‘I write my name on the wall’

How the Light Gets In

I have just finished reading Pat Schneider’s latest book, ‘How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice’, on my e-reader and I immediately want to get a hard copy. Why? Because all the way through I wanted to underline, highlight, write ‘Yes!’ in the margins – I want to make that book my own in every way. Yes, I know I can make notes and highlight on my Kindle, but for this book I need to feel the pages, physically engage with it as well as engaging on an intellectual and emotional level. Pat’s views on writing and the power of writing are well known through her previous book ‘Writing Alone and With Others‘ and through her organization Amherst Writers and Artists. But in her new book she pushes out her beliefs and ideas with even greater force coupled with profound reflections on writing. She  says with characteristic vigour

‘So here goes. Straight to the concrete foundation, the steel girder, the brick wall. I write my name on the wall.’

‘Daring to be seen, daring to let the truth of the human condition be made visible by our telling, whether that telling be in words or in some other form of witness, splits open the world. Cracks it. And that’s how the light gets in. To tell the truth about our lives is a political act.’

But, Pat writes, this book ‘is not a manual nor a “how-to” – it is an exploration … about the relationship between creative writing and conscious spiritual practice. [But] The first stumbling block was language. Writing requires the use of words, and words always carry, or fail to carry, particular human experience.’

Not too far from where Pat lives in Amherst, Mass., just as her new book was entering the world the great African writer Chinua Achebe was passing away in Boston. Once upon a time I did an Open University course called Literature in the Modern World

Literature in the Modern Worldand this was where I was first introduced to the writings of Chinua Achebe and studied his most famous book ‘Things Fall Apart‘. But it wasn’t this novel which has stayed most in my mind ever since but a sentence from an essay by Achebe in the book pictured above. Achebe was writing about the dilemmas facing post-colonial  writers  in Africa and elsewhere about the language in which to write. Should they write in English, the ‘colonial language’ or in their own native tongue? He declared ‘… let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.’

Many people struggle to write, desire to write but are silent or silenced by race, gender, education, social class, poverty. What words, what languages do many potential writers have access to? Pat Schneider writes

‘… it is our own voices we must protect and trust. they are full of nuance, full of unconscious craft, full of character, because they are full of the voices we heard around the kitchen table … In my own original voice lies the foundation, the authority, the orientation, the perspective I need in order to use other voices. I find it nothing short of a tragedy that so many teachers of writing have not understood the primal need for young writers to use first – and be affirmed emphatically for – the power of their own voices of home. Almost all of the primary problems of beginning writers are rooted in their effort to sound like someone else … a profound acceptance of and trust in one’s own voice is the first and most important thing the writer needs.’

So, let us begin (again) to write. Here is a prompt that Pat reflects on using in her own writing and in workshops in ‘How the Light Gets In’

‘the world begins at a kitchen table …’

Take a notebook and pen, set a timer for perhaps twenty minutes. Start writing with whatever concrete image comes to mind from the phrase ‘the world begins at a kitchen table’. Trust the pen, trust in your own voice, dare to continue to write and don’t be afraid to ‘do unheard of things with it’.

4 responses

  1. A good post, Margaret. Flannery O’Connor also believed in being true to the voice of your home. It makes total sense to me.

    1. Indeed she did Nuala ‘… when our patterns of speech are absolutely overlooked, then something is out of kilter.’ F. O’C

  2. Margaret, thank you for this gift of response to my new book. I am moved and deeply appreciative. I have just shared it on my timeline on Facebook.
    Happy springtime, Pat.

    1. Thank you Pat – it was my pleasure. I hope you enjoy all the celebrations surrounding the launch of your book in the U.S. and elsewhere. Long may you continue to inspire those of us who write and teach.

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