I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’s book. The library wants it back. It is a slim volume – with 54 short essay-length chapters. I have had the book for 10 days. I have 11 days left. I am only about a third done. It is a book not to be read with SRA speed – it is a book to be tasted, considered, appreciated.
Someone else is waiting for it.
I will have to consume it more quickly – chow it down – more quickly than I’d choose: others are waiting. Others are hungry for her words, too.
What makes us hunger for the words of others? It may, in part, be their wisdom, their perspective. But I think it is that the words fix the wisdom in typographical concrete – like personal pyramids. For readers, they are fixed. Something they can remember and refer back to as desired. For writers, however, the words are a short stretch of the path, a self-reflection in the flowing stream. Momentary. Living.
I am hungry for my own words. Seeing them written down has indescribable satisfaction. They will live – likely out there in the ether rather than on stone or vellum. They are real – and yet as I reread them, they change. The stories I remember shimmer a bit in their self-reflection; and they change – ever so slightly – to make room for more thoughts, augmenting thoughts – thoughts that stretch the limited meaning of stories contained in the repetitious and cramped connections of my memory. Once the words and stories are born on paper, they change. They breathe. They unfold – moment by moment expanding the snapshot in my head to include the others outside the camera’s lens – those who are present and unseen in the photo. The connections implied and not apprehended.
I am reminded of a story my husband told me years ago. The inmates of a prison, after decades of telling their jokes and stories to each other, devised a numerical code for each story. That way, one inmate could just yell out “45”, and everyone would laugh or nod and smile. This saved a lot of time and breath and worked well until the new inmates arrived. The new inmates didn’t get it, so they asked for the jokes and the stories in their long form. When the old inmates tried to relate the longer form, they found they could no longer remember the longer versions, only the numbers.
The stories in my head are memories by these numbers – stale, frozen, and stagnant – until I sit and let my fingers breathe life into the freeze-dried packet of what I’ve always thought happened in my own #45.
This is what I hunger for – the alchemy that occurs when writing unfolds a living truth long forgotten – the power of words to heal.