I want to tell you about a class I took over thirty years ago. I’d like you to see about twenty women finding their seats, and at the front of the room, the teacher, Pesha Gertler, resplendent in her layers of flowing clothes, writing a quote on the board. That board will hold many such quotes in the years to come, as I take this class over and over: Self Discovery for Women Through Creative Writing, at a local community college. College didn’t quite work out for me, so here I am, in my late twenties, searching for something, not sure what. The tables have been arranged in a large rectangle, all of us finding our seats, facing one another, ready for anything.
I must have attended the course in many different seasons, but I always remember it as winter, driving out to North Seattle Community College on the dark and damp streets after a day working in an office for an Italian espresso company. I answered phones and typed up invoices on an old electric Remington, flirted with the salesmen and the vendors, made coffee for prospective customers. It wasn’t a demanding job, and in the intervals, I typed out stories of my own on that rackety typewriter, using wite-out to correct my many mistakes.
I came home to an old house I shared with three strangers, and my room populated with only a twin bed and a writing desk that faced a window looking out on Green Lake. I think about that person now, a young woman who has gone through five years of college, graduated, worked for four years at a hippy resort in California, then drifted her way to Seattle. A young woman who backpacks by herself nearly every weekend in the summer, a young woman who somehow keeps finding herself drawn back to writing but not really knowing how.
So this young woman drives every week to North Seattle to enter this classroom, which is transformed by Pesha’s intention, her flowing clothes, and soft-spoken voice, slightly accented like the voices of my grandmothers. When all of us arrive we know we’re entering what can only be described as sacred space, which means we leave the work-a-day world behind. We read a poem together, then write, just write, for an hour in silence, following whatever prompt Pesha has given us for the night.
I wish I could remember some of those prompts and poems now, but it wasn’t the trigger that was important. We went with it, all of us shedding our skins, writing deep, then sharing. I remember sharing something I wrote about my grandmother; I hear myself reading a line I don’t remember writing, though it was just a moment ago: “….as if her hands held a warding touch and would keep me safe forever.” The words ring in the silence, and I know I’ve stumbled onto something here: authentic voice. A voice that has burrowed out of the litter and understands the power of rhythm and cadence and image.
Sometimes the class was hard. Sometimes it was difficult and uncomfortable (so much so that one evening, when my anxiety emerged full force, I actually crawled under the table to get away and out the door; Pesha looked at me bemused above her reading spectacles, just nodding, knowing we all had to do what we had to do), but most often I was able to stay in that room, to keep the pen moving for an hour.
It was the first time I felt the solid connection between pen and paper, hand and mind. How this process of simply writing—without judgment and in the company of others—opens some hidden chamber, a place undamaged by time. A place like a cave in an Indiana Jones movie, glistening with treasure. A place that takes some ingenuity and perseverance to find: sneaking past marauders determined to foil you, swinging from vines, jumping into miner’s ore carts and careening down the tracks….
This is what Pesha taught us, silently, as she did her own writing with us, glasses at the end of her nose, hair big and curly around her face. She taught us the pathways to take that would lead us into these hallowed spaces and back out again. I’ve learned, since then, that nothing else really matters—not a skill with syntax or imagery, not an expansive vocabulary—if you haven’t found a way, and continue to find your way, to the source. You need to hear your authentic voice calling out to you from underground. And 30 years later, I find myself doing the same kind of work with my women writer friends, always returning to this elemental practice.
A couple of weeks ago, Pesha died at the age of 81, and the news brought me back to those days when a young woman didn’t know what answers she wanted to find, only that she was one big question mark walking through the world. She was a question sitting at her desk, gazing out the window, wondering where she must go next.
Think about your own teachers, the ones who showed you a pathway you didn’t know existed. Honor them in your writing.
In closing, I’d like to share with you one of Pesha’s most famous poems, “The Healing Time”:
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
—Pesha Joyce Gertler