Finding a Way to Be

December 9, 2015 § 31 Comments

Sandra Miller

Sandra A. Miller (photo by Miranda Loud)

By Sandra A. Miller

As a writer I struggle with the verb to be, less a grammatical concern than an issue of presence, of being. But I want to forget about being for a quick moment—we will come back to it—and talk about the things I am as a writer. They are:

  • Industrious. (Thank you caffeine and fear of failure.)
  • Pretty good. (Well, good enough that reputable publications regularly accept my work.)

Here is what I want to be:

  • An author.

Like so many of us toiling away in the ever-shifting literary landscape, I have always believed that to be a real writer, you must have a book deal. I don’t have a book deal yet, so am I a real writer? Will I ever be a real writer? Ach! This always happens when I switch tenses. I become less present and, obviously, more tense. That’s when I sometimes take a deep breath and affirm the following:

You, Sandra Miller, are an author.

See, using the present tense is a manifesting technique in the timeless now in which past present and future are regarded as one. Apparently in some parallel multiverse I’m already an author. While one shouldn’t be similarly cavalier with past, present and future tenses when writing, this example relates to quantum physics–a topic I’m currently writing about.

But enough about quantum, it’s time to be frank. The timeless now thing hasn’t really worked for me. Only one thing has: Writing.

Writing until it hurts. Writing like the clock is ticking. Writing to wring the emotion from past abuse into a future memoir about treasure hunting. In order to tap the vein of gold in that story, I have to wade through fifty years of toxic sludge and the poisonous byproduct left by mining the depths of one’s own life. And like a miner, that experience has led me into dark airless places as I pick up each memory and scrutinize it for color, shape, texture. I have bitten into some of those memories and learned that 30 years later, grief still tastes like my grandmother’s anise cookies, and fear still tastes like the blood inside my cheek.

At the end of each writing day, I crawl breathless and gasping out of that fraught goldmine of memory and into the light. I find myself—uncertain how I got there­—kneeling on the floor of my study, my forehead pressed to the yellowed oak boards. Usually I am weeping.

What is that? Why, day upon day, do I willingly (Willingly! No one is making me do it!) subject myself to the re-traumatizing experience of those moments, then revisit them again to make meaning of each one? And again to get my tenses right. And again to tweak every word. And Again. And then again.

Why do I do it? Why is this the only thing I want to do?

Is it because the act of writing puts me into a moment? Then after a while that moment becomes a feeling. Soon enough, that feeling loses its edges, and I lose my edges the way the ripples in a lake disappear into the water and it’s clear they were never anything else.

In the truest act of writing, we are not separate from our words. We are the words. And nothing else makes me feel that way. Not walking. Not meditating. Not praying. Not even dancing.

I used to think this: I write therefore I am. But it’s actually this: When I write, I am.

Writing allows me to be.

Writing brings me to presence.

Some might argue that when we leave the body and retreat into the mind, presence is lost. But writing is less a cognitive act than one experienced in a timeless space in the heart, gut and soul and, yes, body.

That doesn’t mean it’s not hard. It is. Writing is harder than my childhood. It is harder than raising teenagers. It is more like childbirth; in order to get the baby out, you must push into the pain. In order to birth transcendent writing, you must write into the pain. When it hurts the most, you have to push harder.

But as I like to say, what doesn’t kill you turns up in your memoir.

So here I am. With my memories. With my words. Writing my way to presence. Finding a way to be.


Sandra A. Miller‘s articles and essays have appeared in over 100 publications including Spirituality and Health, Modern Bride, Literary Mama and The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, for which she is a regular correspondent. One of her essays was turned into a short film called “Wait” starring Kerry Washington. She is currently finishing her memoir, Trove, about her obsession with finding treasure.

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