Every once in a while a story about a writer takes me to the very heart of life. Such stories remind me just how powerful the written word can be — how it can touch and be touched by the larger world in some mysterious way. This is how I felt when I read a New York Times article about Ernest Gaines, the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying. The celebrated and beloved writer is 77 now and he has laid down his pen — he wrote his first drafts in longhand — but he remains physically and spiritually connected to the source of his inspiration.
In his work, Gaines captured life in rural southern Louisiana by creating a fictional version of the plantation where his ancestors were slaves. Those ancestors, many of whom lie buried in unmarked graves in a small cemetery on the plantation, were the wellspring of his creativity. “If I didn’t have those people back there, I would never have had anything to write about,” Gaines mused. “That’s where I got all my stories from.”
Today, instead of writing, the author honors the ancestors he gave a second life to through his words by faithfully tending to the cemetery where they rest. Every year, as part of this self-imposed task, he and his wife host a beautification day at the end of October. Family, friends, and neighbors gather to rake leaves, remove fallen branches, and care for the small, but hallowed, plot of ground. Later, they have a big party and relax together. “There’s always a feeling of euphoria, of enjoying the moment,” says Mrs. Gaines.
We all have a wellspring of creativity that feeds our inspiration. Some of us, like Ernest Gaines, are lucky enough to know, without question, the source of the stories we tell. And for some of us, that source remains a mystery: the drive to write, to share our ideas and longings, springs from something deep, but hidden, within us. But whatever the source of our creativity, just like Ernest Gaines, let’s treat it lovingly and with respect — and find ways to honor it, to celebrate it, and to share its fruits.