Friday, October 9, 2009

Say What You Need To Say (Louisa, VA)

Above: Lee, Fritz & Me in Louisa, VA

Thursday was unseasonably warm in Virginia. By mid-day the temperature was past 80 with no clouds to even temporarily silence a clamouring sun. I was walking from Unionville to Louisa along country roads that offered an intrepid walker little respite by way of shade, benches or stores.

The heat aside it was a another beautiful walk, past farms and around lakes, but I was restless of mind and body. My mind was still toying with the idea of abbreviating my adventure and ending it short of New Orleans. My body, meanwhile, was itching. Insect bites from the road and from friendly bed bugs in Opal had me fighting off the urge to constantly scratch at my ankles and back. In a word, I was unsettled.

I knew I had a couple hours of lag time in my schedule but I couldn't find anywhere suitable to stop and write. As mid-day crept into the afternoon my inability to find a suitable work spot only added to my feelings of aggravation. Everywhere I looked there were only deep woods and fields of cows eyeing me suspiciously.

Finally, about an hour's walk from my host's house, I came upon Mount Berea Baptist Church and a wonderful collection of picnic tables in the shade. I unhitched my load, took off my socks and shoes and started to write. I made a wonderful discovery. Writing eased my unsettled mind. Having a creative outlet - saying what I felt I need to say - calmed my restless thoughts and gave me a purpose. The cool breeze didn't hurt either.

I have a complicated relationship with writing. I rarely want to write, but when I push through the initial resistance and do it, I feel wonderful afterward. I think a lot of people can relate to that dichotomy with some activity in their life.

I was in a much better state of mind after my two-hour writing break. An elderly deacon at the church pulled up along side me in his station wagon. He had been a member of that church for 75 years and we talked about its history and he asked questions about my journey. In a hard and lonely day of walking his interest was like a cool drink of water.

It was appropriate that writing was on my mind when I arrived at the Knapps. As I talked with Lee I learned that she had published a book and has a clear idea in her head for a future writing project. We talked about writing as a discipline and an inspiration, but also as a challenge to be completely honest. The more honest a writer can be, the deeper it will resonate with a reader. The author Michael Chabon recently talked about this with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He said he knows he is being most honest when he starts to feel that inner cringe of embarrassment as words cascade onto the page. That is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. It drums up feelings of shame, fear of judgment and a worry for how those you love might react to previously unknown truths. But at the end of the day the fact that it is truth means that it needs to be said. All my truths are part of who I am and as a writer I shouldn't shy away from that, regardless of how awkward it feels that others will be reading it and making their own judgments.

Lee and her husband Fritz are both school teachers - Lee in High School and Fritz in Middle School. It won't come as a shock that our discussion about writing soon turned to story telling in general and that allowed me to bring the conversation around full circle ... to The Wire. Turns out Lee & Fritz have become recent devotees of The Wire through Netflix. God Bless Em. I am not sure if they saw the light go on in my eyes or not but it wasn't long until we decided to watch the first two episodes of season three together.

The Wire is as close to a novel as you will find in television or film. In five sprawling seasons The Wire represents what writers David Simon and Ed Burns had to say about institutions in American cities and how they impact the lives of everyday people who live there. What will be Lee's next story? What will be mine? In the end, it doesn't matter as much if only 1/1000th as many people read it as saw The Wire. What will matter is that we say what we have to say, pushing aside any fears of what people who read it will think. At the end of a day - whether an unseasonably warm one in Virginia or a cold winter's day in upstate New York - that has to be my measuring stick.

For Lee & Fritz, what I felt like I had to say was light on profundity and heavy on anticipatory glee. This intrepid walker left the two intrepid teachers with these words of wisdom, "You're gonna absolutely love season four of The Wire."