“. . . going out, I found, was really going in.”
“. . . going out, I found, was really going in.”
One day, back in the years when I taught writing in various adult-education venues in my home community, I opened my back door to find a young man on my doorstep. He was one of my students, and his face was creased with concern.
“Marion,” he said, “how long does it take to write a novel?”
I might have laughed except it was so serious a question. He was working on a novel, had been working on it for some months, I knew, and his girlfriend, his parents, his friends had all ganged up on him.
Aren’t you finished with that thing yet? What’s wrong with you? Why are you wasting your time?
I invited him in and assured him that his process, the length of it, the difficulty of it, was absolutely normal. And when he left, I held him and his bewildering isolation in my heart.
Writers need other writers!
At whatever stage of our careers we find ourselves, poking a toe into the cold water of a first manuscript or polishing a story for an impatient editor, it is too easy to drown in the isolation our work demands. And the truth is that most of those we love and live with don’t get it! They don’t have a clue about and sometimes even resent the way we spend our days, and if we try to bring them into our circle, their eyes have a way of glazing over.
I remind myself from time to time that there are many others who can’t share the details of their working day with those they live with, often because their work is so technical that other folks wouldn’t understand if they tried. But most of those people have co-workers around them during the day, others who do understand their process, who appreciate the significance of their work.
They don’t spend their days alone in a room rummaging through the contents of their own minds day after day after day.
I’ll say it again. Writers need other writers!
Over the years I have satisfied that profound need partly, of course, by searching out other writers and keeping them close. But because writers tend to be scattered, I have also served my need for legitimization, for understanding, for authentication by teaching.
Teaching developing writers keeps me in touch with others who love writing.
I have taught in many different venues, including my last and most satisfying position with Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When I left VCFA, I was ready for retirement and glad to be able to focus entirely on my own work. But while I continued to value my freedom from the demands of an MFA program, isolation crept back in.
Is there anyone else in the world doing this thing I am attempting, day after quiet day?
That was until my good friend, VCFA grad, and National Book Award finalist, Debby Dahl Edwardson, came to me with her dream. Debby lives in Alaska now, but she grew up in Minnesota. And she used to spend her summers on Elbow Lake in the pristine wilderness of northern Minnesota. That place became part of her writer’s soul, and she has long wanted to share it with other writers.
Debby’s dream came to fruition as LoonSong, a writer’s retreat, and LoonSong has brought me back into the company of writers, writers talking writing. What a blessing it has been! This coming September, from the 6th through the 10th, we will gather for the third time, and I can already feel my energy rising as I move toward the event.
The retreatants come from every part of the country and represent every level of experience. The faculty is always stellar. (Check the website, www.LoonSong.org.) And the conversation—oh, the all-day, all-evening conversation!—is nurturing and challenging and the best way I know to break through writerly isolation.
Come join us. It’s a very small retreat, a boutique experience, and there are still a few slots left.
I would love to meet you there.
I would love to sit down and talk with you about this unique, blessed, complicated work that occupies our lives.
And then we will carry one another home in our hearts, banishing the isolation for another year!
In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!
If from Space not only sapphire continents,
swirling oceans, were visible, but the wars –
like bonfires, wildfires, forest conflagrations,
flame and smoky smoulder – the Earth would seem
a bitter pomander ball bristling with poison cloves.
And each war fuelled with weapons: it should be visible
that great sums of money have been exchanged,
great profits made, workers gainfully employed
to construct destruction, national economies distorted
so that these fires, these wars, may burn
and consume the joy of this one planet
which, seen from outside its transparent tender shell,
is so serene, so fortunate, with its water, air
and myriad forms of “life that wants to live.”
It should be visible that this bluegreen globe
suffers a canker which is devouring it.
In 1951 the US Federal Civil Defense Administration in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association produced a film called Duck and Cover. The film featured an animated turtle named Bert, who, with a catchy lyric playing in the background, taught American children to duck and cover if/when an atomic bomb detonated nearby. I was in seventh grade in 1951, but the film never came to my school. Nor did the duck-and-cover exercises, for which I cannot help but be grateful.
(If you’re interested in seeing the film, go to Duck and Cover)
I can’t imagine what it would have meant to me as a child to practice dropping under my desk and covering the back of my neck to keep safe from a horrendous and almost inevitable bomb. Maybe something similar to what it must mean to our school children today to go through drills to prepare against shooters.
I did participate more fully in the moment in 1961. I was a young teacher standing in front of my high school English class when the principal came on the PA system to give instructions for evacuating the school and our city should a nuclear missile come our way. The terror of the Cuban missile crisis and the years surrounding it is imprinted on my bones. (As a young woman I used occasionally to read newspaper obituaries in towns where I didn’t know a soul just to note how many people had lived out full lives, a privilege I was convinced would never be mine.)
My entire adult life has been played out in an improbable bubble, a bubble free of world-wide nuclear devastation. That we all came through the Cuban missile crisis whole is almost beyond improbable. We know now that the nuclear warheads we were holding off with our threats were already in place. We know, too, that we were attempting to bomb Russian submarines. Just think if we had connected with even one target!
And if the potential for devastation has been less obvious in the years that have followed it has been no less real.
The grace of that nuclear-free bubble has nothing to do with peace. In the eight decades of my life, my country has been in a nearly constant state of war. The fact that we haven’t all been blow away can be attributed only to luck and happenchance.
Recently, I have been reading Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Why? I’m not entirely certain except, perhaps, to give credence to my lifelong nightmares. Ellsberg does that very effectively. To understand the myriad ways our planet might have been destroyed—may yet be destroyed—by accident or intent boggles the mind. In fact, after a time, the boggled mind simply quits reacting.
At least mine did.
But what is the point of choosing to know? It is clearly impossible in our system to vote a leader into office who would have the will and the power to stand against this obscenity.
None has for the last half century. Not one!
Yet, these are our lives being played out . . . played with . . . lived. The jeopardy is ours and our children’s and our grandchildren’s.
Ah . . . those grandchildren! Sometimes I imagine sitting down with my grandchildren and trying to explain my failure to leave them a safe and habitable world.
Trying to explain why I have so few answers to offer, only more questions. Lots and lots of questions.
What is it with the human race? Do we still stand at the mouth of our caves, our hands filled with stones to repel the next intruder? Certainly the stones have evolved. Why haven’t we?
Each morning I emerge into the world filled with such questions. And then what do I do? I sit down and write another children’s book. Whatever it is, it will at least be more honest, more useful than Duck and Cover.
I often wonder what it must have been like to live in pre-World War II Germany. Something like living in the United States today, perhaps?
“Things are awful. I know they are awful. But right now I have supper to fix.”
Supper is good, though . . . as is the choice to go on with our lives.
Maybe I could say that to those beloved grandchildren.
“Supper is good. Every breath that fills your lungs and returns once more to the world is holy. Now . . . go out and fight for those impossible-to-imagine leaders, the ones who understand just how precious you are. How precious our world is!”