I saw an uprooted tree on the bank of the Tappahanock River in Virginia once. It was enormous. The underside of its body was a mass of knobs, big as newborns. It was dense with tubers fizzling out into great hairy clumps. There were nodules and sinuous roots re-entering the body of the tree at every juncture from which they did not originate. All of it dripped with mud and sand, an obscenity of growth.
When I saw it, I thought, this is what writing looks like in me.
Writing is, I confess, at the root of everything. It enters at every juncture, and leaves in every exhalation. It is connected to my meals, my health, my intelligence, my sex, my spirit. This is, of course, vaguely dangerous and out of balance. But it is also true.
When I was a child I read. Books were not about comfort or forgetting. They were about going everywhere, with everyone, seeing everything, feeling everything. Some nights I faked an upset stomach so that I could lie on the carpet of the bathroom and finish a library book for the third time before it had to be returned the next day. Other nights I hung halfway off my bed, book at the end of my outstretched arms, catching the triangle of hall light for just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more hour. I was ravenous. I grew to understand the way stories unfolded, and when they did so, an essential flesh and bone piece of me was satisfied. Through reading, I learned my earliest method of sorting out existence. I learned how it was in the world with loss, success, curiosity, beauty, grief, love, sorrow. I learned what it was to be human, and what that meant in connection with the larger human world.
If reading led me to my first understanding of humanity, writing broadened this education. Where once I merely imagined the hearts and bones of other people, the act of writing allows me to inhabit them entirely. I eat and drink them, birth them and kill them. Evidence of humanity’s brilliance and degradation is what I seek when I write. I never cease in my desire to know more intimately the ways of women and men, and I never cease to be nourished by them. Through writing I make sense of their history and hope.
I do this because I believe that literature represents a collective human sigh, an exhalation of existence. Stories, all stories of the world, the ones we live by and the ones we write, repeat themselves in infinite variations, both seamless and eternally interrupted by change. I crave this exchange of stories, the infinite variety of them. It is in their expression that I find myself most deeply alive and interested. The infinity of what it is to be human and what it is to be a writer never ceases to beckon me.
Writing has made me complicated, like that knobbed mass of roots I saw on the riverbank. What drives me to live is buried under the soil of the known world. Like those huge roots, I am pulling for something far deeper, something unmapped. I am pressing the fingers of my yearning into the mysterious regions of existence which are unknown. Where the source of our divinity, our essence, waits to be recognized again and again.
Since writing is clearly my religion, I created some devotionals for daily attention to this reverent act.
Turn yourself into an archetypal character of the kind you feel most aligned with today: witch, queen, prince, monster, god, mythical figure, etc. Write a line that this character always repeats. (for example: Monsters never eat hair!) Now write an internal monologue for this character where they name what is bothering them right now.
Answer the following for you or a character you have created: Where does truth reside? In your brain? Heart? Describe where you hold truth. To whom do you lie? To whom do you always speak the truth? Is truth possible in memory? Is the opposite of a lie always a truth? Are there absolute truths?
Devotional for Others:
Write a set of instructions for how a reader should read your work. Have a variety of suggestions. Perhaps hint at the content they’ll find, or what they might learn.
Write an etiological tale that explains the existence of rain, fire, ocean, human murder, redemption, the color of the sky, psychology, domesticated pets, or sin.
Write a paragraph of text. Now add at least five footnotes that give additional information or add to the plot, character development, or theme of the story.
Name four things you want to write about, but believe that you shouldn’t. Name the “editors” who block this writing or any reasons why you will not write of these particular things.