Once upon a time, despite having little faith in myself as a writer, I signed up for a writing class. I dreamed of being a writer. I had no faith in my ability; only the dream. I had faith in a dream. And I had stories to tell. Perhaps that was more important than anything, having stories to tell. I dreamed of being able to tell my stories.
I sat down to write. Writing was now “homework.” I had to do my homework. At first nothing came out. I tried to speak it then, to say out loud something, anything, to get me started writing. But nothing came out of my mouth, either. I was silent as a fish gasping for air.
Still, I did my homework. I pulled the words out from somewhere and wrote them down. I pulled them out from the air, not from someplace deep inside, and they were airy words. I did not know how to access deep inside. I was still in the dream of being a writer. I pulled the words out from the fog, the mist, these words that came from some unsubstantial and unsubstantiated place that was almost me, but not quite. Like a dream that is almost real, but not quite. Because it is a dream. An idea lived out in the mind, not reality.
Then I handed them in. These sheets of white paper with my name at the top. I handed them in. I said this is my story, or one of my stories. It’s got my name on it. It’s mine. It’s the best I can do. I pulled the words out from somewhere and got them down on paper, and then handed them in. Because this was my dream, to write stories and hand them in.
The dream of writing had come true. Then so did the nightmare, the dark side of the dream. The nightmare that I was no good. That I would be ridiculed and laughed off the stage. That night when the instructor asked me to read my story aloud to the class, the nightmare came true along with the dream.
“It is too flowery.” “It is too padded.” “It is full of clichés.”
These were the comments after I read. My ears turned red. I felt them burn. I had made a fool of myself. And when the class laughed at my mistakes, I laughed along with them. The laughter was a release. It felt good in a way, to live out the nightmare. I lived it, then left it behind me.
That night I had a dream about the instructor. I dreamed he took his finger and outlined my lips. He drew his finger around my mouth, my lips, as if to say, this is where your words come from. They don’t come from the air and seep into your mind by osmosis. Not the real ones. The fluttery ones, maybe. The flowery clichés we’ve all heard before. Tell me the real ones. The words that come from your lips alone. From your mouth that leads to the cavern of darkness within. To the depths within that is you and only you. Speak, he seemed to say. Speak those words to me.
I stopped trying to write what wasn’t there yet. What was there in a dream remained in the dream, silent and unreachable.
Instead, I went into the silence. I told silent stories. I became a painter and told stories of the silence. I made silent pictures. And then, over time, I made pictures that told the silent truth I could not yet speak.
Paintings can be ridiculed as much as stories, but the artist can always say, this is how I see it. This is my vision. Laugh all you want, but this is how I see it and feel it. This is how it feels to me.
A painting can never be false in the way that words can ring false. A painting might be a bad painting, but not because it is false. How can colors be false? Colors are colors. A painter can say, this is how it looks to me. This is how I feel it.
A writer writes words that everyone else uses. A writer uses a font that everyone else uses. One sheet of paper filled with words looks much the same as a million other sheets of paper filled with words. What differentiates the good writing from the bad is the feeling behind the words. And how it resonates.
I found the images and colors and forms that represented the feelings. Then I made the feelings real through pictures. I brought them out from their hiding place within and splashed them across canvas after canvas.
My mouth had been useless because my lips had been sealed. But my hands were nimble with a brush. For ten years I spewed out images. They were pictures of things in the light, and pictures of things in the dark, and pictures of those very same things in gradations of light and shadow. This was because the light was always moving, never staying in the same place for long. I followed where the light went. Even when it went through the dark cavernous places, I followed it. Up, down and around, through the shallows and into the deep. I swam there with the ease of a fish.
Then I went back to words. And when I went back to words, I found myself telling a whole new story. And when someone said, “I think you’ve found your voice,” it was music to my ears. And if my ears burned now, it was from excitement. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I wanted to be able to write those words. Thousands and thousands of words.