On creating sacred containers for our words

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I keep two slim journals on top of a bookshelf in my bedroom. The large floral designs on their soft covers remind me of the first stories I wrote in my classroom Writing Center when I was six. My teachers made blank books by folding legal-size copy paper in half and fashioning the covers from wallpaper samples. I loved these. Every time I pick up one of my journals, the memory of these other books comes back to me: small and simple, but to a budding writer, special — even sacred.

As a first-grader, I didn’t have this word to describe the things I treasured, but I sensed the reverence those belongings inspired whenever I held them, used them, looked at them. It wasn't the same reverence my parents insisted that we show my departed grandmother’s solemn, black-and-white portrait at each Lunar New Year — but there was an unmistakable similarity in the way my parents positioned that photo just so at the head of the kitchen table, among plates of traditional New Year offerings, and the way I nestled my favorite pink pencil inside the yellow vinyl pencil case I had received as a New Year’s gift. The pencil, which ended not with an eraser but a plush white rabbit topper, was so prized that I couldn’t bring myself to sharpen its untouched tip.

Fortunately, my Writing Center booklets saw better action. While getting to choose from so many pretty patterned covers always gave me the same thrill as looking at that pencil in its case, the stories I wanted to write were the real treasures that needed a home. In wobbly printing smudged and erased over crookedly ruled lines, I filled pages with my imaginings, delighted to see them in tangible form. (Many of the plots were borrowed from fairy tales I had found in the class library, but the illustrations were entirely my own.)

I loved that I could return over and over to the Writing Center whenever I needed another booklet. The ritual of finding the perfect container for each new story was part of the magic in the process — one I enjoyed so much that I failed to complete several of my stories in favor of beginning something else. The choosing was how I connected with my creative momentum, the desire to write, which, thank goodness, my teachers understood. They never insisted that I finish every story I started — cultivating the enthusiasm of coming to the work at all mattered more.

My creative momentum doesn’t manifest in quite the same way when I pick up my journals now. But as grown-up versions of my old blank books, they too are sacred spaces for beginnings, not unlike our family altar where we would ask our ancestors for guidance and protection at the start of the New Year. In their own way, my journals remind me to bring desire and reverence to the work of writing — in this case, as I pen letters to each of my kids about the ordinary moments in their lives that have left impressions on me. When such a moment strikes, I go to these pages to jot down the details, but I do not edit or try to tie up my thoughts into any tidy conclusions. I leave them instead as essay seeds to work with in the future. I know my notes will be here when I’m ready to move forward; in the meantime, I have a growing legacy of stories that I hope will someday be theirs to treasure.

Speaking of which — not long ago, in a box of old childhood books and toys I had saved to give my kids, I rediscovered that pink pencil, still unsharpened and pristine. I think it may finally be time to let them put it to good use.

Where do you most easily find yourself generating inspirational seeds, notes, ideas? What rituals (intentional or unconscious) accompany the start of your work? Where do you store the seeds that come forward? If you haven't yet created a home for them, what space (concrete or virtual) can you devote to their safekeeping? Share your thoughts with me by clicking the button below.