Why write?

I rise in darkness and greet my husband and children who are still asleep. The R21-highway’s lights are a shiny yellow-dotted snake that spreads out in front of me as I drive to the airport. I take a flight to Cape Town, a dove on a mission of peace. From the air I see the day breaking in the east. Mercies are new this morning. The day beckons. I am excited about today’s adventure. My final destination is the Adam Small Theatre in Stellenbosch.

Professor Lizette Rabe is presenting a workshop on writing therapy. She recently released her new book on the subject in Afrikaans called ‘Om tot verhaal te kom’, translated, in my mind, as ‘To come to your story’. I am going to learn about writing, my passion. I am thankful for so many things. For my husband who has made this day possible for me. Thankful also that I am able to learn again as if I am a child, maybe even for the first time. Thankful for the clean slate I’m able to work from.

She tells us how she lost one of her three sons to suicide. “I lost a third of my body weight, literally one of my three sons.” The tears of many people in the packed room tell the story of a deep sense of knowing what she is talking about… In her book’s first chapter she writes about herself, “She would now have to get to know the stranger in the mirror, the women with the faraway eyes, that one that has been mercilessly thrown into a new life together with those closest to her. She would do it with dazed words, or words written in a daze.” Another woman asks, “I hear you when you say we must just start writing. But I am scared. I am scared that when I start, it would be like a doctor’s scalpel that cuts me open. I’m scared that I will never stop bleeding. How do I start?” Her voice is desperate.

The ‘Black dog’-products, an initiative by Dana Snyman and Moses, make their debut. The black dog, a metaphor for depression, that follows us everywhere… “But,” Professor Rabe’s voice is firm, “the black dog listens to our demands, not the other way around.”

I am on a peace mission indeed. To write, I’ve learned, brings me to oases of peace. Peace that in turn makes me an oasis for my husband and children. The vent that is my mouth often fails me miserably. I fall over words, the stutter that I’ve developed as a child has not left me. I repeat myself. I become confused. I feel completely inadequate in the presence of the other person for who talking is nature. Talking exhausts me completely.

Writing brings me to truth. I pour everything that is in my being out on paper or screen. I see it before my very eyes. I can work with it, even touch it. And then the wonderful revelation: I can organize my being. I can literally put one word in front of another here, there I can delete a sentence, and here again I can add a comma so that I can breathe. Everything makes more sense.  Life slows down.

I think about my two young children who are currently discovering the wonder of writing. The first words they learn to write are their names. In doing so they literally tell the world, “Look, here I am.” My son writes his with painful precision. The concentration he does it with tells the story of the most important work he’ll ever do. My daughter writes hers in dramatic sweeps. The ‘z’ and ‘e’ are each written in three segments. Both according to their characters. They write their names so many times that the letters come to life. I think of my husband who admits that he wishes he appreciated language studies more at school. For today, writing is a major part of his job. I think of how I learned to write at school. How we were given marks for neatness. How today, my thoughts are too fast for my hand and as a result, I write illegibly most times, utterly untidy. I am definitely not the same person now as I was at school.

The universe consists of stories, not atoms,” writes Muriel Rukeyser. I think about my mother’s thoughts written down after her son died. I think of the letters my grandparents wrote to each other that is now in a box underneath my stairs. I think of my father in law who keeps his diary diligently. There are so many stories to tell that give meaning to our oftentimes difficult lives here on earth. So many stories that give a voice to those who can’t write or speak anymore. So many stories that just fade away as we do not have the courage to tell them.

I fly back home as the sun sets in the west. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou’s words haunt me. It really is the truth, I can testify from experience. You ask me why I write? The answer is simple: It is the only thing that makes sense, in the true sense of the word.

And that is all I need to know now.


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