After a week roving New England, the wompus is in workshop at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, hip deep in my own manuscript and those of my workshop-mates. Here’s something I wrote as I prepared.
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I’m working on a difficult manuscript. I’ve put it aside for weeks at a time, just for a little relief. Today I focused on a long poem, editing in a purely structural way. Even that much contact leaves me a little breathless. Most of my past six months have been immersion in all things Kattywompus. It’s time right now to get down to my own writing.
When I’m pushing the work uphill, it’s good to stop and ask, in what do I take refuge? Where do I draw the strength for this task before me? In Buddhism there is a saying: I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. The Buddha is easy to understand–refuge in that which we consider divine. Dharma refers to teachings of the Buddha, so, also clear enough. For me, most elusive is sangha, and how it translates in the writing life. I practice no religion, though I draw from the wisdom traditions of many cultures. For the Buddhist, sangha means the community of seekers. For me there is some parallel in the art world. My sangha—my peeps—are a sometimes abstract network of fellow travelers in the arts.
In ten days I start a workshop at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center—a workshop which will help me hone tools as both a writer and an editor. FAWC is as close as I come to a corporeal sangha. This is my third year doing a week long workshop there, and it’s become my refuge. My writing respite, where I focus primarily and devotedly on my writing. Having this refuge, seeing it ahead on the road, for even a single week out of the year, helps me to push through, to take the risk of delving deeper.
My daughter is a special needs counselor at a performing arts camp this summer. On performance night, her assigned camper panicked and could not go onstage. They pushed past that fear and rejoined the production, but this camper was not able to perform a solo, so my daughter sang it. The show must go on. The camper recovered, had fun, had a happy ending.
Some of what I write—like many other writers—I write for those who can’t, people whose voices are stilled. The manuscript on which I am now at work is written for my younger self, powerless and voiceless—and for the larger, concentric circles of those similarly silenced. When we undertake these sorts of projects I think it is with a hope of healing, though we can never know whose healing that might be. Perhaps the writer heals herself, or her fellow sufferers, to some small degree. Or perhaps she discovers, through crafting the work, some holes in the soul which can only be mended, not restored.
I could not do the book I’m doing now until I was strong enough to accept that some wounds can’t be healed. They can be survived. They can be protected from further damage. But some injuries reshape us forever. The self who was lost, who was jettisoned in order to survive, is gone. This is one of the hard things about healing from trauma: accepting that grief has changed us. That loss has irrevocably altered the path of our lives.
The Pollyanna response is to optimistically declare all such changes for the best, but that’s disingenuous. Sometimes loss is simply loss, not a better development. But as another little intimation of mortality, this little death of self, we can always make use of the wound. The wound has something to tell us, if we’re brave enough to listen. And a lot of art originates in the wound.
I’m too close to this book of mine right now. I can’t see whether it’s successful at what it aims to achieve, how close it is to its necessary shape—and I take on faith that I don’t need to know these things yet.
Maybe the workshop will bolster my confidence. Maybe it will shake me to the core, show me some way the book has gotten lost and must be severely transformed. For me, sangha is where I walk skinless in the world, to do the work of the skinless. Till it’s time to reassume my usual roles in the outer world, sangha is where I remember who and what I most deeply am, and need to be. So, how important is sangha?
How important is oxygen?