Writing & creativity


Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Cup and saucer vine (Cobaea scandens)

Last spring, a colleague flummoxed me with a perfectly innocuous question: “Do you work on your own writing?” This is a seemingly straightforward question, one deserving of a simple “yes” or “no,” but it left me stammering. What does it mean, exactly, to work on “your own writing”? Of the various sorts of writing I do, which one is actually “mine,” what exactly counts as “writing”?

Asters

As a professor, I should be working on formal academic scholarship; if I ever were to join the ranks of tenure-track faculty, I’d need to hop on the merry-go-round known as Publish-or-Perish. But apart from a few book reviews, I stopped producing formal academic writing when I finished my dissertation more than a decade ago, and I remain deeply conflicted about the genre.

Secret garden

Part of the reason it took me so long to finish my dissertation was the identity crisis I experienced halfway through, when I realized I didn’t want write about Thoreau, I wanted to write like Thoreau. I’ve never reconciled the tension I feel between academic writing (the kind of writing I should be doing to advance my career) and personal essay-writing (the kind of writing I scribble in private notebooks and share on-blog). There’s the kind of writing I like to do, then there is the kind of writing I “should” be doing, and I haven’t figured out a way to build a bridge between one and the other.

Viewing through

Years ago, another teaching colleague mentioned that he reads my blog, and his voice was tinged with envy. “You can write about anything you want,” he observed, and again I wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, I can write about anything I want, and that is exactly what keeps me writing…but my blog writing doesn’t bring any professional benefit. My blog serves as my own creative outlet, and being able to write about a variety of topics–whatever is on my mind on any given day–is a source of great personal satisfaction. But while that teaching colleague has moved onto a permanent full-time position, I continue to piece together a string of temporary “visiting” appointments. I can write whatever I want, but that writing isn’t something I’ve been able to leverage toward lasting full-time employment.

Silvered

So what counts, exactly, as “writing,” and which writing counts as “my own”? The words I write in my journal are both theoretically and practically my own, as no one other than me sees them. The words I revise and then post here are my own as well: I write them for no one else’s benefit, nobody compensates me for them, and I share them simply to satisfy my own creative itch. My blog-essays, then, should most definitely count as “my own writing,” so why was I so reluctant to admit that aloud in response to my colleague’s question?

Moss steps

I have never felt judgement from my colleagues because I write blog essays instead of academic articles: in all honesty, most of my colleagues are too busy to follow what I do in my off-hours, just as I am too busy to follow what they do in theirs. But even in the absence of external judgement, it’s entirely possible to feel self-generated guilt. Why am I wasting my time, my inner-critic questions, working on writing that does nothing more than make me happy? Given the perpetually temporary and thus tenuous state of my employment status, why aren’t I toiling away at academic projects: the kind of writing that could lead to more gainful employment?

Silvery

For better or worse, the only way I know how to write is by following my curiosity: my scribbling pen is like an unleashed dog that runs and wanders where it will. I share on my blog the kinds of things I enjoy reading: one way of understanding my blog, in fact, is to see it as a repository of my own intellectual interests, a personal cabinet of curiosities.

In “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defined “genius” as the belief “that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” I don’t presume to know the hearts of all men, but I know what I like, and in writing about those things, I trust that there are others, somewhere, who are interested as well.

Bee on stonecrop

I recently started reading David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. The early pages of the book recount a Kerouac-like stint of hitchhiking, fruit picking, drug using, and general penury. In his introduction to the book, Sedaris advises against reading the book from cover-to-cover: as a diary, the book lacks anything remotely similar to a plot, instead reflecting the crazy daily existence of a person without a clear direction. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover like a conventional narrative, Sedaris suggests readers dip into the book at random, reading it like a joke book where some episodes or anecdotes are funnier than others.

Bee on stonecrop.

I have two good reasons for ignoring Sedaris’ advice. First, I’m reading a library copy that I have to return in two weeks, so I don’t have the luxury of a leisurely and random read. Instead, I have to start at the beginning and plow right through.

But my second reason is the more important one. I too am a journal-keeper, so whereas normal readers might grow tired of a the senseless ramblings of a young man trying to find himself in the most random of ways, I’m admiring the narrative fluency of that young man’s mind. I’m not reading for story as much as psychology: not what happened to young Sedaris so much as how he responded to what happened.

Bee on stonecrop

What I’m interested in watching is the suppleness of mind that allows Sedaris to write whatever comes to mind, even when what comes to mind isn’t remarkable or particularly noteworthy. Non-writers believe, I think, that you can spend your life not writing and then suddenly open your noticing eye when something important, exciting, or inspiring happens. But that isn’t how writing works.

Bees on stonecrop

How writing works, in my experience, is you practice by keeping track of minutiae. You scribble things down every day even when your everyday life is boring or uninspiring. You practice noticing the quality of light through the window, the sound of crickets chirping, or the insistent chip of a cardinal. A journal is to writers what scale-playing is to pianists. Playing scales isn’t interesting for listeners, but it’s how pianists keep their fingers flexible and their minds focused. After playing scales, scales, scales, a pianist hones her ability to play measure after measure of actual music. The music happens because of (not despite) the hours of disciplined drudgery that precedes it.

