I recently gave a talk at the Kansas Authors Club Convention, in which I explored how writing can help us reclaim ourselves and serve our communities. Over the next seven days, I will share the seven parts of the talk, including, today, the introduction.
It started with a poem on an autumn afternoon, on the stoop of a garden apartment where my dad’s volatile girlfriend lived, in the middle of a year-long court battle my parents engaged in while living in the same house, I wrote a poem, each line a lifeline. I was 14 and needed words more than sound or image, and the words didn’t disappoint. In writing about despair, I found an island of solace, a quiet place to tuck myself into a hammock made of image, rocked by the rhythmic wind of language. I returned the next day, then the next. Soon I was the girl carrying around a journal and a purple pen, sitting against the smooth brick wall in between classes or in a dark part of the theater during rehearsals of “Bye, Bye Birdie,” writing about the ground beneath me dissolving but something — maybe writing itself — catching me before I fell too far.
Since that time, writing has continued to sustain me. It’s a mirror that shows me my own mind and heart, a way of knowing what I know and unknowing what no longer serves me, a magic window out to the real and vibrant world, wheeling over us with all its weather, change, dynamics and surprises.
Through writing, I found ways to see more clearly both life’s wreckage and wonder, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich, as well as, “the slow lift of the moon’s belly/ over wreckage, dreck, and waste, wild treefrogs calling in/ another season, light and music still pouring over/ our fissured, cracked terrain.”
Who among us hasn’t suffered wreckage, dreck and waste, but who hasn’t also heard the wondrous call of the next season as light and music blanket the broken parts of us? What seems impossible in the moment is pushed over the top of the its mountain by time, and rolls and unfolds into something amazingly survivable.
Our writing can be our flashlight in the dark woods, showing us where and how to step next. Here are seven ways the light has led me home.
1. The Writer as Child
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days” — Flannery O’Connor
Surviving a childhood also gives us enough to write about all the day long, including, for many, defining traumas. Growing up physically abused, I grappled with writing the body injured and harmed as a way to return to and fully reinhabit my whole self. Here is a poem to and from the child I was and am.
What I Could Tell
I could name all the pieces of violence –
the kick or slap, the friendly punch.
“Say it again,” the therapist says.
I remember this later, lying in the bathtub
watching my arms and legs float in water, so normal.
Do you see how contained I am? How calm
a poem, as if I were writing about
tree limbs in winter covered in ice. Delicate.
Connected to the glass trunk, bone to bone.
I startle awake. Someone behind me. Reflexes
not everyone has anymore or ever.
But that was another time, weighted in
the cells of skin. Smoke in the vein of the bone.
Does it matter that the shelf of sky was blue,
that there was heat right where
the fist imprinted itself on my leg?
Did it happen like a shovel edge into roots,
someone watching, hands around my neck
before I could speak, and I’m dying
all over again?
There was a room with no air, a cringing
inward, the iris already broken from its bulb.
There was a bathtub with a girl covered
in bruises, the door locked hopefully.
She was tired, so tired
she couldn’t stay awake
to tell me what really happened.
I share this poem also in solidarity with those of you who grew up abused or neglected. In my faculty position at Goddard College, and in the writing workshops I’ve been leading for 20 years, I’ve worked with many who need to pass through the corridors of abuse, violence, neglect, degradation and betrayal that split them from themselves. What I found — saving the child ,by writing about her from the vantage point of an adult, helps make us whole — is mirrored in many writers around me. Writing the darkness into light helps us remember ourselves — put ourselves back together.
Tomorrow: Part 2. The Writer as Mother