The writer’s job is to pay attention. It is the writer’s duty to notice things, to give voice to the voiceless, to see what is in front of everyone that so many people do not see, and then shine a light on it, make people notice, make people pay attention.
“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller famously wrote in “Death of a Salesman.” We have heard this sentiment many times before, but it bears repeating, especially in our current age of constant bombardment of information, of texting and Tweeting and Facebooking and handheld devices that contain all the information in the history of the world. Except we are forgetting how to communicate face to face. This is my solemn vow as a writer – I will keep my eyes and ears open, as well as my heart and mind. I will pay attention with every part of my body. I will be a soul awake.
Writing is holy. There is no other word that can come close to what it means to truly be in the space occupied by a love for and dedication to writing. As such, I am drawn to the great poet Rainer Rilke, and his seminal work on the subject of writing, Letters to a Young Poet.
For me, Rilke summarized more clearly than anyone else ever has what it means to be a writer. “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” (Rilke, 6)
This is what I have always felt about writing, and why I am eternally thankful that I discovered Goddard at a time in my life when I needed such a place. My life is becoming that sign and witness thanks to a rededication to the craft that has been instilled in me by my advisors and peers during my time at Goddard College. As writers we are always becoming – we have never arrived. To arrive is to end, and to never grow again, so we must always become. This is my role as a writer in the world, even at the hours when there are the other things of life, either simple or complex – laundry, childcare, eldercare, soccer practices, PTA meetings, protest marches, solidarity movements, work, school, lunch – during these times my body and soul are open to experiences that can be put on the page. The writer Neil Gaiman was once asked in an interview where he got his ideas from, and his response speaks to what I mean about being open to experiences to put on the page. The crux of his statement was that, while he didn’t know really where ideas come from any more than you or I do, what makes writers different from other people is that they are always paying attention to the world around them and being open to receiving experiences that can become literature. This is what it means to be a writer.
In my writing, I am trying to articulate certain experiences from my own life that are educational or inspirational or entertaining or comforting or some combination of all of these to a diverse audience of readers. This means being open and aware of the past as well as the present.
Through poetry, fiction and nonfiction, I wish to convey several feelings, ideas and experiences, among them:
1) A sense of awe and wonder about our natural world
2) A comforting voice to victims of abuse
3) A journey of discovery through the eyes of a child
4) A personal struggle that can become a road map for someone who sees themselves heading down a similar path, and
5) Laughter, joy and hope.
As someone who writes every day, in multiple genres, with ideas constantly jockeying for position in his addled brain, these feelings, ideas and experiences are the primary things that draw me to being a writer.
I know that I have been very lucky (blessed, if you are so inclined) in the life that I have been given. I know I come from a place of privilege, and have had advantages and life experiences that many would envy. So I do not want to write about personal tragedies as a way of achieving therapeutic relief or saying: “look at me; look at what I’ve been through.” I have read such pieces, and they serve little more purpose than experiencing a writer’s own narcissism.
One role of being a writer is to find a way to show a personal wound, reveal a scar to a reader who has received a similar injury, and say to them, “I do understand your pain. This is how I am healing, perhaps you can find some comfort and hope in my process that can assist you in your journey.”
But what a balancing act that can be: to put on the page abuse, death, fear, hope, anger, intimacy, longing, addiction and recovery and so much more, and then say to the reader, “this isn’t about me, this is about you and your healing.” Two writers who achieved rhythm, depth, and continuity in this juggling act are William Styron in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness and Jeannette Walls in her memoir The Glass Castle.
Styron’s descent into depression was one with which I could identify, and his climb out of that abyss gave me real hope. As a reader, I experienced that climb with him. This is one very important role of being a writer in the world – take the reader with you into your desert cave with bats hanging from the stalactites and eerie sounds rumbling from the furthest crevices, and then get lost together, and then together find the way out.
In one passage, Styron discussed how his depression was manifested in the form of physical pain:
“What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.” (Styron, 50)
It was easy for me to identify with the struggle that Styron went through because he was able to so simply and succinctly describe the very physical ways that depression and anxiety can manifest themselves in the human body. My own battles with the disease of depression (and it is a disease, as surely as cancer or diabetes or alcoholism) have given me an understanding and perspective that I would like to share with the world, and I hope to be able to do so in ways similar to what Styron has done. Through my memoir, I am crafting the story of my journey which will give readers another look into the childhood roots of depression and how they can take years to manifest and be addresses. Like Styron, my depression manifested itself physically. Like Styron, my depression had a connection with alcohol. Like Styron, I flirted dangerously with thoughts of suicide, and like Styron I climbed out of the abyss with a clearer understanding of what this disease can do.
