Sandra, a resident of Costa Rica, was guest speaker at my Namaste Gardens Writing & Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica, January 2012. This essay is based on her presentation.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer ever since I wrote a two-page autobiography at the age of nine. This received lavish praise, of course, but what was interesting about it was that it didn’t start with “I was born, etc.,” but instead with a true story about how my father narrowly escaped death off Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion. I was very impressed by the fact that had he died, I wouldn’t be alive. It made me feel important that my little self was connected to something as large as a World War. Because, of course, I was totally ignorant of any of those writerly devices that we read books or go to writers’ workshops to learn about. The Opening Line. How to Engage the Reader. Show, Don’t Tell. And a host of others. But it’s not the craft I want to write about here, it’s what informs the craft — the Heart of writing, if you will.
I had a big problem with truth for a lot of years. I would go back over something I’d written and find it just didn’t jibe with something real inside me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe we all face this in the beginning, the desire to reinvent ourselves through language or stories, and we find that they just don’t quite ring true — I mean true to the human experience, not true to the facts. Some of us – the slow learners like me — need a lot of human experience before we can find this truth, and it can take great courage to face it, and then, ultimately, to tell it. After all, what do we have to lose? Realizing this, I finally found that truth exists only in the place where acceptance lies.
The truths of the human condition haven’t changed much — like the 100 great plots, they’re familiar to us all. But each of us can bring a unique perspective to the human story. I saw a quote recently that many of you have surely seen, by Anonymous, to the effect that writers write not because they want to say something, but because they have something to say. And just what could that something be?
About twenty-five years ago, I fell in love with Joseph Conrad. I couldn’t get enough of him, read every single book and story, one right after another. I got excited. He gave me hope. Not that I could write as compellingly as he, but that I could have a point of view, a perspective worth sharing. Note that at the time I didn’t have a clue what this might be, but I certainly could identify with his. I loved his capacity for close observation and at times thrilling description, but most of all I loved his humanity, his understanding of the inner workings of people, their secret selves and what makes them choose the evil or the good. And I especially enjoyed his delicately ironic sense of humor, since I shared something similar myself. In spite of having spent hundreds of hours in literature classes, this was the first time I “got it” that writers must write from a personal worldview, and it gave me courage.
I was forty-something and, fortified by Conrad, I decided to start writing on purpose, and this was part of my motivation in moving away from a high-stress job to another country — Costa Rica — where I imagined I could get a better handle on just that. There were plenty of false starts, and life got in the way a lot (moving to another country is not an unstressful thing to do), but over time I honed my skills and learned plenty of important lessons. Nearing sixty, and with sense of the truth, as well as my own worldview, I said to myself, “Now or never.” I had already written one book that I had cannibalized into columns for The Tico Times, attempted countless short stories, even begun a novel. But what to write about now? Here’s where the sense of place enters the story. Living in a foreign culture eventually strips you clean of all the cultural encrustations you’ve accumulated up to that point and leaves you naked and vulnerable. For some, this is a terrifying experience of helplessness. For others, it’s an adventure of discovery — not just of the other language and culture, but of yourself, of what really matters to you. Living in Costa Rica, I found that my values firmed up about things I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to before.
But how to write in such a way that your readers can “see” it the way you see it? You have to describe things — accurately, lyrically, whatever way you want — but in order to do any of these you have to observe closely — physically and emotionally — whatever it is you want to describe. It was this exercise of close observation that resulted in my manuscript Evelio’s Garden: The Short History of an Organic Garden in Costa Rica. The most important lesson this story taught me, from a writer’s point of view, was to close my eyes and go there, wherever that was, into the quiet place where the words — amazingly — just came.
Personally, I’m happiest when I’m writing; trying to sell is agony, so I am easily discouraged. Much more fun to take on another writing project! Which I did, in e-mail installments sent home to family and friends while I was floating around the South Pacific on a freighter. Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship was the result, and in writing it I had another surprise. I had clearly needed a getaway, but my intention in writing was purely to entertain. Within the first few days, though, the inner voice broke through and the story turned out to be as much a personal journey as a travelogue. Close observation and a clear point of view combined with truth for the first time, and I realized I was finally writing from the heart.
All writing is really best if it teaches us something. What does what I have experienced or lived have to offer you? How can the way I put something down on paper help you to experience it more deeply, or in a fresh way; make you reflect, or stop for just a moment to say to yourself, “Ah, that’s the way it is.”
Writing makes me feel more alive because it forces me into each moment I describe in a way that can make connections with others. Feeling the thing observed, the moment, and then describing it so that someone else experiences that same moment through one’s words — these are moments of truth shared. It is in this heightened awareness, in this search for connections, that we really exist as writers.
When I was in the hospital recently, this connections idea came home to me in a way it never quite had before. Because of complications during and after surgery, I was tied down to a respirator in intensive care for ten days, with no control over any bodily function. I was just a limp lump of flesh attached to a zillion tubes. The drugs helped a lot, but as I began to emerge from the pharmaceutical ooze, I started to write letters in my head as a way of connecting to others and the world beyond my little cage. I wrote hundreds of letters (surely immortal prose now lost to all time), and about what? The sounds, the nurses, the timelessness, the machines, the changing shapes of space and light, the hallucinations, moments funny, ironic, or frightening, supreme acts of human charity. Lying there seemingly helpless, I realized my life was FULL of things to write about and that there would always be people to write to. (And, of course, I’m writing about it.)
In intensive care, because my mouth and throat were full of plumbing, I couldn’t speak. Fortunately, I had a notebook with me, and I could write — albeit uncomfortably — brief requests or comments to the staff and the doctors. It interested me how intently everyone followed the act of my writing. I would signal in the air that I wanted to scribble, they would rush to find my notebook, pen and glasses (never in the same place twice), and then they would peer over my shoulder to see what I was going to “say.” It occurred to me then that they attached so much importance to what I wrote because I was writing it to them. Being the intended recipients of the written word made them feel important. Connections being made.
In this light, we can almost see writing as an act of love, can’t we?
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SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for over 20 years, where she has taught languages and worked as an interpreter/translator and environmental activist. Between 1997 and 2000 she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002. In a previous life she headed her own public relations firm in Philadelphia and wrote occasional articles for the local business press. Her writing has appeared on a couple of blogs, notably Living Abroad in Costa Rica.
Sandra may be contacted at sandrashawhomer [at] gmail [dot] com