When Tough Girl, my alter ego, climbed out from the personal protective pod wielding a bag full of electrified wind, she initiated the process of reclaiming the original version of Andrea, “the other voice,” the poetic voice, which Octavio Paz extensively explores during his book The Other Voice. She helped me to gain composure while discovering the essence of who I really am, both a quiet poet and a vivacious activist.
Tough Girl’s intensity and decisive vision decided for me that I would make it past the age of eighteen, and someday, become the version of myself that is not cloaked in sequins and Mardi Gras masks. Her audacious spirit rumbled inside my sheen like a Harley Davidson motor, readying me for the inevitable: the devastating confrontation with all the personas within me, including the vulnerable and sweet little girl me, who long ago spent hours examining walnuts in her grandfather’s back field, played with ants and prayed for neglected dogs, and from books, learned how to document the life she silently observed inside dozens of locked diaries. Tough Girl prepared me for reconciliation with the authentic me. She armed me with the power to experience twenty-something acute PTSD me, the one who assumed that she had recovered from the fainting episodes caused by the physical sensations of pain that began occurring during childhood. I needed her strength, her dignity, resilient, steady voice vibrating the contours of my liquid casing, like amniotic fluid, keeping me warm and safe while poet me incubated.
Tough Girl gave me the tools to survive what I needed to survive, but she also began cutting through the invisible gauze in order that poet me could resurface from the tranquility of her meditations. And, now, like Shepherd Bliss aptly describes during his essay, “Sound Shy”: “I appreciate having a warrior inside and available, but I do not want it to be always leading me” (Kingston, 22). I welcome her to speak for me, pass me the flashlight of language when silence leans on my poetic voice. She presses through the crust of my resistance, my filmy glass fear, and helps me shovel out the words from the narrowed spaces of my individual sound: “Tell the truth. And so make peace” (Kingston, Introduction).
In order to know who I am, all you have to do is lift the veil of the ordinary, pull back the stage curtains, find your tough girl and poet self, demystify the falsehoods about the worthiness of your life’s stories, and the myths about writing, because they do not serve your greatest good, your highest self, “for your thought about something is creative, and your word is productive, and your thought and your word together are magnificently effective in giving birth to your reality” (Walsch, 10). Your story is as long and intricate, beautiful and grotesque, plain and passionate as any. Neale Donald Walsch’s story, “Little Soul and The Sun,” describes the very activity of our knowing, thinking, being, creating, and living singular lives that share one greater conscience, each developing a design for our own life stories, equally valuable, equally unique:
There once was a soul who knew itself to be the light. This was a new soul, and so, anxious for experience. “I am the light,” it said. “I am the light.” Yet all the knowing of it and all the saying of it could not substitute for the experience of it. And in the realm from which this soul emerged, there was nothing but the light. Every soul was grand, every soul was magnificent, and every soul shone with the brilliance of My awesome light. And so the little soul in question was as a candle in the sun. In the midst of the grandest light – of which it was a part – it could not see itself, nor experience itself as Who and What it Really is.
Now it came to pass that this soul yearned and yearned to know itself. And so great was its yearning that I one day said, “Do you know, Little One, what you must do to satisfy this yearning of yours?”
“Oh, what, God? What? I’ll do anything!” The little soul said.
“You must separate yourself from the rest of us,” I answered, “and then you must call upon yourself the darkness.”
“What is the darkness, o Holy One?” the little soul asked.
That which you are not,” I replied, and the soul understood.
And so this the soul did, removing itself from the All yea, going even unto another realm the soul had the power to call into its experience all sorts of darkness. And this it did.
Yet in the midst of all the darkness did it cry out, “Father, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Even as have you in your blackest times. Yet I have never forsaken you, but stand by you always, ready to remind you of Who You Really Are; ready, always ready, to call you home.
Therefore, be a light unto the darkness, and curse it not.
And forget not Who You are in the moment of your encirclement by that which you are not. But do you praise to the creation, even as you seek to change it.
