In case you didn’t already know, I’ve been aspiring to “be a writer” since the fourth grade, an aspiration that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you get right down to it because by definition, we are all writers. We all write things down in one sense or another. We write our own stories by playing our role day in and day out in the grand theme of life. Most of us find ourselves writing notes and essays for school or papers for work, doing research and recording our findings or communicating information in some way. In that sense, I think we are all writers, as you could say we are all artists, as we all have that seed of creativity planted within.
But I think there’s more to it than just slapping a label on myself and saying I’m a writer (don’t you think?). If everyone has the seed of potential to write, I could’ve said I was a writer in fourth grade (kind of like when parents say their 3 year old is a fingerpainting artist). I’ve always felt that there must be some ancient wisdom separating the amatuers from the greats, and I’ve always wanted to find that wisdom. I feel that there are stories I’ve been called to tell. The words haven’t quite taken shape yet, but they are there planted deep within, waiting to be coaxed up from beneath the surface to stand in the light of day.
Lately I’ve been doing more reading than writing – hence the absense of many posts on my blog. One thing I know is that to master the art of producing anything creative, you must first have studied and become intimately familiar with the consumption of that product. Take cooking, for example. To become a great chef, you must first have feasted on some very satisfying and informing meals and then listened to your teacher preach about it. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going out to eat, if you will, with books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott and Words Overflown by Stars from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A program. I’m taking recommendations, too, by the way.
Today I wanted to share something I read recently that I found particularly inspiring – a glittering stepping stone on the path to finding that ancient writerly wisdom, so to speak. May this excerpt from Words Overflown by Stars give you an image of the creative process, specifically that of writing, as clear and hopeful as the one it gave me today.
This excerpt is from the essay, “Before We Get Started,” by Bret Lott, included in the aforementioned anthology. It begins with an account from the book of Ezekiel in the Bible. Lott has just proposed that the careful word choice writers ought to employ can be counterbalanced by the word’s almost mystical place of origin: “the indescribable and unteachable moment of inspiration… the moment of divine guidance of influence exerted directly on the mind and soul of humankind, and the act of drawing air into the lungs”. Are you picking up the sacred language I’m picking up? So the excerpt begins with this religous text. When you read the word “bones,” think along the lines of an unfinished story or words waiting to come to life.
The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”‘” So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Also He said to me, “prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”‘” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,” says the Lord.'” (37:1-14)
Don’t you wish you could take your dry bones, your inklings and your baggage, to Ezekiel and have him tell them to stand up? To get some flesh on them, fill them out and make them alive? If you have dry bones buried in your writer’s closet, you have been called to be their prophet.
Lott continues after the excerpt from Ezekiel:
One can only imagine Ezekiel standing there and being questioned by God as to God’s power, and I don’t think it would be too far from the truth to imagine that Ezekiel, knees trembling before the despair of so many bones and God breathing down his neck for an answer, thought fleetingly, dangerously, There’s no way. Bones to life? Nope.
But it is a testament to his wisdom, and I think perhaps an indictment of his skepticism as well, that his answer is one of reflection: “O Lord God, You know.” He doesn’t say, You bet. He doen’t say, Don’t think so. He leaves it to God, and then proceeds–and here is the most important moment–to speak the prophesy he has been called to speak, whether he believes it or not, and not knowing as well what that prophesy means. He speaks, because he has been called to, and not because he knows what will be the outcome.
Are your dry bones calling out to you, begging for their life? Are you uncertain of the How does it happen, of the What does it mean? Lott preaches that all we are to do is to speak the prophesy we have been called to speak, letting go of our questions, our micromanaging of process.
And then these dry bones came to life.
And then, in the writer’s answer to whatever has called him to write, and in his willingness to look at each word with fear and trepidation coupled with faith that speaking it will be an act in obedience to what has called him to speak it, those words will line up, will breathe, will become the vast army of sentences that will take up residence in the new Israel every story, novel, essay, and poem ought to be.
What I’m taking away from this today is that, just like doing the work of the Lord in an act of obedience, writing the story you were called to write is a balance of learned precision and childlike faith. And through the Words you choose, you give dry bones flesh and skin and breath, saying yes to the question Can these bones yet live?
O Lord God, You know.
Thanks to Bret Lott and his essay, “Before We Get Started,” from the anthology Words Overflown by Stars, edited by David Jauss, for inspiring this post and forming the bedrock of my ideas in such an eloquent manner.