Creative Sweet Blog: Mary Marwitz
Chasing Our Shadows
Those of you who have spoken with me for more than ten minutes or so are likely to know that in the summer of 2010 I walked the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route in Spain of some 500 miles. I find a way to work it in to as many conversations as I can: “Oh, you like spaghetti? When I was on the camino we ate that a lot…” or “Speaking of the weather, when I was walking the camino in Spain,….” And so, as I thought about this conversation about writing, I automatically turned to my camino experience. The road, you know, as metaphor. Specifically, a metaphor about writing.
Much of the time on the camino was spent walking into our shadows, enticing us forward. There was the sense that a version of myself was always just ahead of me, no matter how many times I stepped into it. Someone called it “Chasing our shadows.” And walking the camino calls for moving into an-ever elusive version of ourselves—looking for answers sometimes, or resolution, or some defining experience. “I walked to find my life’s purpose,” I read from other pilgrims. Me? I wasn’t sure why I was walking. “To see what happens,” I told people.
To stretch the image: The process of moving forward into a shifting shape of ourselves, of moving into the unknown, happens in the writing process. When I begin a project, I have no clear idea of its shape or dimension or result. I write to see what happens. I simply begin collecting details about an experience, a memory, a person. Annie Dillard says that when we collect enough details, eventually we begin to have ideas about those details. So the writing process follows the camino way: one step at a time, into only a shadowy outline of who we are. “Trust the process,” I tell students and myself. Trust the Way, which is not always clearly marked.
Sometimes there will be missed signs, misinterpreted directions. Late one afternoon I climb a hill in a small village that I was sure housed our destination for the night, but nothing is there. Just a house and a crossroad that leads to some uninviting, closed buildings. The only marker in sight refers to a town that I haven’t heard of, not where I thought I was going. I retrace my steps down the hill and find a farmer working a plot of ground near the road. I ask him about the camino and he points back to where I’ve just come. That can’t be right, I argue internally; I’ve already been there, and there’s nothing. I was sure the village and our shelter was on this road. Still, I turn around and climb the hill, again, almost certain that it is a mistake, and yet having no other option than to keep going. One step at a time, one word at a time. Back at the top of the hill there is that same blasted sign that points to a place unknown. The path I’m on seems to come to an end at a stone house with a small garden. I march to the door and knock—a new voice may help with direction. But no one comes to the door. Instead, an upstairs window opens and a woman leans out, pointing without waiting for my question: “Camino es asi— ” That way. And so I go, toward a destination beyond my understanding.
Here, in a narrative with perfect metaphors, is where I might say that the path led me to a wonderful shelter with warmth and camaraderie heretofore unknown, just as the writing I did about my experience rewarded me with profound insights and revelations about myself and the world. The truth is that that day of walking continued to be difficult, with several more hours of uncertainty and time-consuming detours. The shelter there was crowded and hot and noisy, and the meal I had for supper was meager. The writing I’ve done about it has been erratic, and I’m still trying to find the key to its narrative.
What is also true, though, is that both the walking and the writing have taken me to places that I wouldn’t have experienced without setting out, and that we can’t really make sense of it until it’s done, sometimes long after.
Writing is a practice of stepping into our own shadows, to see what happens.