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 graduated from the SPU MFA program in 2008. She now lives with her husband in Philadelphia. You can visit her at dyanaherron.com.
This essay was originally featured in the Bereshit Bara Creativity Series, a blog series about creativity masterminded by SPU MFA alumnus Ross Gale. Read more contributions here, or listen to them on Gale’s podcast.