I am at the Frederick Buechner Writing Workshop at Princeton. I came hoping to whittle away at the block standing between my mind and the blank page. I came because Buechner’s writing has fueled my faith in the same way that my morning cup of Jamaican Me Crazy and bowl of Protein Cheerios fuels my body to go into the world. I came because Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the teachers, and I revere her writing.
Reverence: to stand in awe of. I am sitting in a leather chair at the Princeton Library, looking out an octagon-shaped window. The silence in a great library is like a sound itself. It fills my ears, and washes over my bare arms, and whispers turning pages and books reshelving.
I am here because my mind and heart have reached capacity. I need to make room within them. Writing is the way I empty myself of the pictures that pinch my heart and push between my shoulders and knot my internal organs that are best left unknotted. For me, writing is as important to my overall health as whole grains and uninterrupted sleep and sunshine.
I am here to remember and recover who I am for somehow I have become a writer who cannot seem to make herself write.
Barbara Brown Taylor began her lecture this morning by describing what it was like to teach women inmates to write their memoir. I consider how I might long to write if I were in prison. Like a morphine-drip, I imagine the process of writing might free me from the pain of my circumstances. I wonder if the ominous locks and cement blocks surrounding me would discourage any kind of block from rising up between my mind and the blank page.
Now, Taylor gives us a writing prompt, which she calls, “a provocation.”
“Who taught you to swim in the water? You have 10 minutes to write, then read what you have written to the person next to you.”
I can see myself, maybe I was 7? 9? My pink bathing suit bottoms a bit too snug; the top too loose, lying like a 5-point star on top of the body-temperature water. My back, taut like a cello string, droplets on my face; eyelashes touching to form triangles. My smile, open-mouthed, wanting to drink in the very sky for all its perfect blueness, fluffy clouds framing the space between.
I don’t really remember the learning — it seemed I was always able to swim, to float, to fearlessly leap into the deep, to hold my breath the entire length of the pool. I spent entire summers submerged.
And yet, my father’s hands, I either remember or imagine, so near yet not quite touching, under my neck and the small of my back. And his voice, or rather his laugh– the laughter of his joyful pride. As wide as my smile.
I am seated next to Patricia Raybon, an award-winning author and journalist whose books I bought yesterday. The act of writing in our journals, side by side, seems to have dissolved the unknown space between us. We easily, willingly, read to one another, sharing mutual joy, revering what we have made in so little space and time.
Last night, Taylor said, “Writing as a spiritual practice is to be more interested in making, than breaking.”
And yet, we cannot make, until we break the block we writers sense is leaden and opaque and without handles.
Still, her one provocation seemed to change the substance of my block from lead into something like a sugar cube. I imagine this porous cube barely concealing a large pile of words, which, when assembled in the right order, describe the thing that is under them.
What is under the words, is water. Water — something I love. Something I would burn my feet in hot sand to get to. What is in the water, is other writers who know what it is to take heavy things we carry within and have them break through our very skin to become words on a page that create what others can now see, and touch, and hear.
Perhaps what I need to remember is that the block is neither cement nor lead. It is like sugar, easily dissolved in water.
Note to self: I have always known how to swim.