Creativity Series: “I Thought I Saw It” by Dyana Herron

The Bereshit Bara Creativity Series asks 13 Creatives to wrestle with how they make the first move, write the first word, fling the first brush stroke, peel back the first layer of clay? What inspires them, what moves them, what drives them? Last week featured the poet Elizabeth Myrh and the teacher/writer Derek Smith. I’d also like to hear from YOU. Send me your thoughts or a link to your post wrestling with these questions at rossgale4@gmail.com. You can listen to the podcasts of the series. I highly recommend listening to today’s post as you read along.

Download episodes or Subscribe to the Podcast on iTunes by clicking here.

Listen here:

When I was a kid, I thought a gorilla lived in the woods lining my back yard.

When I told my mom it was out there, that I had seen it, that it was living in those thickly-leafed limbs, its black face and golden eyes staring out at me from above, menacingly, she assured me I was mistaken. Because, you know, we lived in Tennessee.

I wasn’t fully convinced. I considered my mom a pretty reliable source, but I definitely felt something out there. I was cautious in the woods. If I listened hard, I could hear breathing.

As an adult, I understand that a gorilla living in the deciduous forests of Southeast TN is all but impossible. But what did I see, then? Moving shadows? The bulk of a squirrel’s nest? Or did I, in the magical, transformational way of children, externalize other darknesses I sensed in my life but could not fully articulate?

Did I see it?

I still see things. Most of them are real, but sometimes I see things within real situations that probably aren’t real. Confused? Here’s an example. Once I was in the supermarket and saw this old man shopping alone. His cart held a couple Hungry Man frozen dinners and a few cans of cat food. In the cereal aisle, I caught him looking at me. Common enough, right? But I thought, immediately: “I wonder if I remind him of his dead wife.”

Who would think that? It was most likely not true. I probably had food on my shirt, or my fly was unzipped, or something like that. Or he was just looking at me, like I was looking at him. But what I really saw, or thought I saw, was sorrow. And while my imagined scenario was probably not real, sorrow is real.

Life is a constant mediation between things that are, or that happen, and the meaning we assign to what is and what happens. It can be overwhelming. There are so many things that are, and so many things that are happening, and so many more ways now for us to know about them all. It’s difficult to process. Some people don’t struggle with it so much– I guess maybe that is not their purpose in life. Others do. It is their calling, and maybe their curse.

I write poetry and nonfiction essays mainly, because I can’t get past the beauty, tragedy, hilarity, and terror of things that actually happen. And I am in awe that they actually happened when an infinite number of things could have happened instead. I spend a lot of time feeling like Stanley Spector at the end of the film Magnolia, who looks out his window as giant frogs rain down and says, “This happens. This is something that happens.

Fiction writers address the world too, I know, in ways that are just as true. I will leave it to you to sort out for yourself just what a true story is.

The way that I deal with things that happen is that I write about them. I have an M.F.A. and I write things and try to find homes for the things I write, and I think this makes people think that I like writing a lot. But when I’m just thinking about writing, I don’t feel like I like it very much. Sometimes, in fact, I feel like I hate it. Here’s why:

It’s hard to do well, it takes a long time, few people will read it, of the few people who read it not everyone will like it, it will not earn me money, I’m shy, I’m self-critical, I often do not like the sound of my own voice, I feel that no matter how well I write I can never do justice to what I experience, I know I’ll never be as good as the people I admire, and my extended family finds the practice confusing at best and vaguely shameful at worst.

There are many other reasons. Here’s a big one: most of the time, I don’t know what to say.

So what happens? What finally convinces me to take on the extravagant challenge of finding the words, and putting them down?

I’ve thought about this hard, and here’s what I think is closest to the truth. It’s fear. Fear of dying. Fear of not being. When I create something, I am also substantiating myself. Writing is my way of fighting against powerlessness and chaos. It is my way of celebrating and paying homage to love and joy and the miraculous. It is not just a way of saying “This is,” or “This happens,” or “Here’s something,” but a way of saying “I am here.”

Maybe that sounds selfish, but it’s true.

Getting started can be the most difficult step to take in the world. Sometimes it makes me want to vomit when I think about it. But usually, after I dive in, like my mom always said to dive in to cold water instead of wading out, I feel the most amazing thing. A sudden thing.

The Innocence Mission has this song called “The Lakes of Canada.” I love it. You can see a cool video of Sufjan Stevens covering it here. My favorite part is when he sings:

There’s a sudden joy that’s like 
A fish, a moving light. 
I thought I saw it. 

