I am writing this from an artists’ colony in Florida. I flew here yesterday morning, after waking up — as we all did — to a changed world. A terrifying, disorienting world. A world we didn’t know existed – or perhaps denied its existence – until denial has become no longer possible. With a broken heart, I boarded a plane I didn’t want to board, to come teach on a day I desperately didn’t want to teach. I walked through two airports, one foot in front of the other, looking at the sea of faces passing by me, feeling a bewildering sense of separateness, of alienation.
To be a writer, and to be a teacher of writing, is to constantly, steadfastly open oneself up to what is. To not shy away. To feel fear and embrace that fear — otherwise known as courage — and to find a voice for what feels impossible to say. Yesterday, I was reminded of one of the “sins” listed in the holy Yom Kippur prayer of Al Chet: “For the sin of succumbing to despair.”
Twice in my life, I have wondered if I would ever be able to find words again – if finding words is even something worth attempting. The first was when my son was terribly sick as an infant, and we spent a year not knowing if he would survive. During that year, I sat at my desk — when I could bring myself to sit at my desk — and stared into space. The futility of my own endeavor loomed large. What could my small pen do, when faced with the enormity of that impossible loss? The second time I wondered if I would ever find words again was on September 11, 2001. On that day, a writer friend sent around William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Acceptance speech. Just about every writer I know received or sent that rousing cry, those healing words. I decline to accept the end of man.
And so, this morning I will leave my solitary room and walk to a classroom where students will be waiting — people who also boarded planes yesterday morning, who also put one foot in front of the other, who also did not succumb to despair. I decline to accept the end of man.
I will lead them in meditation. I will read them poems. I will ask them to write from the deepest parts of themselves. We will talk about grace, courage, commitment, endurance, and kindness. We will transcend. It’s all we can do. We will go high.
I’m writing these words from my chaise in my small home office. Outside my window, leaves are falling. There’s a chill in the air. This morning we were awakened by our dog barking at two deer who came so close to the house it seemed they wanted to come in for breakfast. Autumn has always been my favorite season – all that back-to-school energy in the air – and since moving to New England it has only become more so.
I’m just back from an intense stint of teaching two back-to-back workshops — one large, one small. On the first evening of the large workshop, I was jittery, not exactly nervous — I’ve done this many times, after all — but on edge. This is a familiar feeling. I’m getting up in front of a crowd of people, all of whom have different hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, desires for their time with me. Some of them have ideas about me. About what I might be like, who I really am. They may have read some of my books, stories, essays. They may have seen me talking with Oprah. I don’t want to disappoint them. But I also don’t want to play a part or act in a role. And so that jittery feeling is one in which I am gathering all the parts of myself and pulling them within me, inside my own outline. I want to be me…only sharper, smarter, more lucid…better. Probably much like a professional athlete, or dancer, or musician, I psych myself up to be my best self.
Self being the operative word. The concept of authenticity is much over-hyped these days, and it seems to me a sad state of affairs that it’s something we need to cultivate — as if being authentic is just another act. A few weeks ago, I came across a term online that stopped me in my tracks: identity fatigue. We are getting tired, it seems, of creating and fashioning our personas in a world filled with personas. We’re confusing persona with personal life. If I check Instagram and Twitter and Facebook in the morning (and I try not to do this first thing) I see images of perfection. Just this morning (okay, I checked) I saw photographs of friends in Tuscany, Singapore, Copenhagen, and Hawaii. I saw kids on horses, people giving speeches, doing yoga, writing by lamplight at dawn. I read clever tweets and click on links to smart responses to the day’s news. All before coffee! It’s no wonder that just about everyone I know is plagued by the feeling that other people, elsewhere, are having a better time, or a more meaningful life.
I do the same thing, don’t get me wrong. I post pictures of pretty places and on the rare occasion I have something clever to say I say it. There is a thin but very real layer that separates the me that performs publicly from the me that wakes up in the morning with all my usual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, worries. I suppose I would liken it to one of the differences between writing fiction and memoir. When we write, we know when we’re inclining ourselves in the direction of imagination — and when we’re hewing to memory. The feeling is unmistakable. So when it comes to that overused word authenticity – and the sad concept of identity fatigue — I’d rather err in the direction of being too much myself, rather than too little. Is that a little scary? Sometimes it is. But the alternative feels deadening and untenable.
