When the economy tanked two and a half years ago, the magnitude of it didn’t hit me for a couple of weeks, until the Chair of my English department gathered us for the first faculty meeting of fall term. He told us the university had changed forever. Not just our university. He meant that The University as an entity had changed and might never be the same again. He proceeded to describe how the bottom had fallen out of our graduate program, how state funds that had already thinned dramatically, would shrink even more. Some graduate programs across the country would disappear. The question of how to prevent that happening to our own program sat in the room like a cannon ball. For most academic departments, the graduate research program is the driving reason for existence, which is true of ours.
The air was knocked out of me for a couple of days. I couldn’t recall when my outlook on life had ever shifted as dramatically as I felt it at that moment. I continued to advise undergraduate students, but as fear took hold of me, I felt little enthusiasm for the future state of their education. Some students had to drop out of school mid-term as parents lost jobs and their own personal funds disappeared.
After numbly getting through a couple of days advising students, my conversations with them began to shift. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth: “You must write through this.” Like light through the Venetian blinds of my 100-year-old ten-foot office window, something hopeful striped the room as the prospect of writing stories about the suffering and loss that lay ahead of us began to dawn. No matter how dire things would get, we could turn it into a thing of beauty by writing essays, short stories, poems, or screenplays. Even pain can be beautiful.
When cataclysmic events happen in the world, I don’t know how to be. In his "Love Song" Rilke wrote that he would “gladly lodge” his soul “with lost objects in the dark, / in some far still place / that does not tremble when you tremble.” I would gladly protect my soul like that too, but how is it possible to live isolated from tragedy when it happens?
When the earth trembled itself ten inches off its axis, water swept over the lip of Japan’s coast, and the nuclear power plant exploded in Sendai, Inge and I were at the lake cottage on a two-day writing retreat, discussing among other things, the question: Why do we write?
Over the hours some answers came:
- to remember
- to think
- to feel
- to claim an experience as my own
- to meditate and connect with my soul
Ray Bradbury said that you must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
Catherine Drinker Bowen said Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.
John K. Hutchens said, A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.
Truman Capote said, To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music the words make.
The second stanza of Rilke’s "Love Song":
. . . all that touches us, you and me,
plays us together, like the bow of a violin
that from two strings draws forth one voice.
On what instrument are we strung?
What musician is playing us?
Oh sweet song.
Why do I write? To find the points of light in my experience. When we write, those points of light are notes of inner music our words make. When layered with voices of other writers and artists across the terrain of the world, it becomes a fugue, a galaxy of points of light. Have a listen to Robert Tiso play Bach's Toccato and Fugue in D minor on his glass harp. The four-voice fugue written for organ, played on this remarkable "instrument", is but one individual's expression of his own light, and of Bach's. Can you also hear layers of other voices streaming in their light?