From How The Light Gets In
One of the great things about working with memory in writing is the way you get to be in two or more times at once. The far past, the near past, and the present brush against each other and even overlap. Madeleine L’Engle said, “I am still every age that I have been.” As I wrote, the lines of the old hymn, they sang again in my mind – slow, tender, full of the inflection of Missouri country folk. I was a child swinging my legs below the edge of the porch in the twilight. At the same time I was this woman that I am now, looking back at the little girl and growing in understanding of the woman she has become. That work of going into silent, closed places of memory and writing through it again is sacred work, redemptive work. Under pain, if we go deeply enough, there is joy. Under confusion there is clarity. Under suffering there is grace. Not because pain, confusion, and suffering are unreal. Bodies of real children are burned by real bombs; homes and lives are lost in real tsunamis and hurricanes. But facing the hard realities of both our internal life and the life of the world can move us to an entirely different perspective, one that may include understanding, action, acceptance, or compassion.
At this moment, writing about the tabernacle gives me a portion of acceptance and compassion. I still love that sweet old song, although I have long ago given up what theologians call the substitutionary doctrine of atonement (Jesus’s blood is substitution for our sins) that is its theological under-story. Yet as I write these words, it is a summer evening in the Ozarks, 1939. I am barefoot, and in some inarticulate way, bereft. My daddy has left us, and we have moved to a strange new place called Mount Zion where ladies wear long dresses and never cut their hair. I sit on the shadowy porch and consider the sweet song’s invitation.
As a teenager, after she ran away to be baptized, Mama had passionately believed in salvation and sanctification. Although we never discussed it, I think she could not accept that to her friends at Mount Zion, her divorce made her a sinner in danger of the fires of hell. She had left my father, his drinking, his going to prostitutes, then crying and telling her about it, his bringing gonorrhea home. In that little farmhouse she gave me an intensive course in how to hate my father. She was a single mother with no income but the little bit she could make from selling canaries that she bred in an upstairs room devoted to them, and from walking up and down a gravel road selling chicken eggs to people who had chickens of their own. She bought a cow and a goat; she planted a large garden and canned enormous amounts of vegetables.
But she no longer had anything to do with the beliefs of those religious people. Until she died, she lived in the schism between a belief in salvation, which she accepted; a belief in sin, which troubled her; and a belief in hell, which she rejected. She no longer wore their long dresses or refused to cut her hair. She called their religion “the little stingin’ kind.”
And yet, she had friends among them. I don’t doubt that they treated her kindly – that they earnestly tried to save her from her back-sliding, sinful life. I can only imagine her suffering, caught between a religion she could no longer embrace and a personal experience of God that must have been her only solace – an experience that was now judged inadequate by the very people who had led her to it. She continued to sing their music until the day she died. A lifetime later, one of the songs both my brother Sam and I remembered and sang together in the summer before he died at age sixty-three must have come from her days at Mount Zion, for it is not in common books of gospel songs. Even my friend Horace Boyer, who was for a time a gospel music expert for the Smithsonian Museum, could not locate it. But after a few years’ passage brought us the Internet, one of my children found it in a video of a young man singing without accompaniment in a country church:
Often I’ve watched the clouds up in the sky;
Often I’ve heard they were many miles high,
And I said as they sailed out of sight far away,
I’m going higher some day.
I’m going higher, yes, higher some day.
I’m going higher to stay
Over the mountains, above the blue sky,
Going where men neither suffer nor die,
Loved ones to meet in that sweet bye and bye,
I’m going higher some day.
We had been at Mount Zion for a full year when I turned five years old. I, too, was beginning to know by heart some of the words, some of the rich harmonies, the tender promises, the yearning: Savior, like a shepherd lead us, / Much we need thy tender care.
One day I said, “Mama, I want to be saved.”
I clearly remember the asking, and clearly remember her gently putting me off. I remember asking again and again – my hand on her cotton dress skirt, pulling on it, insisting, I want to be saved. She laughed about it years later – how she didn’t know what to do with a child barely five years old who seemed so convicted of sin, so in need of salvation.
