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There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

(“There is no Frigate like a Book” (1286), By Emily Dickinson, 1830-86)

We had a new carpet installed in our living room this past week—a welcome change from the old one, faded and worn from the constant foot traffic to the outside deck.  It meant, however, that all the furniture had to be moved out of the room, and first, all the bookshelves and cabinets had emptied.  As wearisome as it was, I welcomed the task.  I’ve intended to sift through the dozens of books that have occupied the bookcases since we moved here, so when my husband hurriedly began re-shelving volumes after the installation was complete, I protested.

“I want to downsize my books,” I said.  “Let me do the re-shelving.”

Since the majority of the books are ones I’ve collected over the years, he agreed to leave me to the task of sorting and ordering.  That was four days ago.  I finished only last night, back aching, but the shelves neatly filled with my favorites,  poetry in one area, novels or nonfiction in another, art books on the bottom shelves, and so on.  Nearby, a large pile of discards waited to be boxed and donated—many that had been transported from house to house, country to country to end up here, in our California home.

“Why have you kept so many for so long?”  My husband is less attached to his books than I am, the majority of his given to the university when he retired.

“These books are like chapters of my life,” I said.  “I remember the stories, favorite passages and how they represented who I was becoming, what I was feeling and thinking at the time.”

Re-shelving took far more time than I anticipated.  With one book after another, I paused and sat down to page through them, all the while remembering the period a particular book came into my life.  There is the thick volume of e.e.cummings’ Complete Poems, its cover frayed and taped, pages dog-eared and marked by notes written in my hand.  I remember how I longed to have the volume so many years ago, and after a business trip to Boston, my first husband returned with it, a gift to me barely a year before his death.  In Alistair MacLeod’s Island, I recalled the years we lived in Cape Breton, the harshness of the long winters, and the loneliness I felt as a young mother.  Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose once filled me with longing for the western landscape I’d left behind after we moved to Canada.  A half-dozen of Maurice Sendak’s wonderfully illustrated children’s books were favorites to read aloud to my daughters.  I took solace in William Stafford’s The Way It Is and the wisdom in his poetry during the deaths of my parents and any remaining familial closeness.  My books, I realized, provided a sense of stability, of something solid and tangible during periods of upheaval and personal transition.  Hours passed with little re-shelving accomplished as I paused to sit and page through favorite books, all the while remembering what it was like to be me.

“Without books how could I have become myself?”  Sharon Lynn Schwartz asked her book, Ruined by Reading:  A Life in Books (1996), a meditation on why we read and how what we read shapes us.  Schwartz reminds us how books we read can be formative, serving as touchstones and guides throughout our lives.  It’s why those of us who love books tend to give them as gifts, she says, just as one gives love or intimate information: “Here, read this; it is in my mind; it affected the way I breathed.”

When I was a child, books were magical.  I was thirsty to learn and escape into worlds and adventures of imagination and story.  Books fed not only my mind, but my soul as well.  They instilled the reverence I felt in the quiet of the local library and the musty, papery smell of treasured books lining shelf after shelf.  I cannot imagine a life without books.  Although I now read fiction on my kindle; it’s not the same.  I miss the feel of a book in my hands, the ability to turn down a page and return to it, the solidity of a paper book in a world that is increasingly fast-paced and dependent upon technology.  It’s why, I suspect, that the many books that continue to line my bookshelves will again be lovingly boxed up and transported whenever we find ourselves moving to another home.

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,                                                                                                     s
plashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

(Dylan Thomas, [essay] Notes on the Art of Poetry)

Writing Suggestion

Do you have favorite books that you’ve kept long after first reading them?  What books held particular meaning for you during your childhood or during a period of challenge and upheaval?  What did they offer to you than you needed at the time?  Write about a book or books that shaped you, ones that you hold dear, ones that ignite memories and stories each time you take it from your shelf.

Dear Readers,

We were dressed and ready to go out the door to our neighbor’s Super Bowl Party when the wind tore our gazebo from its moorings in the back yard and sent it galloping across the back lawn.  We’ve managed to save it and our windows from impending disaster, but imagine my embarrassment when I called our neighbor to explain our late arrival…

“You don’t follow football too closely, do you?” She laughed.   That’s something you’ve already figured out if you’ve read this week’s post.  I don’t really follow football at all.  Still, I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“Do we have the time wrong?” I asked.  “We thought it began at 3 p.m.”  (Meanwhile I watched through the kitchen window as my husband wrestled with the gazebo frame.)  “We’re going to be late in any case,” I said, as the canvas cover blew off the frame.

