How Reading Books Inspired Me To Write

I have read 21 books this year, and I am no longer the same person.

Or, rather, I feel like a better, more creative version of the same person.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write,” Stephen King declares in On WritingI’m not sure I would have fully understood that statement before this year. Sure, I’ve always read, but there are times in my life when I’ve read voraciously, actively.  There are times when I’ve read a lot out of obligation, when I was in school for instance. And then, sadly, there are those more recent years of passive, non-committed reading. The picking up of the book I should be reading, the half-hearted trudge through a few pages, the putting it down for weeks, the guilt that stirred me to pick it up again, and so on, and so on.

This year, motivated by my shame as a bad English major, I resolved to read more. 40 books was my lofty goal. I read 6 books in January, including Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I was blown away. For the first time in a long time, I spent one Sunday holed up on the couch, reading a book from cover to cover. I had rediscovered a childish delight in the characters and worlds that came alive in my head through words on the page. Continue reading “How Reading Books Inspired Me To Write”

Writing Class

When I first started writing again this year, I asked a couple of writer friends if they knew of any writing groups in Jackson. One suggested that I sign up for the creative non-fiction “community enrichment class” taught at Millsaps, Jackson’s local liberal arts college. I immediately went to the website and registered for the spring session of “Creative Non-Fiction: To Tell the Truth.”

The class meets for 6 sessions, Mondays from 6:30 to 8:00pm. The teacher of the class is a local writer. I Googled her name and read some of her essays that were published in the New York Times, Atlantic, and other major news outlets. She’s also done quite a bit of writing work in Mississippi, including producing a documentary about an influential Mississippi journalist. “She’s quirky as hell, which is what makes her so incredible,” my writer friend had said about this teacher. I was excited to meet her. Continue reading “Writing Class”

The Imposter

When I first learned about imposter syndrome, a light bulb clicked for me. Feeling like a fraud, like someone will discover that you are actually not the real [fill in the blank] that you’re just pretending to be. Like a patient realizing that there is a diagnosis for all those mysterious aches and pains, I had stumbled upon the reason for my discomfort with any personal success, my insecurity when tackling a new challenge.

The good thing about knowing a diagnosis is that you can actively work on healing. Knowing that I’m not alone in thinking “I’ll be found out!” has helped me to brush those imposter thoughts aside, although they sometimes still bubble to the surface at inconvenient times. I own a small food business, and when I introduce myself to a potential customer, that subconscious, critical voice still croaks in the back of my mind. You may technically be a business owner, it says, but your business isn’t profitable yet; you’ve only been doing this for two, three years, at most; if they only looked behind the scenes, at how you  hand-label your products, at your disorganization, at your complete inexperience, at your pitiful bank account balance, then they would see the truth. This voice is persistent. It can be hard to silence it. Continue reading “The Imposter”

Writing the Ordinary

As I deepen my journey of becoming a writer, I’ve looked to words of encouragement and insights into the process from other professional and experienced writers, gravitating towards other female writers. I discovered the podcast “Ann Kroeker: Writing Coach,” and began devouring her short 10 minutes or less episodes. Recently, she used the analogy of throwing clay pots, to illustrate the concept of quantity over quality. “Throw as many clay pots as you can,” she says, even if they’re junky looking. And by clay pots, she means to write as much as possible, even if the paragraphs come out lumpy, or the ideas inelegant and wobbly. I’ve been trying to follow her advice, to abandon perfectionism in pursuit of getting a damn idea onto the page. But, as a student, I’ve also looked to more traditional sources for writing inspiration and guidance: books.

Two such books that I’ve enjoyed the most this year are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. I read them somewhat simultaneously, which brought my brain great joy. Like Ann Kroeker, Natalie Goldberg also espouses this theory of quantity over quality. She is the writer cheerleader and guru saying “write, write, write–it is the most important thing.” She fills a notebook a month with her words, preferring “a cheap spiral notebook [which] lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”  She later combs back through her notebooks to find ideas that she can translate into shareable or publishable work.

