Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy
as religion, this is, with its chronic
key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy cerebellum,
its sturm and drangish, bum-
rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum.
—from “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithhauser (featured on Poetry Daily, May 10).
My friend says we all have a hungry ghost inside us. Both Buddhism and Taoism recognize this entity, which can arise from neglect or desertion of an ancestor. My friend isn’t using the term in that traditional sense, of course, but metaphorically; a hungry ghost can never be satisfied.
Hungry ghost. The term popped into my mind unexpectedly this morning as I walked with the dogs through the woods, searching for signs of spring. I was, myself, hungry, gulping in a kelpy scent coming off the bay, a smell I associate with the open ocean. Salty, low-tide, far-away. After a day of sun and promise, this morning a smoky gray pall had greeted my eyes when I’d pulled back the curtains. No shadows. No bright patches. Cool, only 40 degrees, trees leafless, ground wet, fifty shades of brown, sullen. Spring, so corporeal yesterday, transformed into a ghost again.
Writing is like that. The hungry ghost craves inspiration. Yet it’s hit and missy, as Leithhauser puts it. Unreliable. There’s a key. There’s a padlock. Some days the key in your hand just won’t fit. Some days, inspired, words, true ones, flow from head to hand to page. Some days, dull words clomp, clad in cement boots. You sound so damn stilted. Years ago, daunted by my first writing retreat down in Sitka, a wise poet-friend said: “One good sentence a day. One sentence worth keeping. What if that were your goal?” One inspired sentence. A hungry ghost whispering, more.
But inspiration comes unbidden, like the rare sighting of an owl or wolf in the woods. How many times have I walked the loop full of expectation – down the dirt road, a left turn at the dead spruce, a short walk along the wetland, a jump across the ditch, hands in the earth pulling me up the other side into the birch forest at the edge of the slough, stopping every twenty feet to scan for moose or coyotes or a bear – and saw nothing I hungered for. This morning I saw: in a copse of birches, the tree stand someone long ago had nailed up, collapsed. What did it mean? All the obvious metaphors drifted by, like dead leaves down the rivulets in the slough below. Ideas, inspiration. The support beams had rotted underneath, spilling the plywood sheet to the earth. Nothing more.
A writer is a hungry ghost. For a writer, a walk is never simply a walk. It’s a collection trip. It’s a beseeching sort of prayer. Inspire me. Shake me up out of this lethargy. Knife a hole out of this heavy sky. Wake me up. Teach me how to see. Tweet a first line in my ear.
And when the prayers go unanswered, we sit before the page anyway. We walk the same trail, over and over, laying down a muddy path through familiar woods, collecting what’s given, squirreling it away, using it later. Things are always falling in the woods. Last winter, a beautiful birch. A tree stand. One spruce tree in a grouping had died. I stood and puzzled at its rusty needled self. What went wrong?
There are two sides to the hungry ghost of writing, a useful one, and a destructive one. How many rituals do we devise, telling ourselves we must enact them in order to write? Time, a certain span of it. This pen. That notebook. Quote tacked to the wall above desk, stack of poetry books beside computer. Coffee made just so. Quiet. This place, that music. And when we do sit down to write, never enough pages. Never the right voice or word. And when we publish, never enough praise. Never enough attention. Ad nauseum. That hungry ghost is nauseous, of course, throat stretched tight, mouth wide, stomach gnawing its own insides raw.
Day of dank, exposed gray mudflats, drizzle, air almost particulate in its graininess and weight. Day inarticulate, brooding. Nothing green poking up out of the dead and fallen meadow grass. I followed the trail of a moose. Its dropping here and there were fresh, gleaming. I could see its prints in the potato patch. I think it’s a she, trying to find a place to bed down to give birth. I pocketed my observations, stopped to note the progress of the rhubarb nubs pushing up out of the earth. I remembered yellow birch leaves, edges burnt brown, mottling the surface of that plywood tree stand last fall, and all the falls before.
And yet. The hungry ghost is also the best of us. The hungry ghost urges, tugs, niggles, nags. The hungry ghost drives us out the door, a journal in our pocket. It urges us to look, to pause, to listen to the wetland surging with snowmelt, to listen for our own voice buried deep as a scaly fiddlehead under a bed of leaf-rot. It urges us to write, and not always what we think we should be writing. What the hell does this mean, the fallen tree stand, the hidden moose, the trail I walk and walk, repetitively, leaving my boot prints. Bear witness to this life, begs the hungry ghost. Bear witness.
What is writing all about? Which hungry ghost do we feed? It is humbling to sit before the page each day. The page, like this gray, uninspiring sky, like this empty, waiting woods. It is humbling to strive to get perception translated into words, knowing we will never get it exactly right. To find that one inspired sentence. To wait, day after day, to cultivate patience in the midst of hunger.
When I teach a class, I sometimes begin by asking people the simple question: Why do you write? No one answers: for attention, for praise. They answer like people who’ve just staggered out of a desert and are asked “Why do you gulp water like that?” Thirsty ghost. Ignore it and you suffer.
And if we think it gets easier, this hungering and thirsting after words, here is what John McPhee wrote about first drafts in a letter to his daughter, who was struggling with writing: Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something –anything—as a first draft.
And then, and then, I swear to you, here at my kitchen table, laboring over this blog post, flinging broken tree stands and moose turds at my computer screen, plopped down in this same spot where I sit every day, a white blur catches my eye, a swooping something, and then I hear strange cries. I open the door, and the cries are loud now, bleating, beseeching, something in pain (you know what it is, the dying rabbit-baby squeal) and then a snowshoe hare suddenly bounds through the underbrush, and on a fallen tree, sits a blue-gray goshawk, baffled, looking this way, that, wondering how the hell that pealing, frantic, fearful beast escaped its grasp. What’s its ratio, I wonder, success to failure? No matter. Driven by hunger, the goshawk flies up into the trees, to begin the hunt again.
I write to feed the hungry ghost, the one for whom inspiration, ever just out of reach, leaps like a self-saved rabbit through the trees. I write because it takes me underneath the mundane, the slog, the muck, the sleep-walk, the petty, the dull, the bored. I write because it gives me back my most-alive life.
Why do you do it? Why do you write? Tell me about your hungry ghost.
Eva Saulitis' most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, published this January by Beacon Press. A poetry collection, Many Ways to Say It, was published by Red Hen Press last fall. Her homeground is comprised of Latvian sand and birch forest, western New York State farmland and beech-maple woods, and Alaskan muskeg, old growth and islet. Visit her at her www.evasaulitis.com.
Posted by Andromeda Romano-Lax at 6:00 AM