I’ve been thinking about writing, about being a writer, about writing books, about how and why people write – the professional and psychological functions and processes of writing – and how each writer I’ve met or listened to or worked with writes for different reasons, is immersed in different processes.
Some experience themselves as servants to a sacred Oracle. Others write purely out of their daydreams with little insight or awareness of how the story is connected to their own lives and history. Some write to keep themselves alive. Others feel driven by a need to share their story with an audience. Some write for a living, even if it is a sparse living. Some write as a method of self-regulation, self-exploration, self-help. Some are driven by deep narcissistic injury. Some write to reach others, to persuade, to change the world.
Here is the story of the first book I ever produced:
In 4th grade, after seeing him lead a Shakespeare workshop for elementary school students – I fell madly in puppy love with television actor and teen idol Henry Winkler, aka “The Fonz”. I wrote long, long letters to him, about his performances, and all the wonderful heroic, kind, generous qualities I imagined he possessed. I confessed my ten year old troubles to him. I shared the solutions I’d found and how I imagined he would be proud of me when I was courageous, or protected someone weaker than myself. After about a year I collected all my heartfelt, “no one will ever understand me except YOU” letters and I stapled them between two pieces of decorated cardboard from a Lays Potato chip box. I wrote, in my very best cursive: “The Collected Winkler-Crawford Letters” on the cover.
It never once crossed my mind to attempt to mail these letters, or share them with a fan club, or to try in any way to get them in his hands.
I knew, even in fourth grade, that the imaginal audience that I was writing to served a symbolic function. I wouldn’t know what to do if I made contact with the actual subject of my devotion. When we moved a year or so later, I hid the book on the closet shelf before we left for good: just in case a girl my same age, facing similar struggles, moved in next, and needed to know that she was not alone.
For me, this is the most sacred aspect of writing: rolling up a message, stuffing it in a bottle and flinging it to the sea as an act of faith in something. As a gift to someone.
But not anyone specific.
Blogging is a way to do that regularly, with hundreds of small bottles, tossed into the sea at random intervals. It is the actual process of releasing it – blindly casting it out and away, out of my hands, following its own trajectory and landing somewhere or landing nowhere – that feels honorable, a form of obedience.
I can’t see how it’s possible that this idiosyncratic process, this weird-ass form of prayer could ever result in something publishable. I’m not sure I feel that I actually own it, after I have released it – or that it belongs to me in anyway. I don’t understand how to have a goal, or an attachment to any specific outcome for anything I’ve ever written.
I’m not sure I could write at all if it were not an impractical, nonsensical, nearly pointless act of faith.
In Quaker process when you feel compelled to share a message, it isn’t your business to think about who the message is for, or its reception. It’s only your business to articulate the message faithfully.
Maybe it’s for everyone or only one person in ear shot. Or just for you.
Or merely to be faithful.
The outcome is not predictable or even your business.
So, in the past several months I have felt the impulse to work on a much longer, expanded message, to roll up an entire sheath of paper, and to stuff it into a very large bottle.
Or maybe it is time, again, for me to write and sort and gather many letters – and collect them into a stack, stapled into an old potato chip box, decorated with a fancy calligraphy and leave it somewhere hidden, trusting that it will be found, or will find the person who most needs it.
One copy, one bottle, one ocean.
And if it lands somewhere and is of use to someone: fantastic.
What if I never hear of it again? If it sinks to the bottom of the sea and deteriorates into salt and sand and pulp? Or washes on to some far shore, and someone finds it and discards it? Or decides to make it of use or repurpose it in their own life in some way that I will never ever find out about?
That satifies too – I’ll will have done it for faith’s sake alone.
As silly as that may be, for me that is enough.
The truth is , because of this, that I have a hard time considering myself “a writer.” I experience myself as a work-a-day psychotherapist who writes to keep herself afloat, to make sense of what she has absorbed, to wrest meaning out of the suffering I encounter every work day.
People tell me their secrets – confessing their sins, reaching for reparation, aspiring to live out their callings. The psychotherapeutic process is for me, a spiritual path of relationship, compassion, self-reflection, contemplation, and empathic praxis. It is also a path which has offered me a unique position to observe the ways our own stories intersect and collide with larger historical, generational and cultural myths, the ways that larger cultural trends and beliefs press upon our sense of who we are and tangle themselves up with who we should be. The tangles that tie each life to life.
My work in the office, in writing is in large part, about untangling and sorting these threads: memory, fantasy, mythology, history, spirituality, culture, archetype, community, and individuality.
I am at a quaint, dusty used-bookseller. There is a table near the front window where a mother and a young boy are having tea. I pick up a box from the floor which seems to hold some new kind of Lego construction toy: long tubes that snap together in various colors, used for sorting threads and wires and undersea cables; these pieces extend like a large net or a web around the world yet each through-line, origin and end-point of each thread can be identified easily. I am thrilled with the toy, and notice, as I show it to the woman sitting near me, that it reads: “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”
Within the dream, I was lucid enough to recognize that I was immersed in a dream about writing, researching, and organizing a larger project – a book that tries to sort a complex and large web of interconnection – about the intersections of spirituality and psychotherapy, of agnostic faith in The Whole and about healing.
I understood this within the dream not only because I was surrounded by beautiful, delicious books with well-thumbed pages, but also because I worked with a poet for many years who struggled with dry spells. This manifested in his dreaming life as unconnected individual Lego “blocks” held in his hands, that were strangely relieving. As we accepted and worked with these blocks and just before the capacity to write returned – we knew it was coming as the poet began to dream of building complex towers, and all the pieces clicked together.
This is a psychotherapists’ brain: Dreaming of my client’s dreams and trying to make sense of the maze of through-lines that connect us all.
And knowing that we are all connected in ways we cannot easily imagine.
It is too daunting for me to say “my book” or the “book am writing” just as I dare not say I am a writer when I really have just created a peculiar method of prayer to the Unknown. Writing as a way to surrender to the Void.
But maybe I can say this: If I were to write a book, this is the book I would write: A book that explores the ways our unconscious lives impact each other – How my personal story is re-membered, changed by and changes my clients – how my client’s stories seep into my bones and mine into theirs – and how these subtle transformations spread out into the larger world. A book that tries to identify some of the universalizing unnoticed, unnamed forces that press in on us from the outside and bind us all to each other.
Every one of us.
Whether we recognize our insoluble interconnectedness or whether we don’t.
I don’t know what, if anything, I can actually construct by sorting through these tangled strings (I am cautions of the hubris of Arachne and do not wish to be turned into a spider.) Here is what I do know: I would be sure not to play with these connections frivolously – but to make it of use and to offer up whatever pieces I am able to sort out and snap together as a book, to any interested readers, to my community, my clients, and in service of my own growth. “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”
And then I will search for a large and beautiful bottle.
And I will stand at waters edge, and I will throw it as hard and as far as I can.