Making what matters…..

Dear Karen:

The sweet peas are blooming in western New York and how much I’d like to write about them, their color and whether they grow near you. The perennials are technically invasive, but to me they’re perfect, filling the roadsides in thickets, the slender green stalk unfurling its flowers into pink and purple purses. I want to write about sweet peas because it astounds me how something so gorgeous can grow so madly it becomes threatening and because I just cut a bunch for my table but mostly because you wrote of the ocean in your last letter, which meant that while I read, I could also be at the ocean and to return the favor, I’d like to deliver us someplace pretty. Instead, I’ve decided to write what’s been on my mind for the past few days—a quote that turns out to be more invasive than sweet peas.

I just received a copyedited manuscript for my forthcoming book. A wonderfully exciting thing, yet I have only so much time to read through and make changes in red ink. The past two mornings, I rose to the task, making coffee and flipping through the first few pages, delighted by the copyright and dedication—what a thrill for a writer to see those first pages of what will become a book. I sat there, giddy and sipping coffee, twirling my red pen like a baton. Until I arrived at the epigraph page. I read the words aloud, then silently, and aloud again, stuck on that page and the words for more time than I want to admit.

My epigraph fixation is likely a form of procrastination. But it feels like something else, the way I read and reread the line, wondering at each word, charmed and confounded, torn between loving it (I’m the one who chose it, after all) and puzzling over what it might mean. The words come from John Berger:

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others,

but also to accompany something visible to its incalculable destination.

The first line is straightforward, isn’t it? The first burden of the artist is that she sees what others do not. The second burden is the need to communicate it. I say burden, but, of course, it’s also a privilege and a gift.

Making something observed visible to others. Maybe this is what you meant when you talked about teaching your students to write their hard truths. I wrote my first book, in part, because when I told friends about having an outhouse in New York State, they didn’t believe and because of the way others spoke about poor families, people living on reservations, single mothers, and inner city kids. I wanted to show the truth of my experience and don’t most nonfiction writers want to do the same?  Show what it was to grow up gay and Catholic, to live in the housing projects of South Memphis, to have a baby as a teenager, to join the convent, leave a marriage, shoot up, turn tricks, change careers, take charge of their health, face cancer or lose a loved one? Your last letter made visible a girl in the back seat of a Pontiac, rocketing from Kentucky to Florida, everyone in the car spinning inside their respective universes and later, you make visible that same girl (nineteen and ninety pounds of girl in her itty bitty swimsuit) wading into the waves. Images that matter and remain.

So Berger’s first line is clear. I know precisely what it means and why I chose it.

It’s the second line that has me pinned in place:

but also to accompany something visible to its incalculable destination.

Back when I first found the line from Bento’s Notebook, I asked my husband what he thought. He’s a visual artist so I hoped he’d be on the same wavelength as Berger, but he just said, “I don’t know, but I like it a whole lot” to which I said, “I do too!” A terrible way to choose an epigraph, but I tell you this: the line fills me with hope every time I read it.

If Berger’s first line speaks to the function and power of writing, the second speaks to the mystery. The not knowing where it will all lead, the faith required to make art, the vastness of possibility, and all that we have no control over. It’s the the part of the process I least understand, the part of that exists without flash or clever banter, the quiet part, the part we most need.

It also reminds me of Neruda’s lines from your last letter:

 For once on the face of the earth

let’s not speak in any language

let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines, we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

 * * * *

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper, short bullets expressing outrage over capital punishment, the Gulf War, and the plight of urban schools. It felt noble to write them, which is how I eventually understood that I must stop. I believed in what I’d written, but at some point, no longer wanted to shower my words like bullets.

The past week has been filled with outrage and heartbreak. As a writer and a human being, I’m torn about how best to use my voice. When to speak? When to shout? When to be still enough to move toward something larger and truer than my initial impulse? But perhaps all words are bullets and I only fool myself when I feel good about swapping out letters to the editor for personal essays? And why should I feel good about that anyway—don’t we need letters to the editor?

I begin to see that the Berger quote is connected here and relates to why I’m stuck, not just on the epigraph but on the direction and tenor of my writing, especially as I look at the world around me, my connection to it, and consider embarking on new projects. The question that’s weighing on me, Karen, is this: How can I use my voice in a way that matters without adding to the clutter and chatter of the world?

Okay, so it’s not an easy question, but it does not leave me. Next time, I’ll try to stick with sweet peas.

Until then—

Sweet Peace,



Sonja Livingston’s latest book, Queen of the Fall uses memory and personal experience to consider the lives of girls and women. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for use by classrooms around the nation. Her writing has been honored with a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women.Her work has appeared in many literary journals including the Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Brevity, AGNI online, and is anthologized in several texts on writing, including Short Takes, The Truth of the Matter, The Curious Writer, and Brief Encounters, forthcoming from Norton in 2015. 

An Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis, Sonja divides her time between Tennessee and New York State. She’s married to the artist Jim Mott.




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