I am stretching for a story to share with you to relieve my stress over writing. Here are a few things I’ve read in the past weeks related to writing.
“Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at the blank page until the drops of blood form on your brow.” – This is a sign on the desk of the wife of another writer Philip Zaleski (“The Best American Spiritual Writing” – 2007). His analogy was writing is like praying, a kind of spiritual discipline. “A spiritual discipline is something you engage in on a regular basis, whether you feel like or not.”
Like others, I’ve struggled with the question “Why write?”. It’s not something that haunts me. Although, when I look at the heaps of journals in boxes that I’ve hauled around with me from place to place during the past 40 years, then there’s gotta be something there that draws me to write. So I look to other writers who write successfully (whatever that means) and those that do it for practice (spiritual or otherwise).
Among the first names that come to mind is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The process of creating “The Gulag Archipelago”, moved me to ask what was his compulsion to write the manuscript.
He wrote the three volumes of non-fiction about the forced labor camp system in secrecy, while under the surveillance of the KGB. Then, following that, if the Soviet government caught anyone with the possession of the manuscript then it would mean imprisonment for ‘anti-Soviet’ activities. The process of getting the work published was an enormous feat, and unfortunately resulted in the death of Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, an assistant to the writer. She was captured and tortured by the KGB to reveal the whereabouts of a copy of the typed manuscript. Shortly after her release, she was reported to have hung herself in her apartment.
“It is the artist who realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works gladly away as a small apprentice under God’s heaven.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Not sure if the “gladly” was in his mind during the creative process of “Gulag Archipelago”, but there is a joy in fulfilling one’s purpose and he was clearly aware of his purpose.
Margaret Mitchell said in an interview after writing the novel “Gone With the Wind”: “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others apparently just as able, strong, and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are those who fight their way through? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’”
This quote inspired me, because of Nebiy Mekonnen (Ethiopian poet, journalist, playwright and translator). His story was among the collection of writings in the book “The Best American Spiritual Writing”. Nebiy was the subject of the essay “Tomorrow is Another Day” authored by Carol Huang. It describes Nebiy’s experience as a prisoner during the Derg Regime’s Red Terror. During his eight year term, Nebiy translated the novel “Gone With the Wind” from English to Amharic. The novel was the sole book available in the prison. Nebiy and his cellmates shared the book by circulating the book whereby one cell mate had the book for an hour each day before passing it on to the next person in the rotation.
By Nebiy’s fourth rotation of the book, he started translating it from English to Amharic using the lining torn from empty packs of cigarettes (and he wasn’t even a smoker). His goal of translating the novel to the native language of his people garnered support from the other prisoners. Some sacrificed their hour of reading for Nebiy, so that his work could progress faster. Meanwhile the smokers passed their emptied cigarette packs to his cell so that he could scribble the translations on salvaged paper including “puzzling over phrases such as ‘fiddle-dee-dee’.” Beyond this laborious process the translated pieces of paper had to be smuggled out of jail. The bits of paper were folded and repacked into empty packs of cigarettes that were resealed. The packets were casually transported out of the jail building in the shirt pockets of men released from jail.
“Whether you have black history or a white history, history is history,” he said. “You have to look for the outcome, which was the America that emerged. The present wouldn’t have been had the Civil War not been. That was the basic thing. I really prayed that the country (Ethiopia) would reach that level. And really, if you were in prison and read that book and saw the end of it, where of destruction reconstruction come, where out of war comes peace – that is the utmost you can dream of.” – Nebiy Mekonnen from the essay “Tomorrow is Another Day”
“Why write?”, indeed in the face of the enormity of what these three writers have accomplished. It is humbling to imagine what they’ve done, but at the same time, they humbled themselves to the creative force working through them.
Staring at a blank page feels like moving a mountain. I think about it, and see that the mountain is really my ego. It’s the ego that whispers and sometimes shouts, mouthing the words “You’re not good enough”. But, there are days when something inside me, the bigger “I” surmounts the little “i”, and then… and then some beads of blood form over my brow.
Writing contains a common thread that binds us together. It is one word strung together to another word and so on and so on, and then a thought is formulated and that thought triggers an emotion. The emotion moves something within, and that something is inside all of us. And that’s what makes us human; and being conscious of this is what makes it sublimely divine. We are divinity, and we’re always aspiring to our higher selves. So this is why I write.