National Writing Project

Rita M. Gardner: Why I Write

Date: September 21, 2015

Summary: Compelled to write her story down, author Rita Gardner shares the unexpected outcomes of this cathartic process. Gardner is the author of The Coconut Latitudes, a memoir, and a member of the National Writing Project Writers Council.

 

Rita Gardner

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I write to find my way home.

When I wrote my memoir The Coconut Latitudes, it was so that the past wouldn't get lost. But first, I questioned my sanity. How could I, who perfected the art of invisibility, write a book that would expose family secrets held for decades? And who else would care to read it? I comforted myself by telling myself no one would have to see the finished product. But, something propelled me on the writing journey anyway, not knowing what I'd discover. In doing so, I was able to find that small self I used to be, the one that was battered and beaten down. I pulled her into my arms, and let her know she would be all right. I cried for her and loved her. And I told her story.

What happened next? Unknowingly, by sharing my history, I tapped into others' lives, into their inner worlds—gave them permission to tell me (or anyone) about their past. It mattered to them that I wrote my story. My project wasn't a narcissistic navel-gazing endeavor after all. I was no longer invisible and the world did not end. Instead, it opened up in surprising and joyous ways. I touched people; they touched me. Discussions became intimate exchanges of ideas. We dove below the surface chatter to what is real. And isn't that what we all want?

For many of us, I think writing is just a necessary act. We all find some time in life when we MUST do something—and we do it. I think inspiration comes from a fire that burns within—and a moment arrives when it's no longer possible to tamp down the flame. We all are in the same boat, no one of us more courageous than the other. Our fears can be like relentless ocean waves, trying to swamp our vessel, and—unfortunately—sometimes succeeding. But deep inside, hope lives too, and it can be a lifesaver. I'm reminded of a beautiful poem by David Whyte called "Out on the Ocean" in his book Songs for Coming Home. He writes of being in a bucking kayak, five miles from shore, with waves raging around him as he pulls desperately for home. Here are the last two stanzas:

"and the spark behind fear
recognized as life
leaps into flame

always this energy smoulders inside
when it remains unlit
the body fills with dense smoke."

When I first read that poem, I could almost smell his words and feel that restless smoke in my bones. If we can see that spark as energy, still alive, then we can let it ignite, burn through fear, and bring us safely to shore.

Everyone's stories can color their past, shape their present, and sometimes foretell their future. All stories matter. As we surrender to the writing process, our flames of inspiration can continue to gather strength. My wish for those who yearn to tell their stories is to surrender to the quest. It is a journey worth taking, and one with untold surprises ahead!

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