Sometimes I forget how powerful words can be. I know this sounds strange from a woman who writes, teaches writing, and reads incessantly, but it’s true. I have, of late, fallen into the idea that words are simple and don’t really “do much” for the people that read them; I have this attitude because lately, as much as I have enjoyed what I have been reading, words have not “done much” to me. I’ve been enjoying what I’m reading, but it hasn’t settled into that place in my mind and spirit where it changes me.
Then, this morning, I picked up the 2008 Best American Essays, edited by Adam Gopnik, and began to read his introductory essay where he gives what he calls a “breathless” survey of the essay form. Even as I read it, I felt breath rush back into my writing. I felt, in some sense, the same way I do when I eat after I’ve started to feel a little light-headed from hunger. I read and found some balance again.
The role of the essay, and the consistent contribution of the great essayists, has been to try and drain the hysteria from the world’s religious wars, or at least to drain the melodrama from some overwrought debate, and replace it with common sense and comedy.
Recently, as I’ve been writing or thinking about writing, I’ve been thinking that to make this life change of mine – this decision to leave behind full-time teaching and try writing as more of a way of making a life – to make this more “worthwhile” I needed to write about “big things” – crisis, war, trauma, glory. I had forgotten that all those things are caught up in the moments of our days, not in these giant tapestries that we conjure up later when we can see a broader pictures. No, the things of life are daily, and thus, the things of my writing should be daily, too.
Somehow, just reading this introduction freed me. As River Jordan describes of her characters in Saints in Limbo, something inside me broke open, and I feel more free today about my writing. In fact, I sat down and drafted (in very rough form) a full essay about something that may seem minute but that is, at least to me, consuming a lot of my energy. Even as I wrote it, I found that I had been living more than those small experiences; I had been living into a larger understanding about myself and the world around me. It was really nice to begin to see that as I laid down some sentences this morning.
So I think I will seek out more reading that feeds me this way, and then I will hope that I will take the energy those words give me and give it back out to the page. One sentence at a time.