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