Others' Words/My Word!

by Julie Nichols

I've been reading Annie Dillard and Li-Young Lee on writing. "The writer studies literature, not the world," Dillard says:


He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know. The writer knows his field--what has been done, what could be done, the limits--the way a tennis player knows the court. And he, too, plays the edges. That's where the exhilaration is: he hits up the line. He pushes the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps, some madness enters, or strain. Now courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it? Can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power? (106-7)


After some time with this I am compelled--compelled--to cast the book--Dillard's collection of essays old and new, The Abundance--aside. To toss it (carefully, though) onto the little sofa in my office where all things to be dealt with later get tossed--cast the book aside, as I say, grab a pencil and a notebook, and write.


Like most writers--including you, I assume--I came to my worship of words through others' words. Nursery rhyme and fairy tale, picture book and poetry, magazines and newspapers and backs of cereal boxes all beckoned me toward where I am now and cannot leave. Younger writers have blog posts and newsfeeds, web pages and memes. It's all the same: magic words on a screen or printed paper open up the universe. They blow your mind.


Books fall open,

you fall in,

delighted where,

you've never been.

Hear voices

not once heard before,

Reach world through world,

through door on door.

Find unexpected

keys to things,

locked up beyond


True books will venture,

Dare you out,

Whisper secrets,

Maybe shout,

across the gloom,

to you in need

Who hanker for

a book to read.


That's David McCord, on a quite different plane from Dillard or his fellow poet Li-Young Lee.


Most of the time I'm an underliner. I like to buy books (rather than borrow or Kindle them) so I can pencil responses. "Cf. Rilke on Apollo!" "See F. Yates on memory palaces." "Sooooo Dickens!"  But I find I don't underline Lee's words. Breaking the Alabaster Jar is a compilation of "conversations" with the poet, and, strangely, I don't want to mark it up because every word rings like a lovely solemn bell and no one sentence--like no solitary note in a symphony, no  unique ingredient in a gourmet meal--can be singled out. But see this:


All the work precedes the actual writing of the poem and requires a kind of supplication, assuming a vulnerable posture, keeping open. It's like prayer. I think one has to do a lot of struggling before one actually kneels and says the words. Then after that, of course, there's a lot of revision; but I do a lot of reading and mental, spiritual, and emotional struggling before I actually come to the page.


And this:

      When I do get to the page, it usually begins with a line that I can't make any       sense of. Then I write to find out what that line means....I come to the page         with certain experiences and intentions, but the poem begins to happen in a       line, and I write to understand that. (40)


These words fill me with respect--awe, even--for the person who says them, and for words themselves, that they can speak this, and do. When I read them, I want to be wiser. My thinking improves, my aesthetic tastes expand, my commitment to art leaps as a consequence of them.


This week is "My Word!", the launch party for the Spring 2016 issue of Touchstones. Almost twenty years now, our journal has been appearing, showcasing the words of UVU students, and the art, and the thought. The essence. This semester, as always, it's a beautiful volume, full of humor and poignancy and cleverness and wit, and not a few moments where I--or you--might fling the book aside, snatching up your own writing instrument of choice (pen? keyboard? phone?) and gasping I want to write like that! I want to be that writer! I can do that!


We live through words, we writers. Through our art. Everything is words, is art. Li-Young Lee says, "When nature has passed through me as an alembic it comes out as art" (28). Annie  Dillard says:


Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it?....One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time." (110, 115)


Both Dillard and Lee say (I must use the words of others to describe) what Touchstones bears witness to: art is transformation.


Finding the subject, the medium, the form, we find ourselves. The world was created that way; that's the way it's supposed to be. We--you and I, Touchstones contributors and staff and readers--are a community of word-hoarders, sentence-caressers, line-lovers. Others' words inspire me. Your art matters. My Word! celebrates them all. Come to the party, Thursday, April 21, at 7 pm in CB 511 at UVU. We'll all be there, toasting and tasting the word.


Julie Nichols