I recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. In the beginning of her book, L’Engle shares a wonderful quotation by Jean Rhys: “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
What a gorgeous piece of wisdom. Rhys does more than simply meditate on her craft or her role as a writer. She celebrates the creative community. Eloquent, evocative, inspiring, reassuring, this quotation speaks to me.
The opening is a command: “Listen to me.” Rhys has something important to tell us, a special knowledge learned through hard work and experience or perhaps through epiphany. But before she shares it, she wants to make sure we’re paying attention.
Then she gives us the metaphor: “All of writing is a huge lake.” Not an ocean. Not a pond. A lake. And without a constant source of fresh water, a lake dries up, becomes nothing but an empty basin. The lake’s very existence depends on the rivers and streams that feed it.
The lake, my fellow writers, depends on you and me.
Those of us who conjure meaning with written words replenish the lake. Rhys esteems the “great rivers” of the literary masters and, with humility, recognizes her own contributions as “mere trickles” (though here, I want to disagree. If you’ve never read anything by Jena Rhys, trust me: she’s a river in her own right).
Note, too, how she refers to herself in the third person in this section. Post-creation, the work bears a title and an author, but the “I-ness” and “mine-ness” of the creator retreats. Once a work is finished and passed along—swept into the lake—the story belongs to the reader. It is the reader, not the writer, who ultimately feels for the characters, pictures what happens, and relates the tale to his or her own life.
Also, by referring to herself in the third person, Rhys is emphasizing how important it is for the writer to let go of his or her “I-ness,” in general—to relinquish the ego. It’s as if she is saying, “Get over yourself. Your poem, your short story, your novel—they’re not about you. This isn’t about you! It’s about the lake, contributing to it, embracing others’ contributions, and keeping the lake—ART—fresh and alive in the world.”
It wouldn’t be much of a lake if only one source bubbled into it.
“I don’t matter.” (You don’t matter, either.) All that matters is “feeding the lake.”
And, oh, this lake! Vibrant, glistening, deep and wide and blue. We need this lake. Teeming with every kind of character, the music of poetry, the mulling energy of memoir, the nowness of drama, it invites us to empathize, learn, open our hearts, change our minds, think!
And in the process, the lake banishes fear, hatred, loneliness, and despair.
The lake is a thing of beauty.
The lake is… (Dare I say it? Will I sound over the top? Will you think I’m crazy? Well, what the hell, I believe it, so I’m saying it.) The lake is love.
The more there are who feed the lake, the more marvelous it grows. There’s room for all of us writers. I’m happy to help replenish the lake. And as soon as another puts her pen to paper and begins building worlds with words, she flows in the direction of the lake, as well.
I hope those of you who are just getting started with writing stick with it and add steadily to your creation, even if it’s slow-going, a drop-by-drop progression. Eventually, you’ll get there. Pure wonder, shimmering and vast, awaits you.