Bumblebee on stonecrop

When you’re in the thick of your life, you’re not very good at determining what will be life-changing or profound. That’s why journal-keepers record all of it. Theft By Finding is a massive book–more than 500 pages–but Sedaris explains it’s still not exhaustive: he edited out the most boring, repetitive, and inane material, and even then, there’s still a lot that might bore or befuddle many readers. But that’s exactly what I love about reading the journals of practiced writers. I don’t read because every page is wonderful; I read because it’s wonderful to encounter a gem-like line in the middle of otherwise unremarkable stuff.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

One of my goals for this summer is to write daily. When I sit down to write each day, I don’t usually have a topic in mind. Instead, I have a commitment to sit at my desk, uncap my pen, and fill four journal pages with whatever comes up, following Natalie Goldberg’s advice to “keep my hand moving” as faithfully as interruptions allow.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

This practice of sitting down and seeing what arises is very similar to what I do when I meditate; in fact, I’ve come to think of writing and meditation as being basically “sitting with and without pen.” When I write, I allow my sentences to follow wherever a given thought leads, regardless of how silly, stupid or scary that thought may be. When I meditate, I watch my thoughts without either chasing or repressing them. Like a flagpole planted on the edge of the sea, I stay standing no matter what the tides and surges throw at me, using my breath as an anchor.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

It turns out that these two practices–following random thoughts with a pen on one hand, and watching thoughts come and go on the other–are flipsides of the very same coin. In both cases–whether you’re following and recording your thoughts or simply watching them–the muscle you’re exercising is what Buddhists call non-attachment. You aren’t judging your thoughts, and you aren’t weighing their worth. You aren’t sorting your thoughts into piles to keep and piles to discard. You aren’t rating or ranking or recoiling from any of them. Instead, you remain firm and rooted in your commitment to simply stay sitting. Whether writing or meditating, you commit to staying firmly planted, regardless of what comes up.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

What you don’t do, in other words, is stop because you think your writing or your meditation “isn’t working.” The phrase “isn’t working” is code for “This activity isn’t immediately delivering the kind of results I want, so I’m going to stop and do something that feels more rewarding.” Both meditating and writing require you to ignore the demon named “Isn’t Working” and press on regardless. Does it feel like your writing “isn’t working” because what you’re writing seems stupid, disorganized, or inane? Keep writing anyway. Does it feel like your meditation “isn’t working” because your thoughts are scattered and disjointed? Keep sitting anyway. Ultimately, the quality of your writing or your meditation isn’t contingent upon the quality of your thoughts; it’s determined by the strength of your staying.

Retreat journal - March 1994

I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was on a week-long retreat in Rhode Island in 1994, when my then-husband and I lived in Boston. I don’t remember journaling during that retreat; as far as I remember, we were told not to write, just as we were discouraged from reading. So when and how did I scribble a substantial number of pages in looping longhand?

Dharma room Buddha

This morning I started reading Hourglass, a thin memoir of “time, memory, [and] marriage” by Dani Shapiro. In the opening pages of the book, Shapiro discovers a journal she kept on her honeymoon some eighteen years earlier. Like me, Shapiro doesn’t remember keeping this journal; even more oddly, it is a journal where she refers to herself in the third person, as “D.”

Shapiro is a memoirist; I am not. I continue to keep a journal all these years later; Shapiro’s honeymoon notebook, on the other hand, is significant in large part because it is one of the last she kept.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Because of this, Shapiro and I have different approaches to memory and journaling. When she did keep a journal, Shapiro did so as an orderly act of closure. By laying down the details of her life in writing, Shapiro suggests they could be filed away and forgotten:

Keeping journals was a practice for me, way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash–this is the way I thought of it–in one place.

I, on the other hand, lack a memoirist’s memory: I rarely write about my childhood, for example, because I remember so little of it. For me, journaling is a necessary act of remembrance. Knowing I won’t remember anything I haven’t written down, I trust my days to the page so that it, my journal, will remember my life for me.

Retreat (not) in progress

Shapiro and I have different perspectives on memory and journaling, but we share one thing: we each have earned the wisdom of hindsight. Shapiro reads her honeymoon journal after being married for eighteen years, and I am re-reading my retreat musings more than two decades after I wrote them. Both Shapiro and I peek into the lives of our younger selves with a knowledge of how things turn and are turning out.

People sometimes talk about the advice they’d give their younger selves: what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? This is an interesting if useless exercise: useless because our younger selves would never listen to the advice of us oldsters, and interesting because it forces us to take stock of the wisdom we’ve acquired the hard and messy way.

I’m not sure whether Shapiro offers any advice to her younger self: I haven’t read far enough into her memoir to know. But all I’d say to my younger, greener self is this: Keep writing, and keep everything you write. One day, you’ll marvel to think you ever were so young and so green.

I shot the photo of my 1994 journal this afternoon and the photos of the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island some ten years ago.

In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.

New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.

Leafing

The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

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