Walls’ illuminating journey through her unique upbringing is never sentimental or filled with woe-is-me moments. It is simply a stunning portrayal of a unique family life, and her style of writing is the kind I would like to emulate in telling the story of my own unique upbringing:
“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.’” (Walls, 38)
When her family is dirt poor and her parents can’t buy a single present, her father, an alcoholic who likely had some sort of mental health problem, comes up with a brilliant idea:
“On Christmas Eve, Dad took each one of us kids out into the desert night one by one. ‘Pick out your favorite star,’ Dad said. ‘I like that one!’ I said. Dad grinned, ‘that’s Venus,’ he said. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant and stars twinkled because their light pulsed. ‘I like it anyway,’ I said. ‘What the hell,’ Dad said. ‘It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.’ And he gave me Venus.” (Walls, 56)
My father and I had a difficult, confusing relationship, much like Walls and her dad. Walls was able to portray the various layers of a man who more than a one-dimensional. A less gifted writer may have not given us such a complex and interesting character. Walls takes her readers on a journey in her writing to some horrible places, but does so with the kind of grace that I am trying to learn how to do myself:
“I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.” (Walls, 38)
As a writer in this world, I want to be a voice for people who have been to the depths of personal suffering and hell and have emerged with bloodied injuries that may never fully heal. During a recent full-moon celebration in the woods near Goddard, around a campfire and in the midst of like-minded, soulful people, I expressed my desire to be seen as a “Healing Healer.” That is one of the images I have of myself when I picture what I am as a writer in this world.
In my experience, when a fragile human being (which is a redundancy; we are all one wrong touch away from being shattered) is hurt, and when that wound is deep and personal and oftentimes buried for years or decades, if the wounded person is finally somehow able to arrive at a place of healing, wonderful – but they are never truly completely healed. They will always have that spiritual limp that rears its ugly head every so often to growl and stomp and scream and hurt. But those of us who have been to the darkest wasteland and emerged can recognize the process of healing and help others along the path. That is what I mean by a Healing Healer – someone who is further along in the journey and can reach a hand out to those struggling at earlier stops in the road and say, “Come here, take my hand, I’ve been where you are, I know how to avoid some of the potholes. And if I can’t get you over those giant sinkholes that will surely come along, I can jump into them with you, and we can figure a way out together.”
This is what Styron and Walls did, and what I would like to do in some of my writing. But it doesn’t just happen in memoir, it happens in the most beautiful poetry, and it happens in young adult fiction, and it happens in any writing that shows evidence of a writer who has cut open a vein and let it bleed onto the page.
Thank goodness for Mary Oliver, a wise and wonderful poet, for opening up her veins and sharing her wisdom with us. Her poetry speaks to me more than any other poet I have ever read, and I find myself asking the same kinds of questions in my poetry that she asks in many of her poems, such as “The Moth, The Mountains, The Rivers”:
“Who can guess the Luna’s sadness who lives so
briefly? Who can guess the impatience of stone
longing to be ground down, to be part again of
something livelier? Who can imagine in what
heaviness the rivers remember their original
Strange questions, yet I have spent worthwhile
time with them. And I suggest them to you also,
that your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life
be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as
you feel how it actually is, that we – so clever, and
ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained – are only
one design of the moving, the vivacious many.”
Oliver urges us to spend time with these questions in the way that we spend time with anything worthwhile. If being presented with the idea of spending quality time with nature, with the fundamental building blocks of life, with poetry – if that does not make you want to read, write and discover the wonders of the universe, then you are in the wrong business.
Matthew Quick, a Goddard graduate and contemporary fiction writer whom I greatly admire, has achieved this kind of symbiotic writer/reader relationship in several of his books. His young-adult work Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock addressed an issue that I am also attempting to articulate – that of the depressed suicidal teenager who is looking for meaning and love in a world where he feels abandoned and misunderstood. This book gives us a firsthand view of what it means to be at the very depths of that heated cauldron that Styron described, which is why I was drawn to the story. His protagonist, Leonard Peacock, is planning a murder-suicide, but he is also very intelligent and contemplative and willing to do research. This lends a depth to his character that is important for letting us have sympathy for him as he makes his plans. Here we can see the beginnings of where his mind is journeying and why he might have to navigate a bumpy road in getting there:
“I Googled ‘how long does it take to die when you slit your wrists?’ There are all sorts of people asking this question on the Internet and most of them say they are researching the topic for their high school health class. Most of the posted answers accuse the asker of lying….But then I found posts about how to slit your wrists the ‘right way,’ so you will actually die, and that depressed me, because people actually post stuff like that, and, even though I wanted to know the answer, so I could weigh my options, that info maybe shouldn’t be on the Internet….How can you tell when you are one of those people who should slash his wrists the right way with a razor blade? Is there an answer for that too? I Googled but nothing concrete came up. Just ways to complete the mission. Not justification.” (Quick, 7)
Quick has also been able to write about the world of adult mental illness in a way that allows us to see a victim’s real humanity in such books as “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Good Luck of Right Now.” Each of these works deals with an individual who is trying to overcome his own mental instabilities to find happiness and comfort in a world that he finds difficult to navigate. This is a shared experience for me, and one that I want to try and share in my writing.
