In the spring issue of Compose, a story about the day I met writer Abigail Thomas:
Abigail Thomas wrote about her socks. Of the books of hers I’ve read—all of which I adore—that’s the scene that sticks out most. She sat on the ground in a bookstore and changed out a pair of socks that didn’t match her new shoes. The socks were black with red peppers. Her writing captures ordinary life moments with such beauty and emotion that I’m compelled to keep turning pages.
A couple years ago, I traveled to Thomas’ hometown, Woodstock, New York, for a magazine assignment. I was writing about infertility (and going through it myself), and was attending a fertile heart workshop. Before I left, I typed out an email to Abigail introducing myself. I told her how much I enjoyed her writing style, and asked if she would meet me for coffee Monday morning. Then I agonized over whether to hit “send.”
I clam up around strangers.
I’m the type that skips parties in favor of staying home to read books.
When I make phone calls, my heart pounds, and I pray for voicemail.
A doctor, a therapist, a portfolio manager, and a writer walked into a bar.
(This is a true story, not a joke.)
The doctor shared compelling tales about life in the ER. Resuscitations and stomach pumpings. (By the way, it’s best to go to the emergency room at 7:05 a.m. or 7:05 p.m., right after the shift change when doctors are fresh. So next time you have appendicitis or cut off your finger, try to time it right.) The therapist had lots of great advice based on years of working with nutty patients. The portfolio manager had important (if not exactly thrilling) insights on investments. Finally, three heads turned toward the writer. They were dying to know about her day. What was it like to work on a book? On a magazine story?
The writer was me.
Being a writer sounds so romantic. I wanted to tell them my day was as they likely imagined: I went to a hip coffeehouse and pecka-pecka-pecka-pecked on my keyboard; words were flowing; my computer was smoking; I sent the piece off to an editor and it was accepted on the spot; look for it in next month’s issue of The New Yorker!
In reality, being a writer is not so glamorous. It can be infuriating, depressing, agonizing, and very, very slow. Coffeehouses are too loud. I cleared my throat and tried to explain a typical day: “Well, I sat at my desk, wrangled with sentences on the page for two hours, got up, went for a run, sat down, and wrote more pages. Then I ate a sandwich.”
It’s not unusual to work on something for weeks only to later scrap the material. I go through dozens of wrong drafts before I make my way to a right draft. It takes months, sometimes years, for a piece to make it from my laptop to print — if it makes it at all.
I have stiff hips and a permanent knot in my left shoulder. And my neck — I’m beginning to look like a flamingo. I love what I do (mostly). It’s all part of the messy creative process. To me, it is exciting. Then again, I also find organizing my bookshelf to be a rip-roaring good time. I like to organize books by color.
And there you have it: a day in the life of a writer.
Speaking of national parks, I’m reading Yellowstone Has Teeth. It’s about a couple who lived year-round in Yellowstone for a decade. The winters were brutal and isolating. This January, I got a teeny tiny taste of that kind of life when I spent a few weeks in the wilderness. It was cold and barren. Lonely. No bears or birds to watch. I plowed through Seasons 1, 2, and 3 of Downton Abbey. Ate a lot of soup. Skied (alpine and nordic). But most of the time, I hunkered down and worked on my book. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to write regardless of my schedule — crammed or empty. I do think it helps to separate and concentrate, although writing is hard either way. And no matter whether I’m in a public coffee house, at home, or secluded in the wilderness, it’s solitary work. The other day, I read an article about isolation written by a mother. She has four kids, yet feels removed and cut off. It was a good reminder that isolation isn’t always so obvious. And that it lurks in all sorts of lifestyles and vocations. Classes and workshops are a great way for writers to join together. I plan to take at least one class this spring and teach a couple this summer. After this polar vortex winter, it’ll be nice to emerge and connect.
I often walk before I write. A walk helps me work through places on the page where I’m stuck. But the other day, the opposite happened. It was stunning outside. I was in the middle of nowhere — among nothing but acres and acres of wilderness and hushed mounds of white snow. Pine trees stretched heavenward. Mountains bulged. The air was crisp, and I felt the warm sun on my face. Back at my desk, I was without words.
Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies display His craftsmanship. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they make Him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”
They speak without a sound or word.
Last summer, Ron and I visited Moab, Utah. We spent two days hiking in Arches National Park where we scrambled over boulders deep in the red rock. Again, I was awe-struck by the dramatic landscape. I’ve wanted to write about our trip ever since, but like my recent walk in in the wilderness, I thought, what is there to say? Creation speaks for itself. So maybe that’s it. Maybe the best thing I can say about Moab is simply this: If you ever get the chance . . . GO!
This Friday I’ll be at the National Press Club talking about writing the personal essay. To prepare, I pulled a document box off my shelf that contains a bunch of notes from prior writing classes. As I sifted through my papers, I came across a book recommendation from Barbara Abercrombie. She said this book makes a great baby gift:
I hopped online and used the “look inside” feature to flip through the book (and its sister book), written by Deborah Underwood. My eyes welled up. The book holds a touching message, and it’s beautifully illustrated. I ordered it for my nephew. But you know what? I really need to order this for adults, myself included!
Where are the quiet moments in your life? In mine?
On Friday I’ll talk about the elements of an essay, finding topic ideas, and different ways to pitch editors. But I think the best advice I can give is to quiet down. Quiet is a gift. Writers especially must learn how to have daily quiet times.
