March 31, 2020 § 42 Comments
We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.
Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?
We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.
We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.
Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?
My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.
We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.
When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.
The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
This is an update of a November 2016 post.
August 28, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Kelly Kautz
I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones at a bookstore when I was thirteen years old. I already considered myself a writer. As a child, I filled countless notebooks with stories of princesses and talking kittens. But by middle school, I found those stories meaningless. I didn’t yet have the words for the new narratives taking shape inside me. The book’s cover promised to “Free the Writer Within.” I shelled out my allowance and took it home
Goldberg’s writing rules were a stark contrast to the stuff I’d learned in school. Writing Down the Bones urged me to keep my hand moving, go for the jugular, don’t cross out.
Later I purchased Goldberg’s second writing book, Wild Mind. There I discovered that her writing rules applied to almost everything: tennis, sex, even daily life. Her memoir about Zen Buddhism, Long Quiet Highway, exposed me to a new spiritual practice. Thunder and Lightning taught me about the publishing process. Old Friend from Far Away helped me draft a memoir.
This June, Goldberg released her fourteenth book: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home. It’s a cancer memoir, though Goldberg writes in the introduction that she never planned it that way. Friends discouraged it, fearing she’d spark a recurrence. But “the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored my suffering, the life of my writing would die.”
After a decade of lingering health issues, Goldberg is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of blood cancer: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. The illness forces her to cancel a writing workshop in Europe. She asks two long-time students to teach in her place, then types a letter to attendees: “This is about practice. You signed up. Be there to sit, walk, and write. I will be there with you.”
While her students study writing and sip herbal tea, Goldberg begins infusion treatments at the Santa Fe Cancer Center. A longtime Zen practitioner, she finds the world of doctors and hospitals strange.
“I trusted acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy,” she writes. “These made sense to me, but cancer made no sense. I was out of my league. I had to drop all of my opinions, my likes and dislikes, and fiercely go into the belly of the beast, the white-coated medical world.”
Goldberg brings readers with her, giving a clear-eyed view of not just her own cancer but that of her partner, Yu-kwan, who discovers a lump in her breast the same time Goldberg is receiving infusions. The double diagnosis strains their relationship. Goldberg wonders, “Who’s going to take care of me?” But as Yu-kwan undergoes a mastectomy, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home grows from a cancer memoir into a love story. With their mortality on the line, Goldberg realizes the true depths of her love: for her partner, for her writing, for the world.
Throughout the book, Goldberg pays homage to the long-deceased writers who inspire her work. She reflects on travels to Paris, where she placed a penny on the grave of Simone de Beauvoir. She visits Rome and the tombstones of Shelley and Keats. She wonders about William Faulkner: “Whatever he wrote, whatever agony he lived, whatever prize he won, he too is gone. Sure we remember him, but where is William Faulkner?”
Goldberg never receives an answer. After rounds of agonizing treatments and a bone marrow biopsy, she tries a new drug, ibrutinib, that sends the cancer into remission. To celebrate, she and Yu-kwan take a hiking trip they cancelled the year before. They visit the home of the Bronte sisters. Of them, only Charlotte Bronte lived to old age. Tuberculosis took the others: Anne at twenty-nine, Emily at thirty.
“The local Haworth public schools did not read their famous authors, the Bronte sisters,” Goldberg writes. “We don’t recognize the greatness in front of us. We all long for another story, another place. I was sixty-seven years old. That’s a lot more years than the Brontes live. Sixty-seven is a long time. How lucky I was.”
It would be easy to call Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home a reflection on mortality. But all of Goldberg’s books are reflections on mortality. We write to preserve fleeting moments. We write to grant our thoughts and experiences a life beyond our lives.
Goldberg’s books have been my constant companions for the past twenty years. They’ve guided me from a confused adolescence to a spiritual awakening, and through the practicalities of publishing and writing memoir. All the while, they reinforced this simple truth: “A writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived … Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.”
As a longtime student of Goldberg’s work, I hope she has many more lifetimes to share before she joins the ranks of de Beauvoir, the Brontes, Faulkner. But it’s never too early to place a stone or a penny. To pay homage. To let them know, in Goldberg’s words, “in this tough world, that what they did mattered.”
Kelly Kautz is a writer and the manager of content at JPL. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Salon, and other publications. She is at work on her first book, a memoir about dark family secrets. Follow her blog, The Skeleton Club, or find her on Twitter @kellykautz.
July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments
Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.
It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.
Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.
Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.
Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.
When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.
A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.
Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”
The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.
Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.
November 10, 2016 § 83 Comments
We woke up and everything was different. Maybe we woke in the middle of the night, tried not to check our phone, checked our phone anyway, and spent the hours before dawn in a bleak haze, waiting for the moment it was late enough to decently call someone. Maybe a call came—your mother has died. Or, it’s time to let the cat go. Or, our country has elected a demagogue.
Maybe we woke to the memory of yesterday, the doctor saying, Let’s discuss your options, our lover telling us they’ve found someone else—found her, in fact, months ago. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the disaster, the break-up, the crash, to the moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the wake of the unchangeable?
