Reverie on Writing

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.

65 replies
  1. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    Oh my goodness, Christina. This is stunning. I’m so lucky to call you friend. Someone just this morning told me she has a story in her. She asked me how to begin. I’m sending this to her. The Universe is speaking today. 💜

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      That’s how I felt–that the universe is speaking today. And the magic of those first hours of the day.

  2. Brenda Peddigrew
    Brenda Peddigrew says:

    Oh My, Christina…I am entering into a next stage of writing my autobiography, which is a hundred+ pages in and which I have been avoiding for nearly a year. Your words stir me into that next stage..

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      So happy to hear you are writing your life story. Stand on a hilltop and read it to the wind. Blessings, CB

  3. Sue Reynolds
    Sue Reynolds says:

    It is a day where everything, everyone…. Is dancing to a different tune. Chaotic, unloving, awful…. And then, this from you. Oh, it is so good to see your words on the surface of this tablet. Thank you! Sue

  4. Patricia Houston
    Patricia Houston says:

    This is just beautiful. Every word of it. And just what I needed. Thank you so very much!

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Race the clock and write the essentials, Patricia… you still have much to tell.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Jeanne’s book, You’ll Never Find Us, is an example of not giving up on her story. Look her up. And thank you, Jeanne, for not giving up.

  5. Kath B
    Kath B says:

    Beautiful, Christina. Can’t believe it’s been 10 years since Self as Source for me. The wise words you shared in your post today bring me back to all of us together at Aldermarsh. You may be retired, but I’m very glad you’re still teaching! xo

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I have a hard time thinking of myself as “retired”–tired sometimes, yes, but re-ally still involved in lots of things. Thinking fondly of you and so many SAS alums. Take care.

  6. Sloane
    Sloane says:

    Thank you, Christina. Your musings just arrived, which I used as an excuse to avoid getting started — again — into my own writing this afternoon. After reading your reflections, now a return into the chaos and seeming incoherence, … again.

    Be well,

    Sloane

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Remember that part about “if you persist…” May it carry you to the magic and mystery.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      And thank you for your loving work: The Story You Need to Tell. If someone in this chain is stuck, read this book.

  7. Susan Embry
    Susan Embry says:

    Christina, this beautiful story came at just the right time as I begin my writing do-oer. Thank you, as always, for your compassion and wisdom.

  8. Marcia Wiley
    Marcia Wiley says:

    Wow, Christina! Your words and observations and invitation to write make me want to give it a try… almost. I’m a reader, not a writer and definitely appreciate a well crafted story. Looking forward to seeing yours in print once the NY book people get past summers intense heat. 📚😻

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Readers are essential to wrters and to the storytelling tribe. I’m so glad for you voracious appetites for a good bunch of words.

  9. Ann Darling
    Ann Darling says:

    Ah Christina! You “pinged” me … right back those treasured moments at Marsh House with you and all the other supportive folks. You and Anna Quindlen (in Write for your Life) are like a “buried treasure” found in the bottom of a drawer of treasures …. just beneath that treasured page you haven’t lifted for ages! What joy in the discovery! Be well dear encourager.

  10. Cari Ferraro
    Cari Ferraro says:

    Perfect. Thank you for your beautiful words, so carefully crafted and so full of heart and soul. I am traveling in England, in the final days of my journey, in London now and surrounded by the ghosts of my writerly inspirations of younger days, staying in the college that was built on the ruins of one of Virginia Woolf’s last homes before she gave in to despair. I was feeling a bit infected with it this morning, and now I see the light in the darkness. We need all the voices.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah the ghosts of our early inspirations… England is full of them for an old (me) English major. I leak most of the time I walk those streets. I understand Virginia’s despair, have touched my own darkness and pulled back. I am sorry for the mental anguish that led her to put rocks in her pockets and walk into the river… But the light, the light on the river in the morning, and the heft of the rocks, and the smell of old English wool, sheep and weave and perfume… let’s write about that. And this quote from Mary Oliver: Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters

  11. Rosi Lovdal
    Rosi Lovdal says:

    My life story waits and waits for me in my computer, nearly completely written. I age. My story changes. I feel sadly challenged to continue. I am too old. Who cares. And then I read this, on this sunlit morning, and am brought to tears. I am awakened. Thank you so much, Christina, for this magnificent inspiring moment.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Dearest Rosi and the rest of us… We do not know who cares. It is simply up to us to care. To spend time in life review, to put onto the whitely glowing screen page the insights and experiences of our passage through. It is honorable work, this crafting of story. It is antidote to the overwhelming ravages of out-of-context soundbytes and mean gossip that pass for story in the gyre of noise. When you go back in, read your story aloud to yourself… read it to whatever surrounds you–the walls of your house, the grass in the park, a nearby tree, the cat… see what happens.

