Last night, exhausted, but not ready for sleep, I dropped on the couch. My right hand flung to the side table and grabbed the first magazine it touched: Sports Illustrated. What? Okay, a break from theology is good. I began to read about Jeremy Lin, who was sleeping on his now-famous brother’s couch, the picture of failure, the night before he split the basketball court wide open. His brother’s couch is the most famous piece of furniture on the Internet this week. I want to reclaim that couch and the failure it’s intended to convey. There is wisdom in the couch. I don’t mean the wisdom that says we’re just apassin’ through this world, or the therapist’s wisdom, but the couch’s wisdom of respite.
I sit on the couch now, remembering this day. I awoke, yes, tired from a short night and from laboring under words and deadlines for too long. The morning broke calm, winter’s howl and spit quiet for the day. I shut my computer and took to the woods with boots and my new eyes, my camera.
This is my respite, I thought, as I wandered beside ocean cliffs, through spruce. I let go of the words that pressed me, looked about me at a world made strange and new by the sun. A mossed tree had grown a hollow space at its base.
Click. The naked roots of trees overhang a cliff. Snap. A trinity of spruce wore a stripe of snow on their trunks. Click. I was alone, my boots sliding on the gravel trail. But it was not long before I thought of the book I was working on, on forgiving our fathers and mothers. I thought of the article I was trying to end, the final sentence telling the truth about keeping faith with the world. I thought of this space here and the words I would write.
And they are with me, words, ideas, the ones I try to herd into meaning find me even here, in the forest. I write them down on paper in my pocket. I record them on my voice memo. I speak the words I am writing now. They find me no matter where I go. This is the burden of writing.
I had a mentor once who told me as a young writer, that the best writers were not those who had something to say, but those who simply loved playing with words. I believed him for a long time. I think many others do as well. There are so many pages on our screens filled with words that skip rope and play games. But after reading too many of those pages, and after years of teaching undergrad and grad students, I have found the opposite. The best writers are those who carry the weight of something that must be said. As Frederick Beuchner has said, “For my money, the only books worth reading are the books written in blood.”
So it is. There is blood, then here, even on this couch, this place I intend for your respite. But I find my own rest after all in this: To urge you to spill blood. We are told by writing coaches and social media experts to keep up with the online world, to tweet, toot, digg, blab, blurb, boast and blog our way into readership, which means, for a writer, existence. But a real writer writes what she must write, not simply what others tell her is expedient to write. As Beuchner has said, write not “the things that catch the eye of the world but things to touch to quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them.”
In the end, my questions for you who write (and who speak) are these:
Have you written what only you can write?
Have you written as deeply as you can?
Have you spoken what is true?
When you have done this, you can fall onto the couch, pick up a magazine, gather rest and language to carry the next joyous burden that will touch some part of the world, starting with you.