“You’ve got the time right,” she said, but it’s NEXT week, not today.”

“Next week?  But I just published a post on my blog beginning with “Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  Whoops.”

And there you have it.  I will still  cross the street to sit and watch the Super Bowl with my neighbors, but in a week’s time, next Sunday.  For the confusion, I apologize.  No doubt my post from earlier today created a few furrowed brows.

Like  I said, my football dreams were dashed in grade school, and I turned my attention to other pursuits. Obviously,  I revealed my football ignorance in glowing neon today!

I apologize for a post designed for an event yet to happen, but meanwhile, I’ve had a good laugh, and I hope you have too.

Best wishes,

Sharon Bray

Dear Readers,

We were dressed and ready to go out the door to our neighbor’s Super Bowl Party when the wind tore our gazebo from its moorings in the back yard and sent it galloping across the back lawn.  We’ve managed to save it and our windows from impending disaster, but imagine my embarrassment when I called our neighbor to explain our late arrival…

“You don’t follow football too closely, do you?” She laughed.   That’s something you’ve already figured out if you’ve read this week’s post.  I don’t really follow football at all.  Still, I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“Do we have the time wrong?” I asked.  “We thought it began at 3 p.m.”  (Meanwhile I watched through the kitchen window as my husband wrestled with the gazebo frame.)  “We’re going to be late in any case,” I said, as the canvas cover blew off the frame.

“You’ve got the time right,” she said, but it’s NEXT week, not today.”

Next week?  But I just published a post on my blog beginning with “Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  Whoops.”

And there you have it.  I will still  cross the street to sit and watch the Super Bowl with my neighbors, but in a week’s time, next Sunday.  For the confusion, I apologize.  No doubt my post from earlier today created a few furrowed brows.

Like  I said, my football dreams were dashed in grade school, and I turned my attention to other pursuits. Obviously,  I revealed my football ignorance in glowing neon today!

I apologize for a post designed for an event yet to happen, but meanwhile, I’ve had a good laugh, andI hope you have too.

Best wishes,

Sharon Bray

Here we go again.  It’s Super Bowl Sunday , and millions of people across the country will station themselves at the television set for the big game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.  It’s not just the annual excitement of the kick-off that has everyone’s attention.  Even this non-football fan has some interest in watching the “older” generation take on the “new,” and whether it will be Peyton Manning or Cam Newton who walks away with the MVP trophy.  The Super Bowl is more of a social event for me.   Despite my long history of shunning football games, I’ve sometimes been drawn in, whether because of the talk of “deflate-gate,” the showdown between an older athlete and a younger one, the entertaining half-time shows (I admit I tuned into Bruno Mars performance two years ago) or the sheer fun from the array of creative commercials.   Our neighbors are hosting a “Super Bowl Party,” and my husband and I will gather around the television set—at least for a while– to watch football with them, a past time I once knew as routine during my childhood.

Their jeans sparkled, cut off

way above the knee, and my

friends and I would watch them

from my porch, books of poems

lost in our laps, eyes wide as

tropical fish behind our glasses.

 

Their football flashed from hand

to hand, tennis shoes gripped

the asphalt, sweat’s spotlight on

their strong backs… 

(From:  “After School Street Football, Eighth Grade,” by Dennis Cooper, The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of The Next Wave, 2008)

Because of my father, football reigned supreme at our house, and touch football was a neighborhood game played nearly every evening summer and fall.  I watched in rapt attention.  I wanted to play the game my father loved so much.  I pestered him to teach me how to pass the pigskin so I might join in the game.  My brother was still a preschooler, so I won my father’s assent and began my earnest practice as my father coached me, a bemused look on his face, no doubt mystified by his elder daughter’s desires.   I worked hard to impress my father with my talent, but he was not the one to give me the praise I longed to hear.  Rather, the local high school football star, Dick King, visiting his girlfriend, stopped to watch our neighborhood gang play football one autumn evening.  Instantly overcome with shyness, but acutely aware of his presence, I fired the ball in a perfect long pass to my buddy Marty.  “Man,” I heard King exclaim, “That girl can pass!”  I was elated.