We search online—who else feels this way? Is there a support group? Someone else we know this happened to? We click angry-sad-angry-sad-angry-sad. Grief comes in waves—an old photograph, the smell of a cast-off sweater, a yard sign we looked at on the way to work and thought, That’s all you know, superiority mingling with disgust.
We go through the motions. There is a place I am due every day at 9AM. My child must be fed. I’ve already paid for that class.
We watch faces—who else has lost their mother? Who is on the ex-lover’s side and who is still on ours?
My ex-husband’s mother dies suddenly. He flies across the country and gets her dog. In the piles of knickknacks and clothes, boxes of paperwork, lists of phone calls and appraisals, there is one constant, an animal that must be fed and walked and loved whether his capacity to love is intact or not. He drives a truck back, full of furniture and a fawn-colored pitbull mix, a dog that has grown up in Vegas and never seen grass. He posts on social media as the dog. The dog sees snow for the first time. The dog discovers kittens. The bottom of his world has still dropped out, but the dog is a bucket in which he can carry water. The dog is an axe with which he can chop wood. He carries her up and down the stairs until she learns, and each time he touches her he touches his old world, the world in which his mother is also alive and carrying the dog. The dog is a lifeline from a better past. The dog is the seed of a pearl.
We grieve, and we see others triumph. Our lover shows up to get his Playstation looking happy and well-fed. After a few days, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. We sit down again. We tinker. We find the rhythm, we find that yes, it matters to say something, anything, on the page. That we are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We have spent—or are spending—our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, me too.
I call my equally devastated friend, who has also lost her mother or her cat or her country, and she tells me a parable.
The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet revolution, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. Stories are not frivolous. They weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told, the need for human connection that exists independent of our own grief. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us we matter. The world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments
Brevity editor and founder Dinty W. Moore discusses A Buddhist Take on Writing in Psychology Today.
So which is true: know when it is time to fold the tent, or never give in—never, never, never, never? How does one know which rule applies? How can anyone be sure of when to stubbornly move forward on a plan versus when it is wisest to shrug and call it quits?
This is a hard question for writers, myself included. I know from experience that it is wise to not give up on any project too early. The fruits of multiple revisions, of fresh eyes, of those wonderful breakthroughs where after months of struggle you suddenly see exactly what a manuscript needs, are real and they are part of the magic and joy of being a writer (or really a creative person of any sort). But sometimes you have to move on. Sometimes you have to say to yourself, “This is not a failure, because I’ve learned so much from trying, but at the same time it is never going to be the story I want it to be.”
In both instances, I think it is a matter of faith, and a matter of having that faith without what Buddhists call “attachment,” the insistence that only a particular outcome is acceptable. In one instance, you have to have the faith that dogged and determined work will get you to the goal, even as the goal seems to be moving further away rather than nearer. In the other instance, you have to have faith in yourself, believing that a major setback will not lead to an eternity of failure, that setting one idea aside will be rewarded by another idea coming in eventually to take its place.
Either outcome is an achievement; you move forward and succeed, or you succeed later, under different circumstances. But too often we cling—attach—to one outcome, and end up drowning ourselves in a sea of disappointment because we grow too tired to swim anymore. Well maybe we can’t swim, but often we can still pull ourselves over to the side of the pool, crawl out, and rest a while on the cool tiles.
May 2, 2012 § 7 Comments
Brevity founder, editor, and slushpile slave-driver Dinty W. Moore talks of writing and non-attachment at the Inside Higher Ed blog today. Here’s a portion where he diagnoses John Warner’s recent writing block:
JW: I’m going to take advantage of your expertise by sharing my current personal hang-up. I published a novel in the Fall to marginal acclaim, and I have two other projects very close to completion that my brain won’t allow me to finish, I believe, because I’m concerned that I’ll have a hard time publishing them. I work on them all the time, but the finish line gets further away as I rework and rethink. I generally enjoy the process, but I fear the completion. What do you think I should be mindful of with these projects?
DWM: That goes back to the essential Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. You, John, are attached to a particular outcome – something beyond “marginal acclaim.” Trust me, I’ve wrestled this devil myself, time and again. Well, remember this: you can’t control publishing and all of the industry madness. You can’t control the New York Times Book Review. You can’t control bookstores, or Amazon, or readers’ whims. So what can you control? You can control your own reactions to these outside forces. If these realities drive you up a wall, remember that it is a wall you can choose to disassemble. Just take it down, brick by brick. You can’t control whether your next book is the sort of success defined by big sales, splashy parties, glowing reviews, and industry buzz, but you can control whether you define success in those terms. If you define success outside of these external forces, you can achieve that success within your own control: a book that you are proud of, a book that speaks truth, a book with elegant sentences. Easier said than done? You bet, but if success for every author is only achieved when we hit #1 on the bestseller list and have agents fighting over our next novel, then by definition 99% of us are going to be miserable and dejected all of our writing lives. What a waste. So with these two books, be mindful of how you define success, and what you can control. If you are not attached to a very particular outcome, you are more able to enjoy and appreciate whatever outcome comes along.