05/28/2013 06:18 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Writing Your Way Home

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What would it mean to claim ourselves as writer/artist, fully in possession of one brilliant, nuanced voice, and then to learn additional craft, additional voices, without suppressing the innate genius that John Edgar Wideman calls "the language of home" and Paule Marshall calls "the poets in the kitchen"?

For me, it has meant finally coming to terms with my place of origin, geographically, economically and emotionally. It means being braver and far more honest. At age 70, it meant asking myself: What do I want to do before I leave the planet? and discovering that I wanted to bring everything -- the poverty, the orphanage, the years of school, marriage, mothering, teaching and aging; all the tangled and wondrous threads that make up the crazy quilt of my life -- to asking the question, What does it all mean? When I told my former agent about the book I wanted to write, she said, "I can sell that book with an outline and one chapter." And I said, "No, I need as much time as it takes to ask all of my hardest questions." I had no idea it would take seven years. In saying "no" I realized that this time I was not at all writing for publication, although I hoped someday it might be published. I was not writing for any other reader, although I handed chapters out in my workshops and to friends to get critical responses. I wrote questions, and then wrestled with story, memory, and learned craft, writing always in my own voice.

My place of origin is Missouri (Missourah, the rural part). It is an odd place of origin for a writer. The hilly Ozark land is claimed by neither east nor west, north or south. My friends from Alabama go into shock if I say I grew up in the south. It's true we didn't eat grits; apparently Missouri's cornbread, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy just don't cut it. I live now in Massachusetts, where the language is different. "Stones" in New England are "rocks" where I came from. "Fireflies" are "lightning bugs"; "Streams" or "cricks" are "creeks."

And "mother" is "mama."

In my 40s, that got me into trouble. I had finished my MFA in creative writing, was published in literary journals and had had a libretto performed in Carnegie Hall. A friend suggested we trade poems and critique them. She had a book of poems published; I didn't. When she returned my poems, they bled red ink on every page. I agonized, Oh, no! I'm not a good poet! Who do I think I am, giving her my poems to read? But a comment on one poem bugged me. It had already been published. It was titled "Mama" and began:

Kerosene, gasoline, Maybelline, Vaseline--
Mama said she knew a family
in the Ozark mountains
named their baby Vaseline Malaria
because the words were pretty.

Her comment was: "Mama is a childish name for mother." I tried revision: "my mother" and "who named" and maybe "interesting" instead of "pretty." Stuff like that. But the new words threw off the Ozark rhythm and -- finally! -- "Mother" was dishonest. It hid something intimate. It was not right. I looked at my other poems. It was the same everywhere: She was taking Missouri out of my poems!

If I had not studied poetry, if I had not learned craft beyond my own voice "of home," I would never have figured that out. I would have assumed my poems were not good. I would be ashamed and would suppress the greatest gift I have: the original twang and click and clack of my language of home.

Craft is important for the writer, but craft that can be taught must be the servant of craft that is original and innate -- not the other way around. Writing as a spiritual practice can be the most freeing of any I have found in a long life of trying different paths. It deserves all we know and all we can learn. Most of all it deserves the brilliant and original voice that began to be formed in the waters of the womb. In the beginning was the word.