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On the Way to Jerusalem

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As it has for most of us, COVID-19 upended not just my plans, but my schedule. In March, all three of my weekly volunteer opportunities were cancelled until further notice, which put me in my house for six more hours a week than I usually am. I can’t remember what I frittered away those hours on the first few weeks of the shutdown, but by mid-April, I began cleaning. In May, having cleaned and organized pretty much everything else in my house, I started on the filing cabinet in the corner of my office.

The filing cabinet held a ridiculous number of years of utility bills and bank statements, as well as the owner’s manuals for things I no longer own, including my first telephone answering machine. Like a time capsule, in that same drawer, I found the manuscripts for dozens of short stories, plays, and novels that are so old they are handwritten, typed, or printed from long obsolete computer platforms. In short, they are artifacts from my early writing life, each of them the lone remaining copy of a story I once desperately needed to tell.

Leafing through them, I soon identified a common thread in those early stories. They all took place far from Kansas, where they were written. There’s a story of a married couple in Bath, England, a young orphan in post-WWII Yokohama, a woman with amnesia stranded in Gare Saint-Lazare. In those stories, I see how keenly I wanted to escape my home. I see a teenaged me who thought my life would not start until I went out into the world, and a big part of that life was my writing.

So I went. To New York, to London, to France. (There is an underpants joke here that I can’t quite nail.) I even went to Japan for a few years, then to Florida, a strange and foreign place in its own right. At last, after so much perambulating, I came back to Kansas. My writing came back to Kansas, too, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about since I unearthed those old stories.

After all those years of wandering the earth, and all those years of believing that I needed to see the wider world to write about it, my breakthrough novel, the one that well and truly launched my writing career, it was about a girl growing up in rural Kansas. The next novel, also about people in Kansas. The book I’m writing now … Kansas.

It’s not that I didn’t benefit from seeing the world. I firmly believe that improved me and my writing, but it turns out that the stories I need to tell aren’t about people very different from me who live far away. The stories I was meant to tell are the ones I already know, which brings me to the title of this blog post.

My last year in college, I went to a Laurie Anderson show. At the time, she was touring for her album The Ugly One with the Jewels. One of the pieces she performed is called On the Way to Jerusalem. The premise is that a 15th Century nun wants to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as an act of spiritual devotion. Due to some practical considerations, she makes the journey by walking around and around inside her convent’s cloister. Each day for three years, she walks, steadily accumulating the necessary mileage to reach Jerusalem (metaphorically speaking.)

The performance piece ends with these words: “At the end of her journey, the nun was so exhausted that she collapsed. A doctor was called. After examining her, he announced that she was too weak to make the return trip. The nun died shortly after.”

My friends and I left the theater laughing about this. “She was too weak to make the return trip!” we shouted. “The return trip!” For several years after, that remained our rallying cry of both exhaustion and frustration over our writing. In the years since, friendships have waxed and waned, until I no longer have anyone to make jokes about it with. In those years, my understanding of it transformed, too. I used to think it was just a clever joke, but I don’t laugh about it anymore. Maybe that’s simply the work of age, but I believe it’s also about how my view of the world, my ideas about home, have developed in the intervening twenty-five years.

Now, I think of the nun’s journey as a sly truth about all our journeys. You may leave your home. You may leave all that is familiar. You may walk all those miles to Jerusalem, but you can’t leave yourself behind. You are the immutable object. This is particularly true for writers. Yes, we can tell stories of people unlike us, living in different places, different times, different societies, but we are still telling stories about ourselves. We are each the nun walking in a circle inside the walls of our private cloisters. The story is the pilgrimage, and with each circuit we weave the narrative. After we reach Jerusalem, we must still have the strength for the return trip.

The advice to “write what you know” gets bandied about a great deal, and it’s often interpreted as a limitation, a warning not to overstep yourself. I prefer to think of it as an affirmation. Teenaged me thought her life was boring, thought she was boring, that’s why she wrote (with a great deal of ignorance) about places she’d never been and people she’d never met. Now, I understand that my experiences have value, that my own stories are worth telling. Today, like every day, I’m walking toward Jerusalem, but I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.

Is there a story that you feel uniquely qualified to tell? Or a story of your home that you’ve been struggling to write? If you’ve previously seen your life through a filter of mundane vs. extraordinary, has your view changed as you developed as a writer? 

About Bryn Greenwood [2]

BRYN GREENWOOD is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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