Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Page Will Hold You Up

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 21•13

Intention is the writer’s soul.” William Zinsser

Like many people there are parts I love about my life and parts I’m not so crazy about. The part I love is early mornings at my computer with the sky changing in the east, the click of the keyboard, the words that emerge unplanned. The quiet that descends into the deepest parts of me. The solace of writing.

I love that I am surrounded by creative types and writers and have met prolific, best-selling, soulful, talented and envy-inducing authors over the years. I’ve met most of these people at conferences I teach at and conferences that I host twice a year. It would be silly to name names here since these meetings don’t always culminate with friendship, but there have been so many profound moments when afterward I knew something in me changed and I walked away as if holding a rare, South Sea pearl.

We’ve shared meals and drinks and talked kids and politics and world affairs and the state of publishing, but mostly I’ve listened. Which doesn’t come naturally. I’ve sat in on sessions and keynote addresses that have brought me to tears, made me think deeply about the writing life, have changed me in ways both subtle and profound.

This past January I hosted my annual Making It in Changing Times Conference where Lidia Yuknavitch was my keynote speaker. She was speaking on The Worth of Risk. Now, I had interviewed Lidia a few months earlier about her writing process and had asked her hard questions about how to write deeply from a character’s viewpoint. Her answers were inspiring, her thoughts ocean deep and enchanting and practical all at once. She described how to write from the body, borrowing or possibly burrowing into your character’s physicality to make her voice true. She talked about feeling her character’s thighs when she, Lidia was at the desk writing. She described slipping stones under her pillow and other tricks of believing in the elements that surround us.
      So naturally I was looking forward to hearing her speak. Lidia began talking about the times she’d fallen on her face from risk taking. Then she described the times she’d succeeded wildly. She’s now friends with a famous actor after boldly introducing herself at the Sundance Film Festival and she studied in a Masters writing class with Ken Kesey although she was an undergraduate student and sort of weaseled her way into his class. Kesey’s kindness and confidence in her was life changing.

As she warmed to her topic, revealed herself, I could sense the room leaning forward. Bursts of laughter and glances exchanged. But mostly a church stillness. Something powerful was happening as often does when writers gather. This something is difficult to express. The truths and joys and bruises of the writing life admitted to and celebrated.

Next, as she wrapped up her talk, she asked us what risks we take for our writing. I answered that I could write as though my mother was dead. A cruel-sounding proposition, but there you have it. She’s been my judge and jury my whole life, and although this role has faded over the years, even as she’s shrunk and is becoming lost to dementia, I sometimes feel her hot breath on my face, hear her familiar accusations.

Finally it was time for a question and answer period. One woman in the group kept insisting there were too many barriers to writing her memoir, to telling the truth. She explained that she lived in a small town, the people she would write about still were alive. And that’s when   Lidia said, “Just write. The page will hold you up.” And with this simple truth it was as if everyone in the room exhaled then shifted into the same rhythm like a bird flock taking flight. Filled with grace. Soaring.

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  1. Thanks, Jessica. Lidia was electric – inspiring to me, as indeed are you.

  2. It was powerful; I was there… I need to remember those words– and her fierce attachment to language and its alchemy. She is gifted even when speaking. How words inhabit our lives makes such a difference. They alter the writer and the reader, thrust us into spheres where an exhilarating freedom to BE occurs. Or are silent and wait.

  3. This reminds me of a piece of wisdom about essays from one of my mentors in the genre, Lydia Fakundiny. She says that if at some point in its composition an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing. I agree with that. Of course when I start to write a piece I have some idea of where it’s headed – but not much. The discovery is in the writing and the pieces that have pleased me most are those where surprise is a key element, where insights and connections happen that I couldn’t have predicted when I set out. Yes, absolutely, essays are experiments – I sometimes refer to them as wonderings and wanderings in prose. If they don’t take us into unexpected territory they quickly become tedious. This means there’s a strong element of unpredictability about them, which can be frustrating – because sometimes they don’t work, and because they’re resistant to planning. I think beginning writers are sometimes approaching essays with a one-size-fits-all blueprint in mind for how to structure them. That strikes me as desperately wrong-headed. A useful initial exercise for anyone starting out is to read the Best American Essays series and get a sense of just how varied essays can be.

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