I’m writing this from a cottage in Provincetown, at a place where I have spent a week teaching each summer for the past six years. My husband is at a cafe down the road having breakfast with our son. It’s early, quiet. In half an hour I will walk across the courtyard to my workshop where we will spend several hours talking about matters such as loss, grief, sorrow, family, love, and all the attendant joys and terrors. We’ll discuss what it means to attempt to shape these inchoate, chaotic feelings, these random events, into stories that have form, order, and logic. Essay: to attempt. It never fails to move me when I watch people trying to make sense of their lives, sense of this world. They don’t have to. They all have busy lives, filled with responsibilities. They could go on auto-pilot and move through their days, weeks, months, years, without stopping, without asking what it all means. They could do that — we could all do that — without even registering the cost of psychic inaction.
When my mother was dying, at the age of eighty, she once turned to me, her face clouded with puzzlement, and said: but I was just getting my life together. That statement terrified me, and subsequently instructed me. I didn’t want to feel, on my deathbed, that I had just been getting my life together. A few years later, Sylvia Boorstein shared a list of the eleven benefits of practicing metta meditation, and the one that stood out most for me was: to die unconfused.
These are challenging times for many of us. The state of politics, of poverty, of inequality, of racism, homophobia, hunger, small-mindedness combined with the sheer speed of life makes it all too attractive to put our heads down and barrel through life, fueled by fear and our natural instincts for self-preservation. But my daily life as a writer and a teacher reminds me that there is another way. Look, I tell my students. Stop. Witness. The beauty and terror — Rilke‘s phrase — is all around us. If we avoid the latter, we will also miss the former. Embrace it all, I want to say. And perhaps, some day, you will be able to whisper to yourself: I have lived.
The night before Devotion was published, I was alone in a hotel room in New York, anticipating the next morning, when I’d be appearing on The Today Show to promote the book. My mind was a see-saw, teetering back and forth between excitement and abject terror. Who the hell was I? What did I know? What right did I have to be an authority on anything? I was pretty sure The Today Show had made a mistake and booked me in error. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome, sure, but it felt very real.
I couldn’t fall asleep. I called my friend the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein at her home on the west coast, where it was three hours earlier and stuttered out my fears to her. After a gentle pause on the other end of the phone, Sylvia delivered a sentence I’ve never forgotten.
“Sweetheart, you’ve written a book about what you know now.”
I felt instantly liberated by Sylvia’s wisdom. After all, we can only know what we know now, right? Implicit in this is the idea that we can only work with what we have, and our truth is built on that limited understanding. I took this to heart, and have repeated it to students over the years. Recently a student asked me how to handle the fact that in the time that it takes to write a book, we change, we grow. The self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it. And so, how do we reconcile these selves? How do we continue to evolve when what we know also continues to evolve? If we are our own instrument – we are the viola, the cello, the paintbrush, the chisel – how do we continue to tune ourselves when life changes us?
In the past month, I have made a profound, seismic, traumatic discovery. I don’t say this to scare anyone. I’m not ill, thank god, nor is anyone I love. My little family is perfectly fine, healthy, intact. But nonetheless I have learned something that has rocked me to the core, and has changed everything about what I have ever known to be true. This may sound dramatic — because it is. At the same time that this discovery is shattering for me, it is also – I recognize, even in my shock and grief – a stunning and remarkable opportunity to learn and to grow. Because all I have ever done, all I have ever been able to do with heartache is to make meaning from it. I could fall apart, I suppose. I could cave, collapse. I could succumb to despair. To cruelty and disregard. But instead, I will attempt to do what I’ve always done. In the quiet aftermath, using nothing but language – the only tool I have – I will write my way into it and through it, and discover how the pieces fit together anew.
Wallace Stegner, a grower if there ever was one, wrote this: “Largeness is a lifelong matter… You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower; you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.”
Here’s to growing, my friends. It’s all we can do.
It’s the question that always gets asked. When I’m teaching, or giving a reading, or an interview, at some point, someone will raise her hand: what did your family think of Slow Motion? Or Devotion? How do you write about those you love, those you’ve lost, those who have hurt you? Is anything or anyone off limits? Is there a line you won’t cross?
As many times as I’ve responded to this line of questioning – and as much as I actually enjoy exploring the thorniness of the issue – I feel myself tense as I begin to answer, because there is no answer. I know it, and I feel my interlocutor must know it too. After all, writing is – as Joan Didion inimitably put it – “the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing about other people is, according to Janet Malcolm, “morally indefensible.” When Still Writing came out, Cynthia Ozick, a writer I admire enormously, sent me a note saying some very nice things about the book which also included the following thought: But you are not a monster.
She did not mean this as a compliment. Implicit in her words – and Didion’s, and Malcolm’s, I think – is the idea that it is essential, in the name of art, not to care. A scorched earth philosophy, in opposition to morality. Art trumps ethics. Self-expression takes no prisoners.
