Leave It to “Cleave”

Aug 28, 2016

ou listen to on the way home from meeting said poet, you remember that word without fishing out that receipt. Then you look up the definition(s) of this word.

cleave /klēv/


  1. split or sever (something), especially along a natural line or grain

  2. stick fast to (tongue to roof of mouth)

    1. adhere to, hold to, abide by, be loyal

    2. become very strongly involved with or emotionally attached


I was in a state of heightened awareness at Journal Conference 2016 earlier this year in Hendersonville, NC, where I took workshops on the therapeutic powers of expression and personal narrative. Stepping into the journal therapy world has illuminated just how much I cleave to one ideal of a meaningful writer’s life.

Peggy Osna Heller, a trailblazer in poetry therapy, took the stage to introduce our keynote speaker Natasha Trethewey, former U.S Poet Laureate. Heller noted Trethewey’s love of contronyms and complex word meanings—her passion for words. Trethewey referred to the Oxford English Dictionary as “OED,” as though it was her personal pal. When a poem’s next step evades her, she turns to her confidant for inspiration and guidance, she said. While I was most definitely moved by her powerful poems, I latched onto her word curiosity.

“I was tickled to hear you reference the OED like a friend. I really appreciate the playfulness and curiosity and getting a glimpse at your process,” I said as I handed her two books to be signed.

I had no words to approach the content of her heart-wrenching poems, filled with her own very personal narrative.

“I do get curious in my process and have always been intrigued by the many meanings of words. I loved that Peggy used ‘contronym’ to describe my work and even me. It’s no wonder that my favorite word is ‘cleave.’”


I am a new student in pursuit of becoming a teacher of journal writing classes and therapeutic writing groups, and was fired up to be amongst the pioneers of this work. Inspiration and curiosity filled my journal and newly purchased and signed books at this conference. For the eight-hour solo drive to and from North Carolina, I cued up “Dear Sugar”, an advice podcast hosted by authors Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed, for some company.

On my elated drive home, Almond suggested through my car speaker that one letter writer cleaved to an idealistic expectation of someone in her life, and thereby continued to experience painful disappointment. I didn’t need to look up the word “cleave” to understand its connotation in that context, but I did want to follow Trethewey’s lead into word curiosity. So as soon as I got home I looked up the contradictory definitions.

I hold Almond, Strayed, and Trethewey in high regards for their heartfelt and honest works as writers, the educations they obtained in the craft, and their dedication to teaching aspiring writers—I’ve had the privilege of being a student of all three now. But I’ve I held my keyboard puttering to their candles, and, boy, did I feel dim.


Through this journal work, I’ve finally given myself permission to cleave my own expectations for my own writing from their hard-earned and personal accomplishments. I choose to cleave to curiosity for now—to being playful in my studies and personal explorations of the theories and methodologies behind therapeutic expression.

“Tell the truth about what matters to you most as simply and directly as you can," Almond has said to me more than once when I’ve asked his advice to aspiring writers. Y’all, this is one of the most freeing self discoveries of my life: to authentically be me is all that the Universe expects of me. What?!?! I don’t have to trek over 2,000 miles in the wild to find my story to tell? Not unless I want to do so. So, here’s to allowing curiosity to cleave my self-induced disappointment in trying to be any other writer than the one I am.


I invite you to open up a journal and muse a bit. Look up “curiosity” in the dictionary. What comes up for you? Is there an ideal that you cleave to that could use a cleaver? Write about the first thing that comes to mind and follow the breadcrumbs.

p.s. That week I got home, I met a female butcher with a cleaver tattoo. Breadcrumbs, y’all. Universe-dusted breadcrumbs.