I’m guessing that, for the majority of you, your first desire to write was a way to express an emotion that you were having difficulty feeling or understanding. Or it might have been an early attempt to document, to explore the world in which you lived. But then you grow up and reality kicks in big time, and reality can be an obstacle to working with your imagination. It can mess with your mind. If you’re not careful it can catch you with your guard down and say things like: Oh please, you think your little poem is going to change the plight of people living as refugees? You think your little novel is going to make people think about a compassionate society that cares for its citizens?
In response to this voice, we can choose to focus on the value of the conversation that our writing will prompt with our audience. Because, as writers, we are not only recorders of history and memory, we are also striving to be forward-thinkers and visionaries. Our job is to promote thought, to witness, to explore, to dream, and above all, to create connection.
In her poem, “Children of our Age,” the 1996 Nobel Laureate in literature, Wislawa Szymborska, wrote:
“Whether you like it or not,
Your genes have a political past
Your skin a political cast,
Your eyes, a political slant.”
She is speaking here of what separates us from one another, and at times like these, there is so much to separate us that it becomes an incredibly huge task to look for what unites us. But as writers, it is our responsibility to keep reminding our country of this connection.
So when someone asks you, What do you do? perhaps you can come up with a sentence or two that says something like: “I am part of an international conversation. I use my imagination to explore possibilities, to investigate the past, and to dream about the future.” And when someone asks you, What can you do with a degree in creative writing? perhaps you can say something like, “Well, my degree is just the key that opens a door. But once I step over the threshold, I can be a poet or a playwright or a novelist or a memoirist or a blogger or a protestor or an activist.” It really doesn’t matter what label you claim; you will be – you are – a writer in the world and it is the action you take that holds all the promise.
I know that many of us are having a difficult time right now. Remember that we are a community: a community of writers, whose role in our society is to attempt to witness, document, invent, and imagine a different kind of future. Imagination is our strength. Faith is our call to action.
With gratitude for community,
(This letter was first published on The Writer in the World, a blog for the MFA in Creative Writing community at Goddard College, which is directed by Elena Georgiou, and shared here with her permission.)
Every year, I take a week off. Ostensibly, it’s a vacation in Cape Cod, but it always turns into a mini writing retreat. I unplug; and once I’ve done so, what happens?
I Read. I wRite. I Relax.
Why is it that relaxation in the 21st century feels like a luxury? In my childhood, adults didn’t have to decide to relax. They just did it; exhaustion forced relaxation on them. My family didn’t need to go to Fine Dining Establishments (FDE) to prove they were doing The Third R. In fact, we only did the FDEs on special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries. The rest of the time we made Sunday into A Day of Rest. Which meant friends and family—who all lived within a zero-point-something- to a ten-mile radius of one another—dropped by for English tea or Cypriot chai or Turkish coffee. Or they showed up, en masse, for a large, prearranged, Sunday lunch.
And when I say “they” rested, I supposed I mean The Men rested. The story is different for The Women; their Sunday was modified—more like A Day of Partial Rest. They were the ones who made the tea, the chai, and the coffee, and the large midday meal; they were the ones who washed and dried the dishes and the glasses. (This was before working-class families had the dishwashers). And they were the ones who put everything back in their places so that the kitchen was pristine.
The Women were also the ones who made the baklava, the apple pies, the honey cake, and the trifles; and they were the ones who took these desserts into The Men who were watching Arsenal play some other team on TV. They were also the ones who stayed in the kitchen; who did not sprawl on the livingroom couch, but sat in a circle of chairs around the kitchen table, talking about whatever made them/us laugh.
And there we sat for hours—Relaxing.
Where are these women now? They have Retired. Another R that seems to come into our lives later and later in the 21st century. 20th century Britain allowed working-class people to retire at retirement age. (But now?) I will finish paying my mortgage at age 77, which means I will be working until then. My hope is that I will have at least seven years of Retirement before I die. My wish is that I will be able to pay the mortgage early and get a decade and a half of retirement before I die.
Where are The Men of my childhood? Sadly, most of them are dead. Does the Third R—Relaxation—hasten your demise, if you’re a man? Is this an argument against it? God, I hope not. I’m trying to argue for more time for The Three Rs—for both women and men, equally—not less.
Even while I’m unplugged, practicing The Rs, I yearn for more I remember a time—before the advent of the virtual world—when reading was not something that felt like One of Life’s Little Luxuries, but an integral part of my day-to-day living. Whenever I’m on vacation/mini writing retreat, my body holds the same two questions: How did my life get to the place where reading feels like a luxury? What can I do to get back to my pre-virtual life?
Today, I’m also thinking: I wish I lived closer to people who had the time to drop by—just for an hour or possibly two on a Sunday afternoon—for Turkish coffee or English tea or Cypriot chai. Dear Reader, if you decide to take next Sunday off and you find yourself in my neighborhood around 2pm, you’re welcome to drop by. I’ll be the one in the kitchen slicing the warm baklava into diamonds.
(This post was first published on the Pele’s Fire blog before the Covid pandemic.)