It’s not that I haven’t been writing at all. But it’s been a tentative gesture. The divorce was a sad hell. It roamed the hallways of my mind for months. Writing seemed inappropriate. I had nothing to say anyway. It was only over the holidays (away from my teaching job for two weeks and the beginning of the final ceasefire) that I heard it — the voice that once again stepped in to narrate events to me. I was on my way to go hiking. A near-suicidal depression had me in its morose grip when the voice began to speak: “I have joined a club of which I never wanted to be a member.” The voice narrated my situation to me. It described my depression with a clinician’s detachment. It described the Scriptural light pouring through the oaks, the Spanish moss like hundreds of flags streaming in the wind. My friend is back, I thought with relief, my old friend. And though I was still unutterably depressed, I was not alone.
The voice, to me, is crucial to writing — any kind of writing from a book review to a poem. But it’s more than that, too. I think being able to distinguish the voice is a spiritual activity. In his book Practicing the Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle brings up the idea of the “witness.” He says that when we are able to disassociate ourselves from the voice in our head, we are allowing a “new dimension of consciousness” to come in. As Tolle writes: “There is the voice, and here I am listening to it, watching it. This I am realization, this sense of your own presence, is not a thought. It arises from beyond the mind.” Now, in Tolle’s version the voice is the busy activity of the mind or the ego and we are the ones who are the witnesses. But I think with the narrative voice — the one that gives writers their stories — it may be the reverse. That voice is the voice of the witness. Whichever it is, the effect is the same.
So how do we access the voice? Sometimes it shows up of its own accord. Other times it requires a pen and piece of paper to get it going. It may want to be coaxed. If there are other writers around all listening to their voices, then it usually finds that a conducive atmosphere. I find that my narrative voice likes nature with all her variety. So in January when I led a writers retreat at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in the Shenandoah Valley region, we gave it a try. It was chilly that weekend but no blizzard (like the one I’d encountered in 2012) forecast. We took our journals and our pens and went outside to observe our surroundings. We sat on benches and tree stumps in the midst of the seven oaks and watched and listened without judgment.
I haven’t yet collected the writings of the participants so I’ll share what I wrote:
A cardinal darts past, low. Farther away a crow caws. A woodpecker sounds like a machine gun. Above me, around me, the papery sound of leaves. A sky striated with clouds. So much ruckus. In the distance the low hum of the highway. A woman shuffles through the leaves. A blue jay heckles us. These birds who live in wild abandon. Is that a dog barking somewhere to the west?
This resting spot, the base of a mighty oak that probably lived two or three times as long as I’ll live and is now only a base – cut at perfect sitting height, its progeny now sprouting at its heart.
The wind stills and the cold dies for a moment, only to pick back up. The crows converse, not caring who overhears their unsavory remarks. I feel the afternoon sun on my fingers. For a moment everything seems a mere projection. A world I’ve created by my gaze. For a moment I feel so filled with light. As if the white sun and I are in cahoots, as if peace is a warm fire burning in my chest.
If your voice has been quiet for a while, take it outside, observe everything that you see. Then listen. Without judgment. You are only taking dictation.