Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Living The Truth That Finds Us

I’m a writer. It’s what I do. It’s not all I am or all I do, but it is a consistent and essential aspect of how I live my life. I’ve written since I was twelve. If I miss a day or two. . . well, it’s a sign that something is terribly “off” with me. I love words- their sound, their meanings, the way they can stitch together a wholeness out of fragments, can give solace and bear witness and reveal things I did not know before I sat down to write.

But every once in while I feel like writing is not “real” enough and find myself wishing I’d developed a skill that could more effectively and concretely make a contribution to the world: like brain surgery, or organic farming; like designing technology for sustainable energy or building houses.

Sometimes, it seems as if our world is on fire, and writing is. . . . a luxury we cannot afford.

And then, I read the recent news story about Chinese poet Zhu Yufu who has been sentence to seven years in prison for writing this poem:

“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
A song belongs to everyone.
From your own throat
It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.”

Clearly the government in China thinks that writing is real and powerful, even dangerous.

And I think about the stories Azar Nafis (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) tells about students in Iran covertly passing photocopies of books like Huckleberry Finn around, knowing they will be imprisoned if caught.

And I remember reading about Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. When her son, Lev, was accused of counter-revolutionary activity and imprisoned with many others by Stalin, she joined other women lining up outside the prison daily to deliver food & plead for their loved ones' release.

One day another woman in the crowd recognized Akhmatova & asked her in a whisper, "Can you describe this?"

Anna replied, "I can."

Later, Anna recalled the woman's reaction to her response, saying that "something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face." Anna continued to write about life under the repressive regime despite the risk.

Isak Dinesin (author of Out of Africa) wrote: "All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story."

As I remember these and many other writers who document and create life-sustaining meaning out of the stories of their own and others' lives, the question I wrestle with is not whether or not writing is “real” enough to make a contribution. I know the power of story, the impact of a line of poetry that can run through the mind and the heart enabling us to find the inner resources to do what needs to be done.

The question for me is, always, do I have the courage to tell the truth, to spend my life completely on finding the words, on allowing the words to find me, when telling the truth is dangerous? I’m blessed to live in a time and place where I do not face the risk of imprisonment for writing. Would I have the courage to write or keep & pass along prohibited books if there was the threat of imprisonment? I don’t know.

But, truth-telling- in art or music, in writing or speech, or in simply how we live our lives, inhabit our world, and bring our awareness to the moment- always holds inherent dangers. Truth-telling, whatever its form, exposes half-truths and inconsistencies, points to irresolvable paradoxes and the things we have not faced about ourselves and life.

Writing this piece I see why I have not made much progress on the book I am writing. To express the truth we have to risk old identities and cherished reputations, dissolve old ways of seeing and being seen, release old- and often comfortable ways- of coping with life’s challenges. For me- in part because I love the transformative power of the creative process- I cannot write if anything is being held back to avoid some anticipated disapproval or maintain an old identity. It doesn’t work.

So, I bow to the courage of Zhu Yufu and the students in Iran, to the spirit of Anna Akhmatova and the wisdom of Isak Dinesen. And I offer a prayer of gratitude that the demons I face are inner, not outer. And I begin. . . . again, as we each do every day- to find a way to write and live from the deepest level of truth that finds us- holding nothing back, without consideration for how my writing or my life will be perceived or received.

Because I am a writer. It’s what I do. It’s what I love and what I offer. And what we each love and offer and who we are, is enough.

Oriah (c) 2012


  1. Beautiful. Thank you for reminding me about the power of writing and its potential for transformation. I, too, have often felt that way about writing, but I have to remind myself that there is a place for my voice in this world, and it does not have to be verbal. This is why I love the movie "Dead Poets Society" so much, where Robin Williams says: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective on this Oriah. Once again, your words reach me just when I need to hear them the most.
    ...after finally summoning the courage to write my first novel (many years ago now) I promptly burned all evidence of it after allowing only my husband and my sister, the two people I trust most in life, to read it.
    In retrospect the truth it (I) laid bare was just too personal a truth for me to release into the world at the time.
    ...more recently though, I began again. Reluctantly for sure, but being that I'd been out of work since 2009, I figured, maybe I'm meant to give it another go. You know... live the truth that had found me.
    And so I did. And 400 pages currently rest on a shelf in my closet.
    I've only had the courage to share this attempt with my sister this time, owing in lare part to her degree in English Literature, while I on the other hand, am self taught with a degree in doubt.
    And let's just say while she was beyond kind to me, this new novel I'd written was and is, nowhere near ready. And worst still, I'm not at all sure anymore that it wouldn't be best to start all over again with something totally new.
    I am still unemployed, with no real prospects other than to pick up the pen once again.
    There's no denying how drawn I am to the work, and in my heart of hearts I feel it's what I'm meant to be doing, but I struggle deeply with the notion that I may never find success in it, which I define as being heard.
    In writing I find my voice, but as goes the tree falling in the forest, if there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
    Or a difference?