And know that what you do in the time of your greatest trial can be your greatest triumph. For the experience you create is a statement of Who You Are – and Who You Want to Be (Walsch, 33 – 34).
Each experience is creative, imaginative, and inherently a part of a person’s larger story, and each person’s story already co-exists with everyone else’s story, as a part of greater history. A person forms a symbiotic relationship with all other stories every time story is transferred through the gestures of word, voice, breath, observation. As Johnathan Franzen suggests during his response to the question, “Does Writing Change Anything?”: We cannot help but to experience very personal and subtle interior changes when we receive story (Pen America, 17). And if my stories can somehow resonate with my readers, in either a peaceful or adverse critical fashion, then so exists a tacit understanding that I, as the writer, have automatically been swayed by the systems, sounds, and meaning of my own words. For example, even if George Orwell was not an animal rights advocate, or someone who intended to raise awareness of ecological and environmental issues, like philosopher David Abrams, author of Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, what would have kept him from absorbing into his identity and his conscience such a profound and truthful message that he created through himself?:
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labor tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin” (Orwell, 7 – 8).
Though Orwell’s intent for the story was zoomorphism and allegory, to set to fictional narrative his own political vision, the words are powerful enough to awaken his audience to another concept: the mistreatment of animals. Therefore, the emotive message of those words, in some way, must have stained his memory along the passage through his mind and body. He may have come to know himself differently by writing about animals in a way that acknowledges their intimate experiences of life, just as his political philosophies likely enlighten a variety of animal activists, environmental protection revolutionaries, and writer-philosophers, like Peter Singer, the philosopher and author of Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of The Animal Movement. I can attest to the impact of Animal Farm. Orwell’s language incited vibrations that traversed both my logical, analytical left brain, and my intuitive, imaginative right brain, heightening my sense of awareness, widening my artistic and reactionary perspective, and passing me the composition of words to directly and plainly articulate my strongest emotional responses and ethical beliefs about animal rights.
I continually discover that writing creates wild adaptations to my self-perception. Introspectively, writing and reading often seem to influence and activate my judgments, ethics, and philosophical views with greater intensity than corporeal experiences. Change occurs personally, in the emotions and thoughts. Writing a single word, like transcendent, can make me feel as energized as hearing gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, or Blues vocalist, Etta James, singing the word transcendent, or as motivated as when listening to and watching someone who is transcending the social standards by publicly speaking for animals, like Joaquin Phoenix during the movie, Earthlings. When writers perform written communication, like writing stories, letters, poems, to-do lists, essays, thank you notes, resumes, lyrics, etc., we experience the sensations related to the words that we use. We visualize them in context with both our imaginary and real lives. We smell stink when we write about rotten trash steaming in a garbage can. We feel the softness of the color pink when we use the word to describe a rosary bead, the same rosary bead that reminds us of Novena, and frankincense wafting from a thurible. If we write the word violent, no matter the context, we experience a few jolts of nervousness throughout our electrical systems. We might have nightmares after writing about a ghost haunting. When we write the shadowy figure’s lines of dialogue, we can feel the closeness of the disembodied voice, and we sense immediate danger when we write its whispering words: “Here I am.” Though each member involved in the gigantic web of a text’s language has the potential to experience radically different responses, writing affects the writer as much as it affects readers.
Within his book, The Writer’s Voice, A. Alvarez aptly suggests a similar notion: “both writing and reading . . . are private, inward experiences that take place, like thinking, in silence” (Alvarez, 78). Once this private experience is complete, once you and your story have gestated with imagination inside the liquid body, spongy mind, and vaporous spirit, once “the poem or piece of prose is finished, it is sent out into the world to find an audience” (Alvarez, 78). The audience who receives it is receiving the past, present, and future you, the entire transformation embedded into the fabric of the lines telling your story. And you know this story as who you are and who you once were, before the great collide between emotion, thought, imagination, logic, and audience; yet, once it finds connection with another person, it is more than just yours. It is everyone’s story, gushing through the veins and hearts and heads of creativity and imaginative vision. Exchanging stories is a poetic act because the flow of information forms poetry, if allowed, if wanted. A. Alvarez describes the writing process, specifically poetry, in a way that speaks to this transaction between author, text, and audience:
For the poet who produces this tide of excitement, inner rhythm is the poetic equivalent of body language, and style, itself, as the poet Les Murray describes it, has deep physical roots:
You’ve got to be able to dream at the same time as you think to write poetry. You think with a double mind. It’s like thinking with both sides of your brain at once. And if you can’t do that, you can’t write poetry. You can write expository prose, but poetry is as much dreamed as it is thought and it is as much danced in the body as it is written. It’s done in your lungs. It’s done in every part of your muscles – you can feel it in your muscles (Alvarez, 60 – 61).
