Witnessing the Self
May 18, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Joanna Penn Cooper
Faith is found here, not in a destiny raiding and parceling out knowledge and the earth, but in a people who, person by person, believes itself. Do you accept your own gestures and symbols? Do you believe what you yourself say? When you act, do you believe what you are doing?–Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry
How might writing memoir and personal essay help us as we claim our role as observers and shapers of our own lives? On a simple level, when I think about writing that I personally love, I notice a common thread of writers who are living the questions—inhabiting life’s inexplicable, wondrous, even perplexing moments with an openness that lets readers in and asks them to inhabit those questions for themselves. What are we doing as writers and as lovers of writing, if not standing in the middle of our lives wondering at it all?
I believe that every writer needs permission to find his or her own observations worthwhile, and also that this granting of permission to ourselves to nurture our own creative sparks is vitally important. We get forms of that permission from mentors and from authors we love, but ultimately we must grant it to ourselves. In her amazing 1948 work The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry. Are we to teach this? All we can show to people is themselves; show them what passion they possess, and we will have come to the poetry. This is the knowledge of communication, and it is the fear of it which has cut us down.”
Practice observing the world around you and believing that your observations are worthwhile. Allow the stillness necessary for a deep sort of noticing of your own desires and impulses. Believe your own words and gestures.
In teaching online writing courses in flash memoir and lyric essay, I have realized that I want to remind my students, mostly women somewhere in the middle of their lives, that it’s ok to follow their own interest and observations and threads of thought throughout the day, to witness the world and its textures, as well as the textures of their own minds, that this is the life of the artist, of the person striving to be awake in her life. I realize that this has been my project of the last several years—to claim one’s noticing and in this way work to be more human, and—as a middle-aged woman and single mother— I wonder how this works for women, specifically. How we need to give ourselves and each other permission to notice and celebrate our delights and also to notice and pay homage to our griefs, both. How they are part of one larger cloth of our lives, of all our lives.
Asking ourselves what feels most urgent in our life narratives and the narratives of our communities is a way to hit rich veins of material. Find the urgency and follow that. This interest in your own mind, your own perception of the world doesn’t have to be a heavy, serious thing. You could think of yourself as Harriet the Spy with her notebook or as anthropologist of your own local society. You could see yourself, as Shirley Jackson did, as always writing, whether the people around you realize it or not:
I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.
– From Jackson’s lecture “Memory and Delusion,” as collected in Let Me Tell You
Whatever works, really. Whatever delights you and also connects you to that thread of creative exploration that makes you feel alive when you’re doing it. We need more people who feel alive.
Discover your voice and who you are on the page in Finding Your Voice: Flex Who You Are to Enliven Your Prose, a CRAFT TALKS webinar with Joanna Penn Cooper. Wednesday May 24th at 2PM Eastern time (replay available), $25. More info/register now.
Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, a book of lyrical prose, and the poetry books What Is a Domicile and Crown. Her current project is a memoir in essays about motherhood, origins, and power. Joanna holds a PhD from Temple University. She lives in Durham, North Carolina and teaches at Muse Writing & Creative Support.
[…] Witnessing the Self […]
Love, love, love, both of these parts especially: “…I want to remind my students, mostly women somewhere in the middle of their lives, that it’s ok to follow their own interest and observations and threads of thought throughout the day, to witness the world and its textures, as well as the textures of their own minds, that this is the life of the artist, of the person striving to be awake in her life.” and “Whatever works, really. Whatever delights you and also connects you to that thread of creative exploration that makes you feel alive when you’re doing it. We need more people who feel alive.” Amen to that!✨🌟💖🙏🕊️