Sara Kirschenbaum: My Writer’s Altar

Stones are just right for the altar because needing to write is as hard as carrying ten pounds of stones on your bike.

If I was to make an altar to my writing, I would pull the half-rotted wooden box out of the compost pile. The one I carried around with me from Ohio to Boston to Oregon. The one that was my bedside table for so many years. The one I tried to grow carrots in two years ago, cause I just didn’t seem to be able to dig deep enough and loosen my dirt enough, and the carrots would be stunted on the untilled ground. So I filled up my wooden box bedside table with muck from my compost pile and mixed in seeds for different color carrots. I hadn’t realized that my compost had so many weed seeds in it and so all summer I was picking the fennel and morning glory starts out of it.  And the purple and orange and red carrots didn’t grow well and only the white ones came up and by the time I picked all the fennel out, it was the heat of the summer and I forgot to water it enough. I didn’t get one descent carrot out of the whole affair. And maybe, for that reason, it’s a suitable base for my prayers. I’d power wash the dirt off this wooden box, drag it in the house and set it up next to my computer in my office.

Next I would lay (or is that lie?) my white silk scarf over the top of it—the one Dalai Lama gave me and 10,000 other Portlanders when he spoke at the MODA center in 2013. The one I used on my little altar at my garden wedding four months ago to Peggy who doesn’t understand why I don’t write more poetry.

On top of the silk I would put my favorite Nova Scotia stone. A beauty of a rock—flat, oval, sea tumbled grays with a three white stripes around its length. It’s the rock I collected in 1979 on my bike camping trip around Nova Scotia with my gentle boyfriend, Ben. Soon after we crested the ridiculous hills of the Cabot Trail and saw the solitary moose that was our reward and came down the hill to a beach of fantastic rounded rocks of every color and pattern, and even though I already had 60 pounds of gear—food, a stove, tent, sleeping bag, clothes, journal, flashlight, sleeping pad, water—in my orange American Youth Hostel panniers, I could not resist adding another ten pounds of stones to carry half way back around the island, and I treasure them all still over 40 years and five houses later, adorning the shelf in my bathroom. Stones are just right for the altar because needing to write is as hard as carrying ten pounds of stones on your bike.

I’d put my first, smallest and most Day-Glo journal, on my altar:  “April 24 1969 help a blind lady in grocery store to get her groceries for her. One thing I gave her is the wrong size I felt nervous” “April 24 1969 I pick up about 80 pieces of newspaper about 10 papers felt like I was helping N.Y” “lost my bookbag. I got real worried because it was a mean persons book in it. I went up to the science room to work on my project (copper coating a key or making metal molicquels move.)”

I would put my tiny blue Swiss Army knife with a customized “KIRSCHENBAUM” engraved on one side on His Holiness’ silk in honor of Karen Karbo’s sentient declaration that “Writing is like having a knife fight with yourself in a telephone booth.”

My mom says, “My father was a failed writer. He didn’t promote himself. He wrote all the time but he was too nice. He was my mother more than he was my father.” I need something of his on my writing altar. I have his microscopically embroidered bib with a tiny swan made of 1,000 miniscule stitches. But he wasn’t a writer yet when he wore it for protection from rice cereal.  So I will place on my altar one of the few manuscripts of his that has survived the tests of time. It is titled, “SALVAGE ROM THE SEA.”  There are several small handwritten corrections, because it is just too much work to retype the whole thing. Eight pages remain, all burned on the upper right hand corner and along the right side, from the fire that burned down his house.

Onto the alter I would drop a handful of Trader Joe’s coffee candies to honor my 33 year old self, keeping awake to study for my MFA while I was raising two kids with an unfaithful sex addict massage therapist husband. One candy = ½ hour longer awake.

I need a candle on my altar.  I have a half-used-up one I made back in my beekeeping days, before colony collapse discouraged me. My kids poured our wax into a galvanized star-shaped column around a cotton wick held in place with putty.  Now twenty years later the candle’s center is burned halfway down and the sharp edges of the star stand tall. It still smells like the smoking burlap from my smoker, and the sweet brown smell of thousands of bees working tirelessly, masticating the clear wax with yellow pollen from our sunflowers, our marigolds, our dahlias.

Lastly I will leave my post-it-note list of words, correctly spelled, that I can’t for the life of me spell: separately—opening—beginning—separation—across—each other —a little— maintenance.

What you will not find on my writing altar: any admonitions in any form to write 250 words a day, to write from 6 am to 7 a.m., to write lousy first drafts, to write every day, to write what I know, to write what I don’t know, to show and not tell, to tell and not show, to show and tell, to “build pockets of stillness into my life,” to write an outline, to “above all, just write!”


Find books by Sara Kirschenbaum at or follow  scherrytree on Instagram.

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