Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
Yes, I do have questions. Lots of them. So, for this week’s Words on the Street column I’m sharing some with you, my Top Five. Call it a column-in-questions or a column of questions. Or just me needing to put on the page what’s haunting me lately.
I write haunting, not because it’s October. Not because the Halloween decorations that, back in August, were put up on display at CVS and Target are looking pretty rough and ragged by now. Not because I pass houses on my way to and from work that are decorated with bats and spiders which, I’ve decided, are creatures that get way too demonized this month. (I prefer the Stellaluna and Charlotte’s Web approach to things.)
It has nothing to do with October, specifically. But life on our planet, this particular month, has prompted the holding up of a magnifying glass to these lingering, looming and always-there questions. The ones that have been there all along. The ones that follow me, visit me, provoke me.
As a human. As a writer. As a human writer.
Did you know that the word haunt comes from the Old French word hanter? And for those who are not fluent in Old French I offer this, thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “hanter: frequent, visit regularly, have to do with, be familiar with: indulge in, cultivate.”
These are my visitors, below.
- What’s the human condition?
- How is a love for humanity cultivated?
- What do we mean when we say humanly possible?
- What constitutes a human right? (Who decides this? How?)
- Can literature and storytelling shine new lights and widen fresh lenses on what it means to be human?
On some days, answers, or my attempts at them, flow, spew, bleed. Some days they trickle. Other days, nothing. When the nothing or the too much or too little of something twists me up inside, I do one of seven things, not necessarily in this order. That depends on the day. And my mood.
- Reach out to someone I trust, a gifted listener.
- Complete an act of service.
Let’s linger on the first one, Write. What do you do when our insides twist? Is Write. on your list, too? For me, if I let the words flow, without judgement, it can be an opening, a loosening, a release. It can be a way to activate ideas and strategies that widen understandings and illuminate misunderstandings. Both matter, now more than ever.
Last year, the New York Times featured a By the Book piece, “The Dinner Party Writers Dream Of”, with terrific illustrations by Millie von Platen. The usual, “reoccurring” NYT Books question was posed: “You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?” Some popular answers were Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Jane Austen. But then there is Maya! Maya Angelou is always at the top of my list. My dream: I could spend hours (I imagine a delicious meal and slow jazz on the radio) listening to her unpack this, one of my favorite Angelou quotes: “When I’m writing, I’m trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.”
Angelou’s reflection on writing embraces questions and affirmations about identity, community, power, emotion, despair, and perseverance. Sounds very human to me.
Finally, a bonus, of sorts. Here’s “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, a poem about living, wanting and being human.
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
I still have questions. New visitors, always welcome.