There are many writers who have inspired and continue to inspire me to try and share some level of truth with the world: Joyce Carol Oates, W.S. Merwin, Nikky Finney, Derrick Jensen, Wallace Stegner, Neil Gaiman, Kate DiCamillo, Sharon Flake, Frank X Walker, the list goes on and on and on. What they all have in common is what I envision it means to be a writer in the world – they are each, in their own ways, keeping their eyes and minds and bodies and spirits awake and aware and attentive to their experiences. As I continue on my journey as a writer, this is what I hope I am, and what I hope I am always becoming – attentive with my entire being to my beautiful, painful, exotic world.
To that end, I have created a Bucket List – things I must do to be an active, engaged Writer in the World. It is a list meant for me, but I wish it to be a list you could see yourself in, a list that would engage you in your idea of what you must do to be a writer in your world. This is My List, but I hope it makes you want to create your own. I no longer believe in the god of my ancestors, but I do believe in something greater than ourselves, and for me it is the magical meaningful power of the written word.
I made this list as a plan of action (and in some cases, purposeful inaction) to sustain me in my ongoing journey of being a writer. This is My List, and like My Memoir and My Truth it can only come from My Experience, just like Your List will be yours when you write it. And you will write it, won’t you? I hope so, for that is my mission in this life – Write, and in my own Writing continue my own Healing, and through sharing and learning and guidance and hope, help others to be inspired to Write and to help them to feel free enough and alive enough and empowered enough to begin or continue their own Healing as we journey from stardust to stardust. And may the circle never stop. Amen and Amen.
Bucket List for Being a Writer in the World
- Write the story that you have to write before you can write all the other stories: You know which one this is. It is the one that has been rattling around in your brain for more than 25 years. It is the one you have tried to write and then put away, the one that haunts your nighttime mind and stays buried within your daytime activities. It is the one you have forgotten about for months if not years, then remembered at the lightest and darkest hours. Walls did it, as have so many others, and you can too. We all have this story, and unless we cut open ourselves and let it bleed onto the page, it pollutes our minds and contaminates our bloodstream, so cut yourself wide open to the world and let the wound be gaping and ugly and poetic and funny and agonizingly painful. Philoctetus was an excellent archer in the classical Greek army of Achilles and was a hero in the Trojan War, however he had a wound that was grotesque, festered and stank. The other soldiers did not want to be around him, however his wound gave him the power to be a perfect archer. His wound is where his power came from. This is true for you, too.
- Read poetry every day: The greatest poets can give you everything you need to be a successful whatever. Laurie Foos says fiction writers should read poetry every day, and she is right. Poets are on the battlefield in society’s struggles of race, inequality, poverty, incarceration, ignorance, greed, judgment and power. They are lending love and light in the midst of chaos. Read a poem every single day. Sit with it like a cup of coffee or a sunrise or an ocean wave, and let it fill you until you are ready to burst into bloom, and then sit with it a little while longer and allow it to become your skin, let it be your eyes and your vision of this day in the world, let it be your anchor as well as your sail. Your writing will thank you.
- Read fiction every day: Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie,” and G.K. Chesterton said, “Literature is a luxury, but fiction is a necessity.” Jørn Earl Otte says, “A single line of fiction reveals more truth than a thousand preachers or salesmen.” He goes on to say “some fiction each day keeps the demons away,” and he also says, “American life on a day-to-day basis is complete and total bullshit, so let’s read some fiction to get through this day, because fiction is considerably more real.” The best fiction will make you want to never leave the inside of the pages, it will make you proud to be a member of the human race, and will arm you against greed, hatred, the Pentagon, money, pollution, racism and Republicans.
- Read creative nonfiction every day: Understand that this does not mean your newspaper. Understand that interesting truths and illuminating facts are most likely found in books. Understand that honest, deep, meaningful change in our world can have its seed planted in the works of people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Derrick Jensen, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Fire Lame Deer, and a thousand other voices…. BUT that seed won’t grow unless you water it by reading these people every day every single day and act upon the messages they are sharing.
