Why do we write?


[Feature photo: Vincent Lock]

“What kinds of things do you write?” asked Martha…
”I’m not exactly a writer,” Sam corrected her. “I’m a listener. I’m listening for clues about day-to-day life on the planet.”
“But do you write things down?” asked Jessie.
“Of course,” said Sam.
“Are you writing a book?” demanded Martha
“No,” said Sam. “I’m saving stories. So a hundred years from now people will know how it was with us…”

—Nancy Willard, Sister Water

I have finished writing my third novel, 29. It will be published in August by Torrey House Press. These last days I have felt empty. I haven’t felt depressed in years. Panic is my MO. I moved slowly through the day, planted catnip for the Spring, re-potted an avocado, opened the freezer door at least five times to contemplate the Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream and closed the door firmly – I was in what my pal, Michael, and I call a million dollar crisis.

I waited till almost sunset to walk in Buffalo Park, a wild-flower starred meadow at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. A woman was on the path ahead of me. She walked slowly, not with the stroll of a desperately laid-back tourist, but with the careful steps of a person whose joints were stiff with arthritis. She had pure white hair. She wore a black sweater, gray slacks, and beige walking shoes. Her back was straight as a young dancer’s — and she carried a long-stemmed orange carnation carefully in front of her.

She came to the little juniper at the bend in the path and stopped. I held back. I am a woman who walks alone at twilight and midnight. I know what I feel when someone comes up behind me. The woman sat on a boulder beside the tree and looked up at the dark mountain. The white hair. The black sweater. The perfect orange carnation. I walked toward her. She turned. We smiled.

“What now?” came into my mind.

“May I tell you something?” I said to her.

“Of course.”

“I wonder why a woman would be walking the path this time of day carrying a carnation. I thought to myself, ‘There is a story there.’”

“My son died a few years ago in Tucson.” Her face and voice were gentle.

“I’m so sorry.” I touched her arm. She didn’t pull away.

“He was on an outing with his church group,” she said. “There were three young men. They wanted money for drugs. When he wouldn’t give them any, they beat him to death.”

She paused. “I don’t live here in Flagstaff, but my daughters do. We always come here each year. They were both busy so I told them I would go to the park by myself. They were worried, but I told them I wasn’t afraid.”

I didn’t ask her the logical questions. There didn’t seem to be any. “How old was he?” I say. I imagine a boy in his teens or twenties.

“Forty,” she said. “He left behind a wife and a teen-age daughter.

“At the trial, my grand-daughter stood up and faced the killers. ‘You took my father from me,’ she said and she read a piece she’d written about her dad – about how they would go camping together and how much he loved the quiet places. I was so proud of her.”

We looked out over the meadow in silence for a few minutes.

She smiled again. “I’ll leave this flower here. It’s not like the wild ones out there. Next year I’ll pick one of those. I know now that my son was more wild than tamed.”

We embraced. She turned back to the mountain. I walked along the dirt path. The light had gone silver, the meadow dark. I listened to the lone meadowlark. I wanted the light and sweet air and bird call to last forever. I thought of how I cling to everything, how I would capture every sweetness if I could.

A few hours later, I made my supper. I read while I ate. Nancy Willard. Sister Water. I found the words I hadn’t known I was looking for and understood that capturing is what a writer does, for as long as it takes to witness, remember, and record. And still, there is this:

“…look over there,” said Sam. “A turtle.”
The turtle was making its way slowly toward the water like a man exercising for his health.
“Oh let’s catch him!”
But Sam made no move to catch the turtle. He kept on paddling in dreamy circles around Stevie. “I wonder if he’s carrying a message,” he said at last. “He’s headed straight for us.”
“Let’s catch him,” said Stevie. “Come on, Sam. Let’s catch him.”
“If you catch him, he can’t do his work.”

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