But what can writing do?


This past weekend we went up north to our family cabin. On Sunday morning, as the news from Charlottesville settled over us, we gathered the photos from the trail cams as usual. This gift was waiting... a reminder of tenderness.

In the wake of Charlottesville, in the wake of more homegrown terrorism, in the wake of more threats making their way across the screens of the world... I say again: for my part of the world, in the space I hold at Voice & Vessel, there is no room for fear-making, violence, and racism.

On a personal level and on a creative level, I am asking myself again: what can writing do now? Where is the line between performing our awareness or good intentions and living them? Does writing do anything to move that line closer to something real?

Throughout this year, I've kept returning to writer/mythologist/psychologist Sharon Blackie's post on different forms that resistance can take:

"Living differently day by day. Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t resistance. I’m talking about the people who make us believe that it is possible to live differently, precisely because they themselves live differently. Because we see them doing just that. And look at them – aren’t they thriving? Thriving without all the trappings. Thriving without the slavery, without the attachment to stuff. The ones who decide for themselves what they will hold dear, and who go on to cherish, protect, witness in their own powerful ways. The ones who say – no, this is not about giving up. It’s about refocusing. It’s not about a discrete set of actions: it’s about being alive. It’s about turning your back on ‘reality TV’ and turning instead to the reality of what the mountain has to say."

Sharon suggests that our louder/more visible responses to the world (like marches) have a natural companion in the quieter responses... like the poems that ring out with truth, and the poets who sometimes need to drop back and sit in quiet, in order to hear that truth at all. There's a sensibility in her post that I've been chewing on since I first read it in February. I wrestle with how to balance the loud and the soft, or instigation with invitation... earlier in life, after almost 15 years of doing "systems change" with nonprofits and foundations, I felt more a cynic than an advocate. Yet in two years of holding this space at Voice & Vessel, I've noticed shifts and sometimes big leaps in how people witness each other's voices and live into their own. In a concrete way, I know the paths Sharon is pointing out... yet even as I notice that the quiet, more one-to-one path is where my gifts seem to do the most good (and are the most healthy), part of me yells: "Fine, fine, but what does the writing really do?"

Last night, knowing the question wouldn't let me go to sleep this time, I started making a list to answer it. To test if there is an answer at all. To discern what writing might be doing in my life that prepares me to do something good out in the world. And to test whether I'm just looking for a hall pass I can use to go stare at poetry when the world's on fire.

I'm sharing my first attempt at the list here, in case it sparks anything in your own wrestling now. I invite you to make your own list if that calls to you. I'm going to keep working with mine and post it somewhere in my personal writing space. These are drafted in the second person ("you"), and I kind of imagine this as me talking to my inner writer and artist... Right now, I'm playing with each of these as a promise. I like the idea of something like a social compact between a writer and her world. Something that says, "Yes, I am going over there to write. But this is what I will devote myself to learning as I do. And this is what I promise to try and carry back from that otherworld of the writing." 


a promise to bend toward beginnings

Writing is a practice of a beginning and beginning again. And beginning is ultimately a practice of humility. A practice of trusting connections even though they may not be easily seen. Humility brings the world to scale by reminding us that we don't know what we do not know. So write... and embrace the humility. Humble yourself to the page, and then do your best to humble yourself to the world beyond it. In the posture of beginning, you will show others how to start and start again.


a promise to hold the unseen & uncertain

Real change -- change of heart and mind, not just programs or policy -- is a long game. Writing is a long game. When we write, we don't know what's true at first glance. We have to unearth it. We have to ask ourselves what it's really saying. We learn the story only by making it. We have to accept that what we write today may not hold next week or two months from now. We have to learn to live with that tension, or the process might undo us otherwise. As writers, we call this creative tension. As humans, we often call this suffering. So write... and learn as much about this tension as you can. And try to hold that learning when you visit the suffering parts of the world, especially in your family and community. And know that you have more options for how to respond to hard times, because you know something about tension. You know how to bear weight. You can be a doorway where other people see walls. Not everyone will see the doorway, and you may get very tired as you hold it up. But some will see it and walk through, and they will be better for the view on the other side.


a promise to tend attention

Writing is attention made real. The world needs this kind of deep attention now. It is unfiltered listening. Remember how it feels to watch a dancer move, to listen to a fellow writer read their work, or to rest in front of a striking painting. When we meet each other in creative work, we listen from another place. It's a place that doesn't belong to time or to the normal expectations of what's useful. When we create from such deep attention, we sometimes say, "I don't know where it came from... I was just the conduit." So write... so that you may be an even stronger conduit. So you can tune your attention. So you can receive difficult truths more tenderly when they show up in the world. So you can make your listening a generous act on the page and in your community.


a promise to feed curiosity first

As a writer, you deal in questions. Unknowns. Uncertainties. You are a broker of broken thoughts. An alchemist of the half-formed story. And the world feels like one colossal half-formed heart some days. Let your curiosity become the source of your courage. Write so you may never lose access to it. Write... and remember how to trust the questions, and ask them wholeheartedly, when you leave the page.


a promise to meet fear

All of these parts of writing don't come without fear. It's different for all of us, and it often wears a hundred other names before we dare to call it fear. But inevitably, we meet the part of ourselves that calls for a risk that's just too much. An edge that is just too sharp. Word by word, we free ourselves. It's not always graceful. The fear is still there. The edge still juts out. We do not destroy it. We learn to live with it, write through it. So write... and write to better know your own edge, so you may recognize when others are approaching theirs. Write towards a certain intimacy with fear, so it may not surprise you so harshly out in the world. Write so you know what its rumble sounds like. Write so that you don't forget: you have tools for this. 

a writer's promise

I am here to remember:
the humility of beginning... and to bend toward it
the weight of the unknown... and to honor its tension
the tenderness of attention... and to be an open channel for it
the courage at the heart of curiosity... and to feed it often
the horizon that comes with fear... and to live toward its edge