Archive for February, 2010

Why We Write

As a journaling advocate who has been writing for over forty years, I have often reflected on the reasons why people have chosen writing as a career. My journaling habit has served as a foundation for my life as professional writer. I have a lot of gratitude for those little red diaries with lock and key that my mother gave me each birthday during my childhood.

There are many reasons why writers are compelled to the page, including having a story to tell and the desire to bridge the gap of loneliness. In order to sit down and put words on the page, writers must submerge themselves in a zone which ignites their creative energy and spirit. Sometimes this requires the simple act of closing an office door, making an escape to a writing retreat, or going to a local bookstore or café. In other cases, it might take a more profound removal from day-to-day life. Sometimes darkness is brought on or initiated by something real in the writer’s life.

According to Margaret Atwood, in her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, (2002), “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”

Marguerite Duras, in her book, Writing (1993) says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”

The childhoods of writers are thought to have something to do with their chosen vocation. Although many are quite different, what they’ve often contained, were books and solitude. My own childhood had all the vital ingredients to provide a lifetime or writing. When I was a child, there were no films or theatres and the batteries in the radio always seemed to be dead. Yet, something ever present was books. I had a shelf above my desk and there was also another big one in our living room.

I learned to read at an early age. My mother was an avid reader and inspired the same in me. Each week she took me to the public library and I’d leave with a stack of books reaching all the way up to my chin. Margaret Atwood also spent a lot of time reading as a child. “My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet,” she writes.

As a child, journaling was the only place where I could visit myself and be alone with my thoughts as I tried to make sense out of the world around me. William Faulkner argued that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” That’s why many of us working on longer projects can get by with very little sleep. The demons just won’t let us stop until they are satisfied and there’s no telling how long it will take them to be satisfied.

In many ways, writing and psychotherapy are both healing and could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped.

Soren Kierkegaard describes what it is to be a poet: “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music….” The way I look at it is that we are all blessed to be writers.

Joan Didion in her essay, “Why am I a Writer,” says, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

As expressed by these exceptional writers, in essence, we write to know ourselves. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears can transform to reveal value and meaning for us. And with any luck, for others as well.

Forgetfulness

I wrote this blog in honor of my cousin, Jed’s 55th birthday. (Happy Birthday, Jed!)

Most of my favorite poems are found on the pages of Billy Collins’s poetry collections. So many of his sentiments and images resonate with me. If I had to chose one poem to share, it would be, “Forgetfulness.” The main reason is that this poem inspired me to rediscover the poet in me who had been dormant since childhood.

This is how it happened. It was 2003 or 2004, and I was in the charter class of Spalding University’s low-residency program, working on my MFA. Our class was invited to a Billy Collins reading at a neighboring university. It was just after Billy completed his term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The university auditorium was packed and Billy read many poignant poems, including “Forgetfulness.”

I vividly remember chuckling to myself throughout his entire reading. It was just about the time of my fiftieth birthday and I was beginning to forget more than I remembered. Billy received a lot of laughs during his reading, but with an audience filled with baby boomers, I think he got the most chuckles while reading this poem. If you have ever heard Billy read, you understand his talent and dry voice. In his poem, “Forgetfulness,” he incorporates his classic teasing technique told in a conversational and accessible manner. His imaging is extremely clever and it continues to resonate with me this many years after that first discovery.

I rarely will choose to spend the time to stand in line for an author signings, but after Billy’s reading, I purchased all his books piled all the way up to my chin and decided to wait for his signature on each one.  I didn’t care how long it took me to reach the front of the line. I knew that his reading would launch the new poet in me and I wanted to avail myself of the opportunity to read the poems of a giant.

You can hear him read on u-tube or you can read it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrEPJh14mcU

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

The Month of Love

This month presents a few issues to contemplate on the subject of love – a perfect discussion to fill up the pages of your journal. I will share my entries with you here. It’s interesting to study the evolution of love and relationships. No matter where you live, whether in an urban, suburban or rural area, you can hardly get through February without being reminded of Valentine’s Day. This was a holiday we always celebrated when I was growing up because my father managed a general merchandise store (akin to Woolworth’s) and Valentine’s Day cards and gifts were already displayed the moment the Christmas aisle was cleared. So, my beloved father, was reminded every working day to bring home Valentine gifts for my mother and I. Each year he bought me one of those padded chocolate heart boxes filled with assorted chocolates and a card which read, ‘To My Daughter.’ Even though I knew lots of other daughters cross the country got the same, I appreciated his loving gesture and came to expect it.

