I was 23.
A few weeks earlier, I had quit the newspaper reporting job I had been dreaming about for years, and declared my intent to make a real go at more creative writing, beginning with . . . well, I wasn’t exactly sure. But I had moved four states away from my home state of Indiana and found myself sleeping in the downstairs bedroom of my brother and sister-in-law’s suburban Atlanta home.
First things first, I needed to earn some money. Though I planned to eventually re-enter academia at the University of Georgia in Athens, no jobs availed themselves in that leafy college town. After three weeks, I panicked that I would become a free-loader and end up destitute, with no dignity or ambition. So I took a job as a proofreader in the opposite direction from my educational dreams, closer to the big city, where I hoped opportunity would arise.
Gainfully employed, I moved out of my brother’s basement and into a one-bedroom apartment. I turned the laundry room into an office, and invested in my first new computer. Over the next several weeks, though it pained me, I began to understand that I would not go back to school, not then. And my second shift work schedule meant social insecurity – my evenings were spent working not attending movies or dinners out with friends – and personal insecurity – I was living in an urban area for the first time, and coming home alone in the dark was terrifying.
Within nine months, I loaded everything back in a U-haul and returned to Indiana.
But not before I had a stark encounter with Annie Dillard.
In those early days when I first arrived in Georgia, when I was sleeping on a mattress on the office floor before the basement bedroom was ready, I was browsing through my brother’s bookshelf and found Dillard’s An American Childhood. Having read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while in high school (a loaner from my brother on one of his college breaks), I devoured this second book in a day, and soon after, I read The Writing Life.
I didn’t really remember many of the words Dillard used, or even the stories she told. Not until I recently reread the book after all of these years. But laying there so low to the ground on that mattress-covered floor, I knew I would be willing to sink even lower if only I could write like Annie.
I was 25.
A young lady I met at church, Miriam, told me one of her favorite authors was Madeleine L’Engle.
“Mine too!” I told her, knowing then that we would be friends.
“You’ve read the Crosswick Journals, haven’t you?” That’s how I remember Miriam asking me. Like any fan of Madeleine’s would surely have read the Crosswick Journals. But I hadn’t. I had read only her fiction at that point. And a poem or two.
So, I read Madeleine’s journals. I may have borrowed them from Miriam for that first reading, though the full set that now sits on my bookshelf is yellowed enough that I possibly bought them back then. Either way, whether I owned the books or not, her words owned me.
I want to write like this, I thought, marveling at how she could gather bits and pieces of seemingly unrelated ideas, connecting them with nothing but a typesetter’s flourish as she went. Yet by the end of each chapter, she always brought the points together.
While I was reading, I came upon the statement of Madeleine’s that has meant the most to me in my writing, a snippet of her journal I have quoted so many times in so many essays that it has become a part of my credo:
A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else. (A Circle of Quiet, page 147)
So I wasn’t yet writing, not in any significant way. But as I finished the journals and moved on to read as much as I could of what Madeleine had written, I was being made to want to.
So very desperately, I was being made to want to write.
I was 30.
My first article had been published in Discipleship Journal, and I was elated. Except for the fact that some heavy-handed editing had stripped my voice completely away. Most of the words in the article were mine. But it didn’t sound like me. I was worried.
What good is it to publish an article if it doesn’t even sound like I wrote it¸I thought.
In another issue of the same magazine, I saw advertised a book by a new author, Mark Buchanan. He was a pastor from Canada, completely unknown by me. But the title of his book, Your God is Too Safe, caught my attention, probably because I had just finished reading The Chronicles of Narnia the summer before where Mr. Beaver proclaimed of Aslan, “Of course he isn’t safe… but… he’s GOOD.”
I bought Buchanan’s book from the Christian bookstore just below my apartment, and began reading curiously. The memories of that book’s contents are hazy, though I have it sitting on my lap even now. The thing I remember most, though, is his voice. It reminded me of my own, the one that had been edited so thoroughly.
His style was lyrical, even excessive, and I liked that about him. One sentence would go on much too long, so long in fact, that it became completely true and utterly breathtaking. And sometimes, an entire paragraph probably could have been one sentence, at least in its singularity of thought and its fractured grammar. But in his artistry, Buchanan would break it all apart. Like this one: “And then, he’s there—the man. An ambush. The hard, two fisted, grappling. The surging strength of adrenaline, the heart drumming in the ears, the sweat-slipping skin, the crushing, stinging, wrenching, clawing of hand on flesh on bone. The breathiness and breathlessness. The aching.”
