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Pen Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word

Starting at the beginning of college or maybe before, I found a copy of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and though I found the book rather hard to keep reading, I started daily to get up a little early and right three pages of longhand every morning - what Ms. Cameron called "Morning Pages."

Coming into contact with other writers and books by writers discussing their process of writing, I found that a lot of people do this - maybe not necessarily only three pages - but getting up every morning and putting down on paper whatever. Some even said not to stop writing, not to take your pencil (or pen) up off the page, to not think but to try to connect with God, or the Universe, or whatever whispering voice inside you that demanded that you write.

I did this off and on for years. And it helped my writing for class: essays, short stories, poetry. Then in 2005, I quit writing. Not only that I destroyed almost everything I had written - in a very self-violent night that ended up with me in the ER with a dislocated bone in my foot and a couple of broken bones in my ankle. I think I was on Welbutrin at the time, and had quit taking it. I found myself in a situation with a lover and two friends who did not like him, and I know longer wanted to hear what I had to think or say or write.

The third essay in Burn This Book is "Writing in the Dark" by David Grossman:
"Our personal happiness or unhappiness, our 'terrestrial' condition, is of great importance for the things we write," says Natalia Ginzburg in It's Hard to Talk About Yourself, in a chapter in which she discusses her life and writing after a deep personal tragedy.

It is hard to talk about yourself, and so before I reflect on my writing experience now, at this time in my life, let me say a few words about the effects of a trauma, a disaster situation, on a society and on a nation as a whole.

The words of the mouse from Kafka's short story "A Little Fable" come to mind. As the trap closes in on the mouse and the cat prowls beyond, he says, "Alas, the world is growing smaller every day." After many years of living in an extreme and violent state of political, military, and religious conflict, I am sad to report that Kafka's mouse was right: the world is indeed growing smaller, growing narrower, every day. I can also tell you about the void that slowly emerges between the individual and the violent, chaotic state that encompasses practically every aspect of his life.

This void does not remain empty. It quickly fills up with apathy, cynicism, and above all despair - the despair that can fuel a distorted reality for many years, sometimes generations. The despair that one will never manage to change the situation, never redeem it. And the deepest despair of all - the despair of human beings, of what the distorted situation ultimately exposes in each of us.

I feel the heavy price that I and the people around me pay for this prolonged state of war. Part of this price is a shrinking of our soul's surface area - those parts of us that touch the violent, menacing world outside - and a diminished ability and willingness to empathize at all with other people in pain. We also pay the price by suspending our moral judgment, and we give up on understanding what we ourselves think. Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated - both morally and practically - we feel it may be better not to think or know. Better to hand over the job of thinking and doing and setting moral standards to those who are surely "in the know." Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends - and if it never ends, at least we'll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness, protected ourselves as much as we could with a little indifference, a little repression, a little deliberate blindness, and a large dose of self-anesthetics.

The constant - and very real - fear of being hurt, the fear of death, of intolerable loss, or even of "mere" humiliation, leads each of us, the citizens and prisoners of the conflict, to dampen our own vitality, our emotional and intellectual range, and to cloak ourselves in more and more protective layers until we suffocate. (22-4)

I realize that now when I start trying to write, every handwritten entry is an invocation and a plea to write everyday. But now that I've stopped for so many years, it is difficult to start - like starting a workout regimen or stopping drinking.

Only one of the three people who were part of my life on that day that I ripped apart all my journals is with me still - even though he was the lover, and, thus, the newest of the three. Now we consider each other cousins, because we wish above all else that we had family like each other.

Today, as I was walking to work I ran into my favorite poet who lives in Lexington and works at the University of Kentucky. I had taken two classes with Nikky Finney: one on writing poetry and one on writing short stories. At the end of one of the short story classes, she told me if I did not write, if I wasted my talent, that she would haunt me for the rest of my life. And she does. I miss seeing her long, neat dredlocks and her honey eyes. And I think constantly about not writing, yet I still, except for these brief moments on this blog, I still cannot get myself to the page. Because I still do not want to see, and I do want to think, and I do not want to understand.


Curtis Morrison said…
Thanks for sharing that story. Wow-Dislocating your foot while destroying your journals-that will be an episode of House someday.

Still have my copy of Artist Way-which I never finished either but ironically do the morning pages, or a variation of them-on and off. Haven't destroyed my journals (fortunately)-I hope they'll make for good reading someday so I don't have to watch TV when I'm old.
Kyle said…
Wow, JP, that's a powerful, emotional story.

You need to write. Get that stuff out of you. I know it is hard, but it is worth it.

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