Needless to say, I continued this ritual with my own kids, although my husband is not a great fan of this universal holiday when card and flower companies dictate that it’s time to celebrate our love. He believes the commercialization has gotten out of hand and on some level I agree with him. He will make his point by buying me flowers or a card either the day before or after February 14th, but not every year – and only when the whim strikes. That man has always kept me guessing!

This makes me wonder, also, about those who do not have romantic love in their lives. How do they cope with cupid following them around the stores for six weeks after the Christmas season ends?

Yesterday, the New York Times feature an article entitled, “Better Loving Through Chemistry,” which addresses the new way of finding love through internet dating services—which as many single people are well aware, has become an online task. (In fact I have two cousins who found the love of their life through such services.) The article discusses how a handful of dating Web sites are competing to impose some science or structure on the quest for love using various kinds of tests in the selection process. For example, ScientificMatch.com created romantic chemistry via genetic testing. The site matches couples based on certain genetic markers for their immune system, believing that we are attracted to those with different immune systems. Wow. This is amazing. Companies like eHarmony suggest potential matches based on areas of compatibility, such as values, beliefs, important experiences, family background and personal values, which they believe are all predictors of successful relationships.

Chemistry.com, on the other hand holds yet another view. As I think about those I know in successful relationships, I find this to be quite accurate. They say those with decisive, straight-talking temperaments, called ‘directors,’ tend to be attracted to empathetic, intuitive types, called ‘negotiators.’ Spontaneous types, called ‘explorers’ tend to be attracted to their own kind, and traditional pillars of society called ‘builders’ also tend to be attracted to their same kind. Think about this and let me know what you think. (I’m not telling you which category I fall into, but those who know me can probably guess!)

When you think that this is a $976 million annual industry, you realize that people do want love in their lives. So, this year, let’s take the time to bring love and caring into another person’s life, whether it is for a moment, a day or a lifetime.

Happy V-Day!

In Memory of J.D. Salinger

If I had to choose my favorite novel of all time, it would be Catcher in the Rye. Learning about the passing of J.D. Salinger’s passing last week, marked the end of a personal and societal era. It was consoling to know that he died peacefully in his home in New Hampshire at the age of 91, after what have been fifty reclusive years.

I always wondered what makes an author become a recluse. Or anyone for that matter. Are they trying to escape the attention of fans or are they just antisocial characters? Perhaps they are a combination of the two. If we look at literary history, we observe that many creative people do indeed seek solitude, either to focus on their work or stay out of the limelight. In reality, Salinger’s private life is irrelevant because what we should remember about him will be that he produced a book with a very memorable protagonist, one who has resonated with more than five generations. Catcher in the Rye is one of those rare books like Le Petite Prince that parents and children both stand to gain something from discussing.

There are so many things I love about the book, including the personal narrative of Holden Caulfield who truly depicts the angst and issues of adolescence by illustrating his deep sense of alienation, continuous questioning, and rebelling against authority. I loved Salinger’s blending of the typical adolescent character with his cynical sense of humor and sensitivity which sometimes peeked through the terror of his inevitable hormonal rages. Holden frequently voiced the common belief held by many adolescents that adults are both phony and superficial.

Salinger’s writing style and voice has so inspired much of my own writing. In fact, I have read the book a number of times, particularly when trying to find the voice in my prose. I have tried reading his short stories, but they did not resonate with me nearly as much as Catcher in the Rye. Much of Salinger’s writing focuses on the youth and in fact, he was once quoted as saying, “I almost always write about very young people.”

As I prepared to write this blog, I did some research on Salinger’s life and came upon some interesting factoids that coincidentally resonates with my New Year’s resolution. Although the son of a Polish Jew, in his late twenties Salinger studied Zen Buddhism and adhered to Vendanta Hinduism which advocated celibacy and detachment from responsibilities. Perhaps these interests contributed to his reclusive nature. Salinger also adhered to the principles of kriya yoga and other eastern spiritual, medical and nutritional beliefs including those of Edgar Cayce.

I am curious to learn more about Salinger. Perhaps his heirs will discover hidden secrets, journals or unpublished manuscripts that they might choose to share, as such is usually the case. It seems to be that we are more inspired and curious about the lives of deceased artists than living ones. and as my son recently mentioned in an email, “some of the most famous artists are only recognized through their death.”

What do you think?


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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