  12. Jane Hayes
    Jane Hayes says:

    Your thoughts were the perfect way to start my new day inspiring me to go forth! What the heck! With appreciation for you…

  13. Sharon Faulds
    Sharon Faulds says:

    Well Christina like Jeanne I too cried when I read your blog to Paul at dinner last evening as we sat outside at the same table where you and Amanda worked on a plan for Durham Region. Then I sent it to Kim who is also going back and forth with her agent for her second book. Thank you as always for the reminder of being present for the beauty in the moment that births story.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you Sharon, for a thousand ways you midwife presence in the world. So glad you and Paul have made it through the cancer tunnels and are still at the patio table on a summer’s eve in Ontario.

  14. Kristie McLean
    Kristie McLean says:

    I needed this today and recognize myself in the woman who came to you. Yes to the danger in laying our stories bare. Yes to doing it anyway. “Anywhere you start will lead (t)here.” I’m writing that on my heart.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      You storycatcher… find that hour. I know just a bit of what you carry and how much others need that voice of your heart.

  15. Tenneson
    Tenneson says:

    Love the guidance and reflection — thank you Christina. It is your presence to such meaning that so lifts my heart, and I believe the hearts of many. I so love your commitment to “being written”. It’s opened much of that quality in me, writing the tiniest of snippets that sometimes open up a life-long friendship with an idea, and energy, and a fulfilled grin. Thx for your discipline, your art, your heart, your perseverance, your dwelling in the unknown, you’re claiming the simple in no shit kinds of ways. All of it. :))

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      And thank you, Tenn, for your daily practice. You bring your voice to the every day is beautiful ways and I/we benefit.

  16. Laura Collins
    Laura Collins says:

    Wow. That’s exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you for the gentle inspiration.

  17. Susan Kistin
    Susan Kistin says:

    Greetings Christina!
    So blessed to have had you as a mentor in Circle so many years ago, and now I am coming to your blog as I find myself unexpectedly writing a memoir! Having dyslexia, I have avoided the written word, but now I’m not letting the dancing letters on the page stop me. I appreciate your post here; thank you for this lovely offering. I am inspired.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ahh, those dancing letters! Maybe you can get them to sit down in circle with you. And I’d love to see a memoir without spellcheck… let the dyslexia speak for itself. Carry on.

  18. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    What I most love about you is how you walk your talk. These pearls of wisdom have such an authentic voice. I’m reminded of what I learned in recovery about choosing mentors, about how important it is to lead by example. To borrow a phrase from those rooms, “I want what you have”. Thank you for sharing this gentle instruction. I must say I never think of you as having retired, so much as I think of you as having refocused your energies. Grateful at every turn for having you in my orbit*

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Bonnie Rae–it takes a wordsmith to help a wordsmith. I’ve been looking for years for a word to name this stage of life formerly known as retirement…. and here you offer it in the nest of these comments: I am refocused. I feel so much better now, like a new shawl on my shoulders. Grateful for you, and this tribe of readers and writers. And keep that camera clicking beauty into our days.

  19. Judy Reeves
    Judy Reeves says:

    Thank you for beginning my writing morning with this beautiful meditation/inspiration for the work and the words. Beautiful and just what I needed…I am slowing down now, I am breathing again.
    With love.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Carry on, journal writing sister and author. It calms me to think of you down the coast breathing again. love back,

  20. Suzanne Fageol
    Suzanne Fageol says:

    I am just finishing a 21 writing challenge from Service Space on writing our New Story. Your advice is important for all writers! Thank you.

  21. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    You offered us a mighty powerful gospel today, Christina. Your teaching was directed to writers specifically, but its message easily extends to any artistic medium one practices. Your message was loud and clear. I was having a Cascadia Quest moment as I read your words to completion. Thanks deeply for sharing your wisdom. If this blog post is what your retirement looks like, retire away dear wise woman! xxx
    p.s. – I find that “retire” is a funny choice of word as my mind has always seen this word as an action – to re-tire, as in to put new tires on ones bike or auto giving the vehicle renewed traction to hit the road again with new vigor.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Jeanne… most marvelous weaver that you are. And I am so glad Bonnie Rae told me I’m not retired, but refocused. I feel so much better now… I may never use that word again.

