Saturday, November 24, 2007

Drawing Water From The Well

Some writers refer to the process of writing as drawing water from a well, hinting at a reservoir of words stored beneath the surface.

That well, like an underground aquifer, feeds our imaginations and drenches our words in the same way that underground streams secretly nourish the landscape.

And it's limitless--yes, limitless--but only if we acknowledge the well as a source and carefully replenish it.

To fill the well up, we may need to take frequent breaks from our work, or contemplate the words poured into the reservoir by other writers, or simply live our lives and let our experiences replenish the well.

The very same writers who describe writing as drawing water from a well often refer to priming the pump--another wonderful image--as a way of gaining access to this well of words.

To get started each day, many writers encourage words to flow by writing in a journal or by performing certain rituals, such as putting up a pot of coffee, meditating at one's desk, swimming a few laps in the local pool, or reading a few lines of poetry.

This confluence of hidden reservoirs and pumps, water and words, recently came to mind as I read Sarah Miller's first novel, Miss Spitfire, a spell-binding account of the fractious (at least in its early stage) relationship between young Helen Keller and her determined teacher, Annie Sullivan.

The story, retold from Miss Sullivan's point of view, offers readers a compelling portrait of a teacher struggling against enormous odds to help her reluctant student make the connection between the words that she spells with her fingers and the objects in the world that the words represent.

Not until five painful, torturous weeks after her arrival does Miss Sullivan finally see a change in her pupil:
I spell w-a-t-e-r, first slowly, then faster and faster as I work the handle. Suddenly a wide tongue of water gushes from the mouth of the pump.


The sound twists into a gasp. She freezes. The mug drops, shattering on the packed dirt. Her hand clutches mine. She stands transfixed, her whole attention focused on the motion of my fingers.

I feel a change in the way she grips my hand. Her muscles, so often limp with indifference, strain to catch each movement. My chest heaves as I realize the difference. She's listening, with every bone and fiber.

Something is happening inside her head.

This is the miracle every writer hopes to experience each time we put our pens to paper and begin to tell a story, isn't it?

We try to "listen with every bone and fiber," and we pray (or hope... or trust...) something miraculous will happen inside our heads.

Most of the time we may take this miracle for granted. But this is a week of giving thanks, and Hellen Keller's story--especially as Sarah Miller tells it--is a timely reminder of the miracle of words and stories, as well as the miracle of relationships between teachers and students, writers and readers, family and friends.

Over the course of the year, we have been given words and stories, as well as friends and family with whom we can share our stories.

We have been given the ability to draw words from the well.

And, if we're lucky, we've been able to find the miraculous in our daily lives and in the lives of our characters.

All of our words and stories flow from this hidden well, this invisible aquifer stretching beneath the surface of our lives.

We have only to prime the pump and wait--perhaps with the patience of a Miss Sullivan--for the "tongue of water" to give voice to our imaginations.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks, as always, for stopping by.

For more information on Sarah Miller, visit:


Barbara W. Klaser said...

I've always loved that story about Helen Keller at the water pump. It's a powerful illustration of how our minds suddenly open up, the "aha" experience.

Journal writing often leads me to more productive writing. It's my most reliable writing ritual. I also often find when writing an essay that as I work through the first draft I discover what the essay is really about, the idea I was subconsciously trying to get to.

I heard Joan Didion say in an interview once that she didn't know what she thought about anything until she wrote about it. She thought it was true of many writers, that writing is a way for us to sort out how we think and feel about things.

Bruce, I've awarded you "A Roar For Powerful Words" on my blog. Details here: A Roar For Powerful Words!

Bruce said...


I think that "aha" experience-- whether it takes ten words or ten thousand words--is what we strive for in our writing... a moment of discovery, a chance to find something that we hadn't known or seen before. Each time it happens, it feels like an unexpected gift, doesn't it?

Thanks so much for honoring Wordswimmer with "A Roar for Powerful Words" award. You've been so encouraging from the start, and I'm grateful for your support.