This essay is adapted from my plenary session, “Notebooks and Number 2 Pencils,” at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee earlier this year.
I know what it means to soar.
When I was twelve years old, I got called out by my algebra teacher for writing stories in class. It was humiliating to have every eye in the room pinned in my direction—and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. I couldn’t help it, though: that back corner desk by the window was too near the real world of birdsong and daydreams, and that story was too intoxicating. My bonneted heroine had just toppled over in a buggy, for heaven’s sake, driven, if memory serves me, by her deceptively demure rival. It was no time to be thinking of integers and variables (as if there ever was a time I willingly submitted my mind to such imponderables!). I still remember that notebook, purchased by my mother for the ostensible purpose of mathematical equations. But the thick, college-ruled paper was just too much for me: I almost saw the words on the page before my #2 pencil formed them. My heart jolted along in the wake of that tale, giddy as my girl in her careening buggy. Writing wasn’t work—how could it be? It was flying.
By the time I was seventeen, writing had become a much more serious business. The #2 pencils and college-ruled paper were now requisite, along with the addition of my dad’s law school-era thesaurus, held together by a rubber band and smelling, enchantingly, of must and sweet wordsmithery. (To this day I can’t open that battered Roget’s without a rush of association so tender it hurts.) But there was something more, something at once mystical and exquisitely practical: as a dreamy-eyed, home-educated high-schooler, I had accidentally discovered fertile valley of solitude. Suddenly rather thin in the friend department, but always one to occupy my own imagination with the utmost contentment, I found in the freedom of my new life ample space for the tending of a rich inner landscape. I walked around in a world of daydreams, stumbling from time to time against prosaic things, like math homework and Friday chores (indeed, “prosaic” was my term of utmost disdain in those days), but at night, I came into my own.
This is what writing looked like when I was seventeen: I would wait until the house fell silent, until the last light in the kitchen had gone out and I heard the scuff of my mother’s slippers retreating to the opposite end of our long, low ranch. Only then would I slip from my bed and steal across the room to the front window, where, beneath tall casements set with fake, 1950s lattice (which I happened to think the most beautiful, bowerly windows imaginable), reposed a particle board footlocker (which I found equally alluring, owing to the treasures housed within its humble frame). To throw back that lid was to let my stories out, friends with whom I shared some of the happiest—albeit most secretive—moments of my life. I had a reproduction copper chamberstick that my dad had given me, and lighting its taper and flinging wide the magic casement to the night air, my ritual was complete. I would kneel there for hours at my footlocker desk, scribbling and dreaming, unburdening my overfull heart of the lovely visions that had been accumulating throughout the day. I like to say that I got addicted to #2 pencils during that time (Empire Integrity, to be precise), but what I was really addicted to, of course, was the thrill of what happened when that pencil made contact with paper. The stories spun themselves, of moonlight and gossamer, laced with the spice of a spring evening or the heart-charging tempest of a blustery October night, and it was magic. The wings of my fledgling soul were tireless, immortal, unencumbered by the weight of self-consciousness which was to tangle later attempts. I mounted and swirled and dove amid the romance of words and ideas; swift as a skylark, exuberant as a mockingbird singing at sunset, I wrote like it was the one thing in the world I was made to do.
No one knew about my stories but my sister and, later, my best friend. Those two took my dreams at face value, a fact for which I owe them an eternal debt. I didn’t want to be a writer in their eyes—I was a writer, by the fairy birthright of ambition. I wrote by night, but I shared my tales with them by day, under the flowering fruit trees of April, or on a carpet of moss beside a merry brown creek. And they did me the honor of crying in the right places and refraining from negative comments which might have snatched me too early from the skies. (Only once did my sister take issue with one of my rather florid descriptions. “I don’t know that ‘flowers straining their silken ears for a familiar footfall’ is quite the best image here,” she said gently. Thank goodness I listened to her.) Apart from my sister and my friend, however, my stories were a closely guarded secret. I had some nebulous notion of sending them out into the world one day, so long as the world proved kind enough. But there was plenty of time for that—in the stories I read and the stories I wrote, things just had a way of working out for the dreamers of dreams.
The words of Longfellow were my rallying cry:
“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams With its illusions, aspirations, dreams! Book of Beginnings, Story without End, Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!”
Then I grew up, and learned how cold the world could be. I’m 40 years old now, and I’m still reeling from the shock that life is hard, and that there’s a cruel, sad spirit abroad which scorns our most sacred ideals. What’s more, I’m staggering around most days under the blow that art is hard. I’m haunted by that 17-year-old girl, with her flying pencil and her heart full of arrow-sweet visions. But here’s something I know to the core of my being: what that idealistic girl believed about God and the world and herself and art and story is the truest thing about me. To hang on to what I knew instinctively then, in the midst of what I know experientially now, is the battleground of my art and my faith. To whisper to a grieving world, even out of great pain, that God is not just as good as we hope He is, He’s better—that the innocence and beauty and goodness we’re all mourning the loss of is actually our rightful inheritance—well, that’s the worthiest reason I can think of to make this great, messy, arduous effort of stringing sentences together, one awkward word after another.
