guest post by Jacquet Kehm, of Chatham University
I sit on my front porch and look over my little garden, amazed at how this earth will let me take a bit of it and curate it, that it will accept my modest proposal of an arrangement of herbs and flowers, and thrive. And I feel a bit ashamed, that in this I somehow admire my own work. The same verdancy that makes the path to my front door a bit brighter is what animates these hands of mine that push the white roots into the ground. I seek to accept this, and not abstract myself apart from it.
Can you recall the path your dreams take? That fan of images—the clearest ones which linger, the foggiest that irk—the fabric spun of plants and animals’ fibers, of experiences, threaded together, and fraying—spaces between them becoming wider; what holds them close, thinning. Obvious for a mere moment, their linkage falls into speculation immediately. We maintain the bonds through words, and the images begin to follow the paths our words take. Likewise, the whole reason of our lives becomes a path of words we follow, and follow, somehow towards what we’ve never imagined, a dream we never had.
Home and away.
Home is the reflections of freckles seen from the shower, the crackling coming from the fireplace, the sconces surrounding doorways, the bricks that pave quiet lanes.
Away is the quiet lanes paved by bricks, the doorways surrounded by sconces, the fireplaces that crackling comes from, the freckles, reflected, seen from the shower.
At home, we step out the door into memories of ourselves, everything carrying glimpses of our past.
Away from home, each object introduces itself to us with a bit less familiarity. We pause and see.
We return, and the images resettle. Place is a process.
The above are samples of a writing activity called “one hundred words” that was introduced to me during my travel writing class at Chatham University last semester. Someone would propose a word to reflect on and the next class, we’d go around the room and share our brief explorations, limited to one hundred words at most. Though it seems simple, I believe something deeper comes out of this practice: it helps to teach the real measure of a word, how you can load up such a small space with impact. It forces you to really delve into something we so often take for granted as writers—the meaning and variety one single word may hold in our lives. As a form, it works well to deliver a flicker of a day that might mean more than you’d first thought. It’s since become one of my favorite practices.
“…this approach to writing exemplifies a lot of what Chatham’s program is about: not merely craft, but consideration—of how place affects us, of what it means to be conscious of the world around us, both near and far, of nature and society, and how to be an engaged and empathetic actor in both.”
I think this approach to writing exemplifies a lot of what Chatham’s program is about: not merely craft, but consideration—of how place affects us, of what it means to be conscious of the world around us, both near and far, of nature and society, and how to be an engaged and empathetic actor in both. Through writing, we begin to learn how to dwell on these enormous concepts, picking away at them with our pens, and what we discover begins to become more apparent in how we choose to lead our own lives. This is emphasized through the school’s stance on environmental stewardship, following the model of alumna Rachel Carson, and in its new sustainable Eden Hall campus, and by advocating for social justice in the Allegheny County Jail through the Words Without Walls program, where students devote their time to helping teach, inspire, and give a voice to those incarcerated. It is a program to become not only a better writer, but also a more thoughtful and compassionate member of society.
To paraphrase the address made by the program’s director, Sheryl St. Germain, to the graduating class of 2016, as writers, no matter the changing circumstances of life here on earth, we have the gift of imaging new worlds, offering a vision to inspire others to pursue or to follow ourselves. As creative non-fiction writers, we don’t seek to create a fantasy parallel to life here on earth, but we work to tell the story of how fantastic, how frightening, how frustrating this immense world of ours is; we imagine how the world around us might sound, speaking to us in a new way. And we share that voice, as best as we can. And watch what happens, if we listen.