of my sophomore year, I got involved with the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU). I launched and executed a year-long project on representations and single stories. I took a class on Latinx Psychology. I went out of my way to read books on race and intercultural relations. I accepted an internship at a nonprofit that served refugees and immigrants. 

I continued to write, of course. But my writing seemed to have greater stakes. I wrote emails explaining the Representations Project, wrote about why these issues merited longer conversations, then went ahead and created spaces where these conversations could occur. Everything I read, everything I learned in my classes – particularly in psychology – I extracted and applied to my work in community engagement. 

I spent a lot of time and energy doing what I knew was important work. As a result, my creative work suffered.

I stopped writing in my diary – which is to say, I stopped processing. All my poetry started to sound the same. I was stuck. I wrote for the sake of writing. Most days I wrote to accommodate my other work. I wrote for specific reasons, for a specific audience. I stopped writing creatively. I stopped writing for myself.

This article comes at the heels of my opinions piece, “How we honor each other,” where I wrote about a racial incident that occurred on the day of Scholarship Sewanee last semester. For this column, I usually speak to students, faculty, and staff in different creative fields to shed light on the ways we celebrate art on this campus and the ways we can strive to do better. 

But two weeks ago – when “How we honor each other” came out in print and online – I did not have the energy and the brain space to conduct interviews and to string together another article. I spent days wondering who had read the piece and who hadn’t; wondering if my screech into the void would render back an echo. 

It was a difficult story for me to tell. But what does it say about me that I told it? That I wrote about it a few short hours after the incident occurred, with full intent to publish, although I waited for a summer? That I knew that I had to tell this story, that I never once considered not telling it? What does it mean that the first time I wrote it in the guise of processing it that I wrote it for an audience?

Would I have done the same if I hadn’t had a year of crafting my experiences into stories that I could tell at panels, at dialogue events, in opening remarks to every event I hosted as president of OCCU? 

The currency of stories – especially stories by people of color at a predominantly white institution – is a concept I am struggling with. When you tell a story over and over again, during a tour, for example, or on a panel, or to people you meet on the street, that story starts to lose meaning. Through repetition, the words become practiced. They move outside of you until they resemble a script. And whatever those experiences meant to you in the beginning – whatever they still mean to you – now mean something else, something less. 

Perhaps, in my case, that might be a good thing. It might help to extricate the experience from my internal turmoil, and perhaps after a more retellings I may become numb to it. 

But I haven’t written in my diary since the start of this semester. Whatever poetry I’ve written I’ve written for class. At this point I seem to be afraid of what I will find when I allow myself to bleed onto the page. What I will write when I don’t have an audience.