At 21, I traveled through India for six months. My world-view had been scrambled, and writing about my travels helped me unscramble it. I had never seen people starving on the streets, their limp bodies scooped up in the morning by a front-end loader. I had never been surrounded by large groups of beggars or lepers. Nobody had ever pushed into my face a live cobra curled in a wicker basket. I had never been pickpocketed, never slept in a bed infested with biting bugs.
Returning home, I penned a 144-page book on my experience with 78 footnotes, maps, a Foreword, Introduction and Table of Contents. It was not good writing, but it was my record of a bittersweet time in a mysterious land. Donald Hall must have seen India too. He writes in The Old Life, “In Madras, the drive to the airport, air entering the taxi carried six sided chunks of exhaust.” Such air causes small birds to fall from the sky, and inspires writers to create poems in the midst of suffocation.
At its core, writing is a risky disclosure because it reveals what we love; therefore, writers and their products are fragile and vulnerable. Our tender disclosure of precious stories is miraculous and audacious. We dare to concretize the fragile, and celebrate authors that remystify the banal. Out of it, Harry and Hogwarts are born, and children find escape while adults reconnect with wonder.
Recently, I was admiring a motorcycle parked outside a restaurant. A motorcycle is a prime artifact of escape and wonder. It’s romanticized in movies and songs even if a small percentage of drivers actually ride. I asked the rider how fast he’d been.
“I’ve had it up to 95 mph,” he said.
“Don’t you worry about deer,” I asked.
“I try not to think about it,” he said.
On my Harley-Davidson, I like to ride fast too, but I’ve learned there is a right time for riding fast, and there’s even more time for riding slow.
In the movie, Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays William Forrester, an antagonistic writer living with cancer and guilt. He meets a 16-year old African-American named Jamal Charles from the Bronx, and they develop a relationship based on their mutual love for writing.
In one scene, Jamal is visiting Forrester in his apartment. Forrester tells Jamal to sit in a chair by a typewriter while he sits opposite and begins typing, banging hard on the keys.
Forrester then stops typing long enough to ask Jamal, “What are you doing?”
“Thinking,” Jamal said.
Forrester scolds Jamal, “No. No thinking. Thinking comes later. You write the first draft with your heart.” Forrester goes on, “The way to writing is to write, and you’ll be writing too as soon as you start punching those keys.”
The first draft is done at 195 mph, by punching the keys. Driving at 195, one tries not to think of police and drunk drivers, raccoon or deer; but then, slowing to 10 mph, with subtle restraint, the writer thinks and edits.
With a light touch on the brake, slowly moving down the road, noticing the smell of spring and the trillium sprouting through dirty garbage in the ditch, all our editing and thinking is in hope of making beautiful choices, of finding just the right word at just the right time. Or if you believe some artists,’ you hope to hit the wrong note at the right time for a new sound.
Donald Hall counsels, “If you are a writer, or a teacher of writing, you will use writing as a way of learning, a way of discovery, and exploring, a way of finding what you have to say and finding ways in which you say it.”
Recently, I stepped through a door to an outer courtyard linking two buildings. A small black and white bird with a pointed, pale beak fell to the cement sidewalk, landing with a thud. The bird just missed falling on one of two women standing nearby. They both jumped back and screamed. I walked away listening to them. “Is it dead? I’m not picking it up, it almost hit me.” I thought of chicken-little, the function of canaries in the mines, and six-sided chunks of exhaust.
Writing is not so much a creation with words as it is a meaning constructed out of words. I pay attention to the prepositional distinction because my training demanded it. My interpretive sensibilities were built in a theology that religious academics often describe as a “prepositional theology.”
Lutherans are particular about their prepositions. Their grounding descriptions of a sacrament (bread, body of Christ) not only convince, but surround the reader. They describe it with the following: the sacrament is God’s presence in, with and under the bread.
Lutherans also love to think in dialectics. My mentors taught from these lovely couplets: saint and sinner, the right and left hand expressions of the kingdom, the hidden and revealed God, the primary and secondary covenants, and more.
Out of this training, and out of the writer’s encounter between their head and their heart, out of the pedagogy of going fast and then slow, out of the unpredictable destiny of huper moira (a fate above fate), a writer dares to create meaning through words, mythologies from a falling bird and philosophies of perception by motion via Harley-Davidson or taxi.
And if that writer is lucky, they create something memorable, something new, something stimulating to the mind and heart. They do so by disclosure of what has fallen to them: a bird from the sky or remnants from a large oak stuck by lightning.
An oak bench I made 40-years ago rounds out a corner in my apartment. The flat, sitting portion was made from a large tree in Northern Wisconsin. Its legs are from a small hackberry found in Southern Wisconsin. The legs don’t look like they match. The hackberry is crooked, darker than the oak, skinny legs with unsightly bumps leaning out at an odd angle.
Recently, a friend was visiting. Looking at the bench she said, “Those legs are so uneven … but somehow they just make it work.” That’s the writers’ mantra: somehow just make it work.
Some make it work because they serve up compelling self-revelation. Some make it work by taking risks, writing in passionate release at 95 or in cold blood at 10. Some make it work by disclosing out of “willful play,” in John Updike’s words.
If the writer is lucky, that willful play makes a fateful mistake by fusing the crooked limb of hackberry to the smooth underbelly of oak, and a casual observer, knowing nothing of its fate morphing into creation will say, “Somehow that just works.”