Between Experience and Words

I spend a lot of my time in-between experience and words. By experience I simply mean whatever it is that happens to, in and around me: the events I participate in, the people I encounter, and the thoughts and images that arise, invited or not, in my mind and heart.

Those experiences generate an array of feelings: from joy to sorrow, hope to despair, clarity to confusion, anticipation to anxiety, love to loneliness. Often, my feelings are not at either end of a continuum, but, instead, somewhere in-between. If I were painting my feelings, I would occasionally use bold primary colors; but, more often, I would use mixed shades and melded hues. The feelings can puzzle, delight, mystify, guide, discourage, motivate, deflate or inspire me.

Having had the experiences, felt the feelings, and sensed the direction of their movement (feelings do move within us and move us; that’s why we sometimes call them emotions), I face the challenge of putting the feelings into words. The words can be shaped into questions, affirmations, protests, prayers, blessings, testimony, or statements of fact. The more crucial the feelings are, the more I will need and want to take care and precision in the crafting of my words. The more significant the feelings are, the more likely and important it will be for the words to be richly metaphorical, or playfully parabolic, or searchingly poetic, or lightly lyrical.

Translating experiences, which have become feelings, into words is hard work. It is wonderful work, but, for me at least, it is always exacting and demanding. In his essay, “Feeling into Words,” poet Seamus Heaney, said: “Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them.” When we say about someone that he or she has a “distinctive voice,” a deeply integrated and personally coherent way of communicating, what we are recognizing is that he or she has developed the capacity for meaningful translation of feelings into his or her own words.

Reynolds Price, that marvelous writer who died last week, had found his voice. He was consummately skilled at the craft of putting his experiences and feelings into words. I offer as one example the final lines of his poem, “The Eel,” which he appended to his memoir of illness and recovery, A Whole New Life. Written as it became clearer that spinal cancer would not immediately take his life, Price gave thanks for “long years more”
To use what I think I finally glimpse—
The steady means of daily love
In daily life: the patience, trust,
Suspended fear, to choose one soul
And stand nearby and say “Be you.
Be near but you “
And thereby praise,
Thank, recompense the mind of God
That sent me, Mother, through the straits of your
Own hectic womb and into life
To fight this hardest battle now—
A man upright and free to give,
In desperate need.