By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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In my chair. What’s it like? It’s a green, upholstered, old-fashioned rocker. I tuck my feet up under me. Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not stand up and work at a desk to do the writing I take most seriously. I get as comfortable as possible. I get a cup of coffee, and while I’m thinking, or between sentences, I go back and heat it up if it’s gotten cold.
If I had to give up everything, writing would be the last to go — well, almost the last. There’s one pleasure even more important to me, one human experience — how can I say it? Touching base with another human being’s perceptions, realizing that you both see something that is hard to see and understand in the same way. But if I hadn’t been following my own perceptions and thoughts religiously, year after year, on a daily basis, keeping track by writing them down (what do I feel today? what am I thinking now? where am I now in relation to yesterday or last year or myself as a six-year-old child?) I don’t think I would have grown into being ready for the ecstasy of sharing inner worlds.
“Where do I write?” a good friend asked me. And when? And how? What are all the externals? He thought it might be helpful to others to know that I sit in a chair, near a window; that I eat and drink without limits, impulsively; that I like to look out at something natural — I write better or think I do when I have trees to look at. The birds who land on the porch get themselves written into my poems. I write as soon as I can sit down. As soon as things are sufficiently uninterruptible, I begin — and once my mind has started a new sentence, I know that that may mean a paragraph or a long passage which may be the beginning of an essay. I’ve also learned that many hours of writing time are not spent with pen scratching across paper, but brooding, getting up to reheat coffee, ignoring the dishes in the sink, the toys scattered on the floor — and not even considering the unmade beds, not worrying about dinner, or letters that need to be written later in the day; if it’s necessary, not answering the phone, or the door; if a child interrupts (there are three to do so on weekends and after school) either responding simply and quickly, or asking them to wait (“Just a minute. I’m in the middle of a poem.”). For it isn’t, I learned finally, the interruption that the Muse abhors and disdains, but my own compulsive or angry reaction to it. Let the flow of thought wait — it will. The poem may reform and be even better. But anger will wipe out the poem, and blame the child for something he didn’t do. It’s my job to defend the poem’s completion, and to learn my mind well enough to know when the fish slips off the hook, it’s still in the pond, and I’m still able to throw the line back in and re-catch it.
But uninterrupted time and space, a psychological “room of one’s own” (cf. Virginia Woolf’s book by that name), is the best. I’ve learned to take it when it comes. I’ve built into my life a continuing response to inner events — and, in a way, where in the outside sense doesn’t matter that much. It’s the inner where.
I’m writing today, New Year’s Day, in the chilly third floor room of a friend’s house in another city. I have on two sweaters and have gotten back in bed under the blankets. My coffee is cold; voices rise up the stairwell. I am not considered strange because I went off to write or be alone. Out of the “being alone to think,” out of the defense of my “being alone time” as legitimate, as what they can do to make me feel at home, flow words. I never know when they will. I can sometimes coax them. I know if I plant certain seeds, I may, if I tend the garden, get certain vegetables. A month ago I told my mind I wanted to write an essay about the external world of my writing. For some reason it seemed harder to conceive than usual. I figured I’d end up writing about the inner world — but that I’d learn something new about the inner one trying to describe the outer one.
There was a time when I could not so easily find the inner space conducive to words flowing. When I got upset by intrusions; when I tried to make myself write fiction like a real writer. And since I couldn’t do it very well or very easily, I decided I wasn’t a writer. Then I’d go to the library, gravitate to the 824’s, find a book of Virginia Woolf’s essays about the novel of the future and where she felt fiction was going, and get reinspired. Maybe I would be able to do what she projected as being possible: write out my mind. Maybe I would be able to join in the continuing tradition of women writers building a literature which would make possible the natural flourishing of a “sister to Shakespeare.” Her dreams — even her failure, probably — helped my own sense of destiny, what I could individually do, and helped me believe I was a writer. For even though I wrote almost every day from age 21, in order to understand myself and keep my conscious world connected, I did not think for many years this counted. Now I know it does. Now I know it’s the most important writing I do. I don’t know how important — but I also was encouraged by something she said, not to worry about that either. “Whether it matters for hours or for centuries,” she argued, “isn’t important.” The main thing was “not to let a professor (or anyone else! I’d add) with a measuring rod up his sleeve touch a hair of the head of your vision.”
My friend with whom I’m staying came up, partly out of her loneliness and partly out of concern, wanting to know if I was warm enough. Right in the middle of that precious flow of words! But I’ve learned not to be greedy. She and her affectionate, impulsive intrusion won’t take away my inner where. Today I didn’t need my green rocker to tuck my feet up in, my familiar woods out the window, my cluttered living room floor. I had this private space, and her responsiveness to where I was. I am invited to join her when I’m ready for company, to talk with her while she cuts some cloth, and I’ve promised, when I’m ready, to go down and to read her this essay.
Where do I write? I write in and from that place where things inside me come to rest on a kind of pivot, and begin to speak. Sometimes, I am more nearly going to a ritual of listening — like going daily down to the Ganges to bathe. I wrote about my daily diary entries that way once: “daily ablutions; washing.”
Whether your writing matters is related to this pivot, and that’s why all the measuring rods up all the sleeves don’t matter. If we can’t touch an inner and persistent truth, if what we say can’t be out of a self-connected core that promises us some hope of being connected better to others, why do it? It is better to be silent than to write pro forma for any other reason.
Where? Where indeed. The only where is here. Here I am. I will tell you what I feel. That is always a human beginning. No matter what collapses in the outer where the inner where is always there for the rediscovery of our own perception, and that is one of the flints which makes the holy fire of seeing into another’s inner where and being seen for yours.