Opening Inward Newsletter
An Occasional Publication Produced by Write From the Heart Seminars
* Exploring New Paths for Creativity & Spiritual Development
The Magic of Language
by Hal Zina Bennett
As I write this, I've recently returned from teaching a writing
workshop at Mount Shasta, California, arguably one of the most beautiful
areas in the world. The mountain itself rises to more than 14,000 feet and
has long been known as a place of power by native peoples throughout the
country. Its fame extends across the ocean, where it is considered by many
Japanese people to be a sister to Mount Fujiyama. It is one of the
volcanos of the Cascade Range and part of the Pacific "Ring of
Fire." It's a great place to hold workshops, since it seems to draw
highly intuitive and creative people, which certainly makes for an
exciting event. Add to this the ambiance of an inviting small conference
center, the Josephine Taylor Foundation, and you've got a matchless
Every time I teach I come away with new insights and new questions
kindled by the fire of the participants' work. This time the questions for
me had to do with why we write. The first thing that comes to mind, of
course, is that we write in order to share our knowledge, thoughts and
feelings with others. And that suggests publishing. But in all my teaching
over the past 15 years, I haven't found that to be the reason most people
attend writing workshops. Only a handful of my students have stated that
this is primarily what motivates them. Other writing teachers have told me
that this is true in their workshops as well-even in workshops for
If publishing isn't what motivates us, what does? I can only answer
that for me and a dozen or so students I've asked. (If you have comments
on this, I welcome them. Email me at email@example.com).
As a person who has published more than his share of books (30-some) I
probably have a different perspective than writers who have not published.
Publishing doesn't excite me half as much as the process of writing does.
If you write every day you soon find that language is much more than a way
of communicating; it is also a process of questioning, probing,
discovering, and reframing our sense of reality.
Often, the act of writing carries us beyond what we believe we know. At
the outer edge of our own knowledge, we encounter our own apparent limits.
It is here that we start to probe, filling in those blanks and
shortcomings we've found in our own awareness. Tiptoeing out into the
unknown we challenge the knowledge, feelings and values that we have
always counted upon to make sense of our lives, and sometimes we uncover
knowledge and insights that we didn't know we possessed.
I recall, for example, writing a poem about my mother's death, which
occurred over a dozen years ago. As I did, the language itself carried me
back and I remembered details of those last hours at her bedside that I
had not only forgotten but had never looked at very closely. A series of
forgotten images filled my mind. About twenty minutes after Mother died, I
was meditating in a chair beside the bed. Two young doctors came into the
room. One was from India, I later learned. As he saw me, he pressed his
hands together, as in prayer, bowed slightly and moved past me almost
reverently. The second, obviously a westerner, patted me brusquely on the
shoulder and asked if I needed anything, perhaps a sedative. I thanked
him, but declined his offer. Then the two of them went to Mother's
bedside, where they confirmed her death and filled out some papers.
With my main attention focused on my Mother's death, I had filed this
event with the doctors away in my mind. Now, years later, as I relived it,
I also got in touch with an important insight into what most of us seek at
times of great grief. My reaction to the Indian doctor's entrance, as
subtle and fleeting as it had been, had brought me a sense of peace and
acceptance. In contrast, my reaction to the American doctor's pat on the
shoulder and offer of a sedative as naive, mechanical and uncaring.
While none of that went into the poem, being cut in the final rewrites,
it was a poignant moment and will probably turn up in another book or
article someday. But in that moment was captured a glimpse into two
different cultures' ways of approaching death, the one with reverence and
compassion, acknowledging the universality of it, the other almost as if
it were a disease that could be treated with a pill or a shot. The Indian
doctor's gesture offered inner peace; the Western doctor's gesture offered
escape with the help of a pill that might numb me to my feelings. Did I
think those things out at the moment? No, but today I hold that experience
in my heart and call it to mind whenever life presents me with difficult
Human consciousness researchers claim that our subconscious minds
cannot discern between imagined and real experiences. This partially
explains why our words can take our readers into worlds they might never
otherwise enter. But the same can be true for us as writers. Our words are
vehicles, carrying us inward, to worlds that are often composites of
experiences from our past. They also can carry us outward to access the
universal wisdom found in what Teilhard de Chardin called the "noosphere,"
or thinking layer of our planet.
Before the printing press, stories and information were exchanged
through gestures, body language and the human voice. Maybe back then we
better understood the power of language as a way of literally communing
with others, for in our telling we were connected instantly with the
excitement of our listeners. Our words were bridges between our
consciousness. Their excitement excited us, inspiring us to probe even
further into the unknown.
So maybe that's what it's all about-that whether we publish a book or
simply write a short piece to share with friends, writing lets us impart
our life experiences with others and to venture together beyond the known
and familiar. While NASA's space ships probe the mysteries of outer space,
our words probe inner space, revealing the mysteries of our humanness.
I keep wondering if there isn't a way to bring all this into workshops
or community gatherings. There's a tendency today to view the power of
language as something happening only on the printed page, in the way words
are put together. But if we pay close attention we also may notice that
they can carry us further, transporting us beyond the page into the
mysterious. Albert Einstein once said, "The most beautiful thing we
can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and
Perhaps it is the mysterious that we seek in language, whether we are
interested in publishing or in the most personal and private writing. I'd
like to think so.
Copyright 2002 by Hal Zina Bennett. All rights reserved. Email the
author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hal's latest book is First Light, Then
Quiet, a collection of his
poetry from the past seven years. It is published by Tenacity Press, sells
for $10, and is available at your local bookstore, at Amazon.com or by
emailing him directly. If you order directly and are a California
resident, please add 7% for sales tax. Postage and handling are free.