Why I Write—2022

Every year for National Day on Writing, I reflect on why I write.

It’s like looking at a diamond ring in a semi-darkened room. Different facets catch the light, scattering sparks of brilliant color, red to orange, green to blue. Writing, for me, is an inner fire. A living fire. It is in my blood the way that farming was in my grandfather’s blood, that music is in my son’s, that crafting was in my mother’s, that a love of children was in my grandmother’s. I see different facets even in these comparisons. Farming is about sustenance. Cultivating the earth, harnessing resources to make it produce—this is what earth is designed to do. Music is expression, form, response, sounds in time, even color. It can be endlessly repeated and replicated; it is the unique and universal language of humankind. Crafting…it takes skill to make a new, useful thing from pieces placed exactly right, sewing them together so that the seams don’t detract. My mother was given a hand-me-down sectional sofa covered with pink scratchy fabric (it was 1970s horrible). She studied it, measured it, bought earth-tone floral fabric and cording and systematically created a custom slipcover that lasted for years. The love of children…does this not tie all of the above? Creating, nurturing, producing, expressing, a contribution to the future.

Writing is all of this.

One can make the argument that all these things are learned, and so they are. But that doesn’t account for the compulsion to do them even when there is no need. Granddaddy gardened into his nineties when he didn’t have to produce his own food anymore, when all he could manage was two small rows in the old dog pen after the dog was dead and gone. He carried a chair to sit on and rest between the kneeling to weed. My son hears all the instruments, all the harmonies, in a song; he spends hours recording a song over and over with different instruments, singing the different vocals, until it all comes together like he wants it…simply for the joy of accomplishing it. My mother received little income from the clothes she made for people; she crocheted countless baby blankets as gifts. She made flop-eared stuffed bunnies with changeable clothes, for the whimsical fun of it, never making a dime. Craftsmanship is beauty unto itself. Like art. Like music. My grandmother’s face shone like the sun at sight of children. I was one of her greatest beneficiaries, my life indelibly shaped, still being shaped, by her love. I might also mention it was Grandma who sparked my love of reading and writing long before I could do either.

Writing, in the end, has much to do with story. At least for me. The story of having lived and loved. The story of seeking the beautiful. The story of gratitude for finding it, in all of life’s brilliant facets and sparks, even in the shadows. There would not be shadows if there were no light. It is there, always there, for the capturing.

And so I write.

Necklace given to me by my father. Years later, it still shines.

I want to be the kind of writer…

with thanks to SOS-Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog for the inspiration

I want to be the kind of writer who seizes every moment, carpe momentum, for the meaning it contains, for the uniqueness it brings, for the virtue of its existence and my existence within it, for these are fleeting: my presence of mind and my presence here. I want to the the kind of writer who lets the tap of memory flow full force, who drinks long, deep drafts in thirsty gratitude for every image that lives in the sea of my brain, inside the little seahorse itself. Precious hippocampus, my writer-symbol. I want to be the kind of writer who feeds it, keeps it strong, leaves floodgates open for all that rides the currents of memory, all that rises to the surface, all that washes up like flotsam and jetsam from long ago, even if but random bits of objects or recalled treasure like moments with those I loved and who loved me, still very much alive and real in the iridescent foam bubbling at the edges. I want to be the kind of writer who doesn’t attempt to pin a fragile new idea to the page but who stops to acknowledge it when it appears, makes note of it, gives it room to breathe, to unfurl its wings, for the thing has something to reveal. Yes, I will write to it, write around it, capture it; but softly, without force. Ideas are living things. They are to be nurtured and examined, not hammered and dissected (even in the name of research). I want to be the kind of writer who honors the organic and spiritual nature of the craft and the transcendent power of story in the human heart. It is a matter of mattering. I want to be the kind of writer who spins crystals of my memory, thought, sensation, perception, emotion, and imagination into stories of substance that matter to readers, that maybe add layers of meaning to their moments, too…the way that writers have done, still do, for me. I hear the echo of their words daily as I go about the moments of my living; the writers, the writing, the words, ever-present, tickling the hippocampus, anchoring in my soul, forever bubbling, forming and reforming, spawning yet more ideas. I want to be the kind of writer always reaching for what’s beyond my grasp, always discovering, always inviting awe, always listening, always and infinitely grateful to have been alive.

Carpe momentum.

I am working on it.

The seahorse is a favorite writer-symbol for me, sharing the same name with the part of the brain regulating memory and emotion: hippocampus. Photo: E. Johnson

Magnetic metaphorica

Writing leads me
on so many journeys

today it was
to the center of the Earth

it all started with
using “compass”
as a metaphor
which led me to wonder
what really makes a compass work
why the needle points
to magnetic north

which led me to
the magnetic field

and crystals in the Earth’s core

and to the discovery
that these crystals
are a type of snow

(iron snow,
but still)

snowing there
in the molten middle
of our planet

and now I’m swimming
in metaphor
the compass nearly forgotten

because in my mind
I see it snowing in Earth’s core
and I know
it doesn’t look
anything like what scientists
are guessing at

and that’s okay
because I started
with only a compass
not even a tangible one

and I found myself
pulled into fiery living snow
hidden from human eyes
and I felt the flapping
of a majestic blanket
as it rippled far
into the heavens

making the auroras dance
to its rhythms
trailing their long veils of light

-where was I?

Oh, right, the compass.

The journey, the journey.
It’s why I write.