I don’t know.
From where I sit in my office, on my chaise, I am surrounded by family photographs: my husband on a rooftop in Mogadishu, cupping his hands around a cigarette. my father and my aunt when they were children; my husband and me on our wedding day; my grandmother elegant in a fur stole; my husband swinging our then four-year-old son in our backyard. They watch over me as I write, and they serve as a reminder that I am part of a family, part of a community. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a mentor. There’s a responsibility in all this – to others, as well as to the art.
But when I sit down to write a first draft — the one in which I discover what I’m trying to say — I look away from these photographs. This is when I grow fangs, and my breath turns fiery. This is when I come closest to being a monster. I write to find out what I know, what I think, what I fear. And I can’t do that if I’m censoring myself. I don’t need to worry about anyone else, because no one else will be reading this draft. This is such an important point for writers to remember. We can always dial it back, revise, rethink, later. In fact, we had better do all these things. But until we let the monster out of her hiding place, we won’t even know her face.
And so, no, when it comes to releasing my work into the world, I am not a monster. I would never willingly, consciously hurt anyone I love. I would, in fact, never willingly, consciously hurt anyone at all. Does this mean no one has ever been hurt? No, no it doesn’t. But I can say that I try. I consider carefully. I weigh every word. To write is to attempt to tell a truth. Not the truth. Not another person’s truth. But a truth. And in order to tell it, first we must find it. All we know, all we have, is our own experience, our own consciousness, memory, and imagination. These are our tools. And so with deliberation and consciousness and care, we wield them.
I recently spoke at a festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan and this was the title I gave to my talk. It comes from an elegant essay by Jayne Anne Phillips, one I sometimes read to my students, and each time I arrive at this phrase – “to insist that sorrow not be meaningless” — my voice trembles and catches. It has been the story of my life: this sorrow, this insistence. As I delivered my speech, I found myself focusing on the word insist. The work of being human, of living a life of meaning, does not involve merely, say, hoping that our sorrows not be meaningless. Nor may we kind of, sort of try. No. This insistence is what’s called for, because only insistence will do.
It has been a challenging time. The world seems turned upside down for many of us. All we need to do is turn on the television or spend five minutes on Twitter and we’re faced with a cascade of terrifying news. In my own life, I have been unusually sad — my eyes wide open — the reality of time’s passage, mistakes made, trust misplaced, opportunity squandered. At the same time – eyes wide open – I am aware of enormous good fortune, privilege, great love, profound friendship. This too, this too, as the great Jack Kornfield is fond of saying. This too.
I spent two days of this past week in a locked Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility, listening to my beloved mother-in-law scream in agony. I watched my husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law be broken open again and again by the stark underside of love, which is loss. I wandered the halls and saw elderly people staring into space, or lying in their beds, or gazing at fish swimming around in a fish tank. They were all once active, vibrant people. It was impossible not to think: Is this what it comes to? Is this what it all comes to, in the end?
Which, of course, it does.
And so: what does insistence look like as I sit here on my chaise, sleep still in my eyes, my house quiet, dogs snoozing at my feet? Once, this life would have felt out-of-reach, unrecognizable to me. Downstairs, my husband is working on his own writing, or lost in his own head, as I am in mine. We have been together for twenty years. Out the window, the greening of early spring has finally begun. A bird has made a nest atop our porch light. This afternoon, our boy has a tennis match. Once – a long time ago – I rocked him in my arms, fearing for his life. Tomorrow I lead one of my favorite private retreats. Then I head to Miami for a few more days of teaching. Once, the idea that I had anything to teach anyone would have seemed laughable. It has come – all of it, every last bit of it – from the stubborn, dogged insistence that all I can do is make something of this life. Make books. Make a family. Make meaning. I can’t make my mother-in-law better. I can’t protect those I love from their own pain. But I build a path with words, one following the next like a trail of breadcrumbs out of the wilderness.
As I write, a hard rain is pelting against yesterday’s snow, and patches of dark green, wet stone, fallen twigs are visible just beneath fields of translucent ice. A world, submerged, slowly reveals itself. It reminds me of what it is to make a book – or, perhaps, what it is to live a life.
A world – submerged – reveals itself.
It begins with noticing. Something buried rustles and stirs. If we’re quiet and attentive enough, we may notice the stirring. What is this? Perhaps we poke at it. Or maybe we turn our backs. Run away. We ignore it. Or we don’t notice at all. We stick our fingers in our ears and hum a merry little tune. If we don’t notice, the noise might grow a bit louder, but maybe the contents of that submerged world – that beast – will turn over and go back to sleep. At least for a little while.