I, too, have found the act of journaling to be a cathartic and helpful practice for translating my thoughts onto the page. And her cheap notebook “life hack” works like a charm.  I used to seek out the respectable, intelligent-looking leather-bound Moleskine journals with the bookmark and the pocket, but this year I tried something new. I already had three thin little notebooks from Target that came together in a package–a forgotten gift that was taking up space on my bookshelf. The notebooks are about the same size as a nice journal, but with flimsy paper covers and an eighth the amount of pages. In January, I decided to use one of them as a journal. I also made the decision to not write on the backs of pages, which helped me fly through that little notebook in a month. In a month, I had filled the notebook. Yes, it was a teeny tiny notebook, and I hadn’t even written on the backs of pages, but I had a lovely feeling of accomplishment. I wanted to keep journaling to get that reward of completion. In February, I started in on a new version of this little notebook, and I decided I would write on the backs of pages as well, because why not. My husband took the third notebook from the little three pack and has been writing in it when he feels stressed or frustrated at work. He also writes video game cheat codes in the back cover. I only have a few pages left to fill in this second little notebook, so I went to Target and found another three pack that was on sale. Just looking at those fresh, easily fillable notebooks sitting on my desk makes me want to write more.

That’s another thing about Natalie Goldberg that I love: she begins her book by writing about the most basic of basics: the instruments of writing. She talks about getting a good pen, about writing by hand or writing on a typewriter. “This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter.” Writing Down the Bones was written before everyone had a computer, and the thought of only having to choose among different types of pens and paper and typewriters is charming. I wonder what she would say about all the different kind of writing programs and mediums you can choose from now– Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Daily Journal, Evernote, Scrivener. Actually, I think I know what she would say: Don’t think too much about it. Just sit down, set a timer if you need to, and start writing. Ann Kroeker says a similar thing: the best system for you is the one you already use.

Writing is not a high minded thing, really. “Learn to write about the ordinary,” says Goldberg. “Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of […] before you leave the earth, […] mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.” Can I write about my most ordinary experience of ordering toilet paper in bulk from Amazon.com? How when I switched to ordering toilet paper without the cardboard tubes inside, it made all the difference? Yes, Natalie might say, turn it into a haiku.

Of course, ordering toilet paper by the hundreds of rolls off the Internet and having it arrive two days later on your doorstep would seem rather extraordinary to Eudora Welty, who was born in 1909 and published One Writer’s Beginnings in 1983. But there was never a detail too small or mundane for her writing, and I mean this in the best way. She could imbue meaning and lightness into the littlest of details. Like in this childhood memory of her mother:

“This same lady was one of Mother’s callers on the telephone who always talked a long time. I knew who it was when my mother would only reply, now and then, “Well, I declare,” or “You don’t say so,” or “Surely not.” She’d be standing at the wall telephone, listening against her will, and I’d sit on the stairs close by her. Our telephone had a little bar set into the handle which had to be pressed and held down to keep the connection open, and when her friend had said goodbye, my mother needed me to prize her fingers loose from the little bar; her grip had become paralyzed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked.

‘She wasn’t saying a thing in this world, sighed my mother. ‘She was just ready to talk, that’s all.'”

To Eudora Welty, every ordinary conversation held a kernel of a story. And in Mississippi, where talking is an art, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Just yesterday, I had to visit my insurance agent to ask him a few questions. He’s impossible to reach by phone. His office is in an old house in the Fondren neighborhood, just a few miles from where Welty lived and wrote for most of her life. When I went inside, the administrative assistant greeted me and let me know that Marco, my hard-to-reach insurance agent was out on spring break. “But I can try to help you!” she said. She was an older African American lady, dressed professionally, with red acrylic nails that looked like they had been dipped in rhinestones. I explained to her my frustrations with our home insurance policy, and how confusing it all was, and she leaned toward me conspiratorially: “The insurance industry is just horrible. They’re always raising rates for no reason.” At intervals throughout our conversation about dwelling value, deductibles, and un-filed claims, her cellphone would burst out ringing a computer-y sounding Mariah Carey song. Each time she became exasperated, “He must think I don’t work!” She never put the phone on silent though. We ended up talking for a few minutes longer about how much we hate insurance companies. “I’ll tell Marco that you stopped in,” she called out as I left. I got into my truck feeling somewhat reassured, even though none of my questions had been answered.

“Long before I wrote stories,” says Eudora, “I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them.” Pay attention, is what both Eudora and Natalie say. Look at the white blossoms on the Bradford pear tree, how they fade to brown as the green leaves begin to unfurl. Look at the brown speckled finch snatching up stale croissant crumbs on the patio outside the bakery.  Look at the long, lacquered nails of the administrative assistant. Write.