She did believe firmly in the possibility of love and welcome. And so, finally, one day she said, “All right. Come with me.” She led me out to the two straggly peach trees that comprised the whole of our pathetic, worn-out orchard. Telling the story when I was grown, she still shook her head in disbelief. “You cried like a hardened sinner,” she said.
I don’t remember crying. I do remember that once I had cracked hickory nuts on a big rock, pounded them with a smaller rock, and picked the tiny, elusive, delicious white kernels out bit by bit. When my little brother, who was not yet three years old, ate my entire pile of kernels and wanted more, I fed him the white worms I found in the nuts instead. That wasn’t nice, but I doubt that I cried because of that sin.
Maybe she told me to ask God to forgive me for my sins – that was part of the formula – but she never again talked to me in terms of sin, and so I don’t know why I cried. What remains in me is that her voice was gentle and she told me to pray, and to offer to give my heart – was it to God or to Jesus? I’m not sure.
Writing this, I am both outside and inside the little girl. It is easy to lose the child because the woman who I am sees now, in this moment of writing, that the child has lost her daddy and is asking for a father God to claim her, love her, take the heart she offers him. Never before have I seen this. It is the writing that puts the connection before me.
I want to go back into the child, and the way to do that is through concrete image. The ground is hard; the rocks are uncomfortable. Mama and I find enough dirt to kneel on our bare knees without pain. I fold my hands into prayer position and I must have looked up, because even now, seventy years later, I know that there are two hard, little, immature peaches on that tree. Only two. And not many leaves.
I pray – to Jesus, I think. Maybe to God – to take my life. I give you my life, I say – and yes, I can feel it now inside me – I cry. I beg. I am “a beggar before the door of God.”
Suddenly, I am received. I am. It is true. I am loved, I am owned, I am delighted in. The peaches above me are beautiful – they are no longer little green knots. They are a promise; they are a sign. I belong to God. I am not alone. I don’t have to be afraid any more.
Mama told me after I was grown that I came to her again and again for days after that day, hugged her around her legs and said, “Mama, aren’t you glad?”
She didn’t know what to make of it.
I knew. I was saved.
Emily Dickinson said, “Silence is all we Dread,” but trying to break silence can be “dread-ful” also. The first time I tried to write this experience was several years ago. It took the form of a poem – tracing the outline, going as far as was safe at that time. In a revision after I wrote the first draft, I changed the two peaches to one peach, for the sake of the poem.
To you only I speak,
although you are forever
changing names, places
of residence, appearance,
When I was a child
you hovered in the rafters
of the tabernacle, above
the visiting evangelist’s head.
My mother said I should repent,
and so I did. Of what,
I have forgotten. I was
five years old. I do remember
how the tree, under which she knelt
and prayed with me for my salvation,
bore a single peach that year:
the hard, green bud of it. How
all the summer long I watched it grow.
There was something that I asked of you
in that worn-out orchard.
Although I don’t remember what it was
I asked, I do know
I took the peach for answer.
What is “saved,” or “redeemed,” or “ransomed” in the act of writing? Mary Oliver suggests in her poem, “The Journey,” that the only life we can truly save is our own. That is what writing does for me. It saves my life. In writing, I literally save my own life. I “ransom” it, to use Dickinson’s word, from silence. Something in me that was broken, cracked – becomes whole. The cracks, if I write them with utter honesty, are where “the light gets in.” The present meets the past, and healing begins.
Often the things we fear to write turn out not to be monsters at all – in fact, we fear to expose them because we love them too much. To write them might mean losing them. Only it doesn’t. We don’t have to show the writing to anyone – we should not unless we are certain we will not be rejected, not be ridiculed or made to feel ashamed. As I said earlier, we must hold the most sacred writing in privacy, in silence, until time passes, and it becomes safe, psychologically, emotionally, to share it with others.
