You might read my work and conclude that it is a lot of navel-gazing, self-serving grumbling. (Some days you wouldn’t be wrong.) Or you might read my work and think it’s brave to put it all out there. Others of you might read it as inspiration to tell your own story. Let me set the record straight with this post. Those of you who consider yourselves writers might want to pay attention.
Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.Flannery O’Connor
Without anyone having told me to write anything, I started crafting stories almost as soon as I could hold a pencil. It is in me as surely as are my bones. I have to write or die is how it has always felt. In the same way that painters feel compelled to paint or musicians feel compelled to pick up an instrument and choose that starving artist lifestyle, I was compelled – am compelled – to write.
I’ve been listening to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott while cleaning and exercising on this last day of 2021. She is funny and irreverent and so damned right about the process of writing. There is no secret to writing except to write! (But read her book anyway, because it will sort some things out for you and give you encouragement.) It’s an interesting book choice as I look back on 2021 and forward to 2022. The title refers to the advice Anne’s father gave to her older brother when he laments the impossible task ahead of him to complete a school report about birds. Their father tells his son, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
It’s true that our childhood will give us information, but it will also give us plenty to write about. Need a flamboyant character? Look no further than your Aunt Mildred. You can take her personality and graft it onto your modern creation of the character Alice, who lives to go out dancing and flirting with sailors at the nearby base. Need a sullen teenager? Look back on the battles you had with your own mother, for example, over wearing that pair of ratty bellbottoms you found at Goodwill for the group picture at school. Or maybe your genre is memoir, in which case all of your family and friends play themselves in the narrative, and not always in a flattering way. Bear in mind that a memoir is only of interest to the public if you are either (a) already famous or (b) overcame or did something that a wide-range of people might find interesting. I can attest to the fact that I read almost every memoir about women who overcame breast cancer while I was going through treatment. Some were by famous women; some were by unknowns. But their memoirs had a purpose. If you’re going to write one, make sure yours does, too.
This blog is sort of a holding space for my life and memories. Some of it will end up in the wastebasket, but some of it will land in a future book. I have written books before (under my other name) but they were non-fiction, engineering books. One was used as a textbook. I have also contributed to another textbook for a course at Mercer University. But that isn’t the kind of writing I really want to do. I want to write about life. I want to write about interesting characters who run into all sorts of situations that test them and redirect them and test them again.
When I was 12 and healing from a broken arm, I wrote my first full-length “book” for my friends and I (which I lost somewhere along the way). At first, I wrote it out longhand on yellow legal pads, and then I typed it out on an IBM Selectric typewriter. My friends loved it. My parents loved it. I wrote short stories, too, which caught the attention of the most annoyed-looking teacher I ever had – Mrs. Ross. Suddenly, she noticed me, and not just because I was the fattest kid in class and wore weird clothes. She told my parents I should be sent to the best school they could afford, that I was going to be a writer. (Unfortunately, public school already was the best school they could afford.)
There’s a theme here. Life sometimes has to toss me to the ground (broken arm, cancer, etc.) for me to get still enough to write. This isn’t unique to me. Most good writers I know don’t carve out the time to write, so they never actually become that writer they want to be (or could be). Even now, I’m hyper-aware that the chimes have sounded on both my washer and my dryer. The vacuuming and mopping still need to be done. The dog needs to be walked. I could go on. Life keeps tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Get up, you lazy lump! There’s real work to be done!”
So I don’t often sit down and just write. When I do, inevitably the phone will ring or someone will deliver a package or a loud crash will happen somewhere in the house (cats). Writing is a very hard job for so many reasons. It often feels like a futile effort. It feels like something you should only allow yourself to do after all the more important stuff is done. And it’s damned hard to think about doing it after giving everything you have to your 9-to-5 job.
Lamott says that her writing students almost always come in like happy puppies, anxious to learn all the secrets of being a writer. Some of their frequent, early questions involve how to get published and how to find an agent. Almost never do they focus solely on learning the craft. Many of them leave the class and ask for refunds when they find out that there is no magic. She tells of her own experience of sitting down and writing five pages, only to realize later that she has one great paragraph on page 4 that is full of life. The rest of the writing is crap.
Writing is a lot like panning for gold. You’re going to break your back sifting through a lot of sand and silt before you find the tiniest little nugget. Don’t give up when you see how small that nugget is, and don’t start figuring out if you’ve got enough gold to stop. Keep going. The nuggets will add up.
This goes for life in general, as well. I’ve formed a really strong relationship with one of my sisters over the last decade. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, but we have a mutual affection and respect for one another. Many of our conversations focus on our families or the world in general. Every now and then, a nugget will wash up in the pan.
Yesterday we were talking about music, because one of her granddaughters is playing the guitar and singing now. She’s very interested in performing. I asked my sister whether she had told Maya about our dad. She said yes, she had. (For the record, all three grandchildren are adopted, but sometimes I forget that they aren’t blood relatives. They are like blood to all of us, of course.) And then she said this.
“When I was young, there were these two young men who stayed at our house one time. They were musicians, and they came to see Dad. He let them stay on the couches in the living room for a short time,” she said. “I’m pretty sure it was the Everly Brothers.”
She said she wasn’t positive, but that that’s what she recalled. I reminded her that it wouldn’t be so far-fetched for that to be true. “After all, Dad was playing onstage with Johnny Cash, and we had other folks in the family who were in the business.” Dad also knew Jerry Lee Lewis, who he didn’t like much, so it’s definitely not impossible that the Everly Brothers stayed on our couches.
We decided we’ll ask our eldest brother about it. He is two years older than my sister.
“I just wish I had asked Mom,” she said. Of course it’s too late for that now, because Mom has been gone for almost 16 years. Dad has been gone for most of my adult life.
But do you see what I’m doing here? If nothing else, my son will have a record of the interesting things and memories from my life (and my family) after I’m gone. He won’t have to guess. The only person he could ask about any part of my life in my absence is his own father, who has long ago moved on from me. I’m not sure how much he remembers about our life together, much less about my family. He never got a chance to meet Dad, but he did love my Mom and fed her chocolate pudding as she lay dying, before she stopped eating altogether.
You know what else I’m doing here? I’m writing. Even when it just looks like I’m obsessing over my life, I”m writing. I’m exercising these writing muscles so that maybe, occasionally, one of those page 4 moments will happen. Find enough of those page 4 nuggets, and soon you have a gold bar. Writing rarely makes one rich – Stephen King being an exception – but it is satisfying to a writer in a way that is truly indescribable. It’s an itch you have to scratch. It’s a muscle that aches, which you must massage. And every now and then, the act of satisfying those urges is profound and improves mankind as a whole. Dickens probably didn’t think, as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities that the story would be so much bigger than a book set against the French Revolution, that even today it would be assigned reading because of its themes of self-sacrifice for the good of others and of the ways in which black-and-white thinking about anything (the royals, the bourgeoisie) can get us into trouble. It’s still an important commentary on the value of human life, as much as is The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s classic study of the Great Depression and migrant farm workers. Those books didn’t spring forth from two men wanting to be rich and famous. They came from a need to tell a story and a need to write. True, there was certainly a hope that others would read the stories and take something from them, but true writers don’t usually write for fame or fortune. They write because they must.
I hope that if you consider yourself a writer (or journal writer), you spend some time today, tomorrow, and in 2022, working your craft, even if most of it seems to be navel gazing. You never know when you’re going to find a gold nugget.