Poetry, as Les Murray describes it, has to be simultaneously dreamed and felt in the body. But then, dreaming itself is already a kind of physical thinking. It takes place in REM sleep when the body is shut down, the muscles paralyzed, and only the eyes move. Meanwhile, the mind goes on working, though in a different way: it expresses its thoughts not abstractly in words but concretely in images and dramatically in gestures, as in a charade. And that, I suggest, is how language works in a poem. Henry James described the creative imagination as the ‘deep well of unconscious cerebration.’ The thoughts and images and plots that emerge from this well are not simply drenched in the artist’s unconscious, they are also thick with a kind of physical residue. This fusing together of mind and body is what I mean when I talk about the artist’s voice and presence” (Alvarez, 62).
We already live a story, therefore sharing a story is an act of poetic fusion, and acknowledging that fusion is very much a part of the writing process because what is written creates wisdom, no matter the gradation. If not exuding wisdom, which both fiction and non-fiction have the ability to accomplish, text is created through a process of entertainment, and also created for entertainment, still, possessing the ability to enter into the lives, the lobes and lungs of equally inventive beings. I propose that, since we cannot avoid absolute connectivity with one another, the myths about writing and writers that keep people from writing should be shared, such as: “creative writing is something done by a few geniuses; good writing proceeds inevitably from good ideas; good writers compose nearly perfect drafts, often at a single sitting; writers pack one overriding theme into a text to be construed later by a well-trained reader; writing is a rather magical, solitary occupation; and writers are more interesting than other people” (Bishop, 2).
The transference of this knowledge, through elements administered during writer’s workshops, is appropriate for participants who thrive on witnessing and embodying stories, and survive the oppression caused by the “knots of silence.” A creative writing workshop for novice writers has the ability to transform a person who claims an intractable relationship with language and writing, even a so-called “non-creative” person, into one who knowingly possesses an everlasting flashlight of words that defy the darkness of silence. The words to describe experience and create to change are already present. Sentient beings created language as a part of the design and motion of human history. In order to provoke change and release the tension of subordination, all one needs to do is pick up the dictionary and shine the words onto the pages of the present history. “You can’t talk about trying to overcome something unless you get the lies out of the way. Truth is all about allowing suffering to speak. Suffering can’t speak if the lies are suffocating that voice” (West, 38).
During her book, Released into Language, Wendy Bishop describes one of the most powerful myths that keeps people from writing: “In the modern scene of writing, the artist is locked into a garret, writing masterpieces alone. Writing is an arduous and highly individual process” (Bishop, 2). Though I share a vision with Alvarez, that writing is private and individual, a process which takes place inside a body and mind, like him, I acknowledge that it cannot stand alone if it is to be published. Stories cannot be contained. As a writer, even if the subject is unwilling, I receive my own version of a person’s story just by knowing that they exist. Writers are channels, receiving stimulation and information through experience, processing it through themselves, and selectively delivering the product that signifies both themselves and all that has inspired and taught them to an audience of readers automatically learning and sharing.
“An artist is what he is not because he has lived a more dramatic life than other people, but because his inner world is richer and more available and also, more importantly, because he loves and understands whichever medium he uses – language, paint, music, film, stone – and wants to explore its possibilities and make of it something perfect” (Alvarez, 113). Therefore, exposing non-artists to the practice of art is an act of exploring the capacity of art. The audience, even if they are not naturally artists, are primarily human, intrinsically possessing the propensity for expression and the capability for relating through language arts.
