Joshua James Amberson

When I was 19, my roommates brought home a letter-pressed broadside full of bold declarations. “Words want to be on the open road/gathering more words,” it said, “more mass/more momentum/to smash into cities with.” It asserted that not only was telling a story a subversive act, but hearing a story—simply listening—was subversive, as well. And it confirmed what we were beginning to suspect, that “you give life to words/and they in turn/give life to you.”

Accentuated in the broadside’s design were the lines, “Shake the dust from your shoes/tramp poetry into the soil.” It hung prominently in our house, and every day I looked at it, wanting nothing more than to write my own call to action.

So I tried. But each attempt sounded just as forced as it was. When I wasn’t forcing anything, what came out of me were quiet poems that didn’t call to action, but just looked at the world from a slight angle and tried to describe what being at that angle looked and felt like. I couldn’t seem to write inspiring manifestos that my friends would want to hang on the walls. Nor could I write like the other writers my friends liked; writers who were brazenly sure of themselves and their ideas. I knew I couldn’t suppress my drive to write, so I assumed this made me a writer. But what kind of writer was so unsure?

At some point, I wrote some short essays with big thoughts about small things and published them in a zine. These pieces weren’t particularly stylized or showy, they were just the beginnings of conversations that went into the world and hopefully continued in someone else’s mind. Without realizing what I was doing, I was figuring out my own sort of manifesto.

Charles D’Ambrosio writes at the beginning of his essay collection Loitering that, “we’re more intimately bound by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.” When I write, I think of how rarely we’re encouraged to be unsure, to not have the answers; how weak that seems. As a writer, I often choose (or get chosen by) subjects that have ambiguities and mysteries, that are inherently vulnerable. I write to figure out problems in my past, in the world, and in my head. I write to tell stories, to meet people, to make notes on life.

I don’t write to tramp poetry into the soil, though sometimes I still wish I did, but I think where I ended up is a more natural place for me. I generally feel more comfortable posing a question than forcing an opinion, more interested in conversing than declaring. It doesn’t mean I don’t search for the sweeping generalization and the emotional kicker like everyone else, it just means I stare at those moments longer than I used to. I wonder what I’m not thinking of, what someone else would have to say about it, and I ask myself what kind of conversation I’m hoping to start.

Photo credit: Holly Myers

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