  22. James Wells
    James Wells says:

    “I don’t teach anymore.” BWAHAHAHA! Then you offer us a blog piece like this. My journal was going to sit untouched yet again today, Christina, until your single waving seed head tickled its covers open this morning. Love and gratitude to you! xo

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Busted! Yes words teach… and you write. Sit on the lawn and read to the grass the deepest truth of your being. love, cb

  23. Melissa Bailey-Kirk
    Melissa Bailey-Kirk says:

    Ah, friend and coach. Thank you for taking the time to offer your wisdom to storycatchers…yet again. I’m remembering my own coming to you, again and again, and your generosity of spirit. Blessings, love.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Blessings and love back to you, Melissa. I think of you as Florida comes into the news, knowing you are there holding onto thoughtfulness, activism, and feeding stories of justice into the mouth of the roaring lion. A tricky maneuver, but you have accumulated a life-time of skill.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Jerome, and as your email says you are aging with spirit and wisdom–I hope you are writing as well! Please pass this along into the sage-ing network. Blessings into your day.

  24. Connie (Fenty) McDonald
    Connie (Fenty) McDonald says:

    Lovely to read this Christina. I had one of those “grass moment” a couple of days ago… While scurrying about one morning on what was predicted to be the hottest day in history, I had come to the end of a list of errands. In the parking lot of the post office, I opened the car door. The bearable coolness of AC met the sweltering weather outside as waves of humid hardly breathable air Just as I was about to turn off the engine and brave my way through the murk, I was held in place by the tune playing on the car radio. Maria Calais sang a heavenly aria. I closed the car door, sat back in my seat and just listened. As her sweet voice vibrated, the lists disappeared and my spirit soared. As Maria sang on, I entered an altered state. Who’d have thought that such a moment of grace awaited me at the end of my to-dos?

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Always lovely when you check in, Connie. I hope you didn’t drive until you were back in this world… and how lovely to have lifted off into the ethereal for a while.

  25. Francesca White
    Francesca White says:

    Talk about synchronicity! How wonderful to be reminded that it’s 10 years since I travelled all the way from Melbourne, Australia across the sea to the magical house on the island with trees that live in the water! Synchronicity because I’ve been mucking around trying to get a book of stories going for my grand children. Not knowing how to start, and starting in ways that feel all artificial. I’ve even joined a writers group and still the breath waits for a starting gun. However, reading this today dear Christina has lit the lamp of inspiration. Thank you, and how lovely to read all the people who have been so touched by your gifts. Much love to you all.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah Francesca, a delight to hear from you and hoping those lucky grandchildren get your stories soon! You are holding a world they do not know, unless you tell them. Treasures to pass along in the world that comes. And I agree how lovely to hear from so many people.

  26. Sharon Fleming
    Sharon Fleming says:

    How lovely to come across your encouraging words today, Christina. I continue to write using stream-of-consciousness as a tool, but I feel like I’m stumbling while seeking the next step. I am determined to get these personal essays into a form that may help some reader find their path in this complex world in which we live. For today, I will simply follow your suggestions to stop and “be”, to really look into that which is right before me and to continue to practice. Thank you for all you continue to do in your refocusing process.

    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah Sharon, how lovely to hear that you are still writing! It’s often a challenge in the “stream-of-consciousness” phase to keep going (trust the river, they say) and to keep an eye out for how and when the shore begins to appear and to bring your words into form for other readers. It is good work, keep paddling… writing, and refocused.

  27. Jon M Shafer
    Jon M Shafer says:

    This is a memory test: please think back to the late ’60’s & early ’70’s when you were living with Pope in St. Paul. Now focus in further to attending Twin Cities Friends Meeting nearby. Does that help you remember me? I’m just now in my refocusing starting “Life’s Companion.” Remembering our talks about Quaker journal writers. I’m still a Friend, though now in Kansas City, MO, where my life partner and I moved because my elder son lives here & there’s inexpensive housing. Thank you for continuing your interest in journaling and helping so many.

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