My football prowess was short-lived.  Like it or not, football was reserved for boys, and my father’s attention soon turned to my kid brother.  I felt a little bereft as I watched father and son practice passing and blocking– lessons that paid off a few years later as my brother and nephew excelled as college football players and coaches.   I no longer shared in the sports talk or the knowledge of the game, and by the time my brother was playing college football, I was living in Canada where American style football was not as popular as ice hockey or soccer.  When we returned to California many years later, the language of football was lost on me.  I rarely watched a  game on television; I was hopelessly unfamiliar with the teams or players and became a puzzlement to my football-crazed siblings.

I still don’t understand much more than the most rudimentary aspects of a football game, and as someone who suffered a severe concussion in my teens, I wince with every bodily collision.  But I’ll watch the Super Bowl with our neighbors and try to share their enthusiasm while I attempt to translate the onslaught of sports talk that will infiltrate our conversation.

Sports and military metaphors are all too common in our daily language, whether we’re discussing politics, sports competitions or cancer.  Dhruv Khuller, writing in The Atlantic, referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  Since Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer” back in the 1970’s, military metaphors have dominated the language of the cancer experience.  Sports metaphors are probably a close second.  As Khuller points out in his article, “Over the centuries, we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”

Military metaphors, like “war on cancer, “ battle “ or “win the fight” dominate how we conceptualize and talk about cancer.   Sports metaphors, like “our team,” ”end run” or “game plan” are also used, and, like a war, connote winning or losing.  The advantage of metaphors is that they quickly “condense our experiences into shorthand, illuminate complex issues and can paint a thousand words” (“Cancer as Metaphor,” The Oncologist 2004, pp.708-716).    We tend to use the same metaphors for many of life’s normal challenges and struggles, not only the cancer journey.   For example, “We’re going to win this one; you’re out of bounds; tackle the problem head on; step up to the plate; be a team player;  soldier through it; run with a good idea, or make an end run.”  While our metaphors are visual and illustrative, they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion.

Like many common phrases of everyday language, metaphors are overused, phrases we seek to avoid in writing.  Yet they do serve a purpose between doctor and patient.  Dr. Jack Coulehan, Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University, writes:  Medicine abounds in image, symbol, and metaphor, all of which live in the minds of physicians, as well as patients. The art of medicine is grounded in empathy, trust, and shared beliefs; much of its healing power arises from image, metaphor, and ritual intended to benefit the patient. (Foreword, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors, 2013).  As described by the physicians interviewed for the 2004 Oncologist article, understanding the metaphors used by a patient and his or her family provides a common language, a sense by the patient that the doctor understands and is “there with them.”

Whether military or sports-inspired, what metaphors do you find useful in your interactions with your doctor?  When life “throws you a curve,” how do you communicate the experience or your determination to overcome any obstacles to your friends?  Do you “step up to the plate?” and take action?  How often do “over-used” metaphors creep into your conversation as you try to describe an event or your illness and treatment to someone else?

Writing Suggestion:

This week, “the ball is in your court.”  Consider the metaphors you use in your everyday life or in your cancer journey.  What purpose do they serve?  Or, perhaps your physician uses metaphors to describe your illness and treatment in ways that don’t resonate with you.  Use that as a jumping off place for writing.

Or why not have some fun as you watch the Super Bowl broadcast?  Laughter is good medicine, remember?  Listen for the sports talk, the metaphors used to describe the game.  Note them.  They can become your starting point for writing.  You might even search for an old copy of Sports Talk: A Dictionary of Sports Metaphors,  and by Robert Palmatier and Harold Ray , published in 1989.  It’s full of metaphors from many different sports and games.  Or try another, Talk Sporty to Me, by Jen Mueller, a book that promises to help you using Sports as a bridge to build personal and professional relationships!

 

Shift from your usual writing and purposely use these well-worn metaphors or clichés to write a short spoof or poem.  Sometimes even the most overused language can ignite a little creativity and humor.  So bring on the chips and guacamole!  Write a few of those choice phrases down.  Use them as your prompts for writing—wherever they take you.

