By Neva Knott
I think writers work from events, from the literal to the metaphorical, weaving between the two to build a story that, hopefully, will touch the heart or mind of another. I believe everyone has a voice that matters, that counts. As I so boldly put it as I introduced myself to the others in my teaching program at Lewis and Clark, “I want to empower my students through their writing.” And, I believe story is an inescapable, inextricable part of the human experience–it is the expression of human nature. These are the beliefs I work from to teach literature and writing. These are the beliefs built into me as a writer.
Friday and Saturday last, I went to two literary events, readings.
Friday was the Write Around Portland anthology release at a church downtown.
Brightly lit vestibule. People from all fringes of life. A program started by a student-teaching friend of mine, Ben, who, early on, realized he didn’t want to be a part of the school system. He stepped out of Lewis and Clark to build a writing workshop program for street kids. His program now serves all kinds of societal underdogs–he runs workshops in jails, recovery centers, burn centers, low-income housing. I sat in the audience and listened to readers read, and thought about a woman I’d published once in Plazm. I was dead-set on her story, “The Peppermint Poisoned Air,” making it into the issue. She was fresh from a mental hospital and I loved her words. Come to find out, she was one of Ben’s first workshop participants and has continued to work in his program. As I said my hello to Ben, he introduced me to Laura–it was her. She recognized me and thanked me for publishing her work. I replied that her story is one I remember today, and is one of the Plazm pieces closest to me heart.
Next, I ran into a teaching mentor, Bruce, who championed my earliest efforts to get kids to write, think, read. He championed me in my career as a teacher. He had now become the student, taking part in one of Ben’s workshops, and he said it opened up a new part of his life.
At the end of the reading, I bought my copy of the anthology and went home, thinking about the then part of my life, so long ago, the shiny newness of teaching, coming off the high of making Plazm successful, a time in my life before all the shit.
The next day, I read the anthology cover to cover.
Saturday was The Frozen Moment book launch at The Woods, a converted funeral home, now a performance space. A couple of people I knew from the Plazm days were reading. I had a hard time walking in to this one. It was where we took Adam for cremation. Last time I was in that building, a different part of it, thank God, I stood in a room of casket samples, taking a call from a police officer, awaiting Adam’s also shell-shocked dad and brother as they made the arrangements. I won’t lie–it was damned hard to walk into that event. I mustered whatever I mustered, and made it in.
The second reader’s story was about her lover dying in a car wreck, about trying to make sense of how it happened, how it must have been for him. I was that girl, just six years ago. The next reader’s story was about arriving at a hospital to witness someone he’d last seen alive on all the tubes and machines, awaiting organ harvest. Yep, that girl, too. One story was about a guy making out with a nun, one was about a girl’s bracelets she’d grown too big to get off her arm, used as a metaphor for her dysfunctional family, and so on.
But you know what? I sat there and experienced all the emotions of all the stories, I loved all the words, so beautiful and carefully chosen to describe the moments that had changed each person’s life, and was glad for being there. Writing is life.
In any good story, and in some bad ones, realizations come through, as do emotions–the stuff of meaning. So those are the events I’m working from to shape this piece, because it won’t shut up in my head. I didn’t sit there and relive the trauma of losing Adam, the sorrow, the regret, any of that. I sat at both readings and felt the power of writing and somehow was reminded how writing as always been part of my experience. Carlos Fuentes says writers write to live another day. True that.
Then’s there’s the figurative. There’s some very obvious symbolism here–the first event in a church, an event that correlates with the beginning of me life as a teacher. The second event in a converted funeral home, an event that correlates with the end of a whole segment of my life. Bright light at the church, darkness at The Woods.
A very clichéd metaphor, universal at it’s very core, keeps coming to mind as I think about these events. It’s the dark forest, the one we often can’t see for the trees, the one entered by Hansel and Gretel that long ago day. I walked into that place just after my teaching career began. So much went wrong in my personal life and family. I felt like I’d thrown away everything I’d worked hard for, but I walked on. Somehow, I’ve finally come out the other end. What I realized this past weekend is that the markers I left were much more permanent that bread crumbs. I’ll keep writing, to live another day, and another.