It seems like all I can talk about these days, besides my moving woes and the storm that is Welcome Week at a large urban university, is my writing. What joy writing has brought me! Someone asked me recently: “Have you always been a writer?” I have always written papers and blogs and reports, yes- but it has not been until this summer that I have mustered the courage to call myself a writer.
A few weeks ago, I shared my experience at the Kenyon Institute seminar on spiritual writing on this blog. The seminar pushed me to make writing a priority, because of the joy and healing the process evokes. As soon as I returned from Gambier, Ohio, I decided to enroll in a GrubStreet class (a Boston non-profit dedicated to providing resources for writers of all ages), mainly for the accountability to write every week. A six-week Online Memoir Generator was about to begin, so I signed up and began to think about my memoir.
The first week, my classmates and I discussed the topics of our memoirs in the online forum. Death, heartbreak, illness, leaving a life behind to start another- these all made the list. I struggled to describe my story- struggles with faith, growing up, finding community. My eyes rolled as I typed these words, they seemed so overused. Was I whining? I submitted a scene about losing a wiffle ball over the fence that separated my family’s back yard with our neighbor’s house and our quest to retrieve the ball, knowing full well our neighbor lived with dementia. The story provided a little humor and demonstrated the relationship between childhood me, my sister Mallory, and my dad. As words filled my page, though, something else happened. My soul transported back to that scene, that moment, and I remembered walking home after our quest, unsuccessful in retrieving the ball, and having my first encounter with a religious ritual that was not my own. The meaning is in these small details, I decided.
In the next weeks, my classmates shared their work and we commented on each other’s pieces. I found myself cringing to open their submissions on my computer. Am I ready for this? I wondered. Every time I read about the death of my classmate’s sibling, the struggle to raise a child, the reality of living as a gay man, the feeling in my chest resembled a shame as if I had taken off all my clothes to strut my far from perfect body in a room full of people. How unworthy was I to witness these life experiences with the people who lived them, and then to critique their writing about them?
“Work is love, made visible,” wrote Khalil Gibran, in his famous work The Prophet. The course continued, we completed our assignments, and I began to find joy in the work. I wrote about my struggle to feel like part of a community my whole life. I wrote about the car accident that totaled my big red Jeep and my childhood. I wrote, though didn’t submit, a short piece about my cousin who died far too young by her own hand. She was 28, the same age as me. Through the pain revisited on the page, my classmates took me in, and we held each other. I cried at their losses, their love, their pain. And I began to heal, or at least to feel what healing feels like. “Work is love, made visible.”
The love I felt through this process illuminated the source of the joy that I call writing. The source is the community. Writing is such a personal process- we know our story, we own our methods and tactics for telling it. Yet we write to share (if only with our future selves), to connect with our readers. Finding community has been a real challenge for me my whole life, and yet, it only took a website and some discussion forums to find a group of seven people willing to be vulnerable and intimate, willing to put love into the work.