The most important thing you can do.

country road

I used to live on Cortes Island, one of the more wild and remote islands off the coast of British Columbia. It's difficult to visit Cortes - you have to take not one, but two ferries to get there. It's perfect for a writer. It's also home to Hollyhock, a retreat centre that invites renowned teachers from all kinds of disciplines to lead workshops and retreats.

In 2001, Natalie Goldberg was coming to Hollyhock to teach a class on writing and meditation. I'd read Writing Down the Bones as a teenager and carried it with me like a prayer book: I always knew I was a writer, but her book was the one that actually taught me how to write. The cost of the workshop was, for me at the time, astronomical. Plus, it was a silent retreat. (I didn't understand that part. Would Natalie even be speaking to us?)

I learned that I could attend for a reduced rate, because Hollyhock had scholarships for Cortes Island residents. I arranged to stay at the house of a friend who lived ten minutes from the centre, to save the accommodation fee. Miraculously (it felt like a miracle to me), I could afford to go.

The start date was Tuesday, September 11th.

When the phone rang that morning I heard about the impossible thing. I turned the television on and watched the second impossible thing. I called Hollyhock.

Natalie's here, the receptionist said.  She wants to go ahead with the class.

Most of the participants were Americans, and they weren't allowed back across the border, anyway. A few people were still caught on the ferries between countries, but the US wasn't letting any boats back, so they would probably arrive soon as well. I was to show up at the usual time, 4pm.

That afternoon, fifty whacked-out people sat together on the floor of a big round room. It was a brilliantly beautiful day. We were in shock. Natalie told us: The best thing for us to do right now is to sit and write. It is the most useful thing we can do.

For the next seven days, we sat and wrote in silence. We did some walking meditation - also in silence. It wasn't easy. We were freaked out, distracted and scared. It helped to have Natalie in the room with us, dropping prompts into the air, keeping track of time, and telling us when to stretch our hands and take deep breaths. It also helped to be with each other - we were fifty strangers in a round room, but because of what we were doing, we weren't strangers for long.

Every twenty minutes Natalie would ask us to read some of our work out loud, without looking at anyone, without commenting in any way. In this way, we became a community.

At night I'd walk back to my friend's house. On Cortes there aren't any streetlights, and I'd find my way by looking up to see where the tree line parted for the road. I felt exhausted every night, but also strangely calm, after eight hours of deep writing with fifty other souls who were writing as honestly and intensely as I was.

When we were sitting in that quiet room writing our responses to Natalie's weird, random prompts ("write everything you know about lemons; now write about ice cubes") we weren't writing about anything that was happening in the news. We were writing about our childhoods, our parents, our grandparents, people we'd loved, people we'd lost, people we hadn't let ourselves think about for years because it had been too painful to remember them up to that point. It had everything to do with New York, and nothing to do with it. We weren't escaping the trauma, we were relating to it from the other side.

It was as though we'd wordlessly made a pact: if writing was the most useful thing that we could do that week, then my god, we were going to do it. We wrote as if our lives depended on it.

Now, eleven years later, I realize: our lives still depend on it. They always have.

The bravery in that room still impresses me today. We didn't look all that brave. We walked slowly around the room in a crowded circle with our hands behind our back. We avoided meeting each other's eyes. We sat on the floor with ballpoint pens and spiral notebooks on our laps, sometimes feeling vulnerable and alone, sometimes feeling powerful and supported, often writing while laughing or crying. That's all we did, day after day. But it was bravery, all the same.

If you're a writer who avoids writing a lot of the time, you know why I say this was bravery. Because isn't doing that kind of writing exactly what you're afraid of, most of the time?

I would like to remind you, then, that when you're writing - really writing, which means going into it bravely - it is always useful. It can seem pointless, especially when the rest of the world feels anxious, sick, or hurtling toward a scary and unforeseeable future. But your writing is actually good for the world. I don't just mean writing as a noun (the stories you print out and publish). I mean it as a verb: you, writing.

That’s why you show up at your desk whether you're inspired or not. You show up so that you can learn how to drop into it more regularly. Knowing that this is useful and important for the world should help with the fear.

So, please learn how to put yourself into a receptive state of mind. It is always productive to go deep. It's where you find insight. It's how you calm anxiety. It's how you create humour, inspiration, shared experiences and understanding. It is one of the most useful and loving things you can do for the world. It is never a waste of time.

xo,

Sarah” width=

Be a good letter writer = be a good writer.
It's my birthday! Gifts for everybody!