- Act: The writer’s job is indeed to pay attention, but once you are someone who has shown a daily dedication to doing so, then you must act on your attention with intention and devotion. Your action will depend on your passion, and for me that passion is sharing a story, so then you must:
- Write every single damn fucking day, I’m not kidding, no bullshit allowed, no excuses, fucking do it, fucking do it, fucking do it: Sorry, but that is the necessary language to tell myself that this is not optional. It should be like breathing, because it simply is that important. You eat every day to have the energy to live, and you convert that food into action. It is simply and profoundly equally true that you read every day to have the knowledge to live, and you convert that food into the act of writing. If you are not writing on any particular day, I don’t give a shit what the reason is, you are letting down your own soul, no one else, just your very stardust filled inner Tao being, the reason you are on this planet, you are failing it. WRITE. No bullshit.
- Be a great Dad: Grammatically, I should say “Be a great dad,” but this is my point. Be a Dad with a Capital D. It is insufficient to be a good dad, because a billion other fathers have done so. Be great. Why is this important in being a writer in the world? Because these impressionable little people who look to you for guidance will someday be teachers, doctors, writers, lovers, parents, poets, artists, carpenters and a thousand other things, and they will be the versions of them that you helped to create when you were being this amazing dad. You can make mistakes. Your father made plenty, and some of them so huge that most people would count them as unforgivable. But this is why you, Jørn, are the GREAT Dad. You did forgive, and you continue to do so, and you have taken the best things you have been taught and you have thrown away the garbage, and you are loving your children with an immense, deep, powerful love that will be their armor in the battles that they will most surely wage. Your greatness as being their dad will be one of the reasons they will be able to speak their own truths with clarity in their thoughts and charity in their hearts. Being a writer in the world, for you, means being a great dad. The two are synonymous and your children will thank you.
- Consider your local newspaper: Yes, I said that this is not where your truths should come from, but you should subscribe to your local newspaper, even if it is a piece of shit, because someday it will have a little blurb about a writer’s group wanting to form, and you will meet like-minded people in your area (I know! Progressive, thoughtful people in backwoods Appalachia! Who knew?), and you will want to know which church basement they are meeting in and whether or not they will serve coffee.
- Consider your local newspaper #2: On second thought, you should also write for your local paper. Raise the level of discourse in your town.
- Learn a foreign language: What does this have to do with being a writer in the world? Being a writer in the world means being a writer in the WORLD. Become fluent in something other than American English, and the world of literature will suddenly become more expansive than you ever realized, and your worldview will be enriched and expanded, and your vocabulary in your own language will be expanded and your ability to communicate across cultures and ideologies will be expanded. Your heart and soul will be expanded, and isn’t that reason enough?
- Join an LGBTQ advocacy group: This is the Civil Rights Movement of today, and writers will be needed to give clarity to the message, and your words specifically will be needed. Be brave.
- Fight for the Mountains: Because they cannot fight for themselves.
- 14, 15, 16, etc….…….: This list is considerably longer. This list is no joke, it is very real, and I keep a copy in my wallet. Ask me: I am happy to show it to you. As it stands now, it has more than 200 things on it, and if you find that implausible, that’s fine. As I said, it is my list, and if you know me you know that I tend to push the boundaries of what I believe I can achieve. As you can see from numbers 10, 11 and 12, the items on this list begin to grow more specific and personal to me, and their meaning is meant for me and me alone. But you can and should write a list similar for yourself, because being a writer in the world will mean 200 different things to you than it will to me. And even though I keep a copy in my wallet, I am constantly having to change it. Things get deleted when completed, added when discovered, and changed to reflect new perspectives. It is a living document, because being a writer changes with time, and because the fundamentals may never change but they will manifest themselves differently at different times. Please, make your list, feel free to steal some from mine and add to it whatever you are inspired to add. But no matter what else you add, let this last one from my list be the last one on yours, and may you be inspired every time you read it:
200: Repeat the whole list: That’s right, repeat the entire list. Why? Because real writing is rewriting. Because rewriting is real writing. Because being an engaged member of the world means to never stop learning. Because creative nonfiction, poetry and fiction are all so very important to your own survival as well as humanity’s. Because life without words doesn’t seem like a life worth living at all. If your life as a writer is a “sign and witness” to the impulse to write, then you understand. Because being a Writer in the World is this simple, and this important: It is why you and I were put on this earth. Amen.
Oliver, Mary. A Thousand Mornings. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Quick, Matthew. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown, 2013. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, and Franz Xaver Kappus. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.
Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.