The Pull of the Mystery

SAFE BETS MAY BE GREAT IN HORSE RACING, BUT in writing, we”re better off taking our chances. Going for the less sure thing, for the least likely, entering the uncomfortable or unfamiliar or strange—this promises to pay off far better in the long run than riding Old Faithful to the same dingy stall.

In engaging creativity, we ought to avoid ruts, stay out past curfew, “Do something,” as Wendell Berry”s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front advises, “that won”t compute.” We ought to chase a few tigers; we ought to run in the direction opposite from our normal course.

Somewhere in my reading, I ran across this: “The only people who get anywhere interesting are the people who get lost.” I copied that down in one of my journals decades ago, and it”s still a useful reminder when I approach writing. It”s OK if uncertainty is my companion at the beginning. It”s OK if I don”t have the faintest idea what is to come, if anything. We are under no obligation to arrive at any specific destination in our journals. Anything goes—and sometimes, the less familiar and the more demanding, the better.

If I were to take my own advice in this matter, I would plunge into journaling about love and sex; I would try to clarify my religious beliefs by testing how I act them out in my daily life; I would write to my dead mother to align my sorrow and regret about her death; I would take a critical look at my shortcomings as a husband and father. Maybe one day I will grow courageous enough to do some of this, for new strength will likely enter my writing if I do.

Getting Lost

Playing it safe doesn”t pay in writing. Many of us have to work hard to shed some limited notions about creativity we have picked up in school and in our culture at large. For example, when engaging in personal writing, it is not necessary to know what you”re going to say when you begin. You don”t need to have an outline in your head. You don”t know where you”re going—and that is the whole point. No one is grading you or looking over your shoulder to assess or correct your words. There is no deadline. The subject matter is not assigned from the outside. You are free.

Much of what we do for ourselves when we journal is discovery, exploration, adventure. Last summer I read again an excerpt from G. Lynn Nelson”s Writing and Being. Nelson is describing his first experience of swimming in a river:

I inch out very slowly, becoming concerned. This is a very different experience from being in the wading pool in town. The water is alive and dark and filled with mystery. It pulls at me and keeps moving out from under my feet. And there is nothing to hold onto.

We”ve all had something akin to this feeling, whether it was upon first entering a cave or wading into the ocean. But what I find most fascinating about Nelson”s passage becomes obvious when I substitute a few writing terms in crucial places.

I inch out very slowly, becoming concerned. This is a very different experience from writing a book report in school. Each sentence is alive and dark and filled with mystery. The writing pulls at me; certainty and security and comfort keep moving out from under my feet. There is nothing safe to hold onto.

Venturing In

I”ve had a student for a couple of years, Amanda—a smart, tiny cross-country runner and Air Cadet who will be flying planes before too long. In a moment of genius in creative writing class, a poster-sized photograph of Amelia Earhart staring off into the wild blue yonder over her head, Amanda wrote one afternoon, “How delicious it is to be far from found.” I imagine Amanda out on the cross-country course, losing contact with the rest of the pack, tooling along in that endorphin high of athletes, hardly attached to the ground. She veers from the course, slashing through tall grass at the edge of some woods, then cuts in, dodging tree trunks, leaping ditches, headed for nowhere she”s ever been, nowhere she knows. Or she”s in her first trainer plane, at the controls of an old Sopwith Camel like Snoopy flies, open cockpit, buzzing engine. Off she veers, looping low under some telephone lines, jumping a silo or two, then turning suddenly right at the head of a wide canyon—gone into shadow and mystery. Scary. But what an image of freedom, what a potential adventure.

And I want to write like that in my journal. I want to feel the safe and familiar moving out from under my feet, feel the pull of the unknown and unexplored and unnamed, feel mystery like Nelson”s river drawing me out into something rich and strange.

Despite the reasonable-sounding advice of “Get organized,” we need to resist anything that locks us into one subject or one way of writing. We need to stretch and widen. We need to be like rivers ourselves, flooding, expanding into coves and backing up into places far from the main channel, places that have been hidden even from our own sight. We weaken the creative process when we emphasize the logical over the analogical, the schematic over the organic, the safe exposition over the perilous exploration of repressed feelings. The journal is a place to listen to the secrets of the heart and memory, to give voice to the unvoiced, and to remember the heretofore unremembered. We miss much, maybe all, if we turn away from the mystery our writing can draw us into.

This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Personal Journaling.

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