Some things we write may never be shared. For most of us there are things that cannot be published, not if we care about the safety and happiness of people whose secrets we hold. But we can write them. Writing takes it out of the inner place where it grows parasitic in the dark, brings it out to the page where my eyes can see its form, my ears hear its groans, my fingertips touch the words that tell it back to me. And then, because I choose to honor the privacy of another, I may burn the page or shred it – that act helping to purge my own tender heart of the temptation to take power from someone else’s weakness or vulnerability.
To write like this – to write concretely what our inner eye sees, our inner ear hears – is to break silence. If we read it to others, or allow them to read, it fully breaks silence. If we write and never show it, even perhaps destroy the written words, we have nevertheless broken an inner silence, and in the very act of writing will have let some light in to the inner space that needed light. That act can be a kind of ransom – a kind of redemption. It allows me, the writer, to see more fully, more explicitly, and to name, perhaps even to bless, what before was hidden.
As writers, it is important to allow the material we are writing to find its own form. That statement by Ben Shahn, “Form is the shape of content,” is a basic principle for us, both for the art of our writing and for the personal healing work that it often is. I am suspicious of a writing life that limits itself to one form. Work that is allowed to find its own form will allow us to grow, to experiment, to imagine. And it will allow the emotion underneath what we are writing to find its appropriate voice. For example, in the story above I instinctively moved from the “I” of first person narrative to “the child” of third person narrative when the story became too hot to handle emotionally. Writing “the child” helped me to step back, gain a bit of perspective on an intensely emotional experience. So does using metaphor as I did in the story about the sensitive plant.
The subconscious helps us, gives us the perfect form or metaphoric image for what our words are trying to express. It sometimes nudges us to change from third person to first person, which is always a move closer to the material. Later, when the first draft is done, we look at it, recognize the shift, and ask ourselves whether it should have been first person all along, or whether we need to honor the shift and tweak the writing to make the transition work. There are two kinds of “craft” at work here: the first kind is learning how to get out of the way and allow first-draft material to flow freely. The second is the learned craft of polishing a first draft without destroying our own inimitable voice, the good help we have received from our “dreaming place,” the subconscious mind.
I have been asked by writers who are just beginning to work with autobiographical material, “Why does the same old story come up again and again?” “Does it ever stop? Will there always be more pain to dig up?”
Because I’ve worked with so many writers over thirty-two years of leading workshops, and because I’ve written so much out of my own childhood, I can say with certainty that yes, the same stories come again and again, and for most of us mortals, there is always more pain to discover. Strangely, though, as writers, that’s one of the good things. Not only because we discover more deeply who we are and why we are who we are. Not even because discovering who we are helps us to change who we are into something better. There is another, more writerly, reason. Janet Burroway, author of the excellent textbook, Writing Fiction, says, “Only trouble is interesting.” At least in creating story, I think she’s right.
The good news is, under pain, there is joy. Under grief there is love. Under betrayal there is the possibility of change, and / or of forgiving. A famous (perhaps apocryphal) story about Carl Jung says that a patient tells him, “Doctor, I dreamed that I was in a vat of boiling oil, and you were beside it, saying, “Not out! Through!”
Trouble that comes up again and again is not always the same. Some trouble, some pain, really does get healed as we write and rewrite it. That healing is greatly facilitated if the writer is not putting rocks into her pocket and walking into the river, as Virginia Woolf did, or as the old stereotype of the writer goes, writing alone in a freezing garret while drinking himself to death. A bad workshop can kill you as a writer in short order, but a good workshop can help a lot.
Poet Louise Glück wrote in “The Wild Iris” that whatever / returns from oblivion returns / to find a voice.” I believe that with all my heart.
In my workshops I always write, or try to, in response to the writing prompts I have suggested, and I read aloud among others who choose to read what they have written. I am deeply committed to this practice as one way of decreasing a sense of hierarchy in our writing community; it means there is no one in the room who is not taking the same risk – of failure, of exposure, of a bad first draft – as everyone else. We are all in it together, a wonderful leveling practice.