The thing about the writing life – or any creative, contemplative, solitary life, really – is that merry little tunes don’t work. Not in the long run. Not even in the short run. What we ignore, we ignore at our own peril. What we embrace with courage, perseverance, humility, and clarity, becomes our instrument of illumination. This is why I often say that when I’m not writing, I’m not well. What I mean by this is that my mind and my heart begin to become unknowable to me, because the way I come to know myself is through following the line of words until the ice melts, until the field once again becomes visible. Countless times, over the course of these thirty years of writing, I have looked back at a piece of my own work and realized: so that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I was feeling. I had no idea.
Sitting with the discomfort of not-knowing, of the fearless excavation, is not easy — but it is simple. Any meditation teacher will tell you that the moment you feel you want to jump up from your cushion and make sure the stove is turned off, or write something down you’re sure you’ll otherwise forget, or even open one eye to see how many minutes are left to go – that is precisely the moment to stay the course. To allow yourself to be pierced by whatever it is that’s just beneath that impulse. What longing? What uncomfortable thought? What sorrow? What desire? The only way we can know is to be still enough to find out.
It’s a life’s work, this revelation. I’ve come to understand that there is no destination. Just as each book teaches me only how to write that particular book – no more, no less – each season of my life has new lessons for me. Beneath the translucent ice, more is thawing.
This morning I read these words in Terry Tempest Williams’ Introduction to Wallace Stegner‘s novel, Crossing to Safety: “Each time I pick up my pen, I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. Be bold, he says. Be brave. Be true to your birthright, what you recognize in your heart.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors, about the wise ones who have walked a few paces ahead of me and have had the generosity of spirit to show me the road. I’ve also been thinking about being a mentor, since after twenty-five years of teaching, there is an ever-growing flock who think of me that way.
I’ve certainly been blessed by extraordinary mentors. Some have been hard on me. Some have challenged me to be bold and brave. Others have been cheerleaders. Others have opened doors. Still others have made me feel less alone in the world. They form an inner chorus and are with me when I pick up my pen. But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.
A writer sits on her chaise in her sunny office on a winter’s morning in 2016 and is transported and ennobled by a profound connection to a writer who filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse on an early spring day in 1941. A writer checking Instagram during an afternoon break sees that an artist she thinks of as a muse-mentor has “liked” one of her images – but how can it be? That artist has been dead for more than a decade. It turns out her daughter runs her beautiful Instagram account (I can think of no better purpose for this form of social media) but the feeling is one of communion.
We need those who are able to remind us to become who we are. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” Stegner writes. “You grow because you are not content not to…you grow because you’re a grower.” But we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning. We do our work – hewing steadfastly along the edge of our most intimate sensitivity – and we protect our gifts in order to best do that work. We nod to the past, and look to the future. And then – then we find the quiet courage to let it go.
I’ve just finished my new book. Whenever, in my life, I’ve completed this sentence – I’ve just finished my new book — I’m haunted by a sense that I must be lying, that the book can’t possibly be finished. And, in a way, of course it’s not. After a while, after it grows cold, as a dear friend likes to say, I will dive back into it and revise, chisel, hone, clarify, see previously unconscious connections. I will make it better until I can no longer make it any better. And then I will abandon it to the world.
My students and other writers I know who are early in their creative lives think that must be the best part — the time when a book is “abandoned” to the world. Book parties! Interviews! Travel! Readings! Radio! And I assure them that it isn’t. Their eyes glaze over. They don’t believe me. Easy for you to say. I can practically see the words as they think them. But it’s true. The best part – the part every artist lives for – is the complete immersion when on the home stretch. The whole world seems to collaborate with us during these days, weeks, months in which we’re finishing. Overheard dialogue, a flock of gulls against a gray sky, the angle of a man’s head as he sits on a park bench reading a tattered paperback – all seem electric, inter-connected. As I was finishing this book, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for a particular poem by Richard Wilbur I was certain I needed. The book wasn’t in stock, but misshelved in the W’s was a volume of poems by Wendell Berry I hadn’t read before, and contained within it a poem that was precisely what I needed but hadn’t known. That kind of thing happens when in the powerful flow of finishing.
But then…then what? I’ve been bereft, these last weeks. After training my whole heart, soul, intellect, everything I have within me, on finding the precise language for feeling – all that’s left is the feeling. What do we do with feelings we can’t contain, place, label, name? The chaos we can’t turn into art? With feelings that leak out around all that precise language and are still there, because finding the language may make art, and perhaps art heals the reader or viewer, but it doesn’t heal the artist or writer. Nor should it. Making art is not an act of catharsis. If anything, it embeds our narrative ever more deeply within us by freezing it in time. It transforms us – yes – but as anyone who has ever really gone there will tell you – transformation is painful and oh, it is ongoing.