But it’s hard. And right now it’s really hard. Between a burden of circumstances and an accumulated inner crust of self-doubt, the words just aren’t there. I’m not flying—I’m not even gliding short distances: I’m frozen. I feel like a stunned bird that’s smacked into a window, too dazed to try my wings once more. I seriously doubt I would try them, but for a force that’s breathing the beauty of spring into my winter world: friendship. I’m humbled to say that God has sent one of His very sweetest singers to my side in this dark place, a kindred-compatriot who is not only one of the most brilliant souls I’ve ever encountered, she’s one of the truest. Scarcely aware of her own influence (as God’s most shining ones always are), she breeds beauty with a seemingly effortless touch—seemingly, for I’m aware of what it costs her. If I didn’t know her heart, I’d be tempted to envy her gift. But, as it is, she’s generous enough to take me into the counsel of her struggles, her feelings of paralysis, her fear. It was her idea, in fact, that we establish a weekly commitment to help pull one another out of a wordless slough. The routine is simple enough: every Friday, we send each other what we’ve written that week—unpolished, unfinished, and imperfect. We set small, creature-comfort penalties for missed exchanges, but they’re really unnecessary: a debt of honor trumps denial in my book every time.
And so, I’ve been sending her pitiful fragments, bits that never amount to anything, embarrassingly clunky snatches of prose. The intent of our arrangement is safe-keeping, not critique; much as I value feedback, what I need right now is someone I can trust with my messes. This all flies in the face of my sense of privacy and perfectionism, of course—which is exactly what it needs to do. I’ll never be unselfconscious about my writing at large if I can’t be unselfconscious with a beloved friend. Nevertheless, I don’t think I realized how stuck I really was until I started trying to produce something for her eyes. Things got so bad back in February that I cast aside the essay I was grinding over and started something new: a Petrarchan sonnet on writer’s block. (I know—I mean, what did I have to lose?) I sent it to her in pieces as I wrestled out each hard-won word. It’s not a good sonnet, but it helped me articulate the mess I was in:
Word-clipped, I flounder under frowning sky, Stone-sealed in sullen cloud, from which no ray Of pallid light escapes to ransom day. Such useless wings! What passage can they buy Upon this bone-chill of a breeze? I lie, Breast-heaving, frantic eyes a-dart, and pray The ragged crows that circle in the grey, Or gather on bare branches with a call So coarse it curdles hope itself, will fail To spy my helpless state, too stunned to seek Concealment. Come, heart! Come winter’s prey, small Songless quarry of the cold: Up-stir! Avail Yourself of flight! Alas, I am too weak.
I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but the effort of writing this poem was so great it felt like an ending, a swansong—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. For right into the midst of this chaos of scribblings and scratched out words and hair-pulling shone one of those ordinary miracles that hint at something terribly important. Midway through the painful birth of this sonnet, I stepped outside one morning into a world as raw and frozen as my own heart—but, overnight, the world had changed. Impossibly, implausibly, the air was full of music. The branches overhead were host to a crowd of lithe forms, darting, upstarting, and settling again, and they were singing the song of my summer heart.
I could hardly believe it, though it happens every year: the red-winged blackbirds always pass through our place on their migratory path, and I’m always surprised. Just when I think I can’t take one more minute of winter, I’ll open my kitchen door one day to a raucous anthem of warmth and youth and spring. It’s no coincidence that I fell in love with these birds at seventeen, on my first visit to an island that has come to be both haven of dreams and healing place—their music is an unfailing connection to a inner spring of essential “me-ness,” and a time and location that marked me for life.
But that February morning, they sang a wider song, of a strife and a mirth and a joy and a pain of which my solitary struggle was only a part. I thought of my Rabbit Room colleagues and community as I stood there in the cold, warmed by the great, glad, goodness of the various songs they were singing into the world. I thought of the authors who shaped my ideals; the musicians whose songs saved my faith again and again; the poets who emptied their dearly won jewels into my hands. There, in a delightful jumble, I thanked God for Lucy Maud Montgomery and The Innocence Mission and G. M. Hopkins and Andrew Peterson and Elizabeth Goudge and George MacDonald and Michael Card and Sheldon Vanauken. I thanked God for Pete Peterson, who believes in me enough to mark up my stories and point out my writer’s tics, and for dear old “Jack” Lewis, who told us all we’re not alone. In a flash of transcendence, that chorus of blackbirds imaged for me “a great cloud of witness”—a host of faithful ones singing a song so beautiful I longed to lift my voice among them, even if I’m more of a house wren among such larks and nightingales.
Weeks later, I sent my friend a companion to that bleak sonnet, an answering refrain springing from the courage her kinship had leant me. I know that sorrow, struggle, grief, and pain all serve the truest art, but what I’m seeing in this songless place is that we’re not meant to create in isolation. While the ritual of my dear old #2 pencils connects me by some deep instinct to the sweet, secret dreams of my youth, the desperation of experience connects me more than ever to the people in my life. It takes guts and grit and determination to be an artist—we all know that—and lots and lots of solitude. But it takes something more, something mystical as a moonrise and practical as a firm handclasp in the dark: it takes each-otherness.
And in that fellowship, we know that the soaring’s not the thing—the Song is.
What is this whispered force abroad, this rush And whir of feathered life? The air is stung With song: a lightning-liquid sweetness wrung From scores of tiny throats. The dark wings brush Athwart my gloom, each pinion marked with flush Of flame, each note a summer hour among A host of wintry days. Such music, young From ancient time, and bearing yet the blush Of spring’s primeval dawn, is goad so glad It cracks the frozen air with joy and wakes A sleeping secret in the earth. I rise, Lift voice, lift bruiséd hope, enough to add One note to that bright hymn their rapture makes— And, having done, mount with them to the skies.