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wRite: When Nothing Works


Nun: Do you ever wake up scared in the early hours of the morning?

Me (the cop): Almost every night.

Nun: And does this fear originate somewhere in the area of the navel.

Me: Above the navel, somewhere between the navel and the solar plexus.

Nun: And what do you do about it?

Me: My mind finds specific things to worry about, and the fear gets absorbed.

Nun: These things you worry about, are they to do with recent acts, statements, events you have set in motion?

Me: Always.

Nun: Good. You're not going to understand immediately, but this vulnerable area around your navel is the only thing about you that is fully human.

- John Burdett

The Godfather of Kathmandu

I've never forgotten the woman or her question. She was tall and slender, her pale blonde hair beautifully styled; her jeans, silk shirt and leather jacket all impeccably casual and luxe. I'd just finished teaching a writing workshop on Creating from Place at a literary conference in Tempe, Ariz. The woman raised her hand.

"Yes," I said.

Before she could speak, she began to cry. I waited. The 80 or so other students waited. The woman brushed back her hair and raised her head. "Can you tell me," she said, "can you please tell me... " Her voice caught in her throat. "... how I can find fifteen minutes in my day to write? I have all these things I am aching to write and I can't find the time. I hate it."

I was quiet. I looked down at the little branch of juniper at my feet. A candle burned next to it and there were pieces of obsidian, chert, jasper and basalt set in the four directions. It was my effort to bring natural Place into this big room in a big college in a huge sprawling desert city. No one spoke.

The woman looked at me. "Please," she said. "Can you tell me?"

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I can't tell you that."

She straightened her shoulders. "I was afraid you would say that."

"Wait," I said. "There might be something."

I turned in a slow circle. "How many of you have the same question?"

About three-quarters of the students raised their hands. There was another second of silence, then a wave of rueful and generous laughter.

"Oh boy," I said. "Are we in trouble!"

We had fifteen more minutes till the end of the workshop. "I might be able to offer the beginning of the answer to your question," I said. "Put your notebooks, your pens, anything you're holding on the floor." I closed my eyes. "Now, close your eyes. Do nothing. If you have a meditation practice, don't meditate. Don't even pay attention to your breathing. Just do nothing."

We were silent and still for what seemed a long time. When I opened my eyes, ten minutes had passed. There were tears on some of the students' faces. O.k.," I said. "Open your eyes slowly. We have five minutes left. Please let yourself feel whatever you're feeling."

I waited a minute or so. "Write down what your feeling, just a few notes. If you can't think of what to write, write that, I can't think of what to write. Next week, read your notes. Send them to me in an email - add to them if you want. I'll write back to each of you who writes me."

The tall blonde woman raised her hand. "I'll write you," she said and laughed. "But, I already know you won't answer my question - will you?"

I laughed. "Maybe I won't need to."

A week later the messages came in. The word fear was in most of them. I wrote back: Your fear contains your time. Your fear contains your writing.

I didn't answer the tall blonde woman's question. I didn't have to. She wrote, "I understand. I'm afraid to stop Doing. I'm afraid that if I do, there will be nothing there."

I wrote her back: "Me too."

We were both wrong. There is no nothing. There is the choice to be fully human, the choice to do our real work.

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