When my boys went back to school a couple of weeks ago, my excitement was palpable. The hype that naturally comes with launching a book into this world had finally died down, and although I had a couple of projects and events on the horizon, for the most part, the slate was blank.
But if I’m honest with you, the slate was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating.
What I want is to sit in front of that blank screen or pad of paper, and right when I’m starting to twiddle my thumbs a little bit and wonder whether I’m actually allowed to call myself a writer, to see solitary words to start swirling through the air. It happens slowly at first – a single word here, then, a couple of seconds later, jumbled bits of lexicon follow in its wake. Soon, an explosion of words tumble onto the scene, and if I’m being faithful to myself (and to the Writing Muse within me), I follow the words, wherever they may go. My pen scrambles to keep up. I breathe new life into old words. Letters fuse into words, into sentences, and eventually, into entire paragraphs.
But this, my friends, is not usually, actually, ever what seems to happen.
Instead, I stare at a blank screen and wonder if it’s possible to transport myself back to Mrs. Sandhu’s seventh grade English classroom, when a single-word prompt did wonders to my creative writing career and 500-word essays flowed like milk and honey from my #2 pencil.
Of course, it happened because someone told me what to write – because a favorite teacher gave one aspiring adolescent writer an ounce or two of direction when she needed it most.
But Mrs. Sandhu doesn’t give me writing assignments anymore, nor does she send me a list of weekly writing prompts to get the creative juices flowing. Instead, when I am left to my own devices, I can tend to feel a bit rusty.
It’s then that I remember a single phrase from Saint Maya: write down.
In a collection of short essays called Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou tells a story about how, when she was at the end of her rope, she went to visit her voice teacher and mentor Wilkie – because, as she said, he was the only person she could be honest with about her troubles.
At the end of her lament, his directive was simple: write down your blessings. Although she scoffed at the very notion, she later said of his words to her:
“First write down that I said write down and think of the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, or a symphony, or their own babies crying. Write down, I can hear – Thank God. Then write down that you can see this yellow pad, and think of the millions of people around the world who cannot see a waterfall, or flowers blooming, or their lover’s face. Write I can see – Thank God. Then write down that you can read. Think of the millions of people around the world who cannot read the news of the day, or a letter from home, a stop sign on a busy street, or …” (66)
When I feel stuck, like I just want Mrs. Sandhu-in-a-bottle to magically appear and hand me the world’s best writing prompt? Write down.
When I feel overwhelmed by the hate and the sadness and the injustice in the world, especially toward my brothers and sisters of color, and it causes me to feel paralyzed by pain? Write down.
When I don’t know whether or not I should even call myself a spiritual memoirist because sometimes I feel so far from knowing – really, actually knowing and believing and accepting the love of God – so why and how do I continue to follow this path? Write down.
And when I forget that maybe I’m being too hard on myself, that perhaps the only thing I’m supposed to really do is relish in the present of the beautiful, messy, ordinary everyday, and love the beautiful, messy, ordinary humans whose stories have somehow intersected with my own? Well, I do the only thing I can do in this situation. (I) Write down.
So, perhaps Saint Maya did have something to say – to me, and to the thousands who read and are inspired by her words, and maybe by you too.
Whatever your occupation, whatever your heart, whatever your creative outlet, might you look at the gracious, hope-filled world around you, take out that pen and paper, and – you guessed it – write down your blessings.
Who is Maya Angelou to you, and how has she inspired you, whatever your path? Also, whatever your “write down,” write down, I say!
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