19 comments

This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, as always.
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Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you.
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Ruth Henderson

Dear Sarah, I was not aware how you spent Sept 11th, 2001. Thank you for sharing that story. Bob and I were on our sailboat going blissfully down the Erie Canal system heading for the Hudson River and New York City when our cell phone rang with the news about the Towers. It remains with me to this day as one of the many examples of the fragility of this blessing we call "life". Thank you for proding me to get on with recording mine. Love, Ruth
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Jennifer Louden

reading stephen cope's new book about dharma and this resonates with his work, his take-away: it's about knowing something deeply. Writing is a good thing to know.
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Love <3
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This is beautiful, Sarah. Thank you for sharing it with us. I was in high school eleven years ago (a sophomore, to be exact), and I spent the night in bed, writing with the news on mute in the background. I was confused and horrified, and the only thing I could think to do was write until my hand cramped and I fell asleep. Sometimes, in awful situations, writing is the only thing to do, and I'm so glad you opened up the dialogue about it.
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karin konstantynowicz

beautiful
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Rachel Gurevich

Loved this post, as I've come to love just about every one of your posts. And it hits so close to home. I've been quite anxious today, concerned about Iran (I live in Israel) and the possibility of war, and today is one of those days where the world "feels anxious, sick, or hurtling toward a scary and unforeseeable future." So when I read this, it brought tears to my eyes and reminded me to write, write, write. Write anyway. I have to ask, though... in your email newsletter for this blog, you mentioned that Goldberg told you not to get an MFA... but you did! So now I want to know why... and if you think it was worth it. I'm deeply interested in this, as I keep going back and forth on whether to pursue one or not.
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks everyone for your beautiful thoughts and responses to this one. Rachel, that's a fair question! I eventually decided to do my MFA because I wanted to work with a writer who taught in the program - Zsuzsi Gartner. So I didn't get the MFA for the certification exactly. I made the leap (financial + otherwise) so I could work with a mentor who challenged me in the right ways. And yes, that was beyond worth it. For me, mentorship trumps academia. If I could have worked with Zsuzsi without the MFA, I might have done that instead.
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This is beautiful, Sarah. I'm a native New Yorker--those towers grew up alongside me--and like so many others, I lost a friend that day as well. It's a tough anniversary every year, especially so on a sunny Tuesday. You have captured so much of the surreal sense of that day, even from the other side of the continent--thank you.
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This is beautiful Sarah... When something tragic happens I wonder if silence is better. Words made with our minds and our mouths aren't capable of reflecting our true feelings at a time like that. Silence and writing sound like the perfect way to deal with a difficult time. ox Cecilia
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Giant smile. This is all exactly what I learned in the one-on-one coaching. How validating. How affirming. How motivating. How uncannily timely. How perfect. PS. The story of your retreat is powerful. You wrote it well. Of course you did.
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I loved reading your wise words today, Sarah, and the other 'where I was on 9/11' stories. After that day I was let go from a job I hated by a sociopath employer we'd nicknamed Satan. I was terrified about how I would pay my bills. Another employee in the company hired me to catalogue his personal library for him. At the time I thought it was a bit strange. I mean, I love my books but it seemed a bit over the top. Within a couple of months I was back on my feet and had learned three things. My former fellow employee had committed an extreme act of kindness to pay me for a job he didn't need done. I discovered new authors and books in his extensive collection. I would never be afraid of losing a job again. There will be people to help you up when the world falls apart, and not always the ones you expect.
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Fi Phillips

Wow, this is a wonderful post. It made me stop and think about so many things. Thank you for sharing.
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Mary Nicholson

I was supposed to write about my hopes for the future, my expectations for myself, and about the challenges I thought I might face in the year to come, a year that would be spent working with street kids in Toronto. Because I forgot to take a camera with me to the training in NYC (where the "mothership" of the organization was based) I instead wrote down every memory I could think of about my three week trip to NYC, especially the precious little time I had to run around sightseeing like a mad fool in downtown Manhattan. This was the end of June 2001. Six months later, the letter was mailed to me in Toronto where I was volunteering. The grief gave out to joy, as I read about walking across the Brooklyn bridge, visiting the Woolworths' building, the lucky break we had to get into the NY stock market on Friday when they rang the bell to close the week, and a man in a suit coming out of the building said to me, "the war is over". Most precious in these memories...the three night I spent at the base of the twin towers, watching free outdoor Broadway performances, and thinking life couldn't get any better. Needless to say, glad I didn't use that letter to work on my "spiritual growth", and wrote what I loved instead. Thank You Sarah, for sharing.
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Rachel Gurevich

Thank your for answering my question, Sarah! That's a great reason, and your answer does help me consider my options.
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Melanie Isis Tinken

Thank-you for this reminder Sarah. A beautiful piece of work. And very true. Exactly what I needed to hear.
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This brought tears - and filled me with inspiration too. Thank you, Sarah.
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I have just read this today. September 17th 2019 and it was the most unbelievable timing. Thank you. I am not sure even how it appeared on my screen but I was meant to read it. This week I am learning, I am meant to be writing. Thank you
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