  3. Thanks for this Oriah. I follow you on Facebook too, but somehow find this place more intimate, and I hoep you contine here even if the numbers might be as great. In any case, I very much appreciated this piece. I do some writing and what holds me back in telling the truth is how it might hurt other people. For example, I'd like to write about being bullied as a child, but now that I have a hard won good relationship with the sibling who bullied me, I am worried that I would jeopardize it by putting out there. I know my truth- but am not sure I would make it public. Do you have any thoughts about that?
    Thanks so much, Mieke

  4. Amy and Mieke, all authors face this question. But there is a place (in order to write) where we need to separate out questions about what gets published or shared from what gets written. To write something that will have an impact (if only on ourselves if we choose not to share it) we have to tell the truth and not keep anything back. This is true of fiction also- as characters have their own "truth" and anything that does not align with that (because we want them to be more sympathetic or villanous) will not ring true.

    As to what we publish or share- well that's a very individual choice. I am very protective of stories of my sons- because they really didn't have a choice about having a writer as a mothers. On the other hand I have always told any man I was involved with not to do anything he'd be ashamed to see in print- so I consider that fair warning :-) Having said that, I think that if we tell ALL of the truth (and writing helps me do that- which is why I write) we can be honest and kind at the same time- although of course some hard truths about ourselves and others may come to light- hopefully with some compassion. Can we be compassionate and truthful at the same time? I hope so.

    The truth is, I do not write to have an impact on the world (although I am very grateful that other want to read what I write and that some find if helpful.) I write to unearth the truth for myself, believing that that will help me bring more to the world.

    And Amy- when in doubt- keep writing! Oriah

    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond Oriah, and for your kind encouragement. I am most grateful.

  5. And we love you for it. Thank you for being yourself and sharing your incredible gift... always poignant.

  6. Isak Dinesin (author of Out of Africa) wrote: "All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story."

    I read this and thought of my grandfather, who took a painful life and turned it into amazing, funny, charming stories--which I was fortunate enough to hear over and over. I've written them down, and someday hope to put together a screenplay or stage play out of them.

    I can't tell you what this post meant to me. I, too, am a writer who must write honestly or not at all--and as a result I wind up with books that some find offensive. I've thought about softening them, and in some cases have, but not if in doing that I am compromising the integrity of the story. Likewise, I have books that I am waiting to publish until key people I love have passed on. It's more important to tell the story honestly than to tell it soon.

  7. Your last comment speaks the whole of what I hear you saying," The truth is, I do not write to have an impact on the world (although I am very grateful that other want to read what I write and that some find if helpful.) I write to unearth the truth for myself, believing that that will help me bring more to the world."
    I have a therapist that always brings me back to this when I am feeling the burden of writing. She says, "Remember why you write". The crux is this - if we are in anyway holding back to stay attached to an old identity or dodge any disapproval, then we will ALWAYS fail to unearth the truth within us. And I have found that "constructing" truth in this way becomes quite painful - instead of offering the healing that it is meant to give. The thing is...this is sneaky business, this avoidance of things on the edge. Most of the time we convince ourselves of much more noble causes - "I want to remain open and welcoming, so as to not offend or leave anyone out of the conversation", "I don't want to let people down or give them the impression I am in any way wishy washy".... I have a nice list I usually use. But the deal is - none of these are in alignment with WHY I write. I write to know myself and in the knowing, heal and continue to evolve into the being I am meant to this moment. WHICH means, if I am true to the Universe - I MUST be willing to change. The fact of the matter is that I am changing - every cell of my being changes. To think that I somehow "find solid ground" within myself - or project that I am solid - is the farthest thing from the truth!!
    Can we be compassionate and truthful at the same time? A resounding YES!!! Will it be one of the most difficult things we ever do. Yes. But so very worth it.

  8. Thank you, Oriah. You've managed to highlight a complex issue that's deeply with me at the moment. I couldn't have said this better: "The question for me is, always, do I have the courage to tell the truth, to spend my life completely on finding the words, on allowing the words to find me, when telling the truth is dangerous?" Writing can be a subversive act indeed. You have a courage that I admire.

    Your comment about separating the question of "what gets written" from "what gets published" is also really important. I am wrestling with this right now too. What if part of one's vital truth is also something that has a lineage in family secrets? I know that's vague, but it does raise the question of what truth is whose to tell... Any thoughts?

  9. Ashley, the truth that has not been told is often- directly or indirectly- part of a lineage of family secrets. I think your second question really offers us some guidance- whose truth is this? I can tell you what happened to me at the hands of my mother as clearly and compassionately (to both of us) as possible- but there may be parts of her story that are not mine to tell until she has passed (we do tend to inherit family secrets.) There really are no clear rules about this- but we need to be truly honest about the whole of it (including what we don't know for sure and what is speculation on our part)at least with ourselves. Family secrets that are shared often liberate others. In part this is about developing our skills at being truthful and compassionate simultaneously. O

  10. Nice blog. As a lover of words you might be interested in the word play involved in cryptic crosswords. I am doing a series of posts on solving cryptic clues. This was the first one I did. Hope you enjoy.