Today I am thinking of this anecdote about Ruth Stone, a powerhouse American poet, that Elizabeth Gilbert shared in a TED Talk a few years ago:
As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her… And when she felt it coming, ’cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. And that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house. She’d be getting chased by this poem. The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.
Stone wouldn’t always make it in time, she recalled, and would often have to relinquish the poem as it moved to “another poet.” Her story reminds me that the work of creativity is always equal parts discipline and surrender. We turn the soft earth of our hearts over and over. We sow the seeds. We water, hoe, prune, fertilize. We anticipate every variable. And at the end of it all, we wait, and perhaps, we pray. Anyone involved in any creative endeavor knows the foolishness inherent in assuming we can predict the true outcome of our efforts, as inspiration is often as fickle as the weather or the hand of God. The best we can do is simply prepare.
I’ve been thinking about this because I write a lot for no audience. I write because, perhaps like Stone, I can hear the rip of thunder that signals an idea is about to strike me and I try to find my way to the clearing. I write because I have to.
Even in those moments, when I can feel deep in the very pit of myself that I am a vessel about to receive an offering, I scarcely if ever know what the “result” will be. To me, the writing is always enough. I sit, open a document, write until the words cease to flow, and then quietly shut everything away when the whir of energy has passed. Occasionally I’ll look back on something that has come to me in one of these bursts, and I’ll think, “ah ha! This was waiting for a connection.” Ideas like friends.
Last night, I was searching for an article by adrienne maree brown about the politics of desire when I stumbled upon an homage/eulogy/love letter she wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin shortly after her passing in January of this year. brown writes:
When I needed to stand up for something, feeling alone in my dignity, you told me about the ones who walk away from a utopia dependent on someone else’s suffering.
When some aspect of humanity felt beyond my comprehension or compassion, I found books you had written 20 years before that not only opened my heart, but also opened the possible in me, and generated desire for that specific difference.
When I wondered if imagination could be necessary for revolution and transformation, you said, “Yes.” You said our dreams and visions matter, they are the way we make oppression temporary.
I’ve been reading the original Earthsea trilogy that Le Guin first breathed into being in the late 1960’s. It’s a world in which, as brown puts it, a white person “imagine[s] something beyond their own supremacy.” Sometimes I think about that idea chasing Le Guin down the street in mid-century Portland, a place with a deeply disturbing investment in white supremacy both past and present. And I consider the vital importance of her decision to let the idea move through her and onto the page, perhaps because she knew that visualizing an alternate world was the first step to bringing it to life. But was it a guarantee she’d be receptive? I wonder, too, what the role of the writer is in preparing for the ideas that might be thrust upon her. That is, what, if anything, did Stone or Le Guin ask to receive?
Perhaps creative discipline looks as much like stretching the edges of one’s heart as it does being immersed in the craft. Perhaps it means cultivating the compassion and courage to ask for inspiration that moves us closer to the world we crave, the one we deserve.
Earlier today, I found the following paragraphs I wrote a few months ago. I’m sure I intended to “do” something with them, but whatever that was is unclear to me now. In light of Stone, brown, and Le Guin, I realized that my words were an example of letting inspiration flow through me, yes, but more importantly of contributing them to the chorus of those of us that still yearn for justice. And I realized that what I wrote signifies a longer, more subtle project of honing what it is I ask for, what kind of thoughts I invite from wherever they originate. After all, at the heart of all of this is the idea that nothing we create is new, not really. If one believes, as I do, that there are certain incontrovertible truths that govern and affirm human dignity, then the work of creation is merely to translate that idea through different forms.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved telling stories. My earliest days were filled with long afternoons stretching the outer limits of my imagination, my ideas taut like wool on a loom ready to be woven into something vivid and spectacular. I created vast worlds of fantasy and intrigue from within the four walls of my bedroom, or on the patch of grass that tumbled lazily down a hill in my backyard into a little man-made gulch. In the quiet but vibrant, pulsating recesses of my mind, I was many things: a singer, a soldier, a playwright draped in colorful silk, even President of the United States. I imagined what it felt like to be anyone else, and in that way I stumbled upon and cultivated the sweet gift of empathy. I extended my hand and reached out for those who would spin the threads of fantasy with me. It’s amazing what can feel so electrifyingly possible when someone says back to you, “Why yes, I can see it too.”
I’ve never lost my fantastical imagination, but the scope is much more rooted in the concrete now. I see, as clear as day in my mind’s eye, a world where women hold equitable power everywhere, from the halls of government to their own households. A world in which the people who make decisions that affect all of us look like all of us, in all our varied and beautiful hues. A world where personal experience is an asset, not a liability, and carries equal if not greater weight than a credential. A world where Black and brown children walk into school and hear, “Because of your ancestors and your families, we are all standing here today. We are forever grateful. The people who walked before you built everything–here are the keys to the kingdom.” A world where those same children run outside and gulp down great bubbles of clean air, laughing and kicking and playing in the sweet, resplendent warmth of their joy and safety. A world where being a human being is proof enough of a person’s value, where food, water, shelter, and heat are available to all without asking. A world where the abundance we have is nurtured tenderly and shared among us with unwavering generosity. A world where we commit to the hard work of loving each other and of honoring our planet. A world where rest and sleep come easily after a day’s effort or toil. A world brimming with compassion, pleasure, mercy, and ingenuity.
A world I believe is out there, somewhere between the earth and the sea.