(A lecture delivered to the AP Language class at Rosslyn Academy, 2013)
A few Sundays ago, after I’d poured my heart out on the floor of a small church in Limuru, giving what might have been a sermon, or might have been a too-long poem, I stood outside the church, fragile and shaky as though my blood had been sucked out with a syringe in the bottom of my feet, and Mr. Enns walked up to me with that smile of his that makes you feel like you’re his favourite grandchild and he just wants to give you twenty bucks for your last report card, and he said, “Can you come to talk to my AP language students about why you love language?” He may as well have asked a pale and puking cancer patient to give a press conference on why she loves her rounds of chemotherapy. It’s not really about loving or hating or lectures or textbooks. It’s about life and blood and the air we breathe and her only answer is to take another breath and ask who can argue about loving or hating when there are no other options.
Language for me is a little bit like that, or at least it feels like it after I’ve spoken anything I’ve written out loud, much like I am today. Why do I love language? I don’t know if it can be about loving or hating, but language, words- little black virtual scratches on white and blue laptop screens, or rambling, raucous sounds rolling across the air waves when someone speaks something beautiful and true, or black marks splattered across a page in an e.e. cummings poem- words save me over and over. They make sense of the chaotic garbage heap inside me- all the fear and confusion and anger and passion and longing that piles so high behind my ribcage and at the back of my skull that I think I must be the craziest, most pathetic of all creatures. But then when I remember about words and their magic, I sit down and write- long embarrassing rants about my hurt feelings and my jealousy and my despair about war in Syria. Or poems about the sound of my husband’s breath when he’s sleeping or the way my middle daughter flits across the lawn like a grubby fairy. Or descriptions of jacaranda petals strewn across sidewalks like fairytales. Or sermons about my resentment at a God who seems to speak in grand sweeping revelations of love and goodwill to everyone but me. I write. I write and write.
Sometimes I write articles to be published about that twisting in my stomach every time a young boy and his maybe-blind grandmother tap tincups at my window by Sarit Centre, because even after all these years I still don’t know if it’s better to give money to him or not, and I have to write about it and send it somewhere for someone to read because people living in the suburbs of Minnesota think this giving to the poor is so simple and easy as clicking the give button on their favourite charity website. But you and I know that it’s not that simple and if we don’t tell them- describe that sound of the tincup and those wrinkled shuffling legs centimetres from the wheels of lorries spewing black careless exhaust- then they’ll never know. So sometimes I write articles in the naive and gorgeous hope that maybe I can change the world.
Sometimes I write speeches or sermons like the one I’d spoken that Sunday that Mr. Enns invited me here, because I happen to go to a church that allows me to say things that would probably get me excommunicated from all sorts of other places. They actually let me stand up there and talk about fear and doubt and longing for God to be real. And even though it makes me so nervous I want to puke in the bushes on my way into the church, and every time I end up with tears and snot running down my chin while I’m talking, I keep doing it. Because it saves me twice. First, the act of writing it down, of staring at confusing and awful Bible verses, convinced that there’s nothing profound or beautiful I could ever offer about them, but then starting to write, haltingly, awkwardly, deleting most of what I write and feeling like a sham and a heretic. Somehow in the act of that forced writing, some little glimmer of truth finds its way through the cracks of my doubts and confusions, and by the end of the writing, I feel like maybe I’ve found something true, or at least half true, and maybe that’s God speaking through the words, or maybe it’s just my own inner wisdom, but I never would have believed it was there if I hadn’t taken the time to write, to go through the agony and alchemy of transforming thoughts into words on a page.
But then those same words save me again, because I speak them aloud, which feels exactly like spewing my guts onto the floor in front of those wooden pews, while naked. But every time someone comes up to me afterwards, like Mrs. Brozovich that other Sunday, who kissed me on the cheek with tears running down her own, and said “You take all the crazy thoughts in my head and you give them words. Thank you thank you thank you.” So in that moment, we’ve saved each other, because what all of us long for more than breath, I think, is to know that we’re not alone in our psychosis. That someone else feels even a little bit like we do, is just as lost or scared or crazy as we are. And I happen to think that language- words and phrases crafted like art- are our best hope for it. I know it’s happened to you- that one line of a song that kicks you in the gut, or makes you gasp because it nails it. So you listen to it over and over while you lie in the dark, because somewhere in the universe someone has had the same feeling or thought you had and they said it in exactly the way you never did but wish you had and it feels like a lifeline thrown to you as you’re drowning in the night.
The inspiring and discouraging part, though, is that good, true, world-changing, gut-kicking, beauty-making, revolution-inspiring writing doesn’t just happen. You can use “awesome” and “sucks” for a while, but it’s probably not going to get you far- not into university, lord knows, and not into a good job and definitely not into all those moments of truth and connection that I’ve been rambling about. Of course when you’re sorting through the garbage inside you, you can write as awfully and awkwardly as you want. But once you’re past the spewing stage, and you actually want to write something that gets you a job or gets you a girlfriend or changes the way someone thinks or gets Mrs. Brozovich to cry and kiss you, you’ll need to know how to use words, how to craft sentences and paragraphs as carefully and artfully as a violinist performs a concerto or an artist sketches a portrait or an architect creates a blueprint millimeter by millimeter.