Poets are like baseball pitchers.  Both have their moments.  The intervals are tough things.–Robert Frost

 

 

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone…

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

(From “Courage,” by Anne Sexton, In:  The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1975)

Imagine a shiny quarter.  On one side, the word “cancer,” and on the other, “courage.”  Search the internet, and cancer and courage are inextricably linked in hundreds of blogs, articles, and books, the stories of men and women whose bravery and tenacity in the face of life-threatening illness humbles each of us.  I doubt you need to look beyond your neighborhood or community to name more than one courageous cancer survivor, someone whose bravery in the face of a life-threatening illness has inspired you.  It’s a reminder of how prevalent and pervasive cancer is in our modern-day lives.  As I prepare to begin another expressive writing series at Scripps Green Cancer Center tomorrow, I remember other workshops and the faces of many who have survived and those whose lives were lost to cancer.  What they all share in common is courage, strength they find in themselves in the face of a life threatening disease.

I remember one of the writers in my Scripps group of several years ago. Diagnosed with breast cancer, G. first attended an afternoon workshop I led at another San Diego cancer center in 2008.  A year or more passed before I met her again, but she signed up and attended the expressive writing program at Scripps.  Her cancer had metastasized since our first encounter, but she demonstrated extraordinary determination and spirit.  Her writing had changed too, gaining depth and expressiveness, touching the hearts of her listeners when she read aloud.

“Writing is a courageous act,” I routinely tell the men and women who attend my workshops.  It requires we go deep into the unexplored regions of our own darkness, write honestly and authentically, and most importantly, that we tell the truth.  In these writing groups, the need to impress with showy descriptions or rich vocabulary quickly evaporates.  Cancer strips away all pretense.  Whether experienced writers or not, courage is a necessary requirement of being diagnosed with cancer.

And so to G.  As the workshop series progressed, so did her cancer.  Little by little, the toll on her body was increasingly visible.  As she began to struggle to attend the sessions, another group member volunteered to drive her when she could no longer operate a car on her own.  When she lost the use of an arm, she brought a laptop and tapped out her stories with one hand.  One morning, G. lost her balance and fell as she tried to take her place at the table.  Several of us jumped up and rushed to her side, but she assured us she was fine, got to her feet, took her seat and opened her laptop to write.  By the final session of the series, G. was forced to give up her apartment and move to assisted living.  For the next several months, she was absent from the group.  We dedicated our series booklet, a collection of the group’s writing, to her, fearing she would not survive the summer.

Shortly before the fall series began, I was surprised to receive an email from G.  Wheelchair bound, she was now living in a nursing home, but she asked to participate in the group via email.   “Yes!” I wrote back.  We began, and weekly, she emailed her writing to me to share with the group.  They, in turn, responded to her via email. Her writing was rarely more than a single paragraph, but her tenacity, honesty, and humor were as present as ever in her words.  There was rarely a time everyone’s eyes didn’t tear up when I read aloud what she had written.

G’s courageousness is only one example of the courage I witness week after week among the men and women in my writing groups.  Courage,  defined in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2004), is a quality that endures through difficult times, as G. so clearly showed us:

Courage is what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating…it implies not only bravery and a dauntless spirit but the ability to endure in times of adversity.  (p. 187)

Courage endures.  It doesn’t retreat despite great difficulty or danger.  When G.’s life began to ebb well over a year later, she was surrounded by  many friends—women who had also known cancer  and whose lives had been touched by her indomitable spirit.  I have often wondered,  if faced with the same hardship as G. or others in my groups, would I be as courageous?

Writing Suggestion:

This week, turn that shiny quarter over and explore the other side of cancer:  courage.  What does it mean to you?  Have you discovered courage that you didn’t know you had?  Is there someone whose courage has inspired you?  Write about the the other  “c” word:   Courage.

It’s impossible to escape the ongoing tragedies that have become part of the daily diet of the nightly news.  Shootings, car bombing, the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, the Syrian crisis.  Even as I turn off the television to avoid the onslaught of disaster, I know that within a day or too, attention will turn back to the political wrangling and escalating attacks between this country’s presidential candidates, the tragedies of violence, loss and disaster fading from view and, perhaps, our consciousness.

I remember first few days following the massive earthquakes in northeast Japan which unleashed a devastating tsunami.   My pregnant daughter and her husband were leaving for a five-year stay in Okinawa, and were stranded with us in California as their departure date was postponed and flights cancelled.  They waited anxiously, wondering if my daughter would be forced to stay behind for my granddaughter’s  birth, since the window for her to travel was closing fast.