In recent years my work has grown more and more distilled. I used to be interested in great big sweeping stories. I still enjoy reading them, sometimes, but I’m no longer pulled to write them. What drives me, excites me, makes me want to get up in the morning and write, read, live, is what pulses beneath the narrative – whether a fictional narrative or the well-worn narrative of my own life. What does transformation carry in its wake? How do I plumb the depths of now? How do I inhabit a consciousness – mine, or a fictional character’s – in order to get at what’s true, all the while knowing that what’s true is ever-evolving?
See, this is the kind of thing this writer thinks about when she’s in the space of the in-between. (It’s probably a little like going off your meds.) It’s uncomfortable, to be sure. The soil is dark, dank, its gifts revealed only through patience and time. So over these holiday weeks I will stay as quiet as I can. I will read books that nourish me. I will meditate each morning. I will seek the company of those who ennoble my spirit, or make me laugh (or both.) I will keep a notebook with me, make notes about the inner storm, and try to observe it, as if through a leaded window in a beautiful castle, a warm room, a safe place. Look, there’s the lashing rain. The bolt of lightning. Look, the world, lit up, then washed clean.
Last weekend I took my husband to a day-long meditation retreat in New York City. This was ostensibly a birthday gift for him. He is not a someone who meditates, but – like eating fresh vegetables or going to bed early – he’s usually glad he did. It was a selfish gift, in a way. The day was being led by one of my favorite western Buddhist teachers and this was a rare opportunity to do nothing for eight hours but train our hearts and minds on matters such as kindness, peacefulness, forgiveness, equanimity. We filed into the great hall at Ethical Culture, which quickly filled with six, seven hundred people who had all bought tickets and made room in their lives for a day dedicated to the psychology of Buddhist meditation. Some had overnight bags with them, and appeared to have come straight from the airport or the train station.
As the day progressed, I sat next to my husband and felt my heart soften and expand. If it’s possible to feel the hearts and minds of others soften and expand, the whole room felt full of pulsing, aching, tender hearts, all yearning, all longing, all so very human. Jack Kornfield sat alone in the center of a vast stage, papers and books arranged all around him and wove references ranging from Diane Ackerman to the Dalai Lama into a tapestry that seemed to hold the whole room together.
In the early afternoon – while in the midst of a teaching on equanimity – my phone began to vibrate in my bag. I ignored it, but it kept vibrating, so finally, I glanced at it. It was my sixteen year old son calling. He had just tried me twice. I slipped out of the great hall and into a corridor to return his call. When he picked up, he was sobbing. My breath caught in my throat. What? I spoke softly into the phone. What happened?
A beloved young teacher at his school had been driving down a country road earlier in the day with his two small children strapped into the back of his car. He’d been in a head-on collision. He didn’t make it, my son said through his tears. Information wasn’t yet known about the children. It seemed that one of them was seriously injured. The wife and mother – my son’s former English teacher at the same school – had been teaching classes and was not in the car.
I sank to a stair in the hallway and felt tears streaming down my own cheeks. I’m so sorry, I kept saying to Jacob. I’m so sorry. Inside the great hall, six hundred people had closed their eyes and were meditating. The delicate fabric of the world unraveled and revealed itself in all its fragility, in its invisible pattern. In its beauty and its terror. My heart broke for the family. For the whole school community. My heart broke for my boy, who had experienced loss, but not this kind — not the kind that comes like a claw from behind the curtain and grabs you and shakes you until there seems to be nothing left. He hadn’t known about the suddenness, the revelation of randomness and chaos. He hadn’t yet seen up close the shattering loss of a life cut short on a sunny Saturday morning on a country road. He was so young, my son said, his voice shaking.
I made my way back into the great hall and slid next to my husband. I whispered the terrible news in his ear and we both sat there, shaken to the core. How do we hold all of life in our hearts without our hearts breaking? How do we love, knowing that love will lead to such unbearable loss? How do we soften – rather than harden – our hearts to the irrefutable truth that life is suffering? This too, Jack had said earlier in the day. This too, this too. I am familiar with the claw that comes from behind the curtain. On some days, I have made my peace with it. On other days – like this one, a flag flying at half-mast on the safe and cozy campus of a small, heartbroken New England school – I shake my fist against it. But regardless, if I keep my heart soft I will let in the pain, and also the light and love. This too.