Susan Shinn column: We won’t leave this life unscathed

Published 12:07 am Sunday, June 14, 2015

A long time ago, I met the author Tim McLaurin. He was a Southern writer of the highest caliber. He died July 11, 2002 — my son’s birthday. But before that, I’d run into Tim at the Festival of the Book that Carolina, Duke and State hosted for a few years.

He was one particularly feisty SOB. He had no use for editors. If that’s what I put on the page, that’s what I want to say, he said.


He left quite an impression on me. In his final book, “The River Less Run,” published in 2000, he told a story about a woman who sits at the gates of Heaven. She eats the scars of pilgrims so they can enter unblemished.

Of course, no one gets through this life unscarred — physical or otherwise. Over the years, I’ve determined that’s what writers do. We eat the scars of those we interview. We take on their doubts, their fears, their deepest secrets.

We do not emerge unscathed.

I don’t mind crying with the people I interview. I’ve done it a lot. There’s a lot to cry about in this world. But there’s a lot a lot to celebrate, too.

I used to write what they call “human interest” stories. Now they’re just called plain ol’ features. It’s so meaningful for me to share compelling stories with readers. Mothers who have lost children. Men and women who have survived cancer, job loss, the loss of a spouse. People who have suffered, who have walked through fire and come out the other side.

They do not emerge unscathed.

And so it is with the people you will meet in the feature I wrote for today’s paper. Journalists are trained to localize stories that occur on the national stage, and the emergence of Caitlin Jenner on the Vanity Fair cover piqued my interest. But I didn’t know anyone who was transgendered.

Yes, I did. So I contacted her. Then I contacted my friend Mike Clawson, who works with PFLAG, and he gave me other names of folks who were willing to talk with me.

Always, I try to be fair and sensitive when I write a story. In this case, I tried to be even more so. I don’t expect you to understand it. I don’t expect you to agree with it. But I do expect you to show compassion and respect to fellow members of our community who live and work here, and make daily contributions.

To be sure, these are drastic choices these three people made. If one woman I interviewed had not chosen to live as a woman, I know she would be dead. It hurts my heart to know this, but it makes my heart glad that she is now happy with who she is. She is now on the outside who she’s always been on the inside. I’ve known her a long time, and to me, she just looks different than she used to. That’s all.

I’ve thought a lot about her this week. Does the fact that I’m female make me a good writer? A good parent? A good child? Or is it who I am as a person that makes me sympathetic and caring, and aware of the needs of those around me?

I’ve always liked who I am on the inside and on the outside. Except for these extra 10 pounds or so. OK fine, 20. Um, 20-ish. Still, I consider myself lucky in so many ways. I’m a firm believer in being who you are — and not trying to be someone you are not.

And taking up for those who are not as fortunate as I am, whatever that may mean. My mother taught me that. She’s a good woman. But more importantly, she’s a good person.

“We are all human beings,” Jamie Monroe told me. “We have to stick together.”

Because we won’t leave this life unscathed.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.