After Write or Die
I cry after each class. One class I’d gotten some oversized chocolate chip cookies from Icing on the Cake and people had only eaten from the edges. When everyone was gone, I ate the cookies methodically, standing at the kitchen counter, staring at the wall, chewing like it was my job, occasionally swiping away the tears.
I don’t get cookies any more.
I didn’t eat the cookies because I was hungry, and I don’t cry because I was sad.
People sometimes say they were gutted by an experience. After every class I feel gutted, as if someone had emptied my abdomen and had left...space, but one definition of gutted is bitterly disappointed, and I feel the opposite.
I do a meditation sometimes where I imagine my navel opens into the universe, and what was guts and blood and organs becomes, in my mind, the dark sky and stars. I lose the limits of skin and ego and plunge into the peace of sensation. I imagine this is what makes a cat able to sit in the same spot for hours. unmoving. She is living in her body. Who needs drugs when you can just be present?
When I am talking about Annie Dillard's essay Living Like Weasels, or the writing on the spider and the egg sacks in Mary Oliver's book Upstream or when I am listening to the people in Write or Die share their work, I have the same sense of merging with the universe. It's no longer about me and you. It's about us. The music of truth turns us to water.
Paul Tillich, in Faith and the Dynamics of the Holy wrote, What concerns one ultimately becomes holy. The awareness of the holy is the awareness of the presence of the divine, namely of the content of our ultimate concern.
There is something about witnessing people writing and reading their truths for others to hear. It doesn’t mean the class is full of proclamations and earth-shattering realizations. It means people are telling other people about what is important to them, about what they love, about what scares them, about what they hope is around the corner, about their grandmother’s rings.
And what concerns one ultimately becomes holy.
When you see the life in things and feel part of the web of being, you also come face to face with death. And that is why I cry after class. Because I can’t name what happened, because I am so overwhelmed by the beauty of truth, and because I know that one day we will all die.
I want to tell you a little about Write or Die.
The classes are never what people expect. I aim straight for the underbelly and ask the students to trust me and the people who surround them right from the start. More than once people have threatened to leave when I give the first assignment, but they have always stayed, and their eyes have always gotten brighter. There is deep excitement in speaking from the truest spot in your body. There is life. There is risk.
A safe life is good when you are an infant, but when you are an adult safe can also equal stagnation. It’s easy to assume the things that were important to you when you were thirty are still important to you when you are fifty when the car you are driving is going at such a speed you haven’t had a moment to take your eyes off the road.
William Gass wrote, It’s as though I were living at last in my eyes, as I have always dreamed of doing…There is looking at the world through your eyes, and then there is living in your eyes. One way keeps us from driving into the stop sign, but the other way lets us see the sign, and suddenly, like Hunter Thompson on a good day, we are the sign, and life is beautiful and perfect.
When people find their voice on paper, it’s as if they were living at last in their eyes. In a New York Times article, Erin Meyer wrote about discovering during a business trip to Japan the way to read whether someone in a group wanted to speak was not if they raised their hands; it was to look in their eyes. The people with bright eyes had something they wanted to contribute.
I’ve been teaching writing for over twenty years; I used to teach the classes for other people: for the university, for the establishment, but now I teach them for myself. That’s scary in that I can’t blame any soft spots in the class on someone or something else. But it’s worth the risk because I teach for bright eyes instead of grades, and what I teach feels real.
But when everyone walks out the door, the bubble of sacred deflates and spills out my eyes. It's back to work. It's back to life. As if the truth we just stumbled on as a group was a pause and not the whole deal. And the people who stared at each other raptly as they read and talked and spilled their hearts out on the table are back to texting while they drive, hoping there is enough time to stop at Starbucks before heading home.
I want more. But what if this is all there is? What if writing makes no difference? What if the life we live as we live it is as sacred as it's going to get? What if I am fooling myself that truth lies somewhere on the page and not in the hurried way I pretend to listen to my friend as she talks and I text someone else to say I am running five minutes behind?
And what if writing does make a difference? What then?