“Write when you get there.”
Those were my grandma’s parting words as she waved us up the dirt road from her small Wisconsin farm that sat like an egg in a nest of soft green hills. It was late August, 1950. We might have phoned when we “got there,” but long-distance calls were expensive, involving connections through Millie, the Elk Mound operator, who would alert all on the party-line that Maud and Leon were getting a call. Better to write.
Writing connects people. Certainly, it tells when we have arrived. Think of 19th century Poles, Italians, Irish immigrants, who lined the ocean docks where they waved a permanent farewell to families. From the departing whistle until their final days, I like to imagine the divided families connecting by letters. Stories once told by the hearth would spin themselves in correspondence– long narratives that included incidents lived over weeks and months. Perhaps the newly arrived immigrant sits at a small desk, faintly lit by gas light. He or she has saved the early evening after a long day of labor, to describe poetically a new landscape, from sky scrapers to tenements. Or if the immigration ended in the Midwest, miles of prairie grass as if the world were flat. As the writer continues with pictures and stories, a voice within speaks up reminding the writer of feelings, longings, comparisons between the homeland and the adopted one. By the letter’s end, the epistle looks only vaguely familiar to what the writer intended to say. The reason? Writing is a process, not a product. It is the process of thought. In the process of writing, we learn what it is we have to say. Consequently, writing not only connects between people, it also connects to the cognitive and emotional life within us. Much like wading into an incoming tide, the process of writing may begin in the shallows, but as words flow in, before we know it, we are swimming among ideas we didn’t know we had.
Our church has a small, bi-weekly writing group led by Pastor Debra Jarvis, our Writer-in-Residence. Debra started the group years ago at VA Hospital. Her writers were dealing with PTSD. Writing can be therapeutic, so her group offered a safe place to express trauma. One veteran from the group occasionally joins us, but now the group is primarily a gathering of church members. We bring writing we want critiqued. We also write together in response to a prompt. Then, if time remains, we share what we have written.
Most of us are old enough to have generations of material. A week away from Christmas, I offered the prompt to generate our writing. I selected phrases from several Christmas carols, copying them on red and green slips of paper. The writers chose as many as they wished to initiate thought, or to incorporate somewhere along the way. Nina chose “Oh Holy Night,” and she was off, recalling her 10th year, when prior to Christmas, she and her father walked hand-in-hand five freezing blocks to an evening of Christmas music at the University Christian Church. In the process of writing, she recalled, and so brought to us, her chapped shins where her snow boots rubbed, and the feel of her father’s comforting hand surrounding hers. Nina filled with pride in being the only sibling who had her father all to herself. After reading aloud, Nina leaned back in her chair as if she needed a certain distance to see where her writing had taken her. “Oh my,” she gasped, “I don’t know where that came from. I haven’t thought about that night in over fifty years.” Nina had connected with the child within her, had resurrected a father long dead whom she still loved. In the process of writing, she connected with her inner self. She also connected with us, planting her story in our memory. We regular attendees of the writing group, intimately know our fellow writers, because we carry their stories within us.
Naomi rides the bus to writing group. She notices people and observes mini-street dramas. Then she writes her spare poems, spare like a Japanese scroll where the ink is gracefully minimal, telling everything by telling only a little, and letting the white space suggest meaning.
John is writing his memoir, each week his episodes carrying us to a small Michigan town where his grandfather was pastor of a humble church. John, himself a graduate of seminary, reads his work aloud as if it were a sermon. His resonant voice echoes in our meeting room. He affects his grandfather’s voice in one register, and his grandmother in another. We all feel we have visited Charlevoix, could find our way from the fishing camp to the church.
Ruth is writing about founding a college in Africa. Choosing to tell the story through the voice of the founder, she challenges herself to leave her own body and to incorporate another. I feel the heat of the African sun, and the voice of an African leader embodied in our friend Ruth. Everyone’s stories become our own.
Writing usually wants an audience. Thoughtful writing takes time and solitude until time to publish. I worry how the computer age has truncated that thoughtful process. If you are a tweeter, you barely get your toes wet, much less wade from the shallows to the deeps. If you text or email, you might add a few more words, but it is so easy to “send” before complex thought sets in. And once sent, the receiver’s voice may respond with affirmation or disagreement. Although writing can include dialogue, even inner dialogue, actual conversation with another person while you are in the process of writing can divert you so that soon you are swimming in another river, and a shallow one at that.
Seattle fills concert halls with an audience for writers. This year alone, Ron Chernow, Isabel Allende, and Ta Nehisi Coates attracted hundreds of book lovers so there was not a vacant seat in Benaroya Hall. It doesn’t matter if everyone has read the author’s books. The audience comes to hear celebrative wisdom. Could it be that we consider the words of authors wise because in the process of writing, a mushrooming awareness blooms within the author’s voice? This connection an author makes with understanding comes through the several years it takes to write one book. We in the audience respect the process and consequently applaud the writer who, in one hour, enlightens us.
Not all writing is sent to an audience. One might wonder why anyone should write, lacking intentions to publish. There comes the journal and its audience of one. Two years ago, with Lent approaching, I thought about what I might give up for 40 days. Realizing giving up might be less worshipful than taking on, I decided for Lent I would write a Gratitude Journal, 40 days of contemplating something for which I am grateful. Each day surprised me with another positive gift, my enhanced outlook on life. Articulating my gratitude made me feel good. I wonder how I would feel had I committed to 40 days of complaints. This past Lent, I decided again to write at least a page a day, but without the theme of gratitude. Rarely do I go back to read what I have written, but the seeds are planted in my journal for flowers I will gather in later written discourse.
In the process of writing, I never really “got there.” Even though we did write to relatives to announce our safe arrival home, I continued to write memoirs years later that sent me back to the farm and all of the excitement I felt when I jumped from the hayloft in the barn, or gathered brown eggs in the small basket Grandma saved each summer, just for me.