But for the leader, this can be a challenge. For example, because I have taught writing for so long, there are central images that I use as “triggers” again and again in working with different groups of people. One of those is to suggest to writers that they imagine a doorway, or a breakfast table, or a hallway. Then I ask three simple questions to help them see more clearly what they have imagined: “What is the quality of light?” Poet and novelist Maureen Buchanan Jones has written, “This particular question is essential, I think, because it makes the listening writer feel the atmosphere he or she is remembering or imagining. We are animals, acutely aware of light whether we are conscious of it or not. As soon as the precise peculiarity of light becomes clear the writer knows exactly where she or he is.” The second question is, “Where is the light coming from?” And after a beat of silence, “Is anyone near you, or are you alone?”
When they have had another brief pause, I ask them to begin to write down something that they “see” and then go anywhere they wish with their writing, departing from that image or staying with it.
Over the years, this prompt always took me back to the same scene – the terrible tenement in St. Louis where I lived for most of my adolescence: the same doorway, the same table, the same hallway. After a while it was very uncomfortable, difficult, if not impossible to find anything fresh and original about that apartment. One day I rebelled onto the page and wrote in twenty minutes the following poem, which was taken with uncharacteristic quickness by a literary journal, and has survived into my first “new and selected” volume, Another River.
IMAGINE A HALLWAY IN CHILDHOOD
It is always the same goddamned hallway,
the same smell of darkness
at the center of my mind.
I won’t go back there this time.
I will make myself a hallway. Let it be
light. Let there be sun
falling through a window and carpeting
a stair. Let there be space and a clock
ticking fifteen minutes before noon.
Let it be morning. Let it be June.
Let there be biscuits baking in the kitchen
and the smell of nutmeg rampant in the house.
Let there be some dust between the rungs
at the stairway edge,
but only half a week’s worth. No more.
Let there be a baby’s picture book
abandoned on a table in the downstairs hall
and a slight puddle standing
at the tip of an umbrella
in an old umbrella stand.
Let there be privacy possible here,
let there be no Mr. Costello smelling
of cheap wine, grouchy, waiting in line
outside the bathroom door with his urine
in a milk bottle in his hand;
let there be no stale smell of sauerkraut
from the room of the unhappy woman upstairs,
no screaming Nigger! Nigger!
coming up the furnace ducts
from the apartment below. Let there be
an absolute absence of cockroaches.
Let there be no fear of the police,
no chain lock on the door,
no grease across the windowpane.
Let there be no shame
And it is so.
I have made a hallway for myself,
and I am walking down it.
I walk in sunlight and nutmeg. I walk
in the still magic of imagined space,
and almost at the end, on the left,
there is a door. It is standing open,
and I go in
and close the door behind me,
What I did not expect, and what surprised me greatly, is this: ever after writing this poem, I have not one, but two memories of that apartment; the fictional image is as real to me as the remembered image.
Furthermore, and even more startling, perhaps a year or more after writing it, I dreamed that the tenement building where I had lived was on fire. I stood and watched the huge, encompassing flames, and I knew that the fire was utterly cleaning the inside of that old, roach-infested, filthy brick building. There would be nothing left but the smell of ash and the shell of bricks. Then the dream shifted, and the building was still there. I walked up the scarred concrete steps and opened the door. Inside, the stairway was the same, but no longer sticky with dirt. The smell was no longer a sickening mixture of urine and roach poison. At the foot of the stairs, there was a small, glassed-in booth with a woman guard seated inside. The building was safe. It was clean, and I no longer lived there.
I came to that redemption through writing. Over, and over, and over again writing the images that had so wounded me as a young girl. And then finally writing a different, fictional version. Sigmund Freud reputedly said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. Whether night-dreams or daydreams, whether writing or in some other art form, that redemptive work is begun in the unconscious, and with all my heart I can say that Emily Dickinson is right. Silence is all we dread. There’s Ransom in a Voice.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE JOURNEY
The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
if you just let her go.
And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.