When I was eight years old, I had a teacher who often went to the window and cried. This was during World War II. I learned later that her three brothers fought in that war. By writing stories I could cheer her up. It was an important lesson—that words could have such power. I remember one day, coming upon an idea for a story that excited me—about how ants come in from the rain by hiding under mushroom umbrellas. I knew alot about ants having spent hours on my stomach inspecting their comings and goings. I could hardly contain myself. Miss Lang strode down the aisle of the classroom and noticed my excitement. Her blond curly hair in a nimbus above her head, she was like some messenger from God. “Write it down!” she urged. “Write it!”
I didn’t know just how the story would begin, nor how it might end. And that was the great pleasure. But I could picture the ants, the mushrooms, the rain. And I could picture Miss Lang’s face when I read the story aloud. For a little, she wouldnt have to stand by the window, looking out, holding back her tears.
It’s been like that ever since. The writing part, that is. And not knowing. Poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her Nobel Lecture that “knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out…this is why I value that little phrase ‘I don’t know’ so highly. It’s small, but it flies on might wings….If Isaac Newton had never said to himself ‘I don’t know,’ the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and, at best, he would have stooped to pick them up and gobbled them with gusto.”
Poet William Stafford said that we write to find out what is there. I write to see what can happen when the blank canvas begins to be covered with the beautiful shapes of the alphabet. Like notes of music that can repeat or proceed, that can rise or descend and suddenly a new tune comes into being.
I think, as my hands move over the keyboard, of the electrical impulses that travel along the axons of neurons at speeds up to two hundred miles an hour. I think of the hundred billion neurons in our brains, forming new combinations, new connections, great galaxies of novelty.
And I think of the atomic physicist Niels Bohr who as a child was taught to write using a beginning, middle and end. “And little Niels Bohr in whose head ideas rolled around like marbles, couldn’t learn how to end what he wrote,” says Bill Stafford. “He had nearly conquered the problem one day when he came to the end of his composition. But alas, here comes the final sentence: ‘And I would also like to mention aluminum.”‘ I believe in words, in making discoveries as you go along, and sometimes ending at the beginning!
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