Strange Medicine

For years I’ve practiced strange medicine, resting my ear on the body of whatever story I happen to be writing. Is it alive? If so, what does it want to become? Even though we play a part in generating them, stories have heartbeats all their own.  Once the draft is out, I listen beyond my preconceived notions, self-consciousness, and ever-present neediness for some source pumping vitality through the pages.  Sometimes it’s an image vibrating with meaning. Sometimes it’s the vaguest of feelings. Often it’s an unanswerable question. Invariably its impulse, drive, or purpose is truer than anything I might have conjured. Invariably it asks me to take risks.

My work as a writer is to serve this heartbeat. Other writers likely have different purposes; this is mine. Yes, my preconceived notions, self-consciousness, and neediness continue to hold sway and even make worthy contributions, but I do my darnedest to steer them toward this force existing beyond them. I don’t know what that force is. Inspiration? Intuition? My ancestors? A nudge from creation itself?  God?  Does it even matter, so long as I sense myself coming more alive and occasionally my readers as well?

After years of bumbling aimlessly as a self-employed teacher and writer, a decade ago I began composing mission and vision statements every January in lieu of New Year’s resolutions. I’d heard that most “highly successful people” put their goals down on paper, and figured why not? The exercise challenged me to draft my own job description, clarify my values, articulate my dreams, record my longings. Now I can trace the evolution of these statements over ten years, how they grow more direct, how they veer ever closer to the truth. This year (today, actually; a bit late!), instead of mission and vision, I asked myself what my life’s purpose is, and landed a degree nearer. For the first time I realized this exercise invites me to practice my strange medicine on the story I write by breathing and caring and trying. Even though sharing a work-in-progress feels risky, here it is:  

The Women’s Building in the Castro District of San Francisco, photo by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

My purpose is to become fully conscious, manifesting completely the person I was born into this body and onto this earth to be, by partnering with my Creator to create a loving, self-creating world.

What pumps meaning into my day? What fuels my agency? What connects me to others, to the natural world, to life itself? What is the metaphysical heartbeat behind that trustworthy organ thumping in my chest? The quest to answer these unanswerable questions, I’m beginning to see, is itself their answer.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew