Until I See What I Say
by Deborah Brink Wöhrmann
I’m one of those writers who writes most days. On the pages of my notebook, I pen the time, date, place and whatever seems important. Without timer or determined task, I might chronicle the who, what, when, where, why and how. Once in a while I jot lists. Other entries riddle some emotion or conundrum, a sailor’s story, deep loss. Often I write of the absolutely ordinary – pages not worth a second glance. Yet sometimes the words flow like a sound sleep, a day in the garden, or a swim in the ocean. From these pages I return to the surface with an ember. These pages are compost, organic matter churning through imagination and time.
The luxury of a notebook and these moments to write freely help me discover where to shine the light and explore. Once in a while, they invite a gift, muse at work: A poem, almost whole, happens.
Some years ago while traveling in Guatemala, my Spanish teacher, Veronica, said, “It wasn’t always like this.” She meant the poverty, eroded hillsides and homeless people – including children who wandered solo or in gangs. Here’s what I wrote in my notebook that night and what became the beginning of “Learning the Rules”:
She said the verb “to kneel”
– arrodillarse –
used to be
(what you do to yourself)
until these past years when
soldiers pointed rifles
Veronica’s words caught me. They felt sharp, a prick to silk scarf that begins the unraveling. A lesson on reflexive verbs turned into a history and political science lecture. She wanted me to understand her country. She wanted me to be more than a U.S. tourist ambling through. I had noticed children in the markets, sometimes on the street. As she spoke I could see them alone at night, shivering in rags – with no one to teach them how to live, choose right from wrong or feel a mother’s kiss before falling to sleep each night.
That night I wrote in my journal. From those pages, the poem grew – a rare birth of lines that changed little before its publication (though I played lots with these lines.) Here’s the rest of the poem published in The Salal Review, 2007:
forcing men and women
to get down on their knees
un milagro – a miracle –
to save them for their children
who would roam
streets with no one to hold
roaming streets of blood
would learn by finding
not to read or count or love
only to survive by night
and day avoiding
those who want
to force them
onto their knees.
This poem presents a glimpse of the “real world” and shows how it changes. The teacher gave me, the speaker, a gift of understanding: once “reflexive,” today arrodillarse often refers to something done to others. People change, the land changes, so does language.
I believe in gifts. As writers we are vessels. When open, I hear the words, see the image of children confused and lost. When open, not judging but simply recording and letting ourselves feel what we feel, the words from daily life grow into poetry – or sometimes essays or a novel.
William Stafford said, “You have to show up, and lower your standards.” Though I don’t write a poem everyday nor do I wake up as early as he did to write, those words remain mantra. For me, the practice of keeping a journal keeps me writing even when I’m not sure what I have to say.
As Joan Didion wrote years ago, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Many of us who write know what she means. Though plenty of people talk with a partner, friends and strangers in order to better know themselves, many writers need paper – or keyboard – to figure things out. We talk with people, too, but often it’s the landing of words onto a page that leads to new ways of seeing. We solve a problem. We let our unconscious minds loose to play, sort through mystery, tap into the super-conscious, the mundane, and open ourselves to synchronicity. How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
I try to keep a notebook and pens handy. While out shopping or sitting in a café, things and people surprise me. Not to mention recommendations: books, films, the best Vietnamese spring rolls, a hike on Mt. Rainier, a path I should travel when I finally get to the Grand Canyon.
I also need curiosity, patience and gratitude. Without those three ingredients I’m likely to miss out and skip over. I need to wonder, slow down, and say thank you, or I’ll likely get stuck on first impressions and surface tripe.
Writing daily isn’t like doing the dishes. I won’t be embarrassed when neighbors drop by if I haven’t yet written in my journal. If I miss some days, I won’t smell it in the morning when I tromp down the stairs toward the kitchen sink’s mess. But if too many days pass without an entry, I’m bad company, off-kilter. It’s like going too long without looking my lover in the eyes. It’s like forgetting to stop and listen to what a child is really trying to say. It’s a journey I can take with the simple question, “What’s up today?”
As writers, we open ourselves by showing up. Notebook and pen ready, we receive – gentle so as not to scare the elusive muse from trusting us to be awake.
Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Deborah Brink Wöhrmann writes poetry and fiction. This season she sows the seeds of broccoli, chard, snap peas and other edibles that might grow through a Portland winter. She loves to collect stories and won’t be surprised when some pop up through the dirt.