What is writing for?
I confess that, after having taught creative writing for more than 35 years and read tons of student writing I don’t remember and tons of good and great books by good and great authors I also don’t remember, I sometimes find myself wondering if we really need any more new writing. I mean, there are a lot of good books around already, and most of us will never write as well as the books we love.
Of course there are important new takes on old tales, and people who haven’t been able to tell their stories before who need to tell them, and all of us who need to hear these stories. But, honestly, how much of what most of us write will end up important or lasting? Sometimes I wonder what writing is for any more.
So I’m trying to think of writing now – of things written – less as fixed artifacts than as occasions for encounter.
This past fall, my wife, Chris, and I went to Japan for a week to walk along a route taken by the 17th century poet, Basho. I have been reading and teaching Basho’s masterpiece of travel journal and haiku, The Narrow Road to the Interior, for years, so this trip was kind of a pilgrimage for me. When Basho walked, northern Honshu was remote and wild and dangerous. Nowadays it’s a region beloved by hikers and naturalists who come to enjoy the hot springs and the views. Chris and I wound up walking with a small group of folks who had been drawn to the walk less for reasons of literature than for geography. Every day we walked to some place Basho had stopped and read aloud, first in Japanese and then in English, something he’d written there. Basho’s old words gave us focus, stuff to chew on then talk about as we slogged and tramped and oofed over hill and dale. One night at dinner, a member of our group asked tentatively if we would mind if she read us something. Alice, a retired dentist, had never written a haiku before in her life, she told us, but Basho had inspired her. She shyly read us her carefully constructed 5-7-5 haiku about a place we’d walked that day, and all the changes in the weather and her heart. Her reading her poem aloud to us – her writing it – were unexpected gifts. After she read her poem, we clapped, then talked about what she’d written and what we’d all seen and felt that day. Her writing and reading aloud to us were more than the poem itself. Her poem was an incitement to be open.
A few nights later, when Alice stood up after dinner to read her new poem to us (she was writing haiku every day now; some of the rest of us were trying to too…), a table of Japanese diners near us stopped to listen. After Alice finished reading, one of the Japanese women stood up at her table and read a haiku of hers. She was traveling with a group of Basho fans who understood, even without knowing English, that Alice had read a haiku. When the Japanese woman finished hers, our bilingual guide translated both poems out loud for us. Within minutes we were gathered around each others’ tables, smiling and talking in a sign language of gestures and laughs. Frankly, I don’t remember the contents of either of the poems read that night. What I remember is the experience these poems – the two poems by the women and the poems of Basho – gave us. They brought us all together for a while, and that’s enough.