Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 4, 2014

The Mystery of the Flow

sun in handsWhen was the last time words took your breath away? Stumbling upon a particularly moving poem, or a passage in an essay or story, can feel like being suddenly bathed in a warm light of truth. Yes, you think, this is what life is. This is what it means to be human.

Words spoken in speeches or films can move an entire nation. But when we read quietly, the power of words to move us is much more personal and unique. What moves one person may leave another cold. And perhaps it even depends upon the frame of mind of the reader, or where she is when she is reading, or how alert or open she is to discovery at that moment.

winter nightFor me, the power of words to move and enlighten is one of life’s greatest joys and mysteries. A few of my favorite passages – which can still take my breath away or make me weep – include some that are poignant or thoughtful, like the final passage of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” with the softly-falling snow in the night, or Mary Oliver’s question about our “one wild and precious life” in her poem, “The Summer Day.” Others are tragic and horrifying, like the final scene in Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible,” where the brothers share a final moment by the river, or the gut-wrenching scene at the Idaho crater’s edge in Ben Percy’s powerful story, “Refresh, Refresh.” (Go find these pieces and read them if you haven’t yet!)

old typewriter keysNow I can add another to my list. While perusing this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, I began reading an essay by Canadian writer Maria Mutch called “Ghost in the Machine,” which seemed at first to be another quaint homage to the manual typewriter. She begins the piece by describing her recent hunt for the kind of machine we picture in old noir films – black and bulky, its keys clacking into the smoky air of the detective’s dim office. But on the second page, Mutch begins relating a story about an old friend who once tried to give her a typewriter, a close friend who had just returned from traveling the world. And suddenly, the essay is not about typewriters at all but the haunting ache one feels when a loved one leaves us unexpectedly and we cannot figure out why. Here is the sentence that begins the essay’s transcendence:

She was one of those people who was formed in light, though we were unaware that, like a planet glimpsed from afar, the light we saw was something long past and the core of her was cooling and dying.

This friend took her own life just two weeks after she’d tried to give away her typewriter. It had been too heavy for Mutch to carry home to her apartment several blocks away, so she did not accept the gift. And this is where the “bottom falls out” of the essay – where we are transported to a place where life becomes momentarily and profoundly illuminated.

rose tunnelSuch writing is uncommon, even for the most talented. It requires the perfect ingredients in one moment: a thoughtful mood, a long period of undisturbed time, and an openness – conscious or unconscious – to the universal dimension of being. No writer can conjure this at will. It happens when we are fortunate enough to be in “the flow,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, or “down the rabbit hole,” other artists like to say.

I’ve not been a serious writer for long and can only devote an hour or two a week to my craft most of the year, so I’ve only experienced this rabbit hole a few times. But I will say that when I look back on those episodes and the writing I was able to produce in those moments, I cannot explain how the words came together. It’s almost as if they were a gift from the Muses, a channeling from the collective unconsciousness of the artistic spirit.

sunlight on green waterIndeed, the poems and essays I have written while in such a state of mind are by far my strongest. They’ve needed the least revision, spilling out onto the page as complete. By comparison, most of my other works take hours and days or even weeks to tweak until I feel they are as good as they will ever be. And in a strange way, I’m kind of glad the mystical experience only happens once in a while. Any beautiful thing becomes more beautiful when we know it is also rare.

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