Notes on writing, 1

Over the past several months, I’ve begun writing a book. I’m finally admitting this. This realization was really uncomfortable, especially because the book is about myself, at least partly. Louise DeSalvo notes that at first “taking the time to write seems self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even.” When the urge first hit me a little over two years ago, I felt embarrassed about my motivation and, even more disturbingly, uncertain what it was that I even wanted to say. So I dabbled, journaled, waited for insight to strike.

Insight did not strike. But the compulsion to write remained, unwavering in its intensity or direction. Write. Write about my life.

I began to write. And then I read what I wrote, and I felt discouraged–sometimes disgusted. “I might not know exactly what I want to write, but that’s not it,” I felt. It’s hard to keep writing when the reward is frustration, the continual gap between where I am and where I want to be.

This, I now think, is the breakpoint between dabbling and working with seriousness of purpose. I passed through this place of discouragement when I took a job that did not fit me, did not exercise my passions or strengths. I felt hollow. I was moving further away from whatever it was I wanted to communicate in my writing. That detour ended after only a few months, thankfully, and I returned to writing late last year. Or, more accurately I returned to my intention to write.

I had tried to escape, to make writing a side project, but I could not. Writing was there patiently, plaintively staring at me like my dog waiting for me to take him for a walk.

So I began in earnest. Every day, I write.

At least I am now at the starting line of my event, not doing stretches off somewhere else. That’s good. It feels different. Each day I write 1000 words. Mostly I am learning that old writers saw: show, don’t tell. Showing is fucking hard, though. It requires a host of skills that my brain has trained against for years.

In professional settings, I feel that I need to bring value. My mind is a coach ranging up and down the sidelines of the situation yelling plays: “Remember: insightful! Look for ways to be useful! Above all, excellence!” Try to show, not tell with that advice. What comes out is judgements, comparisons, opinions, conclusions. This kind of writing feels like an orangutan beating his chest. With a few exceptions, I am not interested in reading this kind of writing anymore. And I am certainly not interested in producing more of it.

Sometimes I manage it. I show something real, something I saw, felt, knew firsthand. This is delicious. I wrote a scene recently about huddling in a copse of fir trees during a summer storm in the Siskiyou mountains near my grandmother’s old house. I was maybe eight years old; it was just me and my two sisters, no adults. I ran my fingers over goosebumps and bits of sleet in my hair. There’s another good one about breaking my nose: displaced cartilage swimming around in my head and immense relief when my classmates were kind to me. Feeling broken and cared for at the same time made my voice wobble and my eyes water.

Most of the time I am frustrated by what I write. I want a voice of my own. A voice that does not need you to believe me. A voice that is honest, patient and clear. Such a voice does not have a concise point to make. I hate that.

On Wednesday I stood chopping carrots in my kitchen for dinner. It was late afternoon, the sky was winter dark, a mix of early twilight and incipient snow. I felt vegetable deficient. My puppy was looking intently at my feet, waiting for me to drop something crunchy. This is a time of day when I can slip into melancholy. Rarely, but sometimes, afternoon melancholy turns into a gentle despair. It is so much work to be understood. I feel lonely. I don’t believe it is really possible at all. An old story for me, and a powerful one.

I told Alexa to play me something. The algorithm selected Renegades, Obama’s new podcast. In the first episode, Obama is shucking and jiving with Bruce Springsteen: “I grew up a scrawny black kid in Hawaii. I get why I felt like an outsider. You also felt like one, you’ve said. So how does a nice white boy from New Jersey feel like an outsider?” Springsteen’s reply rang through me like a bell. First, he chuckled. Then he paused. Then he said, slowly, “I don’t think it’s something you choose. Until I began to write and sing, I felt somehow invisible. I did not have a voice.”

I’ve been thinking about voice. I left social media several years ago because of its abundance of ill-considered voices. They instill fear in me, real fear, that I will be among them. I know what Bruce Springsteen meant. Somehow, despite a career of which I remain very proud, I have not yet found my voice. Many times each day, I too feel invisible. What to do with writing that is not yet ready? Should I remain invisible until it is ready?

I’d rather try to show my work. I decided yesterday that it might be satisfying to write notes about the act of writing–not just writing but of finding my voice. That is what I intend to do here: show my unbaked, unprocessed, unrefined thinking. There is a “what” element to this process: what is it that I really want to say? And there is a “how” element to it: how can I say it specifically, honestly and in my own way?

I wrote this post with one rule: no editing. (I allowed in-sentence corrections but once a sentence has a period, it stays as it is.) I’m going to continue to experiment with process notes of this kind in hopes that they further my creative practice. The notes I post here may not always make sense–but that’s the mind at work, isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “Notes on writing, 1”

  1. “I wrote this post with one rule: no editing.”

    It’s a wonderful restriction and not one I would have guessed you applied to this post because it is so well written. You have a knack for the written word and I’m glad you are sharpening your skills even further.


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