By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
A pompous author once proclaimed to his indulgent fans, “Writing isn’t for sissies.” His pronouncement drew a distinct line between those with the chutzpah to put pen to paper and those without, lending to the writing class the superiority of the courageous. And I bought it. Back then.
But over the years, I’ve come to learn he was, well, full of shit. Writing is not a matter of champ versus wuss any more than it’s a matter of artiste versus plebeian. Writing is something humans do, whether in the sand, on a cave wall, under the covers by flashlight, on a laptop amid the clatter of coffee and scones and dreams of bestselling wizardry.
We write to crystallize our thoughts, to pen what we can’t say, to pay the mortgage, to share a lyrical moment, to vent murderous rage sans consummation, to pass on a lesson, a feeling, a vision, a hope, to create a story, to immortalize some part of oneself. And I’ve come to believe we all do it, at one time or another, to one end or another, some of us more often than others — a bit of verse here, a love note there, a novel manuscript, a journal entry that made the pain take one step back, a wistful family history, a wishful page filled with a married name.
And suddenly, as if evidence were required, in the last day or two I’ve been the happy recipient of several proofs that indeed writing isn’t for sissies — because it’s for everyone.
First, a long lost friend found me online and asked if he could send me a poem. Now, this is a guy who looks as though he could snap you in half with one hand, not the one, I now presume, he reserves for writing.
“Hot damn and hell yes, send me a poem!” was my writerly response, and this is what he sent:
One day I was downtown, and I noticed a homeless guy with his shopping cart. I was taken aback by the way people were reacting to him with total disdain — almost hatred. He was standing outside a store, unsure whether his possessions would be safe if he went inside and also a little unsure if he would be allowed in the store at all.
I didn’t stay to see whether he finally went in. Instead, I went home and wrote this:
No Place Called Home
Yes, at one time I called this place home
I’m a stranger now on the streets I roam
The stores I pass daily, they don’t want me near
their signs say welcome, their eyes say fear
Of the shadow I am, of what I used to be
a future so bright, now a faint memory
Who I once was, what could have been me
they’re not here now, they never will be
Three days later, we found the man by himself, under a bridge, dead, still clutching his shopping cart … now empty … like his dreams.
– By Kevin Langley
Don’t you love that he wrote that, that he was willing to share? I think of his tattooed brawn, the remnants of his tough kid street smarts, his tender view of a wretched soul. And I wonder why I was surprised — for this is a man who celebrates the successes of the youthful offenders he teaches to learn.
Then my writing workshop partner and I received a thank you note from a student — not that writing can actually be taught, mind you. Oh, you can teach how to match subject to verb (although not always — check your local paper for plenty of examples of failed instruction on this topic), how to punctuate dialogue (the comma goes inside the closing quotation mark — yes, inside!), how to diagram a story’s arc (yeah, like a rainbow, but it’s usually a bumpier ride than that), how to shift the tone with one little word from chatty to lascivious (picture Theda Bara mouthing that line). Yes, the craft can be taught, but heart and gut cannot; writing is a bit too innate for teaching, per se, and our grateful student gets that.
“I want you to know that I have been profoundly changed by participating in your writing class,” he wrote. “The use of words to create has become a wonderful new pathway for me in this life’s journey. Spending time with you and the other writers has nurtured both my mind and my heart. … The more I write, the more I want to write, to learn about the process, and to express things with words that cause people to experience the ineffable wonder and joy in the world. These first small steps that I took in your class were leaps and bounds for my soul.”
This man does not need our instruction, but he’s a delight to have in the class.
And then my husband sent me a scholarly paper from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California: “Poetry: Why it Matters to Afghans?” by Professor Thomas H. Johnson. In a country whose abysmal literacy rate reflects its continuing oral tradition, Afghanistan’s poetry is as much a form of communal art and shared wisdom as it is a form of propaganda, a theme the paper promotes, suggesting poetry as a weapon for U.S. forces to wield against Taliban verse:
I have seen the color of your blood in the flowers.
I have seen the rock become colorful with your blood.
When the young men began to murmur the melody of freedom.
I have seen the bells ringing in the hearts of the slaves.
Those heads that were sacrificed for freedom.
I have seen beds made with them in the palaces.
Nations are alive with the spirit of liberty.
I have seen every nation in destitution without this spirit.
If there are no wounds, hardships, and funerals in it.
Have you seen a movement of only a few talks?
O! Peroz, liberty is an adornment for the nations.
I have seen this beauty in the clank of the swords.
– By Mawlawi Mohammad Ghafoor Peroz
It has a horrible beauty, this poem, one I get halfway around the world from the poet. That universality of the written word might be lost on us, as we make the daily shuffle from bed to bath to fridge to desk and back again. But upon the first key stroke, the first drop of ink or chalk dust on the board, it is regained, often with passion and a resonance that crosses the boundaries between the courageous and fearful, the landed and the homeless, teachers and students, fanatic and invader.
Words, at least, our stories, we have that in common. And, as another student wrote, “I love this shit!”
About Kevin Langley: I was lucky enough to have two teachers for parents, and my early years were spent in the library where my mother worked. The value of the written word always intrigued me. I’ve never been a proponent of my right to remain silent, mainly because I don’t have the ability. I awake every day knowing I am not strong enough to change the world, but also believing I am not weak enough to let it change me.
(Note: Graffiti photograph by Made Underground courtesy of a Creative Commons license.)