The nation’s attention was riveted on the Japanese for a time.  Newspaper headlines, radio and television news, and  possibilities for disaster relief consumed our attention.  But all too soon our waking hours were filled with the usual partisan wrangling, the Arab spring,  air strikes in Libya, and Osama Bin Laden’s death.  The devastation experienced by the Japanese receded from prominence, despite the extent of the tragedy.  Even years later, many have not recovered from the disaster.

I wrote my Japanese friends at the time of the tsunami and again, a few weeks later, simply to reach out and let them know they were still very much in my thoughts.  “You’ve touched my heart,” one friend wrote. “It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”

“It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”  Those words echo in my mind as I think of all the other natural and man-made disasters that have turned people’s lives upside down.  Aren’t things better now?  Back to normal?  Perhaps some people’s lives have improved, but many remain locked in suffering or hardship long tragedy strikes.  How quickly we forget.

I’ve seen and experienced the same tendency in the way people respond to one another in the first weeks after a cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, unexpected job loss or other hardship.  Initially, there’s often an immediate outpouring of sentiment and concern from family, friends and acquaintances.  That’s important, because concern and kindness are our lifelines, helping us cope in those first unsettling weeks.  But recovery from any unexpected tragedy or unexpected loss or illness takes more than a few weeks.  Much longer, it seems, that people around us expect.

“Aren’t you better yet?” I remember the words of an impatient relative when I’d called long distance one late night, alone and grieving, just months after my first husband drowned.  I quickly regretted I’d called.  She launched into what she probably felt was a “pep talk,” her words peppered with “you should… and you should…”  Not surprisingly, it didn’t do much to assuage my sorrow and loneliness.  Her expectations of me were unrealistic, but the trouble was, I began to feel guilty.  Shouldn’t I be feeling better?  Be back to “normal?”

I’ve since realized grief and recovery don’t operate on a pre-determined timetable, although we may try to force fit our emotions into some erroneous notion of how long we “should” feel bad.  The night I called my relative, I needed understanding, some reassurance that my sorrow was real and normal.  I needed was to know I had not been forgotten, even living a continent apart.

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…”

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

(From “Kindness”, in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time of my husband’s death, a place dominated by fishing villages and many who shared a long history of losing family and friends to the Atlantic’s turbulent waters.  They understood, perhaps, what my California relatives didn’t.  In that faraway place, many of those people–some I hardly knew–kept coming by, bringing food and friendship, willing to listen, care for my daughters or simply let me know I wasn’t alone.  I hadn’t been forgotten, but I had been seeking support from the wrong people.  At the time, my family was incapable of helping  me through my grief.  I discovered friendship and understanding from those who had experienced similar loss and sorrow themselves.  They  well knew that healing needed time and the support of others.  Since, I have  come to appreciate the wisdom of those cultures whose tradition is to take a full year to mourn the loss of a loved one.  I’ve never forgotten those Nova Scotia friends and how they offered such understanding and kindness as I navigated my way through a tragic loss.

“Aren’t you better yet?” Many of the men and women in my writing groups have talked about how difficult it is for loved ones or friends to understand what they are experiencing.  Our friends and family want us to get well or feel better, but it may translate as impatience or  a lack of concern.  It’s difficult for them too—watching a loved one suffer can make us feel helpless.  Instead we mask our fear or concern with the question, “Aren’t you feeling any better yet?” or advice, “You should try…”  Yet the result is that those responses only make us  feel isolated, even guilty for feeling bad.

Writing Suggestion:

“Aren’t you better yet?” Have you heard these words as you’ve struggled to make sense out of your illness or loss?  Have there been times that you’ve felt forgotten or misunderstood?  Write about the discoveries or disappointments in the nature of friendship in the wake of your illness, treatment or loss.  Write about discovering kindness, even new friendships, in unexpected places.

A few weeks ago, I agreed to do a manuscript consultation for one of my former students.  She is writing a memoir, and in the process, discovering not only how much effort it takes to write a book, but how unexpected bouts of self-doubt and criticism descend on her without warning.  Self-doubt is something even experienced writers contend with. It’s difficult, when we’re so immersed in our own story, to know how a reader will experiences it.  Coming up for air and getting feedback allows us a chance to find out what our readers think, but also, to “see” our work from a fresh perspective.

