A woman reaches out through a friend of a friend. She wants to write her story. She needs to talk to a writer. I am retired. I don’t teach anymore. I’ve got a manuscript in New York, a six-year project I just revised, again. It’s hot there. People wilt in the city and flee to the country. My agent says nobody cares about writing in August. Every day I choose between discouragement and belief in my work. I say yes–to myself, to her. Come to lunch. I’ll make salad. We’ll sit on the patio. I set two chairs… but three are seated: two women, and story.
I say story-building begins in catharsis and chaos, followed by glimmers of coherence and, if we persist, magic and mystery. I say we become writers by writing. She has a long career in social work, distilling other people’s stories, making reports and charting progress. This is different. A certain amount of fear is appropriate to the significance of the task. Too little fear and we are careless with the power of our words; but too much fear is paralyzing. Every writer becomes a chemist mixing risk and responsibility in the beeker of telling. It’s your turn, I say: seize the impulse and surrender.
Long after lunch, I think about her skill, her courage. Now it is morning of the next day, and I write…. for her, for myself, for anyone beginning—
Breathe deep. Find the words at the bottom of breath. Unfurl them from the silence that has shrouded your truth. You are strong enough now. You have hefted the weight of your life and proven yourself in a million moments of working, raising, contributing, fighting, running, loving. Mostly that: loving life in the ways it has demanded.
Lift silence into your own hands. Make of it an hour a day when you refuse disruptions, notifications, the pings of incoming texts, the whoosh of outgoing mail, tiny headlines announcing your helplessness to change the course of world events. The government is disappointing. The earth is heaving, burning, flooding, winded. Turn it off. Breathe deep. Cradle your silence like a delicate nest in which the egg of an unhatched bird is warming in your hands.
Sit before a window. Choose one thing you see or hear and write. I see tall grass. Notice how it holds utterly still in morning light, how it stretches into the air above the heather. The seed heads are tiny blond ponytails waiting for wind. And isn’t this you? The child you were, hair pulled back, ready to run in play or terror depending on what track the day laid out before your tender soul? This is where the silence came from, plucking what might blurt off the truthful tongue of a child into the safety of not-saying.
Anywhere you start will lead here. The grass, the house next-door, sun coming up and going down, dogs barking, the potato-chip crunch of shoes on gravel. Words are labyrinths, crossword puzzles, tracks in the forest, skid marks on pavement: the only way to get to the true of your story is to whisper, to howl, to cry and laugh—become a holy fool hunched over journal and pen or laptop, seeking the words at the bottom of breath, and finding the hour to write whatever story is pecking out of the egg.
It’s all practice. Practice word choice, practice rambling, discover the secret delight of placing just the right word into a sentence. Practice putting life into words. We are the story-telling creatures and every story changes the world in some way. We don’t have to understand it really: just hang paragraphs on the narrative thread.
Weave meaning. We need story. The world is falling apart. Perhaps you’ve noticed. I won’t recite the litany of disasters. Instead, I shall watch those tall grasses, stalks as slim as a line on a page, how they stand and wait. And how is it possible that a tiny thread of breeze moves one stalk among the still-life cluster—just one—waving at me across the yard. I exhale into the early morning and here is evidence that story makes its way into the world. Every voice matters. Yours.