You get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something.Joan Didion
Given that things have gotten better with the move, that the logjam has cleared, I can turn my mind to other things. Though there are many things yet to do, the move is set and the papers are all signed. Tomorrow is another day.
Some time ago–I can’t remember if it was before cancer or during cancer–I bought digital copies of all seasons of The Waltons. It was one of those shows that gave me hope in my youth and a character (John-Boy Walton) I could relate to. While the business of the world was going on around him, he was noticing things and writing them down. Like me, he spent many long hours with a paper tablet and pencil or a typewriter he borrowed from Miss Mamie and Miss Emily. Although he had chores a-plenty, he also had free time in the evening and the inclination to sit down to write. As a youngster, if I wasn’t writing something, I was reading something. The key to life was in words, language. Language still moves me. The way we string sentences together to communicate a thought or a feeling still creates a yearning in me to say more, to write more.
A woman came into my life just before Stephanie died. She was a school chum that I had a crush on long ago. Like many people, we found each other on Facebook. She was married to a man but admitted that she’d only married him to shut her mother up. Two days after I found her and started talking to her, Stephanie died. I remember writing to her that I’d be no good for awhile and that she should forget about me. But she convinced me that I needed her, and so I went to her.
We lost our minds together, and because I was in such a vulnerable state at the time, I didn’t hesitate to pick up and run to the mountains on the NC/TN border to be with her. Oh, how many times I’ve looked back and wondered what I was thinking! She was controlling, abusive, and not very intelligent. She often parroted the things her family would say. She watched Fox News and believed the hogwash from Glenn Beck. It was pretty awful.
The worst part, though, was when she called me a narcissist because I blogged. I asked her if she thought all writers were narcissists, and she said not all of them were, she didn’t think.
She missed the point entirely. We don’t write for fame, or at least most of us don’t. We write because we can’t help ourselves! If we get really lucky, someone finds some nugget of truth or inspiration in what we write. Someone reads our thoughts and discusses them with us! In this age of people being famous for being famous, we have forgotten that not all people who achieve fame are narcissists. There are miles of difference between a person so surgically altered, so PhotoShopped, so cinched and pinched and woven together and the writer who slogs away in private, never knowing if even their families will ready what they write. I often quote my literary heroes, as I did above, because I found such truth in their writing.
Before I joined the corporate world, I wrote all the time. I worked in restaurants and after I put my little ones to bed, I wrote – longhand or on the typewriter – because I couldn’t not write. After my husband got out of the Marine Corps (partly due to his ever-increasing anxiety), I had to step up and start earning most of our living. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to work. No, I had worked for my father from the age of 13. He allowed me to get my first “real” (paying) job in a fast food restaurant at age 15. I always wanted to work, but because I couldn’t afford to go to college, I stopped believing all the things my teachers had said about me–that I could write, that I would be great working with stage production, that I could do anything I set my mind to. I started believing that I was very much an ordinary girl, and I didn’t feel good about that. I was dismayed and felt tricked. How could everyone have been so wrong about me?
So when I worked my way into the business world, during a time in which you could learn on the job, I pretty much cast aside my writing. When I found myself on shift work as a computer operator, though, I would write while on the night shift, to keep myself awake and to record the things I thought about. I was always pretty good with a short story. Essays were harder, but only because I didn’t believe in myself anymore. Why would anyone want to read an essay written by some girl who once had promise but was found lacking? I dreamed of writing a novel one day.
And then came success in the working world. I moved up the ladder, and my hunger for more knowledge (and a fatter paycheck) kept me busy growing my skills. I climbed all the way to a director position, and then my daughter starting falling apart. Once her hospitalizations started to become frequent, I backed out of my career. Instead of staying in the hard-charging world of network engineering, I moved into technical writing, where I remained for 17 years. It paid well while not demanding too much of me outside of steady work hours. That was a most welcome fact during the worst years of my grief, after my daughter died. Only recently did I move back into a position in which I can have some hope (and expectation) of advancement. Although I will always be broken by the loss of my child, I function better now. Even the worst of the clinical depression I have suffered has lifted. For that I can thank cancer. It taught me to appreciate life again, and I can’t help but wonder if chemo reset my brain. If I start to get depressed or blue now, I seem to be able to get up, get busy, and get better. I’ve had many times in the past when I could do none of those things.
What does this mean for my writing? When all the dust settles from the move and my house is sold and I can stop worrying so much about my retirement account and what the current market crisis is doing to it, where will my writing be? Will I find peace in the little brick house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains? Will my mind quiet because it isn’t being bombarded with constant demands? Will I finally be able to pull up to the typewriter in my head and start to express myself again? For now, this is where my muse lives. In this blog.
There’s really nothing narcissistic about my writing, even though I write from life–maybe especially because I write from life. This is just what a writer is! As a fish gulps in water, filtering it through the gills to extra oxygen, so a writer inhales the world around her and filters the truths and sights and sounds and smells and feelings, letting the rest go. It is in this way the writer is able to find the gold in a river of muddy water and hold it up before us, letting us share in the beautiful observations she has made. This is a selfless act. The writer lets her innermost thoughts out into the world for the world to judge. The rejection letter is often the first response we get to our writing. It’s a wonder anyone can bring themselves to write! Only celebrities write books (usually via a ghostwriter) with only the profits in mind. The rest of us just wonder if we’ll make it to “The End” or if our reader will. So yes, you could think that a writer writes to be read, admired, and quoted, but I caution you to think that through. Was that the intention of the piece you just read? Or were you just plastering your own bias onto the writer without having fully understood or digested her words?
Since I only have about fifteen minutes of “good enough” left in my eyes for the evening, I’ll leave you with this. A challenge. I challenge you to write something. It can be about anything. It can be about the neighbor’s dog that bit you when you were five. It can be about a new civilization on a newly-discovered planet. If it interests you, write something about it. Put that writing aside and go do something else. Come back to it in a few days. Read it and set it aside again. Don’t judge your work. Don’t correct it. Just let the feelings and thoughts flow onto the page. When you have moved yourself to tears of sadness or helplessness or anger, when you have bled on the page, tell me whether you think that was narcissism you just portrayed or whether it was courage.
I need to rest my eyes now, but here’s one more challenge, if you’re feeling froggy. Actively seek to change your mind about a writer. Take a writer you can’t stand for whatever reason and read them again. If he is a fiction writer, read some of his essays. If she is an essayist, find something she wrote about her personal life. I did this with Danielle Steel.
I could never stand Danielle Steel because her stories struck me as fast food for lazy readers who wanted a Cinderella story for grown-ups. But when I found out she had lost her son Nick to overdose, I read the book she wrote about him and their life together: His Bright Light. Not only did that book bring me to tears but it also changed my mind about her. There’s nothing wrong with a woman writing some escapist narrative for other women and making a living off of it. It certainly is no worse than what a plastic surgeon or lawyer does. But the writing profession inspires skepticism, judgment, and sneering in a way no other profession – except maybe an IRS representative – has to put up with. Think about that while you give the writer one more go.
Peace and happy weekend, Jude
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