If Mark Buchanan, first time author from Canada, could write like that, than so could I, I decided. So could I.
I was 40.
Just a couple of feet in front of me, seated in the first row of the Ballantine Auditorium of Indiana University, was a tall, lanky hero of mine. Wendell Berry became a literary friend just a few years earlier. After seeing him quoted in many books and articles, I tracked him down, trying to find a way into his work. Eventually, I read The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays, which at last gave me a proper introduction to the man and his work. And turned a friend into a hero.
Everything about Wendell Berry spoke of his sweet reasonableness, including the tweed jacket he wore the night we heard him speak. A tweed jacket on a farmer! Ann Kroeker was with me, snapping pictures and taking in the charged atmosphere of the roomful of Wendell-ites. At one point, she held up her hands, wiggling her fingers as though kneading bread.
You’re so close you could give him a little massage, she mouthed, as I stifled a full-out laugh.
Wendell’s life and philosophy speak as much to me as his writing, if you must know. His commitment to God and family and his conservation of land and decency seem like a voice crying out in the wilderness.
But his commitment to the AND in his life – farming AND writing, family AND community, intelligence AND simplicity – this is what entered into my writing life to help make it sustainable.
When the lecture and reading was over and after a few lucky audience members got to ask their questions, the standing-room-only crowd shuffled out of the auditorium. Ann and I had been wise to get there early.
As a few people lingered, Ann and I thought we might have the chance to meet Wendell, especially since the moderator for the evening’s discussion was someone she knew from her student days at IU. We walked up and she introduced me to her former professor, and also to poet and professor, Maurice Manning, whom Ann knew from a workshop. Maurice was a former apprentice of Wendell’s. He was there talking with Tanya, Wendell’s wife. So we met her, too.
We left without actually meeting that tall, lanky hero of mine, but I wasn’t too disappointed. I had already known him for years.
I am 42.
On many nights lately, after we finish dinner and ensure homework is done and get the boys settled into a television show or a You-tube video, I curl up on the couch or in the recliner and pull out my signed copy of Earth Works: Selected Essays.
For Charity, it says. Then simply, Scott R. Sanders.
I have taken my time reading this book for some reason. In fact, I bought the copy and had it signed by the author on May 1, 2012. I know because the he signed the date along with his name. At the time, I was finishing up another of his books, and then I moved on to other things, and only since May of this year have I gone back and begun reading the essays.
May 1, 2012, wasn’t the first time I met SRS, as Dr. Sanders often refers to himself. He was, after all, the moderator I met at the Wendell Berry event at IU two and a half years earlier. While I nearly dismissed SRS on our first meeting, doe-eyed as I was for the guest of honor, Ann and I had come just to hear him on this occasion.
An essayist’s essayist is how I would describe Sanders, even if the title limits far too handily; he writes fiction and poetry, too. I haven’t read anything but his essays, though, and I don’t know if I will. I am far too enamored with his penchant for detail and his ardent chasing of memories and with the slow-burning success of his life with words that encourages me not just to keep pursing a form, but a calling.
Dawn after dawn I forced myself from bed, hid away in my cramped study, bent over the keyboard, and hammered lines across the blank pages, all the while struggling to ignore the voices of my young children, first Eva and then Jesse, who clamored at the door, struggling to forget the well-meaning questions of friends who asked me whatever had become of this book or that, fighting against my own doubts. Every writer must pass through such seasons of despondency, some for shorter periods, some for longer. Each of us must find reasons to keep on. What kept me writing? Stubbornness, for one thing – a refusal to give up certain stories, questions, images, and characters. The pleasure of living among words, for another thing. When I was in the flow of work, I felt free and whole. I played the eighty-eight keys of language as a musician improvises on piano, my fingers and ears captured by it, my body swaying. Although it is unfashionable to say so, a good marriage also helped me to keep writing. I hid my gloom from everyone except Ruth, who stood by me in the dark, and who urged me to follow my talent, no matter how crooked it was, not matter if the world never took any notice. (“Letter to a Reader” in Earth Works, page 150)
I still have a dozen or more essays left to read in Earth Works. Slowly is how I will receive them. And deliberately. Sometimes, as I already have a time or two, I will pause and read a section to my husband. Other times, I will stop and mark a passage, or copy it out long hand on a note card, or type it quickly into my Google Docs, as I have done with several passages marked throughout the book already. These snippets are gifts, inspiration for my own work, and an invitation to always continue in this mysterious and hysterical and fragile life of words.
I will be 43 soon.
Photo by merick.fightBoredom, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.