by Amber Stoner
I lost my words.
As a writer, this is rather distressing. The act of writing felt awful in my body. Not difficult; difficult writing I can handle. No, writing over the last year has felt like writing with feces. Disgusting, pointless. I continued to write, so there were words on the page, but they felt bland, lifeless and wholly unsatisfying. Just fragments and false starts. Where did my words go? They slipped away from me with the loss of each of these beloveds:
Marvin Turner, January 2011, maternal grandfather
Elvira (Vida) Turner, August 2011, maternal grandmother
Mildred (Millie) Schmidt, August 2012, great-aunt
Katherine (Kate) Gartin, April 2014, friend
Allen Dahlin, May 2014, paternal grandfather
Doris Plett, September 2014, neighbor
Alma Dahlin, November 2014, paternal grandmother
Gracie, December 2014, our cat
They all deserve much more than a line, but I’m not there yet. The little bits of writing I’ve started about each of them are painful and insufficient. If I don’t have my words, how do I grieve? How do I express the impact their deaths have on me? I could not ignore these losses; I could not pretend they didn’t happen. Their lives and their deaths must transform my life. What shape would that transformation take?
This loss of words, this slipping away of language in the face of grief, feels less like a phase that I’ll get past and more like a transition to a deeper way of living and creating. Years ago, an intuitive writing class altered my creative writing process. I learned to accept what shows up, to start anywhere, and to be present on the page. But what do I do when my tools, my words vanish? What do I do when I’m faced with the inadequacy of words to express the heights and depths emotion and I find myself falling into superlatives? The need to create is still there. How do I make the words work for me again? I don’t. I chose not to chase down my words, not to hunt endlessly for them, not to bludgeon the words into meaning.
Instead, I play piano, stitch book bindings, knit a hat for a friend’s baby, and go for walks with my friends and family. I make handmade paper on my deck and sketch pictures of woodpeckers. I paint a forest lake scene; I color geometric designs. I move into the nonverbal and revel in the wordless creativity. There is a physicality of these new creative endeavors not found in writing. To be creative in my physical body as well as in my mind is energizing.
What story can I share through these wordless creations? What can I say with a handmade piece of paper or a piece of music that I can’t say in words?
Words were always available to me before . . . or, if I just worked a little harder there they were. That's just hasn’t been the case lately. Whatever I'm processing and need to express, I'm only able to do so with papermaking, bookmaking, playing piano, sketches and other nonverbal art. I don't understand what this all means for me or where it will lead and many days I'm not very comfortable with it, but I'm trying to follow my energy and joy and trust that it’ll all work out.
Still, writing is at my center and I want to keep a space open for my words to return. Lynda Barry created a visually stunning book titled Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. She writes and draws comics; this book is basically her notes, drawings and syllabi of her first three years of university teaching. One page describes a simple diary format to be completed in six minutes: seven things you did, seven things you saw, one thing you heard someone say, one quick sketch of something you saw. The focus is on the images and the actions of your daily life. Barry writes that she is “Teaching this: To be able to accept what shows up.” What is showing up in my life and how do I accept it? I do the diary and accept what falls to the page; even my sparse lists of words are something. Even my scraggly sketches contribute to my creative process.
After months of wordless creativity and a simple diary, I feel the quiet tugging of words again.
About the Author
Amber Stoner a writer and editor living in Minnesota. She has edited and provided extensive feedback on nonfiction books, essays, novels and screenplays. Previously, she worked for eight years as an ESL science editor.
A member of the The Loft Literary Center, Amber was a Loft Mentor Series finalist in Creative Nonfiction in 2010 and 2011. Her work has appeared in River Teeth blog, Creative Nonfiction, MinnPost.com, dislocate, and The Socratic Project. I blog about building community at writingtogethermn.wordpress.com. She also facilitates writing parties and the general idea that our words are gifts.