Whether it’s gorillas or fish I see, darkness or light, or whether I see it or only think I see it, I feel called and compelled and even obligated to bear witness to it. And it is–the existence of someone who creates–something to bear, to be born. Thank God that burden eventually gives way to the ecstasy of birth.


Dyana Herron is a writer and editor originally from Tennessee. She now lives with her husband in Philadelphia. You can visit her at dyanaherron.com.

Advertisements

20 thoughts on “Creativity Series: “I Thought I Saw It” by Dyana Herron

  1. I really shouldn’t be reading this today, as I have some urgent deadlines, but this caught my eye… An excellent description of writing, beautifuly captured: those glimpses, those fleeting moments of nearly catching what is never quite attainable.

  2. That scene from Magnolia! I know EXACTLY which one you’re talking about. When we see the boy in the library with books piled around him looking out the window, we don’t even see the precise scene he’s seeing. We’re not bearing witness to the frogs raining down; we see the shadows of frogs behind the boy and bear witness to the one who bears witness. “This happens. This is something that happens.”

  3. “I write poetry and nonfiction essays mainly, because I can’t get past the beauty, tragedy, hilarity, and terror of things that actually happen.”

    Dyana, you have said it very well for me also. If “I thought I saw it” then I did, in my own way, and that perception is what I use as my creative ignition.

    That is exactly why I write nonfiction and poetry as well, plus Annie Dillard taught me 35 years ago how extraordinary the ordinary things of life can be if expressed with wondrous words. Fear of death, as you say, also has something to do with my drive to write, but more so it is worship of my Creator and a celebration of how tangibly a legacy is passed on.

  4. Dyana,
    You got me this morning, as if you were refereeing the screaming match currently going on in my head between:

    “It’s hard to do well, it takes a long time, few people will read it, of the few people who read it not everyone will like it, . . . I do not like the sound of my own voice, I feel that no matter how well I write I can never do justice to what I experience.”

    and

    “Writing is my way of fighting against powerlessness and chaos. It is my way of celebrating and paying homage to love and joy and the miraculous.”

    Thanks for this lovely piece and much needed reminder (a gift ) of why we it is we do this “thing.”
    David

  5. “Life is a constant mediation between things that are, or that happen, and the meaning we assign to what is and what happens. It can be overwhelming. There are so many things that are, and so many things that are happening, and so many more ways now for us to know about them all. It’s difficult to process. Some people don’t struggle with it so much– I guess maybe that is not their purpose in life. Others do. It is their calling, and maybe their curse.”

    ^^^this^^^

    Thanks, friend. I’m glad you’re cursed with this calling.

  6. It feels as if a part of my brain and a bit of my soul splintered open as I read this from start to finish. You’ve captured the essence of a writer and penned it succinctly, it was absolutely beautiful.

  7. Thank you all so much for your kind comments. I’m so glad this resonated with some of you, and I’m sending you all good vibes and prayers as you continue with your work.

  8. Oh, Dyana, you’re the voice crying out in the wilderness of my writing space: “I know I’ll never be as good as the people I admire, and my extended family finds the practice confusing at best and vaguely shameful at worst.”
    I’m incredibly happy to have some hang out time with you at Glen East.

  9. “I am here.” There you are and we see and hear you, and say, me too. Me too.

    This reminds me of a Louis Jenkins prose poem.
    —————————
    The Language of Crows

    A crow has discovered a scrap of roadkill on the blacktop and can’t resist telling everyone in a loud voice. Immediately another crow arrives on the scene and the fight begins, cawing, flapping, and biting. Suddenly crows come flying in from every direction to enter the battle, skimming low over the treetops, all cawing loudly. Finally one crow (it’s impossible to tell which) makes off with the prize and flies a few hundred feet into the trees. But as soon as he stops the others are on him and the melee begins again. This scene is repeated time after time and each time the crows move farther away into the woods until their cawing has grown faint but remains undiminished in intensity. Crows have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly, and communication seems to be a matter of emphasis and volume.

    If you lie quietly in bed in the very early morning, in the half-light before time begins, and listen carefully, the language of crows is easy to understand. “Here I am.” That’s really all there is to say and we say it again and again.

    — Louis Jenkins

  10. The vicarious experience of watching my wife birth our son came to mind in your last line. And that’s such a hopeful moment for me. Thank you! Gives me promise in those days when the writing just sucks but most go on.

    This is just such a well written post! Thank you!

Share your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s