You need to practice, of course. Write a hundred awful sentences to find three good ones. You’ll need to start noticing spectacular words in conversation and songs and painted on the sides of dukas to add to your own toolbox. You’ll need to foster an awareness of rhythm, images, transitions. I was always so picky with my high school English students about their transition words, their topic sentences, their use of commas. Not because I’m a nerdy and obsessive grammarian- although I am that, let’s be honest- but because somewhere down the road they and you will have something to say and the words will be your only tools, and it would be such a shame for the huge truth you have to offer to fall flat and never make it to the ears that need to hear it because your rhythm was off, or you only had Facebook vocabulary to use. Craft words, images, sentences for your friends, family, your future children. Write passionately, extravagantly, shockingly. Write now while you’re seventeen, because some day when you’re old and boring you’ll wish you could capture the fire and rawness of teenagers. This is your only chance to say this now- what you believe, where you stand.
You can worry that everything’s been said before so you have only piles of nothing new to offer. Or you can always be bold and relieved because no one has ever, ever, ever told your story. Your reality. Your big and little truths. And every time you put words together in a surprising or unexpected way, it’s doubly new and yours. Try describing your friend with the tobacco stains on her manicured fingers, or the anger that presses at the inside of your skull, or the lilting lifting lightness at the base of your neck every time that gorgeous guy walks by. It’s your story. Give it the dignity and chance it deserves by using language beautifully, powerfully, bravely. Wallow in words. In the joy of creating reality. The fun of hearing sounds roll off the tongue, or the sight of them splattered across the page, or the tears that well up in your mom’s eyes when she reads your description of the breakfast table at your house.
At this point, you’re staring at me blankly, thinking, but what about the AP exam? You want the address of the website I use that has the top ten best tips and tricks to write great sentences and increase your vocabulary. So I’ll tell you. It’s www. no such thing. You want to know how to write a really great sentence? Communicate something impressively and effectively and beautifully and 5-points-on-the-exam-ly? Read poems. I would bet my life blood that if you read one great poem every day from now till your AP exam, if that was the only thing you did this year to prepare for that exam, it would increase your essay scores by two points at least. Try it. Read poems aloud to your friends and your boyfriend and your dad. Read Billy Collins and e.e. cummings and Rainer Maria Rilke. Revel in the sounds and the passion and pure enjoyment of brilliant poems. While I was sitting at a coffee shop one night trying to conjure up some sort of wisdom to say to you today, I spent most of my time reading poetry, and of course I spent some time with Pablo Neruda, because what is a night at a coffee shop without a bit of passionate Chilean poetry? And I found these lines that I just had to send immediately to my husband:
Bread I do not ask to teach me
but only not to lack during every day of life.
I don’t know anything about light, from where
it comes nor where it goes,
I only want the light to light up,
I do not ask the night for
I wait for it and it envelops me,
And so you, bread and light
And shadow are.
You came to my life
with what you were bringing,
of light and bread and shadow I expected you,
and Like this I need you,
Like this I love you.
And although I’ve never thought to call Phil light and bread and shadow, somehow it captured something that made my stomach flip and remember why I love him so much. Poetry does that to you. And it imprints rhythm and structure and ideas and beauty into your brain so that when you do sit down to write, all those things leach through your pen or keyboard and on to the page while you’re not even watching.
Read good fiction, too, of course, if you ever want the hope of writing anything impressive or lovely- I have my list of must reads and Mr. Enns has his and your auntie has hers, so find someone you love and ask them which novel you just have to read. I might suggest David James Duncan or Dostoevsky or Salinger (definitely Franny and Zooey even before Catcher in the Rye) or Patchett or DiCamillo- because each of them have written something that has changed me forever and I remember the things that happened to their characters better than I remember my own childhood. Good novels show you something about life and something about yourself and something about the magic of good sentences.
Read non-fiction- people who have written about their life and their truths in a way that the rest of us dream of. I still haven’t been able to sit and write about the attack at Westgate and all its million implications for this city and my daughters and my own soul. But I have been reading, reading as though my life and my belief in anything depends on it. I’ve been reading a memoire of a little boy with down syndrome who attracts angels and miracles like a dog has fleas. I’ve read Anne Lamott who reminds me that “this is life’s nature, that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet.” She says the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she says, you bring them juice and graham crackers.
And I’ve read Buechner over and over, who says, “This is the world. Terrible and beautiful things happen. Don’t be afraid.” And if I did not have these words in my life this week, I can say with confidence I would not be sitting here right now or able to do so much as pour my kids cereal without collapsing in a shaking pile of despair of anxiety.
But even when life isn’t teetering on the edge of terror, I read non-fiction. I read people who write about motherhood and doubt and stretch marks, which may not be high on your list of must-read topics. So find your own amazing writers and borrow from the smartest people you know. But promise me you’ll read. Two hours on Instagram or Youtube or whatever the cool ways to waste your life are at the moment, will never make you a bigger or truer or more beautiful version of yourself. And they honest to God will not help you on your AP exam. In fact, any hours reading really terrible mindnumbing Tumblr writing will come back to laugh at you on that exam, cackling and taunting like schoolyard bullies who you thought were your friends but have tied you up to the flagpole and are stealing your lunch money. So reading bad brainless writing will sabotage on you in a grand and painful way, but reading a poem by Rumi or writing about the baby you once saw at an orphanage whose hollow eyes still stare at you from behind your own eyelids or writing a short story about Mr. Enns as a teenager- these things just might make your life a little clearer, truer, more bearable. You never know which words you read and which words you write will be the ones that end up saving you. Promise me you’ll try.