“I believe in your story,” I wrote in my comments.   Five pages of detailed critique later, I repeated that statement once more.  I know how emotional an experience it can be to receive constructive comments on one’s writing.  I’ve been through it more than once, and it’s taught me how important it is to get see our writing –and sometimes, ourselves—from a different point of view. 

For several years, I worked on a memoir turned novel, sending it to  a few respected writers for review, and then revising multiple times.  The revisions, I realized several months later, were surface ones, concerned with descriptive details, grammatical nits, and developing a rounded character out of the protagonist, who, in real life, was me.  My writing dragged on, through four complete revisions—or rather, revisions I thought were complete.  Something wasn’t working. The story I thought I was writing wasn’t the real story.  In the process of making my life “fiction,” I turned my personal narrative into something that no longer bore any resemblance to my life.  “It’s become a fairy tale,” I complained to my writing buddies, and I put the novel aside in frustration,, knowing I had to begin again, writing myself “into knowing,” as author Patricia Hampl once said about the writing process.  I had to have the patience and discipline to slow down and allow my writing be a process of discovery.  This wasn’t a minor revision.  It meant a re-write, a complete re-visioning of my narrative.

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite…

(“Rewrite,” by Paul Simon, from the album, So Beautiful or So What?”)

It’s not unlike life, I suppose.  So many times, in the midst of hardship, illness or loss, I’ve wished I could change my life, skip over the painful and difficult chapters, dump the old scripts and begin again, just like the Vietnam veteran in Simon’s song who wants to rewrite his life so it has a happy ending:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…

What if you could?  We all fantasize sometimes, look back and imagine how our lives might have been different, if only…but those are daydreams, not the realities of life.  Our difficult experiences, the struggles and hardships are still there when we open our eyes from the daydream.  We face what’s in front of us, one foot in front of the other, but if we’re paying attention, maybe we can learn from those difficult chapters, practice self-compassion, and create the opportunity to write a new script for the life we have yet to live. 

 In an interview  published in the Paris Review (Winter 1993), poet William Stafford defined the process of writing as a continuing encounter between self and the materials that distinguishes the practice of art, in other words, learning how to turn life into art.  When asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose, Stafford remarked:

 “I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”

Living the kind of life that enables good poems or good writing of any kind requires that we remain open to the possibility that our work—and we—can be changed for the better.  I think again of  the manuscript consultation with my former student.  She sought feedback because she wants to turn her life experiences into art.  I’d read some of her work  when she began her writing her book a couple of years ago.  The difference between the earlier pages and those written more recently was significant.  The newer writing was  more fluid, insightful and stronger than I experienced before.  Her writing has changed, reflecting the interaction between writer and the page in the writing process.  It’s a continual dialogue of discovery; gradually as the story shifts and changes, so does our perspective of the events we’re describing.  

It’s not something we plan for or think about when we first begin writing from the troublesome and challenging events life throws at us.  We write to pour ourselves and our emotions on the page, to release them from the body to the page.  Even then, there are moments of surprise when we read what we’ve written.  I often hear  “I didn’t know I was going there” when someone reads what they’ve written aloud.   The surprise is like an open door, beckoning to us to enter, and discover even more of the story.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  We write our imperfect first drafts, rewrite and revise again and again until we “see” what our story—our experience—truly means.  We’re given the opportunity to “re-vision,” see something anew, and learn from it so we may embrace the uniqueness of our lives and to live as we intend.    

They want a wilderness with a map—
but how about errors that give a new start?—
or leaves that are edging into the light?—
or the many places a road can’t find?

Maybe there’s a land where you have to sing
to explain anything: you blow a little whistle
just right and the next tree you meet is itself.
(And many a tree is not there yet.)

Things come toward you when you walk.
You go along singing a song that says
where you are going becomes its own
because you start. You blow a little whistle—

And a world begins under the map.

 

( “A Course in Creative Writing,” By William Stafford, In: A Glass Face in the Rain, 1982)

Writing Suggestion:

Given the chance, how would you rewrite your life?  Which parts?  Has writing out of hardship or illness changed you in any way?  What have you learned from those difficult life events that have prompted you to revise your life or embrace the life you have?

 

 

 

 

 

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