What We Write | vol. 01
“Not the why, but the what.” --Ernest Hemingway
Writing comes easily to me, like breathing. It’s the water I swim in, and have from an early age when I first cannonballed into the lake of my experiences, dashing down the sprawl of ideas and emotions from my youth across the tiny pages of my diary. I’d lock up my bravely captured observations and questions about who I was becoming and what it all meant with the locket that clicked my diary shut, and I’d leave the key to dangle from the lock in case I misplaced it.
I still have my first diary, now I call them journals which seems a more apt description of their purpose to record with neutrality rather than serve as confessional. It is upholstered in a pillow top of blue fabric with rosebuds and edged with ruffles of ribbon. In this diary I wrote my first vignettes of my personal narrative. I noted what happened to me on my way to the bus stop when had to run to catch the bus. I expressed my sadness at being left out of the game at recess and later ditched on the playground by the same friends. I wondered about what a period was and what would happen to me when I got it. Such acknowledgements, even to myself, expanded my sense of inner space to explore the questions, Who am I and What is important to me?
This freedom to slow down my thinking to pay attention to what I am feelings may have been what saved me in my childhood, which was at times tumultuous in a house with a single mother who complicated my emotional state by projecting her stress on to me and my younger brother. When inspiration struck or I felt a feeling needed to process, I would grab my diary and squirrel myself away in the corner of my room, behind my bed where no one would look for me. I created a bubble of peacefulness there among my pillows and stuff animals, and I’d pour my focus through my pen and out would flow a part of myself onto the page.
These pages were for my eyes only. I continued to write as a kind of cathartic release of stress and confusion. No one told me to write, I just did it. Once I did, I felt the urge to continue. Over time, diaries became journals, as my intentionality and methodology developed. I was a record keeper of my days, writing daily through high school and college. The habit was so integrated into my way of being, I felt a physical longing for the pen in my hand and the thick book of paged beneath my hand if too much time passed. Over the years I filled boxes full of journals representing hundreds of thousands of words I have never shared with another soul, most of which I never reread myself.
One summer, I traveled home from college and was directed to the stack of boxes Mom had kept for me. She was moving again and not willing to continue to transport my belongings, which I accepted without issue. I pulled open the flaps of the boxes and pulled out the first few journals to flip through. A Matisse painting was featured on the cover of one and Picasso featured on the cover of another. I selected journals with such deliberateness back then, feeling how the energy of each potential new journal struck me in the moment before I decided if it was that one that was the best fit to join me as partner on the many months we’d have ahead of us until I filled the pages and began the search for my next journal. It was during these years in high school that I became particular about the page quality of my journals, the width of the page, how the book laid open, whether the pages were blank, which was always my preference to have ample space to draw or write with utter freedom of size and shape. Now I write in Clairefontaine three-hole-punched, spiral notebooks, still with the best paper you can find, smooth as cream and heavy enough to hold ink from my Lamy fountain pen.
As the tools have changed over time, so have the reasons I write. Yes, it is still to lay claim to the swirl of emotions that can cloud my vision, that has remained consistent. More so now than in the past, I write to discover what I don’t yet understand consciously. Writing is a portal into my deeper self. The more I show up to do it, the more I alight upon. Like finding treasure without hunting for it, I write to notice, to take account, to be present to myself in the moment. I don’t write to judge myself or lament. Blah! Who wants that?
I write to cultivate a certain way of feeling, something the conjures a mix of the familiar, the sacred, and the essential.
I have a morning ritual that includes writing. It begins at 5am when I am the only one awake besides the dogs who greet me with wagging bottoms. We walk out into the fresh air of morning still under the blanket of darkness, and, my bernedoodle, Bowie and I stand stargazing together. He sniffs the air while I scan for shooting stars. In these moments, I contemplate my intention for the new day, casting it up to the stars for safe keeping. Once back inside, I circle the rooms, lighting candles to softly illuminate the space. I sit on the floor and meditate for 10 minutes, letting my energy gathering in my center. The practice of focusing on my breath to ground me in the present washes away any distractions that nag my attention. With a clear channel, I collect my tools (coffee included) and begin to write.
What I write varies. If I handwrite in my journal I attune to my inner voice, listening to what I feel. I find words that may not fit or make sense, but I let them be. I write for fluidity, following the advice of Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. Pick a pen that is fast to allow your hand to keep pace with your thoughts. The “bones,” as she describes it to her writing students, is the “awake speech of their minds.” It is what comes of writing clearly and with honesty. To open the channel for words to flow, Goldberg offers six simple instructions:
1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Don’t cross out.
3. Don’t worry about spelling.
4. Lose control.
5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
6. Go for the jugular.
Set a timer and write non-stop, without editing allows you as the writer to stay in the freedom of the moment, the imperfection, the mess of it, losing control to gain presences and flow. Go for the jugular means to be unwavering in your commitment to honesty by tackling the scary feelings and the vulnerability that come up, and allow it to be folded into the whole of your writing, just as the writing is folding in the whole of who you are.
Following such a method, my writing becomes an exercise of freedom of expression, and isn’t that what writing should be? In this wild writing practice, this embodied flow of somatic experience, my body takes control, and my mind gets a break for a while. It is in this way I find gems I never anticipate finding. My mind meets my body wisdom on the page through words I never knew consciously until they suddenly appeared as if my magic. If instead, I open my laptop, as I did this morning, I follow a train of thought on an adventure that can feel like river rafting. There is a purpose and a general direction, but I can only see so far down the river at any moment and there are always rapids to navigate or surprise. This is how writing feels like living in the moment.
“We learn writing by doing. That simple.” --Natalie Goldberg
I write to know what I feel, to see what I don’t normally choose to look at, to wake up the whole of myself—body, mind, and spirit—and bring it all out to play. As Goldberg says it, “To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life.”
Why do I write? Here’s a few reasons below.
What are your reasons to write? Write down the bones, capturing all contradicting, non-sensical, and wise reasons you write. Here are a few of mine.
I write . . .
1. Because I have more to say than willing listeners.
2. To remember what I did yesterday.
3. In hopes my life adds up to something meaningful.
4. To wake up—seriously 5am is too early!
5. To have something to do alone at 5am when the house is quiet and all mine.
6. Because I am a storyteller.
7. Because I’m a dreamer.
8. Because I like the slow pace of handwriting.
9. To get these thoughts out of head.
10. To feel grounded.
11. Because I do it and feel creative and free.
12. To dive deep within.
13. Because my voice matters!
If you are new to writing, I highly recommend you go buy Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Each section is short and filled with beautiful wisdom about writing and living well.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:
“Don’t stop at the tears; go through to the truth.”
“The present is imbued with tremendous energy . . . When you are present, the world is truly alive.”
“Write a lot without destination.”
“If you are not afraid of the voices inside of you, you will not fear the critics inside of you.”
“We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves; we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we really are and accepts us.”
“Own anything you want in your writing and then let it go.”
“Whatever’s in front of you is a good beginning. Then move out into all streets. You can go anyplace.”
Stay alive to the adventure of being alive through your writing practice.
Next week, on this new series, What We Write, I’ll share more about my current writing project in “I’m Writing a Memoir and It’s the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (and the Best).”