Quiet can be uncomfortable.
I’ve noticed, however, that when I move beyond the uncomfortable part of quiet to the still and peaceful part, I want to stay. And I often discover that I have nothing to say — that what I was going to talk or write about was mindless chatter. So I wait in the quiet. (Sometimes I have to wait awhile.) Eventually, I might find a thought to share. If not, that’s okay. I’ll listen in silence.
In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah was lodging in a cave on a mountain, and the Lord passed by. The text says that a strong wind broke rocks into pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, “a sound of gentle blowing.” That’s where Elijah encountered the Lord.
If pigs are given space, they’ll sleep in a clean area, but if they’re confined, they’ll sleep in their poo.
“At times, humans are like a pig in poo,” my friend Lindsay mused.
“How so?” I asked.
“We feel warm and cozy in the muck. We know it would be better for us if we left the muck, cleaned up, and moved to a healthier place. But change is hard . . . and scary. It’s easy to stay stuck in the poo. We tell ourselves the same story over and over, and that sad tale becomes the narrative of our lives.”
I’ve been thinking about the pig in poo all week. What areas of my life need to be cleaned up? What mental and emotional confines have I locked myself into? What narrative have I made myself believe? Is it time to make a change? I really like the pig in poo story. So I thought I’d share it.
I was on the upper deck of the writing cabin reading/meditating lost in thought and prayer when all the sudden a bear wandered in the backyard. He was two feet away. Gorgeous cinnamon color. He walked right through the wildlife pond (which was dry because of such little rain), over the herb garden, and to solar panel that runs the outdoor water pump. He sniffed the panel for a few seconds then he disappeared into the thick oak brush and pine trees. I stayed silent and observed. It was the neatest wildlife encounter I’ve ever had. I felt completely safe on the deck (up one story) behind the railing. For a split second I thought about racing to grab my camera, but I decided to simply stay put and enjoy the sacred moment.
I’m at the cabin at work on a book and making a big push to finish the current draft. I still need your prayers. I have savored my time here before “cubical life” begins (one week from now I start a temporary gig at a magazine). Here’s what I’ve read this trip: The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins; Weekends with O’Keeffe by C.S. Merrill; Wait Until Tomorrow by Pat MacEnulty.
Anyone intrigued with O’Keeffe’s life and art should read Merrill’s book. O’Keeffe hired the author to catalog her personal library and the two women developed a friendship. And MacEnulty’s book was the best surprise. I bought it last time I was out here and tucked it away in the loft so I’d have a book ready and waiting for me . . . but I had forgotten that I had done that. So when I found it I was thrilled, and the best part is that it’s a wonderful read. It’s about a woman who becomes the caregiver for her elderly mother.
I’ll sign off with a bear hug . . .
I burst out of the prop plane and stepped onto the tarmac at the small airport in southwest Colorado. After a wet and gloomy June in D.C. (double the amount of rainfall than usual), I enjoyed a truly sunny summer solstice. Hope you did, too. The wildfires out in Colorado are bad — so while I soaked up the yellow rays I did pray for rain (with as much earnestness as I could muster). In other news…
Hot Off the Press: (1) my essay “A Climate Adjustment” is running on the back page of the June issue of Chesapeake Bay magazine (available on newsstands); and (2) my piece “5 Great Places to Paddleboard“ is in Bethesda magazine’s ultimate summer guide issue.
Book of the Month: I am still on an Elisabeth Elliot kick. Since she published over 20 books, I’ll probably be on this kick for awhile. A few days ago, I started A Lamp Unto My Feet, an out-of-print book about her personal reflections while reading Scripture. As trivial and foolish as it sounds, I can get quite discouraged that Ron and I still cannot seem to work out our “geography issue.” This precious book has helped me navigate that problem. Sunlight, after all, is only physical. The true Light is spiritual.
Wishing you an enlightened summer!
I love to read journals by other writers. Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, Laurel Lee, Phyllis Theroux, and Martha Manning are a few published ones I can think of off the top of my head. I also like books written as journals, and I came across such a book the other day. It opens in the year 1831 with these words:
How dreadfully old I am getting! Sixteen! Well, I don’t see as I can help it. There it is in the big Bible in Father’s own hand: “Katherine, born Jan. 15, 1815.” I meant to get up early this morning, but it looked dismally cold out of doors and felt delightfully warm in bed. So I covered myself up and made ever so many good resolutions. I determined in the first place to begin this journal. To be sure, I have begun half a dozen and got tired of them after a while. Not tired of writing them, but disgusted of what I had to say of myself. But this time I mean to go on, in spite of everything. It will do me good to read it over and see what a creature I am.
Love that. I have kept a notebook (or journal) on and off for years. It can be hard to face myself on the page. Yet if I don’t face hard truths, how will I change those parts of me?
In the February 2013 issue of O Magazine, Sarah Beauchamp wrote an article on the 5 Moment Memoir. Write down 5 moments of your day. They can be one sentence each. A fragment of a sentence. I’ve discovered this method clicks with me. I write my 5 Moment Memoir most nights before bed.
Do you keep a notebook? What is your method? Do you have any favorite books written in the form of a journal?
“If the writers of the world took chairs in an orchestra pit, each would hold the instrument that he plays best. There are first- and second-string fiction writers; biographers are at the oboe; historians play the cello; poets are the flutists. Somewhere in the symphony are those who love a journal.”
—Laurel Lee, Signs of Spring