The store is Appletree Books in the Cedar Fairmount district of Cleveland Heights, OH. It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month and Appletree invites writers to sit at a little table in their window and write.
It is also a metaphor for writing. Writing in a window means that I am putting into words how I see the world through a particular frame. It also means that I am on display. And that is what writing is. Writers share the world they see through the particular frame of their own life. Writers also put themselves on display. As my friend and neighbor, Stephen Calhoun says, it is “performance art.”
So, I’m going to put myself on display by writing about why I write.
A year or so before I retired, Jacquie and I attended the Key West Literary Seminar. A lot of the people who go are also writers, so a way to make small talk with strangers during breaks is to ask, “Are you a writer?”
When someone asked me that the first day, I said, “no”.
The second day I said, “Well, I write a lot in my work, but I’m not a ‘writer’”.
The third day I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”
As I listened to the speakers, all of them people whose books sit in big displays in bookstores, I thought at first that I am not one of them. But then, as they talked about getting themselves to sit down with a pen and a notebook, or a keyboard and a screen day-after-day, trying to hammer out some words that will mean something important to someone else, trying to write something clearly and truthfully, I thought, “I’ve been doing that for over forty years.”
My sermons averaged about five pages long. I wrote a minimum of fifty per year. So I was knocking out the equivalent of a 250-page book every year. And I was doing it in between hospital calls, meetings, funerals, wedding planning, and figuring out how to pay for a new church roof. I was a writer even if I did not write best-sellers.
That realization made it possible for me to retire. As I look back, I was hanging on to my job because it was satisfying something important in me. I knew it was not the meetings, the fund-raising, or handling the complaints about last week’s choice of hymns. When I admitted to myself that I was a writer, I knew I could let go.
After my retirement, I tried to set up a new normal with a blog, an outline for a book, and a schedule of writing almost everyday. I kept to it for a few months. But then I realized that I was hanging on to what was important to me in the morning of life that was no longer important in the afternoon.
It was not the writing. That was still what I wanted to do. I think it was the window. It was the frame through which I saw the world. I was still looking through the pastor-window. And, the person I revealed in my writing was still the pastor. Everything I wrote sounded like a sermon – a sermon that I might have preached 25 years ago.
I preached fine sermons 25 years ago, so why should that be a problem?
In his novel, Jean Christopf, Romain Rolland wrote: “Most men die between the ages of 20 and 30 and then they go on saying and doing the things they said and did when they were alive.”
I do not know if that is true of “most men”, but as I tried to write I could see that it was true for me. When I was young, I wrote about what I knew – I conveyed information about the religious tradition in which I had been raised and in which I still believe. I think that what I did then was important. I think my religious tradition is rich and speaks to the deepest needs of human beings.
But my window frame has changed. It is weathered and carries the patina of age. I have seen so many changes through this window that it has changed my perspective on what I see right now.
if I am to be alive and write, not out of what I used to be, but out of who I am now, I will write, not about what I know, but what I don’t know. I will write out of wonder instead of certainty. I will write leading with my heart rather than my head. Instead of solving problems, like I did when I was young, I will write about how facing and even accepting problems can lead us to wholeness.
And, as you look back at me through the window of my writing, I hope you see a man who is coming to terms with the realities of aging as well as enjoying the afternoon of life. It is either that, or dye my hair a strange shade of orange, comb it over my bald spot, and walk around with a woman half my age saying and doing the things I said when I was alive. Given those alternatives, there is no contest.