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7.19.2013

Why I Write: Holly M. Wendt



Between the middle of May and the end of June, I was in four countries on two different continents, including Romania, Germany, eight American states, and four Canadian provinces. My watch and my body adjusted to six different time zones in those seventeen thousand miles. And, after a two-month writing drought, suffocating in my own skin, I wrote, and it had everything to do with the change of scenery, the relative solitude, and the strangely comforting walls of languages I don’t know. This is not to say one must travel in order to write, but it has helped me, this time and all times, because writing and travel speak to me in the same voice, resonating and repercussing in ways simultaneously enthralling and unsettling. This is why I write. This is why I keep taking to the air.

***
     
Sibiu, Romania is an old city, dating to the twelfth century, and though it is in Transylvania—famous for Bram Stoker’s undead Dracula and Vlad the Impaler—it is a city very much alive. Its heart comprises three medieval market squares clustered together, restored and grand: Piața Mare, Piața Mică, and Piața Huet, or Big Square, Little Square, and Huet Square. If you have seen a photo of Sibiu, chances are it is of Piața Mare, where the eye-like windows of the burgher houses watch over the fountain and pigeons, the Baroque Brukenthal Museum and opulent tourism office. However, if you walk down into the lower city that had lain outside of Sibiu’s medieval walls, into the tightly packed buildings and winding cobbled streets far enough to get lost, the thing to search for is the spire of the Evangelical Cathedral of Saint Mary, seated in Huet Square. The cathedral’s 240-foot spire breaks the skyline and peppers it with unmistakable particolored tiles, and though I’m sure there are places where the spire isn’t visible, every time I needed to be able to see it, there it was.

The day I stumbled onto the lower city’s farmers’ market, I was working on getting properly lost. I was simply walking, to see what I could see, and what I saw were passersby with blue plastic shopping bags brimming with fennel fronds and radish tops. The day before, there was a man with a single small, blue bag of strawberries, the plastic purpled with fresh juice, at least three miles from this neighborhood. I’d wanted to know where the berries had come from, but I’d been too embarrassed to try to fumble through an interrogation about produce. I’d risk losing my way, happily. So I kept going in the direction the people were coming from, making turns based on where I’d seen the last blue bag, well away from any known territory. Eventually, I found the market, and I was not disappointed. Upon leaving, though, with half a kilo of earth-smudged, ruby-bright strawberries hanging from my wrist and a powerful yen to eat them as soon as possible, I had to find my way back to my lodgings. Before I bothered with a map, I tipped up my chin. There was the church spire, perched atop the city’s high ground, the fixed center. I was an hour in walking to the market, twenty minutes in returning.


I write because it, too, is the fixed center of my life. Writing means never feeling lost. Perhaps it means wandering a while, perhaps it means being caught out without the metaphorical umbrella, but writing always means, always leaves me with a feeling of direction and purpose. I come from a family of makers, people yoked to purposeful creation—houses, tools, food for themselves and others. I don’t know how to want otherwise.

***

Still, if the spire had an easy clarity, the cathedral’s interior remained a mystery. For the duration of my visit, the cathedral was completely closed for repair and renovation. Even from the outside, though, it was something to see: the stone walls, the stained glass, a rain-softened gargoyle so much like a waiting dog. I want to know: was it a dog? Dogs are dredged in faith. It might have been a lynx; its posture was cat-like, and the forested Carpathians in Romania house the Eurasian lynx.  That detail is one I haven’t been able to look up, and the shuttered, mortar-dusted church left me with no one to ask. One day, I will write a story, and there will be a cathedral, and the stone will be a lynx because I have never (definitively) seen a carved lynx perched atop a buttress and I would like to. All the photos in the world won’t tell me everything I missed behind those doors, behind a hundred doors, the ones left open or held closed. Writing creates a way of knowing the small, unknowable details. In fiction, I can visit every street again, and once more still, when both I and the place have changed, and even what is familiar will never be the same twice.

***

Not far from the cathedral, Huet Square connects to the Little Square via a footbridge that spans the sloping street into the lower city. Scrolls of black ironwork and spilling geraniums make the bridge picturesque, but its name and its lore are more memorable: it’s called the Liar’s Bridge, and if you tell a lie while you’re standing on it, the bridge will collapse. This is why it leads to the market squares, why business people make deals atop it, and why lovers pledge between its rails. The legend hinges on faith and a medieval flair for consequence, brooking no uncertainty: know and speak your truth or face disaster.

On the bridge, I don’t think I said anything to anyone at all, though I did have to duck out of a few sets of wedding photos being taken there. Maybe I said pardon, scuze. If I did, I meant it. Someone more playful or cynical might have tested the superstition. Instead, I took a picture of two clean, empty glass jars sitting neatly beneath it. The jars were ordinary—one sized for pickles, the other shaped for mustard or jam—and another bit of inexplicable trivia (who left them? why?), but I liked them there, clear and fragile, where a bridge might fall on them or a bored child might kick them into a rolling shatter where the street curved. The jars were all unknown, and they weren’t there the next time I passed.


Writing is an exercise in not-knowing, in uncertainty, far beyond content and details, uncertainties about quality, about perseverance, about audience, about measures of success and failure, and even about what a piece of writing is or does. Writing is an acceptance of these uncertainties (and occasionally crushing certainties that I wish I didn’t know).Writing is also an understanding that the opposite will be true, too. There will be moments of startling clarity. There will be successes, even if the rewards are small: a morning starts more sweetly or the pillow feels softer because there were words, or I find one sentence about which I am utterly, perfectly sure and that sentence invites another. So I promise myself, and so I trust, and may my desk collapse if I’ve been false.

It is that trust in the act itself that keeps me coming back. While I am writing, I am the best version of myself, as John Gardner contends in The Art of Fiction (79). Writing becomes its own country, a place where I am not without trepidation, but a place where curiosity and hope trump the fears at my heels. I write because I am always the better for it, wherever it takes me. 




Holly M. Wendt (@geatland) teaches writing and literature at Casper College and is the co-director for the Equality State Book Festival as well as the assistant fiction editor for Drunken Boat. Her writing has appeared in The Classical, Memorious, Bluestem Magazine, and others, and she is a 2013 writing residency recipient from the Jentel Foundation. Sometimes she blogs


3 comments:

  1. "I write because I am always the better for it, wherever it takes me." Nailed it. Great piece Holly.

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  2. Small world. I used to read fiction subs for Drunken Boat, and now I run into you here. Lovely.

    ReplyDelete