Ernestine Hayes: Writing in the Shadows

I write in shadows. I write in the shadows of women who if they were features of landscape would be the tallest mountains, the widest rivers, the deepest part of our literary oceans, while I cling to narrow shores. While I wade in ankle-deep shoals. While I bluster at barnacles.

I imagine myself swimming out beyond safety into the deepest waters. I find myself wishing I could reach those literary masters, but I’m afraid that I will drown before their human voices wake me.

I write in the shadows of men who whose words paint the wings of the brightest songbirds and echo the most lyrical rustlings of the forest. I haunt the near borders, listening, hoping one day to understand, to hear their message, to believe in what they say.

I aspire. It’s good to have models I know I will never approach. It’s good to read words that in a lifetime of work I could never have formed. It’s good to catch only a glimpse of ideas I know I will never be able to grasp. It’s good to take inspiration.

I read works of accomplished writers and I am struck by concepts I’ve never before encountered but which seem so tenderly familiar. Words that bring from me a surprised breath followed immediately by – of course!

Of course!

Someone is living my life. Someone knows my song. Someone casts a shadow as I sit here dreaming that I write. As I sit here wondering about a place called Saginaw Bay. A place called Flounder Hill. A place called We Also Cherish Words that Remind Us of Our Ancient Ones. A place called But This is the Way It’s Always Been Done.

Individually, we choose the works we value. Collectively, those choices too often become the overwhelming, dominant voice. When a majority of people take inspiration from words they find somehow familiar, words they find somehow comforting, words that lead them to exclaim Of Course!, we run the risk of finding ourselves in a dry, repetitive desert instead of our rich, wet forest. And when we look around and realize where we have come, perhaps we should find our uneasy way back to the forest and the ocean instead of making ourselves comfortable in privileged beds set high in a desert tower.

We are here to become one another: all my life I have been forced to study and practice how to become you, and all your life you have imagined me. We write in one another’s shadow.

I don’t aspire to conquer those high mountains so I can then write about my triumphs. I don’t aspire to forge those deep rivers so I can then write down my adventures. I don’t aspire to cross that deep ocean so I can then journal a record of my voyage. I aspire only to write in their shadows, and to nurture the plain hope that I might recall to a reader’s mind the fecund smell of a handful of earth, the numbing thrill of fast-moving water, the profound taste of grainy clam raked from the oozing beach. To Muir and his disciples I leave the panorama. I am content to write in the shadows.

5 thoughts on “Ernestine Hayes: Writing in the Shadows”

  1. I love the shadows you write, Ernestine! Your singular voice has brought me back to the forests and ocean in a way no one else ever has. I think it has something to do with love…and respect…
    Thank you for what you write and how you see.

  2. Add to "of course!" the goosebumps prickling my flesh while reading this. Thank you, Ernestine! I fondly remember meeting you in Ketchikan the fall of 2013 when your poetry was installed at the park there.

  3. Thank you Ernestine. This writing made me picture myself on my knees in a wet forest.

    Of course!

  4. Thank you, Zachary, Amy, and others! And thanks to 49 Writers for the opportunity to share my thoughts about writing and Alaska — Gunalcheesh!

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