NASA’s THEMIS Sees Auroras Move to the Rhythm of Earth’s Magnetic Field.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. CC BY-NC 2.0


Why I write, 2021

The Children’s Eyes (When They Are Writing)

The children’s eyes
are windows to the skies
sun-bright,
moon and star-studded night,
reflected wonderlight.

The children’s eyes
are toy-wagon wheels
absorbing, bearing, hauling
so much more than playthings.

The children’s eyes
are gates in a small walled garden
which widen when they realize
the stunning flora growing within
—cultivate it, Children.

For in my own walled garden
of memory
lush greenery still grows
not concealing
but revealing
what I now know
to be healing.

All I’ve lived and seen
eventually spills forth
in story or verse
above and through and over
the old stone wall

for even in the moonless,
star-obscured,
darkest night,
there is always
a ribbon 
of light. 

This, Children,
is why I write.

Speaking of things I’ve seen…artwork on a concrete wall in Asheville, NC.
The garden struck me as metaphor for writing, growing there in the brain.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “eyes” and life experience poetry prompt on Ethical ELA this morning, to Two Writing Teachers for sustaining a community where teachers of writing flourish, and to the National Council of Teachers of English for designating October 20th as National Day on Writing.

and in honor of all the children who inspire me, every time I’ve come to your classrooms to teach writing.

Dear Writing

As a participant in the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I will be posting each day for the month of March.

What better way to start than by expressing my love for writing? Or, to be exact, by expressing my love TO writing for the profound impact it’s had on my life.

Inspired in part by Kobe Bryant’s retirement love letter, “Dear Basketball.”

*******

Dear Writing,

It occurs to me that I’ve never told you how much you mean to me.

It is time, for you mean more now than ever before.

I remember when you first materialized. I was, what, about six years old? I wonder now whether I discovered you or you discovered me, sitting there at the coffee table in the living room, wide-ruled paper in front of me and a fat pencil in my hand. All I know is that it began with story. A pull, a beckoning, a desire to get what was swirling inside me onto pages. By some great alchemy, my blocky letters, erratic spelling, rudimentary sentences ceased to be merely themselves; combined, they became something distinctly Other.

And there you were. Almost a living, breathing presence.

I didn’t know then that you’d come to stay. That as I grew, you would grow with me. That you would, in fact, grow me, always pulling me to more. To think more, explore more, discover more, strive more, play more. To be more.

Do you remember the diary Grandma gave me for Christmas when I was ten or eleven? Trimmed in pink, little girl on the front, with a brass lock and tiny key. Do you remember this entry: “I wrote a story that I hope will be published”? Whatever happened to that diary—? To that story? They’re lost in time. No matter. I can see that page in my mind to this day; is it you that keeps this memory alive?

People began to notice our relationship early on, didn’t they. Teachers who said it was a good thing, who gave tips on how we could be stronger. Friends and family who told me to stick with you: Please keep writing. I owe them all for how they shaped you and me.

Where would I have been without you in my teenage years? In the early days of my marriage? Those were the poetry years, the journal years, when you let me glimpse the beautiful inside the uncertain, when you compelled me to pour out my heart. You were bigger than my anguish, my anger, my fear. You channeled it all, absorbed it all. Ever how circuitous the path, how violent the storm, how steep the mountain, how dark the night, how deep the pain, you were there, leading me to safety, to calm. Even now, I reach for you and you are there. Like the ocean, you bring forth unexpected treasures. And healing. When my emotions and energy are spent, washed clean away, you reveal over and over one thing that always remains: Hope.

For there’s always more to the story, to the ones that I create, to the ones that I live. I think that’s one of the most important lessons you’ve taught me: This chapter of life is ending, but a new one is about to begin. Embrace it. It’s one of your most extraordinary powers. As amazing as your ability to mine my memory. With you I am any age I ever was. I sit on my grandfather’s lap once more; he walks with me, holds my hand. I hear his voice. I am in Grandma’s kitchen while steam fogs the windows, in her arms as she rocks me and sings: Jesus loves me, this I know . . . I see my father’s blue eyes, hear my mother’s laughter and the whir of her sewing machine late into the night. With you my children are still little, my husband is young, black-haired, healthy, whole, and out on the court shooting hoops. And every dog I ever loved comes bounding back to me in absolute joy, all my shortcomings forgiven.

With you, I relive it all. The parts I am proud of and the parts I’m not; the moments I cherish and the ones I survived. With you, they all become a celebration of living, of learning.

I learned long ago that I can harness your power to attack but you showed me that it doesn’t bring me peace; you taught me, instead, to defend. Not as a warrior with drawn sword but as a careful guardian of my own mind and heart. Not by destroying, but by edifying. You enable me to walk in another’s shoes and see through another’s eyes, to understand that fighting doesn’t move the hearts of others, but story does.

There’s something of the divine about you as well. Marvel of marvels, how a spark in the human brain becomes a thought and a thought becomes substance because of you. Like something from nothing. Ex nihilo. It’s how God created, speaking the world into existence. With words. Without limits. Anything is possible. Believe. To me there’s a sacredness behind the human spirit’s desperate craving to create, to express, to be heard . . .

Which brings me back to being six years old, at the table, pencil in my hand.

And you will outlive me. You are my record, what I leave behind.

Let it be the best of me.

Know that you’re an inextricable part of who I am, one of my life’s greatest gifts. Meant to be given. And so I give you away.

I am grateful beyond words.

I love you.

Fran

A poem written at age sixteen