Begin anew

White cotton curtains framed the window overlooking silvery Puget Sound.

I, a Midwesterner, was waking in a strange room, alone and far from home. In fact, nearly the entire United States wedged between me and my husband.

What had I done?

What I had done was step toward a dream: to get an MFA—one on Whidbey Island, Washington preferably. And here I was.

Soon I hurried over a sidewalk that appeared to end in the Sound. Beyond that illusion were the violet-shaded Cascades. To my right perched several Victorian houses, our classrooms at Camp Casey.

Classrooms? I knew classrooms. I was middle-aged—45—and had been nearly two decades at college teaching. I taught writing. For years. What could I learn?

As I neared the second house, I slowed at its doorway. To be in another’s class, I realized—to be a student again, I needed to do something. I needed to set down my accomplishments: my teaching career, my writing conference, my whole nine yards.

As the workshop class began, Professor Bruce Holland Rogers asked us what we were thinking as we entered. When I explained my conviction, he gave me a phrase I needed: “beginner’s mind.”

He said, “We get arrogant because we get used to projecting an image of competency.”

An antidote to this bad adulting habit, he suggested, was beginner’s mind. Let things be new. Let our humility open new knowing.

Parker Palmer visits this theme too in On the Brink of Everything and applies it to our writing. “To get unstuck, I must let go of my ‘career’ as an established writer and begin again as a novice. In truth, I am a novice in every new moment of every day.”

Needing to show our competency will only shut us down—perhaps especially in our writing. Begin again. Move forward with beginner’s mind. Let yourself go.

Photo by Anne Splatt

Seeing Things: One Writer’s Call

The old weathered post wore a sculpted head, its curves elegant, shapely. Rising from the sand, it framed the right edge of the vista that spread beyond the crest of the hill that led me to Lake Huron.

As a teen living near the lake, I walked along shore to think. Up the hill I’d scramble, my feet sunk in sand. At the crest, I’d pause to gape: that horizon stretch of blue-silver with the post anchoring the corner of the picture I always imagined taking.

Then one day I climbed the hill and—no post. Gone. Disappointment surged through me. Later, when I lamented to family members about the missing post, they said, “What post?”

The post became my symbol for that Something About Me—that part of me that noticed things others didn’t. My physical eye saw details like the post. My inner eye saw other details—emotional currents, nonverbal signals.

This seeing, at times, propelled me into isolation. It wasn’t an attribute I prized. My pain echoed in the words of Lara, the character from the Russian novel Doctor Zhivago. For Lara also asked, “Why is it my fate to see everything and take it all to heart?”

As teachers encouraged me to write—to record what my seeing revealed, this trait gradually became a gift. I began encountering ways of understanding this seeing. Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, taught me that God might be the One asking me to see. Christy’s mentor explains, “God had to take my little girl hands off my little girl eyes.” This idea electrified me. I understood. Be willing to see. This was what He asked.

Other reading confirmed my calling to bear witness. Another Russian, poet Anna Akhmatova, showed me how needed is this skill:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold….Now she started out of her torpor…and asked me in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” And I said, “I can.” Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

A recognized poet—her power to see and to name—stirred a desperate woman’s hope. I would try. I would try to look around me, to be the one to see. My seeing was a gift, the writing too—to be the one who would.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)