I dreamt once that words were people, refusing to speak as I walked by. The image neatly sums up my lifelong conflict with language. I adore words. I want to stroke them and live inside their bony curves. A variety comes to me easily, when I’m talking to friends or teaching. It’s a joy to be able to stretch out my hand and have the exact word appear, with the right heft and color, reverberating with history. Yet when asked to define a word, like “fluent” for example, I can’t.
A strong physical sense arises. I know exactly what it means, my hand wants to gesture, but the words to define it stumble out. How is it possible to know and love a word, but not be able to define it with words? How can I love something that is so difficult? Aren’t we supposed to be drawn to the things we are good at?
This paradox has only grown more pressing as I’ve devoted my life to the teaching of writing. I might be walking outdoors, and words will parade through my mind like children playing dress up, trying to shape themselves into silver willow fronds, or simulate the taste of late afternoon sun. But when I sit down before a white page, they scatter.
It happened just the other day, as I walked my dog down our dirt road. I came to a bog pond where a blue heron lives. What I thought was him standing in the water turned out to be a few dry stalks with an orb spider web illuminated by dew. Just beyond the periphery of my vision, the actual heron launched himself silently into the sky, huge, blue-gray and prehistoric. My first impulse – to run home and write it down, to hone the words until they leapt – was followed immediately by doubt. It takes so much time that might be better spent on students, family, and community. Surely writing should only be reserved for obsessed geniuses – or at the very least, for those to whom it comes easily.
I remember my first story like an alcoholic remembers her first drink. Even then conflict was present. I was six years old. I had just returned from Germany to my hometown. Having learned to read and write in German, I was having difficulty spelling in English. My second grade teacher set me up with a tutor.
I sat at the cafeteria table and the tutor’s words floated down from somewhere up above like bubbles. “Vowels,” she said. “A, e, i, o, u.” They bounced over my head. I stared at the gray table uncomprehending.
More words floated down. “Why don’t you write your own story?”
These words electrified me. I sat up straight and looked up at my tutor’s mouth. I could write my own story? The idea whirled inside me. All those stories my mother read to us that ended terribly. I could change that. I could create a whole new world.
That very night, in a room I shared with my two brothers, I huddled at the end of my bed, enfolding myself in my curtains. I stared at the stone tower of the church across the empty street, bathed in the colors of the traffic light, now red, now green, now yellow. Velvet mystery infused me, and I jotted down my first few lines. For a half hour I flew, my heart large. I had a beginning – the townspeople had trapped a monster inside a church, nailed the roof down on him like a coffin lid. But the huge flathead nails were coming loose. How would it end?
No answer. I sat with for a child’s eternity. The abyss yawned. My wings collapsed.
That’s how my love of writing began – stemming from difficulty, offering liberation and ending in angst.
Ironically, it is that very difficulty that called me to the teaching profession: it helps me help others overcome theirs. More importantly, the undeniable force and magic of words keeps calling me back.
Years ago, living in Paris trying to be a writer, I sat alone in a tiny white-walled apartment at the top of a spiral stair. I tinkered with a piece of writing that later got published. It was a tortured process, a steeping of self in words and wordlessness, a game of hide and seek with a host of internal critics, a dance to catch stars in my skirt without burning a hole in it, a leap into and over the abyss. Under certain conditions, if we strike the right words against each other in just the right way, they catch fire. A piece of writing emerged incrementally with elastic between each word so taut that if I pulled on them, they snapped. All else fell away and a stark truth emerged. This was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Even though I’ve quit writing many times over the years, I kept returning. And finally I have come to accept the fractiousness of writing. Writing is a set of diverse and sometimes opposing mental and emotional operations. Wild and often unbiddable, it requires that we leap back and forth between the different sides of our brains. On the one hand we must free associate and on the other hand we must choose, discard, catch and order. And it doesn’t stop there: we must be emotional and rational, verbal and spatial, personal and universal, private and public.
Worse yet, it comes with no map. We might draw a map, hold the teacher’s map in our hands, but the road changes with each new sentence, sprouting new paths. The possible routes are endless, and yet some paths work and others don’t. Forget asking why.
Even more threatening, writing is an exposure – you are committing a part of yourself to permanence for the eyes of others.
Complicating everything, some of us think more verbally while others think primarily physically, in a cocktail of chemicals and images and physical sensations. Stuffing that felt-sense into the linearity of language is a devilish challenge and changes the originating impulse. But that very transformation is what we seek. As with a foreigner writing in a non-native tongue, the alien perspective lifts language to new heights. In just this way our difficulty with language gives writing its beauty.
Writing by its very nature requires that you throw yourself out over an abyss and hope that the act of jumping will force new wings.
I’ve come to the conclusion we writers are like flowing water. Some of us, like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, are waterfalls as big as Niagara. And some of us are creeks. We have less to say, or it takes us a long time to say it, we meander all over the place, and we dry up seasonally. But we’re all part of the watershed; we all end up in the same place, the great, deep ocean, the clouds, the sky.
So – what I’m left with is this, I don’t write because it’s easy or because I’m a genius. I write for that moment when we physically inhabit the world and let the structure of the galaxy or the chemistry of a leaf come into us. When the brilliance of the universe comes through our brain’s synaptic cocktail into words that transport others, it is a spiritual moment, a connection to something greater than ourselves. Our words are the sun-crusted spider web, earth-bound, reflecting light, that sometimes turn out to be a great blue heron launching us out of the bog into the air. It’s a blessed moment. A moment we all need.
Note: I wrote the following essay for the SUNY Adirondack English Division blog. It was the vehicle I used to break through a three-year writing block. Later, this essay inspired the story, “The Intensest Rendezvous,” which is still looking for a home. The story came out on the fly, I later realized, because I had outlined it in this essay. Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, I now know how to get back into it thanks in large part to Rosann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.