“Writers are people who write,” as Bishop explains, but we know there is a difference between professional writers and hobbyist writers, just as we know there is a difference between poets and journalists, mechanics and cooks, doctors and accountants. Each participates in a unique process toward their craft or trade, yet professional mechanics work on vehicles or planes or motorized mechanical instruments daily, and they do it for their livelihood. The difference between writers who write for a living and writers who simply write is the dedication and the strength of one’s relationship with art. Though I take exception with the portion of Alvarez’s statement which categorizes artists as insane, disorderly, and rarely loveable, I believe that his description speaks truly about the professional writing life:
Art is a quest for order and sanity undertaken by people who are themselves often disorderly, none too sane, and rarely loveable. Mercifully, art itself is greater than the sum of the artists. To create voices in the reader’s head, images in the mind’s eye, imaginary presences with lives of their own is an intricate and subtle skill that requires self-awareness and self-denial – modesty, even – as well as a craftsman’s fascination with the work as something with a life of its own, independent of its maker and his noisy ego. And this is not an image of the artist that comes easily in an age of personalities, showbiz, and promotion, when people are less interested in ‘it,’ the work, than in what’s in it for them (Alvarez, 122 -123).
A writer is an artist in the motion of writing. A professional writer is an artist in constant motion of the writing process, one who lives the writing life. A professional writer is employed as a writer, whether recruited by an outside source or working for themselves. Much like manuals on automobile mechanics, which give a layman auto enthusiast or a student mechanic insight into the craft of mechanics, both Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers and Ariel Gore’s How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead were written for the explicit purpose of showing and teaching readers about the professional life of writers. Each book illuminates the writer’s life openly and honestly: It is a writer’s daily job to dream, think about writing, write for a certain length, read, send notes to editors and publishers, dream, think about writing, revise or rewrite, “worry the lines,” like June Jordan suggests (Muller, 63) in order to satisfy readers and editors, interact with and observe the world, perform necessary research, collect materials, dream, think about writing, examine text, organize the writing environment, connect with other writers and literary mentors, dream, think about writing, remain focused and enthused about what they are writing, and remain physically and mentally limber.
Professional writers and writers who work at writing (let’s face the facts, a writer works at writing, even if they are unpaid) are channels for “the other voice,” which Octavio Paz eloquently explains: “Between revolution and religion, poetry is “the other voice.” Its voice is other because it is the voice of the passions and of visions. It is otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and of this very day, an antiquity without dates” (Paz, 151). For those channels of “the other voice,” being aware of the visionary downloading process isn’t difficult, since “most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories,” as Cody Delistraty explains during his essay, “The Neurological Similarities Between Successful Writers And The Mentally Ill” (Thought Catalog.com). A writer’s job is never done. People who translate “the other voice” do not have control over the flow of language and concepts and scenery being transported to their constantly synthesizing minds, though they can manage all of the extrasensory information using their personal organization skills of their writing processes.
Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running – the tap does not shut off; the most wildly creative writers of our generation have such bizarre ideas: they cannot stop thinking, and whether pleasant or macabre, their thoughts (that can turn into masterpieces like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Pulp Fiction)are constantly flowing through their minds” (Delistraty, Thought Catalog.com). As a writer, I know what Delistraty means when he describes the “constant reflection” and “near obsession with self-criticism” that writers experience throughout their lives; and I believe that he is correct in stating that “this mishmash of unremitting rumination and self-criticism means that writers are always working (Delistraty, Thought Catalog.com). We are ever in constant motion of connecting patterns of thought, weaving scenes of our lives into stories, accumulating words to describe an imagined experience, and organizing “the other voice” for readers and listeners.
If you’re still reading this blog post, you could consider the questions: Are you a writer too? What does it really feel like to be a writer? I’m curious to know your definitions and perspectives, and I hope to post your responses throughout the next quarterly edition. Until then, I will post several personal responses as tracings, connections, and extensions of this blog posting.
Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”