For the past several months, I have been working on an essay about a series of events from my adolescence. I drafted the piece, had several friends read it, revised it – and then I let it sit for a very long time.
Now, that I’m coming back to it, I find myself in that hard and beautiful place of writing where I am trying to figure out what drove me to write this piece in the first place. Much of my writing is driven by a desire for me to make sense of something – either something I experienced or something I witnessed or something I just don’t understand. In this case, I’m working with all three of these “somethings,” and I think I may be getting somewhere, I think.
I don’t know how many of you experience this as you work through your writing or your art or just through the moments of life, but this is my normal process when I write – at least when I write those pieces that are most important to me. I’m always pushing into them more and trying to figure out what the honest truth of these ideas and experiences is for me.
Often I find that as I push the piece isn’t at all about the things I thought it was about – something about parents becomes something about playfulness, a story about travel becomes about a search for identity. The things that seem so mundane or common become complex and winding as I wander through them. I guess this is why I write about them. If they were easy, they wouldn’t hold any intrigue for me, or I suspect for a reader.
The image that comes to mind for this process is one of mining – not strip mining where you blow off the top of the mountain-story with dynamite – but the process of mining that requires you to carry a one-handed pick-ax toward the side of your own life and asks you to chip away bit by bit until you find the core of it. Sometimes, but rarely, I chip away until I find the central thing – a charred center that was once molten but is now held solid and shaped for me to discover – but this is so rare, that I go back into experience and find it’s meaning clearly defined for me. And honestly, when I can find an ANSWER or a TRUTH, the piece loses all energy for me, like I could just do a Google search and be done. There’s no life left there. In these cases, I usually abandon the writing for something more alive.
Most of the time I find myself tunneling round and round in circles (forgive me, but Tolkien’s visions keep coming to mind). Every once in a while I catch a faint breath of the heat that is the truth, and once in a while I chip right through to the glowing lava at the core – in those moments, I write with frenzy because I’m getting at something that is more fundamental and basic than all the tunnel-stories I have made out of it. Yet, rarely, do I ever open up that molten center and let it roll over me, and I’m not sure I should. I’m not sure that being blasted by experience is really the truth of the experience when we are returning to something. Instead, I think it’s the way we move through the tunnels of life around and after that experience that make it matter.
Somehow it seems that the story really isn’t the story anymore. It’s the tunnel away and around and back and near and under and over the story that is what makes life. It’s what we do with our experience and how we shape it and how we remember it and how we retell it and how we change it depending on who we are telling it to that matters. It’s the tunnels through the anthracite mountain that give us the truth.
So as I write this piece, I must learn to try to find the core of the feeling back then only so that I can see what the truth of the memory is for me now. That truth is what matters – the truth of this moment, the black shiny soot of it.