Writing as Responsibility
Last summer at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, I spoke to Jared John Smith about his then-upcoming memoir Rabbit (his first, Pink Fish Press, 2014). Bright with the generosity and on-earthedness of a newly published author, he said that in his doubting moments, the belief that Rabbit could help people kept him going.
Now in the third draft of what will hopefully become my first book, a memoir about finding a meditation practice that has split me open and changed me profoundly, the same belief has long moved me on days when the love of the process falls short. And perhaps more importantly, it has nudged writing into a different box for me. In that box are the things that I have known fill me inexplicably, but I’ve still struggled to make room for them, head shaking, as I have to make a living and there’s-only-so-much-time. Then, in another box, I’ve had the things where I don’t have a choice. I have to pay my rent, I have to show up to work each day, I have to care for the people I love in my life. If someone else is involved, I have felt more accountable. If I have recognized writing as a responsibility to more than just me, I have found a way.
West African author and spiritual teacher Malidoma Somé addresses this theme of accountability to others in his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa. He writes that his native Dagara tribe believes that “No one is born on this earth without a reason, a special purpose,” and “pursuing one’s life purpose is the foundation on which the health of both the individual and the community rests.” If an individual is doing something they can tell is not in line with their ultimate purpose, he explains, it’s not just the person who suffers, but “society loses in [the] process, because it is not receiving what is the individual’s to give.”
(For those of us who feel an artistic purpose, it’s also worth mentioning that the Dagara don’t have a word for art. “The closest term to it would be sacred,” Somé writes. He says that artists indicate the health of the tribe because “the ability to birth art is a sign of approval of the Spirit World . . . When busy, [that person] is occupied by Spirit.”)
I believe wholly in this sentiment, and love the image of a community camped around each of us, consciously invested in us and our unique purposes, and offering support. But especially on a path like writing, where we generally work alone, it can be hard. In our increasingly isolated world (and particularly in this country), we don’t always feel connected to our tribes, let alone feel them at our backs, and I also don’t constantly believe I have something valuable to share. I know I’m not the only one. I’ve heard that fear so often from accomplished writers, that each time they sit down with a new project, even after years of celebrated work, they feel inadequate to deliver.
Hopefully we can get better at encouraging each other and communicating just how we need one another and I think it is vital that we try – but it’s still just one part of the solution. Now I believe it’s not enough just to write for the larger good; we must also each figure out a way to mount up for ourselves. Yes, writing in its truest form can help others deeply, but before that point, it supports us, the writers, profoundly. For me, even with the rough days, it sets me free like nothing else; it fills me up with the most to give. To that end, it is to myself that I owe writing foremost, and it is I who must get and keep the ball rolling with it, because no one else can.
In her “Dear Sugar” column, Cheryl Strayed (Wild, Torch) has described her first book as a second heart beating in her chest. Of eventually getting it down on paper, she writes: “I’d finally been able to give it [everything I had] because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing… I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-the-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book.”
We know that heart, and it is at once our community’s and our own. I need to write for many other people, for all other people, but also – and possibly most of all – for myself. I must own my responsibility in making sure that happens.