Saturday on Vacation – Why Do We Write?

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Taking a vacation and finding it such a relief not to have to drive 2.5-3.5 hours a day. I’ve made time for things like sleeping, walking in nature, watching a couple movies (which I rarely do), and I’ve finalized a manuscript for a book of poetry. I also sent some out to some journals and applied to a writing workshop. It’s so much easier now with Submittable, the popular submissions manager tool. I cringe as I recall all that stamp-licking and waiting, waiting, waiting—from the old days. Waiting is still very much part of the game but much more bearable without the excessive licking and paper management.

Going through old poems and editing and organizing them was an emotional trip I hadn’t quite anticipated. I am only an occasional “journaller” as I hate to see my psycho-crap laid bare on a page, although occasionally I do go there. While I can be a bit confessional in my writing, I’m more comfortable abstracting the writing process: it’s a vehicle, a means, a receptacle… Really, just stuff the crap in the poem and call it a day. But seriously, reviewing my poetry, sketchbooks, and sundry notes called up all that primal stuff and angst I drew upon to make them. Despite the heaviness, it was a good way to mark a passage as I prepare for the next one. Plus, if a few people read my work and agree, “Yeah, online dating really sucks,” I’ll feel my time on this planet was worthwhile.

I watched a documentary—And Still I Rise—about Maya Angelou yesterday and it was really fascinating. Prior to being a writer, she was a singer, a dancer, and an actress, traveling extensively.maya angelou dancing Her life was hard and yet, rich and full of adventure because she had the courage to live it. It’s so admirable when one can direct their path in such a way. She really put herself out there, surrounding herself with bright creatives, and that, combined with hard work, talent, intelligence and charisma attracted opportunities to her. This is not to imply that she didn’t pursue opportunities aggressively, and sometimes even desperately. She worked hard for everything she earned.

She talked a bit about the trauma of her childhood and not speaking for five years. She was raped at age seven by her mother’s boyfriend. He spent about a day in jail and was released and subsequently murdered. Unfortunately, she blamed herself for his murder. Her verbal storytelling was as beautiful as her written work (in fact, it was her storytelling that got her an invitation to write her first book). She spoke of the stories and poetry just accumulating in her during this period of her life. Strangely enough, she was reluctant to accept the invitation to write, to “unbear” her story, but when she eventually agreed and settled into the business of writing, her masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published.

This past weekend, I read poems by Sonia Sanchez (from Shake Loose My Skin), my first reading of her, which I enjoyed immensely. Sonia wrote about her own childhood and the loss of her mother (from “Dear Mama”): “And the poems erased the stutters and pain. The poems loved me and I loved them in return.” Yes, words have that power to comfort, they are our own internal parents, filling in all the deficiencies, soothing our deepest wounds.

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of art as a healing modality, and this has come out almost literally in a couple of poems. To stumble on both of these poets’ words in a single day was both timely and uncanny. I didn’t realize that Sanchez and Angelou were friends until further reading today. Along with their respective childhood wounds, navigating a white, male-dominated world as black women gave them both a lot of experience from which to cull their writing, while cultivating their identities and principles.

Hearing Maya Angelou, her son, Guy Johnson, Sanchez, and others share their stories about race and politics, the 50s, Harlem, and growing up black in the south was really interesting, moving and powerful. One of the more notable stories came from her son who described a 1960 black political protest in which police were blocking a march and had nearly shut down the procession by intimidation and barricading the street with a row of equestrian cops. Angelou pulled out a long hatpin and pricked one of the horses who reared, throwing the policeman to the ground, which allowed the march to resume down the intended course. Courage was what she was made of. Maya Angelou was such an inspiration, and those glimpses into her life and black history really attest to the power of the human spirit. Among other things, Angelou was a truth teller, always challenging people to be their better selves.

On Saturday, while burdened by the weight of my past as I plowed through my piles, I was comforted by two complete strangers, which is a reminder of the enormous potential and power of literature—why we read, and also why we should write—to be human. Thank you both for sharing your gifts.

Here’s a recording of Sanchez talking about Maya Angelou in an interview after Maya’s death (it includes a clip from Maya).