Yesterday, my friend Kendall Dudley and I led a gathering called Who Am I Now That I Am Not Who I Used to Be. Nine women participated, ranging in age from early thirties to eighty-five with life experiences as varied as our years. We wrote our life stories in five minutes and later in five lines. We arranged natural objects: rocks, petals, leaves, sea glass, wire, string, raw cashews and observed what we noticed in each collage. We wrote about the process of choosing five objects we would enlist to help tell the story of our respective lives. Throughout the day, most of the folks gathered spoke of wanting to write and asked whether one is a writer if she isn’t writing at the moment or working on a recognizable project.
Today I read in the On Being blog this line from the new U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright: “You don’t want to write out of habit, you want to write out of necessity.”
For me, a writer is person who writes out of necessity: be it a need to be heard, to be understood, or as often in my case, to understand. A writer writes because she cannot do otherwise, cannot dispel the urge to put pen to paper or tap the keyboard late into the night or in wee hours before dawn. A writer writes to make sense of the world.
There are writers who make it their business to sell their words—for whom identity is bound with livelihood. And then there are writers whose words are never published or if so, appear in smaller venues often without recompense. There are writers whose texts of a lifetime emerge in thousands of letters, notes, jottings or journal entries. Writers who scrawl the essence of their being in pencil or crayon or recite the words in poetry slams or sing them at open mic nights or in living rooms or quietly croon in the shower or deep in the woods.
I don’t suspect the words themselves, those chips of flint from the great rock of psyche care much whether they grace the pages of a best-seller or the folded and refolded stationery slipped in and out of an envelope for forty years. I have no doubt many of us care—we the ones who assemble the words, string them like pearls, juxtapose them like dreams or nightmares, weave them as if we could spin our scars into thread.
What I have learned is that writing matters. The act of letting the words out, giving them sound and space and the frame of the otherwise blank page. If nothing else, writing captures as momentarily as a photograph a sliver in time that keeps beating, keeps morphing, keeps unearthing itself like shards of long-buried pottery clinking against the archeologist’s trowel. Words have become our cave paintings, our graffiti, our howl and breath.
At the close of our gathering yesterday, I wove together phrases from each participant to create a benediction. Here it is.
Breathe of the Universe,
as we exhale this time together,
making room for what comes next—
may we encounter compassion in our exile,
find routes to roots,
leave trails as we map the world.
Grant us courage to reinvent ourselves,
turn the page—welcoming the blankness
to desire life, to face mortality, to recover
what we abandoned
that calls to us still.
May we re-envision and reclaim,
follow rules and then not,
inhabit the silences,
preview the seasons,
stand our ground in the forest of being.
Deliver us before a kinder mirror,
restore us to what we never
imagined upon waking
but may discover in our sleep.
Words, like the leaves and petals and bits of sea glass, lend themselves to arrangement, ever reminding us writing is inherently an act of connection.