The only imperative that nature utters is: ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’
C. S. Lewis
The only imperative that nature utters is: ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’
C. S. Lewis
But it is the same story, over and over in many ways, you know. I’m always obsessed with the same things, and I think that most writers are. You get a couple of themes and if you’re lucky, you can keep on turning it and shining different light on it, but it’s always that forgiveness and redemption and friendship and hope. So where does the inspiration come from? I always have a notebook with me, I eavesdrop, I write down what people say. It’s very rare that one of those things will provoke a story, but I think that that kind of paying attention all the time, and keeping everything open, lets the stories come in. But where they come from is still a mystery to me.
“. . . 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!
There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love. A. Powell Davies
I posted this quote recently here in this spot. I posted it as I do all my quotes, because it captured my heart when I read it, so I wanted to pass it on. But on the day it sprang to new life on my website, I found myself pausing over it again. Not just admiring the words, the thought. Not just wanting to pass them on as “true.” But wanting to name the truth in my own life.
No mystery greater than our own mystery.
Every piece of fiction I have ever written has come out of “a thought [I] cannot quite think.”
I start with an idea that captures my imagination. There has to be struggle embedded in the idea. There is no story, at least in the traditional western sense of story, without struggle. But I start with something I pluck from the air or from a newspaper story or from something that happened to me when I was a kid just because it seems interesting. And if the idea is truly interesting to me, other ideas begin to fly to it, like iron filings to a magnet. It builds. And builds.
I never ask myself why I’m thinking of writing this particular story. Asking why would be a bit like slicing open a cat to see what makes her purr. I just keep turning the idea in my mind. And if it truly belongs to me—it keeps growing.
But I still don’t know what makes it my story. I just sit down and write it.
Sometimes I don’t know why I wrote this particular story until reviewers and readers begin to talk to me about it, to tell me what my words mean to them. And then, at last, I can say . . . “Oh! Of course!” Sometimes I begin to understand as I reach my story’s conclusion. (And interestingly enough, I always know where my story will end before I write the first word, but still it’s the writing of it that reveals its truth to me.)
My story becomes “the thought that lives in [me] without [my] being able to think it.” Which is precisely why I am compelled to bring it into the world as a story.
I wonder sometimes, have always wondered, whether someday I will no longer need to cloak my unknown self in story. Is it possible to become so transparent to myself that I won’t be compelled to search out my own mystery this way?
But then A. Powell Davis also said, “The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
“That is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning.”
“And the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
Where have I ever heard a deeper, truer expression of the way story lives in us?