This past weekend my sister married the man she loves in a sunny meadow. Because this was her second marriage, she had resisted it mightily—“marriage” is a story the culture imposes on couples, and it doesn’t necessarily work. You have to understand—Marcy is a woman who, on her own, adopted two boys from Guatemala; she started a community farm and has midwifed countless babies into the world. Her performance artist sweetie moved in two years ago; the boys already call him Dad. Why bother with marriage?
Eventually Marcy conceded that a wedding would give them a communal and sacred blessing. The couple created a “family union” ceremony with their Lakotan spiritual leader that involved the guests hiking across a canyon, drumming, washing in a stream, and making vows to one another and the boys. The guests cried and danced.
What made my sister’s wedding powerful? It was faithful to tradition and it arose from the particulars of her family’s story. She and her partner stayed true to their tradition’s form of a wedding but recreated it to reflect their personalities, their history, their community, their needs. This union resulted from years of hard work.
It reminded me, strangely enough, of writing a book.
“Write or be written,” the author Elissa Raffa signs her books. “If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past,” Patricia Hampl writes of memoir, “someone else will do it for us.” When I think of all the thoughtless, formulaic weddings I’ve attended—ceremonies that follow prescriptions of tradition or culture, which provide a shallow form for the couple to conform to—I realize the transformative power of creating from the inside out. Form plays an important role, but we must fill form intentionally, with the essence of our being. In this way we become authors—of our lives and of our creations.
Because my circle of friends is comprised almost entirely of people working for social change—advocating for the environment, promoting rights for GLBT folks, strengthening communities, finding nonviolent solutions to conflicts—I sometimes question the value of my work as a writer and writing teacher. Given the pressing needs of our times, why do I help writers dedicate years to crafting their personal stories? But moments like my sister’s wedding remind me that the most powerful forces in our world are clear and honest hearts, and real change in our culture, as in our relationships, always begins with genuine stories. When we tell our own version of our story with great integrity, we step out into society hand-in-hand with our essential truth. And that’s when the tears and dancing begin. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew