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Courage & Craft
Writing Your Life into Story
By Barbara Abercrombie
New World LibraryCopyright © 2007 Barbara Abercrombie
All rights reserved.
MUSES AND JOURNALS
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better. — STEPHEN KING
What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks "the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat," you know. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I'm writing, I write. And then it's as if the muse is convinced that I'm serious and says, "Okay. Okay. I'll come." — MAYA ANGELOU
I asked the muse if she needed a ride. When she hopped in, I couldn't believe my eyes. What a babe. I slid my arm around her and cruised down the avenue. Women waved; men nodded and smiled. How proud I was to finally be a real writer. — SY SAFRANSKY
MAKING A MUSE
Since it's highly unlikely that a kindly muse will announce from above that you should start writing immediately, and equally improbable that the people you love are encouraging you to write about the deepest, most personal aspects of your life, and since you might just possibly have this little voice in your head humming about your lack of talent or doing a riff on how real grown-ups don't sit in a room all alone still wearing their bedroom slippers and writing stories about themselves, and Who would be interested in your story anyway? — here's what you need to do: make up your own muse.
Make up a new voice that will inspire you, a voice that will say whatever you need to hear and will drown out all the other, negative voices, both real and imaginary. A voice that tells you that you have something unique to say. Something no one else has ever written before, and that if you don't write it, no one will — it'll be lost forever. Because this is true: you do have something unique to say, and no one on earth has written it the way you're going to write it.
The dictionary says a muse is a "goddess or power regarded as inspiring." We all need as much inspiration as we can possibly get, but until you've been writing for a while, or you take a writing course or join a workshop, it's not a good idea to have a real live person in your life attempt to fill the role of your muse. Real live people, especially those related to you by blood or long history, have the habit of saying the wrong thing and giving you a perfect excuse not to sit in a room all by yourself trying to write. In the beginning (to be truthful, always) you only want to hear one thing from your family or friends about your writing, and that is: My God, this is brilliant, don't change a word.
Your muse could be another writer, one you know or one you've never met — someone whose writing always inspires you and reminds you why you're so passionate about writing; a writer who makes you believe that writing as a craft is accessible, something that you too can do, and who gives you not only a kind of blueprint for your own writing but also the courage to start.
At the moment my muse and mentor is Mark Doty. On bad days, when I forget why I even want to write in the first place, or how to write, I open up one of his memoirs — Heaven's Coast or Dog Years — read a bit and think yes. This is what it's all about, being deep and serious yet inviting the reader in, being intimate and open but with emotion always crafted by language. Though I think of Doty as a muse and mentor and I love him, I've never met him. If he were to come to Los Angeles for a reading, I'm not sure that I'd go. I like our relationship just the way it is — his voice on the page and me reading his words and loving them.
However, I'm a promiscuous reader: I fall in love and change my muse often.
TO DO: (The best assignment you'll ever get.) Go to a library or a bookstore and browse. Dip into books. Find the latest books by your favorite authors. Find the kind of book, or collection of essays, that you want to write. Find your muse and mentor, your literary love. Check out or buy as many books as possible. Go home and read. When you're writing you can rationalize these book binges. You're acquiring essential tools for your job.
What if you can't find a literary love? You will if you read enough. Or what if you don't like to read? My friend, if you don't like to read, don't write. There's no reason to. You'll be able to stand the loneliness, the frustration, and the rejections of writing only if you are passionately, madly in love with books, with reading, with words. If your heart doesn't start thumping with anticipation when you walk into a library or a bookstore, if you don't rationalize all the reasons why you must absolutely order all those books online and damn the expense, if your idea of hell isn't being stuck on a plane without a book to read, then quite simply: don't write.
All of us who write belong to a community of like-minded people, and the glue that holds us together is our love of reading, of books.
* * *
As well as being good company for writers, cats and dogs can make good muses. (If you love animals, you'll understand. If you don't, just skip this.) My cats, Stuart and Charlotte, have listened to more bad prose read aloud, to more moaning about how hard it is to write, as well as to bizarre moments of my over-the-top optimism — and they never lose their cool. They never say to me, Oh, stop whining, and find some real work, or Don't count your chickens, cookie, or Don't you think this might be a little too personal to write about?
My husband is allergic to cats, so Stuart and Charlotte live in my office, and they greet me at the beginning of every writing day with enormous enthusiasm. Tails up, meowing to me to get going: Showtime, let's write! My two muses. They love me unconditionally. Even my writing. It makes them purr.
TO DO: Who or what is your muse? Write what he or she is telling you.
FIERCE WITH REALITY
The complicated and sticky part of writing your life into story is that you have to connect to your inner life to do it, and it's so much easier to chug along on the surface of things. Just about any activity beats facing your own imperfect self on the page. You suddenly develop a compulsion to work out at the gym, clean the garage, put your CDs in alphabetical order, locate all your old classmates from junior high on the Internet, or — my personal favorite — cook enough hearty soup to get whole armies through arctic winters. Once, when I was really stuck in my writing, I dug up half the backyard to create the world's largest compost pile. Most any compulsive activity seems so much easier and more useful than writing.
It takes practice to write about personal things, and you need to find a way to write without any expectations attached. This is what journals are for — or notebooks, or diaries, or whatever you want to call yours. This is the one place you can forget about craft. There is no craft to keeping a journal, and that's the value of it. Anything goes. Whining, endless descriptions of weather, walking down memory lane, complaining about not being able to write, writing rants to people you'd never say to their faces, copying down quotes that you love, listing your favorite things, pouring out your dreams, frustrations, pains, joys, fears, and so forth — it's all fair game.
But intimacy on the page takes time, just as it does in any relationship. The novelist Gail Godwin wrote about feeling like a virgin when she started keeping a diary, but finally, after much writing in it, she felt as if they had an old marriage: "The space between us is gone," she wrote.
Most everyone has heard about the emotional and health benefits you get from keeping a journal; writing about feelings and traumatic events is good for you. But for a person who writes, there are two other vital reasons to keep a journal.
First, a journal can get you in the habit of writing regularly, of finding a time and a place to write. You're not just jotting things down at random on little pieces of paper (though this can also be a good idea): you have a notebook and you write in it every day. Five minutes, an hour. It doesn't matter. You're starting a habit. And while you may think you need great rushes of adrenaline and creative highs to write, the fact is that very little gets written unless writing becomes a habit.
The other reason to keep a journal is to have a place to record the details of your life — both your inner life and the surface details. Details can turn to gold when you're writing stories about your life, including the long, boring days when nothing seems to happen. It's all material, no matter what does or doesn't happen.
Florida Scott-Maxwell, who wrote short stories as a young woman and then a few decades later trained as an analytical psychologist under Carl Jung, began keeping a notebook at age eighty-two. It was meant to be private, but she finally allowed it to be published under the title The Measure of My Days. She didn't date her entries because she felt there were few external events in old age, but she used writing in her notebook to examine her life, to continue growing. In one entry she writes, "You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality."
If you type the words "keeping a personal journal" on Google, 1,020,000 entries will come up. These entries cover every subject you could think of (and more) for a journal — relationships, diets, yoga, cooking, finance, travel, spiritual quests, sugar consumption, dreams, goal setting, beekeeping — including a list of the "top 10 miraculous benefits of keeping a personal journal." Given those million-plus entries and those miraculous benefits, you'd think there would be hordes of people keeping journals, a whole planet full of people writing in notebooks day and night.
But when I polled friends and students on whether they wrote regularly in a journal, I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm in some of the responses. For more than half the people I questioned, keeping a journal was like going on a diet, something a lot of people talk about and start but don't stick with.
Sally emailed me: "My problems with journal writing are the following: lack of discipline; it's not fun but rather seems so boring — it's not as if I have anything exciting or interesting to say; how do you start — 'Dear Diary'? In other words, mental block; for what purpose do I keep a journal? I guess I should think about purpose."
In a workshop Louis wrote, "Funny, I am always giving journals to others who declare, "It's the perfect gift. Thank you so much!" But I don't keep one of my own. I'm not sure what I have to say is profound enough. Not sure I am deep enough and not sure I want to see what is there if I do go deep."
In class Suellen wrote, "I do not keep a journal. Several issues: lack of discipline; lack of privacy; lack of time, the right kind of undistracted quiet time. I WISH I had kept a journal all of my life."
Nancy wrote, "I wish I had kept a journal, but I didn't. My default is due to the fact that I kept a diary for a while in grade school, and my mother found it, read it, and ridiculed me. A more likely reason is my hunch that this stuff I'm thinking about writing is pedestrian drivel."
For most everyone who has ever thought about keeping a journal but hasn't, and for those who started but stopped, the bottom line is fear. Fear of writing boring, shallow stuff, of not doing it "right," of not having enough discipline, of wasting time because there's no practical purpose, of having your thoughts and feelings ridiculed by someone who reads it.
It takes courage to write down what you think and feel. But if you don't figure out a way to get past the fear and write the truth, what are you ever going to write about? Even if camouflaged by fiction, you'll be writing some truth of your own reality. And if you don't find a way to be disciplined about your writing and find the time to do it, how are you ever going to write anything?
Courage doesn't mean sudden, miraculous strength of character: it means doing something difficult despite the fear.
TO DO: Open a new file on your computer, or buy yourself a notebook. I personally like the spiral notebooks you can buy at the supermarket or in the drugstore. It's easy to tear out a page if you want to, and you can more or less hide them in plain sight. The journals with lovely covers and heavy paper make me nervous; they seem to require that something deep and important be written in them.
There's a Japanese word, kaizen, which means making a big change by making one small change every day, doing one little thing differently. If you start keeping a journal and write just one thing in it every day, just one short description of a room or a face or an animal or a flower, or an idea for a story, in three weeks you'll have twenty-one descriptions or ideas. (I read somewhere that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit.)
Equally important is that by writing one description or idea every day, you begin to look for the face or animal or feeling you want to describe or for the ideas. You're thinking, looking, and listening like a writer. You're paying attention, which is the most important thing you can do as a writer besides write.
In an interview May Sarton said, "For any writer who wants to keep a journal, remember to be alive to everything, not just to what you're feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you're reading. Remember to write about what you are seeing every day."
She begins one of her own published journals, Journal of a Solitude, with these words: "Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows."
This is such a simple and accessible way to begin. Look out your own window and describe what you see. What kind of weather are you having today? What do you hear? I saw a collection of pictures once by a photographer who photographed the same tree every day for a year at the same time of day. Three hundred and sixty-five versions of the same tree! It caused me to really see a tree in all its subtle changes of light and growth.
TO DO: Try writing a description of what's outside your window for twenty-one days. Train your eye as if you were looking through a camera or had a paintbrush in your hand.
I began my own journal as an assignment in a writing class, and for a long time I just wrote descriptions of what I observed. A bird stalking through a puddle on campus. The weather. A stranger's face. It felt risky and messy at first to plunge into my feelings on paper. I was thirty-two years old, and after years of dreaming about becoming a writer, I was finally doing something about it. In my journal I wanted to sound like a real writer, not who I really was — a frustrated and scared writing student with two babies and very little formal education. It took months before I stopped feeling as if my critic were reading over my shoulder and I started writing from the inside out.
Even today, when I've been visiting or traveling with family and friends, I feel awkward getting back into my journal, into such a private space. It's as if I've been living on the outside and have lost a connection to my own inner voice. And that inner voice is the same one I need to connect with to write fiction or nonfiction.
I always think what I'm writing in my journal is boring. Even if something exciting happens, I think the way I write about it isn't doing the event justice. But I know from experience that I'll reread what I've written in a few months or years and be surprised by the fact that it isn't boring at all.
Sarton also writes of the fear she felt when she was first alone in her house after being with friends: "I feel inadequate. I have made an open place, a place for meditation. What if I cannot find myself inside it? I think of these pages as a way of doing that."
Excerpted from Courage & Craft by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2007 Barbara Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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