Going in and Out of the Cave

Reading always takes me up and away, as if I sit on a magic carpet and not a chair, the words from One Thousand and One Nights ringing true:  “Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

The books I choose to read vary with the seasons, change with my moods, comfort me when Life bears down like a spear smeared with curare. Passports to other worlds, books are my air and my water, my food.

When my writing stalls, when I feel as if I’m starving, dying of thirst, gasping for breath as I stare at the big blind eye that’s my computer screen, I turn to books by other writers. Not just their oeuvre, but their meditations on the writing life. There I often find the semblance of an outstretched hand, a pat on the back, even a shoulder to cry on. I find kindred souls, those who’ve walked through the dark night and come out on the other side, into the light.

Books such as Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing hit all the right writerly buttons – “Inner Censor” (confronting that demon perched on left shoulders, whispering negativity into my ear), “Corner” (into which I’ve painted myself without even knowing it), “Permission” (to write, to fail, to try, to start again), “Five Senses” (adding the odor of burned beans to a story), and on and on.

Short chapters, sweet with just the right words.

In the chapter titled “The Cave,” Shapiro holds out metaphorical hands, offering seven words that brush across my psyche like a fine cashmere sweater. (Not that I own such a sweater, but it’s one of the must-dos on my bucket list.)

“Going in and out of the cave.”

Shapiro’s cave phrase plunges to a deeper, more visceral depth than does Virginia Woolf’s exhortation that every woman needs “a room of her own.” The cave symbolizes many things. Hibernation. Solitude. Space. Aloneness. Darkness. Isolation. Slowness. Quiet.

Achieving the essence of the cave challenges me every day.

Cooking dinner, making grocery lists, running to the hardware store for a plastic sprayer, calling my mother, talking to my sister, doing laundry. If I’m not careful, the churning maw of time chews up my day. There’s no recapturing the time as it’s rendered into tiny useless bits, measured by the relentless ticking of the kitchen clock .

And so when I enter the cave state, I find myself at the mouth of the cave, shooing away the creatures that seek the fire’s warmth deep within that place of solitude. Selfish? No. This I must do, to rest in “that place nearhand or distant many a day’s journey and difficult to reach.”

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More Outstretched Hands:

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer (1934)

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write (1995)

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing (1939)

Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer (2003)

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write (1938)

Eudora Welty, One Writer’s  Beginnings (1983)

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

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