Writing on Basement Walls: What inscription will you leave in 2015?

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Imagine that you are descending stone stairs down to the basement in a 150-year-old high school to a room known as the Graffiti Room. Does this sound like a writing prompt or perhaps jacket copy for a mystery novel? Mention of this Graffiti Room popped up in my daughter’s college application essay recently. In her words, “the floor, ceiling, and all four walls are covered with students’ names and graduating years. Layers and layers of signatures blanket the historic walls…in a few months I will sign my name in this room, leave my mark on history, and become a part of the tradition.” I realized that when my daughter inscribes her name on the wall, she will share space with her grandmother who would have written her name nearly seventy years earlier.

I don’t generally advocate for writing on walls, furniture, trees or rock outcrops either, but, the layering-of-names tradition hit me. I have never been bitten by the “I was here” bug that would prompt me to write my name on a wall, but isn’t striving to write similar? When writers write, aren’t they grasping at truths, inscribing them, and leaving them behind like names scrawled on a wall? Think inscription, trace, epigraph, literary footprints.

I used to struggle with cynicism towards academic publishing; I still harbor frustration with the jargon-ridden, inaccessible nature of the genre. My prejudice shifted when, after delivering a presentation at a conference in Arizona, a few undergraduate and graduate students asked me to sign their copy of my book “Voices of a Thousand People.” This wasn’t a book tour, far from it. I don’t think my presentation even mentioned the book, but, to my surprise, they eagerly shared their excitement to meet me and how much they loved “Voices.”

Despite my reservations about academia, my work had spoken to these students, fired their imagination, and fueled their passion for learning. Even though writing often feels like a selfish endeavor — the journey toward flawless craft and research, the search for inspiration, and the quest for publication — it remains similar to writing on walls. Writing leaves a trace, a literary pathway for making and sharing insights with people the writer may never meet.

So if you’re struggling with your writing (as I have been this past year), embrace the notion of writing on walls. Writing is not just a solitary endeavor. The act of writing reaches out and touches others, makes connections and shared meaning that we all crave. Keep writing. As you face 2015, ask yourself: what delightful discovery do you want to leave for others to discover in a basement room?

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6 replies »

  1. I forwarded your recent post about Portland HS to my sister who is an English professor at the Univ. of Arizona. I thought you might enjoy her reply. Kathie Smith

    Begin forwarded message:

    > From: “Aiken, Susan H – (sha)” > Subject: Re: [New post] Writing on Basement Walls: What inscription will you leave in 2015? > Date: January 1, 2015 2:14:07 PM EST > To: Kathie Smith > Cc: Barbara Morgan > > Thanks for this wonderful reflection. It reminds me of a similar writing process that unfolded over many years at the University of Arizona’s renowned Poetry Center. The Center was initially housed in a small bungalow on the northern edge of the campus (and, incidentally, just around the corner from where Chris grew up: the original owner of the bungalow was his neighbor, Ada McCormick). Next door stood another little bungalow, christened “The Poetry Cottage” because it was the guest house where visiting poets were put up when they came out to give readings for the Center. Every major contemporary poet, beginning with Robert Frost when the Center was inaugurated in 1960, came out to read, and stayed in the Poetry Cottage. Early on, one of them wrote an impromptu poem on the kitchen wall of the Cottage, sparking a venerable tradition: from that day on, each visiting poet would add an inscription, creating a poetry wall with the creative signatures of virtually everyone who was anyone in the world of contemporary poetry. Sadly, when the university needed to expand, it tore down both the original Center and the Cottage. Today the Center is housed in a beautiful, award-winning building devoted entirely to poetry, and the cottage is only a memory—but before it was destroyed, my friend Lois Shelton, then the Director of the Center, made detailed photographs of the “poetry wall” to commemorate those early years. Like the basement room Patricia Erickson and her daughter wrote about, that wall was a palimpsest of history, of memory–and of poetry. What treasures. > > Happy New Year! > > Love, > > Susan > >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing the post with your sister, Kathie. Her description of the Poetry Cottage is beautiful. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the walls had been saved and displayed by the University?


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