When I was growing up in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, you could drive to Monroe Avenue on the east side of the city and spend the afternoon wandering between bookstores. My friend Karen and I would make our way from the largest of them, The Village Green, to the Brown Bag Bookstore, then to Gutenberg’s Books (used and rare), and then to the feminist/lesbian bookstore, Silkwood. I bought my second-hand copy of The Bell Jar on Monroe Avenue. I still have it….Read more of my latest post for the Kenyon Review here.
In one of my May blog posts for Kenyon Review, I wrote about my first grade play, the past, and a close friend’s mother who recently passed away. I began with Toni Morrison’s words:
Toni Morrison, in her essay “The Site of Memory,” writes:
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’” Read more here…
Why is it difficult to begin? At least it often is for me. Right now, my friend Rachel, also a writer, is over and we’ve had oatmeal and strawberries and are writing in my living room instead of a cafe. We went to a cafe a few times last week, but the noise and not being able to control the sounds of people on their phones and talking in loud voices rattled me and left me in a foul mood. It’s easier right now to be at home and to have quiet company.
I’ve got Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind next to me—a book I bought in 1991, with the money from a $10 check I received for publishing a poem in the journal Hanging Loose. Goldberg (I want to say Natalie—I’ve lived with this book for so long—and did hear her speak in Newton, MA once) often writes about the writing and processes behind books—about what it means to be a writer and to commit yourself to that life.
I retrieved Natalie’s book from my bookcase yesterday to look for some words (an idea of hers) that I may use for a speech I’m giving tomorrow at the Rochester Public Library. Although I seem to have public speaking gigs regularly, they still make nervous. The chapter is called “Who Gave You Permission?” As in—who gave you permission to be a writer. She writes:
There’s someone further along the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything. When I say ‘you ask permission,’ I do not mean you have to go to someone higher up on the totem pole and inquire, Is it okay if I write? Write before you ask anyone. As a matter of fact, never ask anyone; always write, but it is about relationship. You know another writer and this reinforces your own love and commitment. It is not about them saying yes or no; it is about encouragement and friendship. And it is about something deep and unspoken.
I want to say something about this to the high school students I’ll be speaking to tomorrow. They’ve all won awards in a literary contest—the same one I won in 1989, when I was in high school. I want to say something about why writing is important and how I hope they will keep writing—whatever else they may do with their lives. My friend Holly is reading my draft now. I’ll see if Goldberg’s words get cut or stay in. Whether or not I need to edit them for my remarks tomorrow, they stay in here in this blog post.
In a blog post in December of 2015, I made reference to something that happened to me that delayed my conference report on a panel on trauma narratives from the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference last fall. I wrote about that incident, about trauma and privilege, and about cyber attacks in my most recent blog post for the Kenyon Review. This was a difficult essay to write—trauma, privilege, and cyber attacks are a lot of subjects to fit into a mini essay. If you’re interested, read through the three posts to which I have linked—to have a sense of how this essay unfolded. I knew I had something to say, and I did not feel as though it was useful to me or to the discussion of these subjects to stay silent…particularly because I had felt silenced for a while. No more. Writers write. I wrote.
I am grateful to the Kenyon Review and its editors, who backed my post; in fact, they just ran my column in their May newsletter. Some commenters have called this essay brave. I don’t know that it’s brave—but I do know I had to write it. What is writing if not grappling with difficult issues—without breaking silences—without telling the truth—or at the very least, my truth? In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” an essay I read in college (in my Intro to Women’s Studies course), and which changed my life, the writer Audre Lorde said:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect…I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
I believe this. And so I speak. And so I write.