This morning I am thinking about the impact our writing has on others, and how we never know what piece of writing will be exactly what someone else needs to hear — and though, of course that’s generally not why we write in the first place, the issue is a good one to think about: somewhere, there’s someone who needs to hear exactly what it is you need to say and write.
Last weekend, at our first Dive Deep meeting of November, I asked the assembled Divers to write for a bit about a piece of writing that shook them to the core (having been inspired by this essay by Naomi Benaron). We wrote about stories, essay or poems that showed us something new about ourselves, or about the world, writing that broke us open, that changed the lenses we could see the world through. (I wrote about the first time I read Pat Califia’s Macho Sluts a book of lesbian erotic stories that completely changed the way I — at the time, a 19 or 20 year old young woman still being abused by her stepfather — understood that women could be sexual, could have authentic sexual agency. I will never stop being grateful for that book.)
Though I often read traditionally published work that surprises and wakes me up to some new understanding, it’s also true that almost every time I go to an open mic or sit in a circle with folks’ brand new writing in a writing group, I hear something that breaks me open, that shakes me to the core. There is a power in ‘publishing’ our work this way — into the air, directly into the ears of our community. We don’t know, we never know, the full impact our writing will have on others when we offer it out into the world, whether into our own notebooks, into a small circle of trusted writers, into the audience at an poetry slam, or publishing it in a magazine, anthology or other book.
You don’t know who is going to encounter your words and find exactly what they needed in that moment — a challenge or an encouragement or a sense of solidarity or a surprise or an invitation to risk more in their own lives and creative acts. You don’t know who is going to write down a slice of what you said in their notebook so they can read it every day, who is going to tear out your poem and tape it to their mirror, who is going to return to your story in that collection again and again, just to be with the words that they adore.
You don’t know who it’s going to be — but it will be somebody, more than one somebody. What you have to say is needed in the world — your exact poems or stories or essays or multi-genre experiments have an audience waiting for them. You will not know who most of those people are. You will not hear from most of the people who are moved or changed by your work, and you will wonder if it makes any difference for you to be doing this thing of dropping words onto the page, reaching for the next right word, reaching for the right way to say it, trying again and again and again.
Of course, you write for yourself. You write because you have to. You write because the words agitate around inside you until you write them down. You write because the writing itself helps you feel more whole, more sane, more coherent. You aren’t writing for someone else. Of course not. Right?
Except maybe a little. I know that I write as much for myself now as I write for myself ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, the different selves that still have so much to say, who felt lonely and certain that no one else understood what they were going through. I write for a sister I couldn’t really communicate with for years. I write for a reader who is like the Jen I was at nineteen, beginning to be sure she was never going to get free, and needing the words to point to any other possibility. I write knowing that I am not the only one feeling whatever I’m feeling. I write what I’ve needed to read — just like Toni Morrison says: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Your words have an impact on those who hear them. They open us and change us. They give us insight, show us a new way of understanding the world. Only you see the world the way you do — you have distinct and necessary perspectives, metaphors, phrasings, explanations, knowings, imaginings, mythologies, all specific to your particular life experience and constitution. There is a vernacular unique to you, an internal cosmology, a semantics and a semiotics that are just yours — and that we can only meet if you share them with us.
Martha Graham said it like this:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others”
Someone needs what you have to share, needs your art, your expression, your words. Please keep writing, though, exactly what you need to say. The sharing of it will come when you’re ready. Tuck away the knowing that someone , somewhere, without know it, is waiting for your words.
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Can you think of a piece of writing that shook you (or your character) to the core, that broke you open or introduced you to something new about yourself, your family, your community, or the world? Give yourself fifteen minutes today to write about that writing — how old were you when you found this writing? What about it was surprising? What was the impact on you?
And, too, don’t forget our extra:ordinary project’s call for stories of everyday resistance and resilience — the questions in the call can act as writing prompts, too!
Of course, follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.
Thank you for the ways you have allowed yourself to be changed by others’ words, and for what you offer to those in your community, and those readers you’ll never get to meet. Your words have been, will be, a charge, a balm, a generosity. Thank you for those words.