Or, rather, write and then see. Because when you write about the finch eating dried croissant crumbs, you may uncover some deeper meaning–about your life or the world. “Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life,” Eudora Welty explains. In writing about her parents in One Writer’s Beginnings Eudora began to “see continuities in their lives that weren’t visible to me when they were living.” I think it’s true that writing and crafting a story allows us to see the connectedness of events in our own lives, and in others’. The conversation with my insurance agent’s assistant becomes a part of my story, as does the toilet paper I ordered on Amazon, and the ham and cheese croissant I just finished eating at my favorite bakery. Writing gives us an awareness of the otherwise meaningless moments in our lives. Even through the random, chance encounters of daily existence, writers can still “find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.”

In my own limited experience of writing about my memories, writing has acted as a sort of meditation, a pulling of weeds to uncover the overgrown path. Writing out a memory, as if it were a story, helps me to uncover latent details: how my step mother ate Red Vines and drank freshly brewed coffee while watching cooking shows on tv, how the band room at my old high school smelled like lemon cleaning solution and sour trombone spit valves. Writing helps me distill an emotionally charged jumble of memory into a carefully unfurled story, existing as part of me, yet apart from me.

As I continue to write, to push forward, or backward into the places within me that are soft and vulnerable, I feel these women writers with me. Natalie Goldberg (who still teaches writing workshops and lives in New Mexico) scribbles furiously in her journal, her body relaxed, the poetry and prose pouring onto the page. Eudora Welty, who died in 2001 at age 92, sits at her desk in the upstairs window of her Belhaven tudor-style house, carefully typing sentence after sentence of story, curtains fluttering behind her in the humid breeze (she never did install air conditioning).

These women writers encourage me in the mornings, when I have a bit of time before work, to sit at the desk in my “office” and write. The windows of this room face east, and sunlight filtering the pine trees in the front yard warms the peach colored walls. I feel inspired and writerly. In the evening, the light is gone, and the inspiration isn’t as quick within me, but I hear Ann Kroeker’s advice to “write one paragraph a day” and I try to eke out an idea.

I’m not writing anything revolutionary, no universal truths, nothing of staggering beauty. I write to find my voice. I write to express my opinions in a clear, compelling way. I write to share pain and joy and beauty. I write to keep a record of my life. I write for others to hear what I have to say. “Writing has tremendous energy,” says Natalie Goldberg. “If you find a reason for it, any reason, it seems that rather than negate the act of writing, it makes you burn deeper and glow clearer on the page.” So, I continue to put words on the page, to throw misshapen pots, each one a tad less lumpy, a smidgen more beautiful than the one before.

Thinking about Writing

I can’t stop thinking about writing these days. On my drive to New Orleans last week, I started listing to a podcast called #Amwriting with Jess and KJ. It’s full of interesting observations about writing habits, crafting a book proposal, the process of editing a book (which apparently takes longer than writing the actual book), building your network and brand. There are interviews with writers of all kinds, mainly about the nuts and bolts of being a writer and generating income from writing, and less about -the mushy stuff like how to get inspiration or deal with self-doubt. I appreciate the practicality of it, but it does feel a bit like putting my cart before my horse in that I am learning about how to develop a book proposal and find a publicist when I currently have an average of one reader per blog post that I write. It does sound like a dreamy lifestyle though–I imagine myself as KJ (who ran the Motherlode blog for NY Times and just wrote a book called How to Be a Happier Parent) feeding my farm animals in the morning, taking my kids to hockey practice, and diligently writing 2000 words a day. It sounds so satisfying–to pour your brain onto a page and have people read your words and nod their heads and contemplate your thoughts.

In other words, I’m a little envious of KJ. In their podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Gretchen and Elizabeth wisely observe that we should pay attention to the people we envy–we can learn more about ourselves by understanding what makes us jealous. I like this, because it flips the shame and stigma of jealousy (something that we all feel) into an exercise in self-knowledge. (And really, we can look at any source of shame that we feel as an an opportunity to know thyself.) I envy other writers. I envy Lindy West’s fearlessness and vulnerability. I envy Gretchen Rubin’s voracious research and ability to synthesize information in useful and practical ways. Most recently (this morning) I envied Ann Friedman’s originality, the way she effortlessly weaves together feminism, politics, and pop culture. (Her newsletter is pretty bomb too.)

What do these objects of my envy have in common? (1) They are women. (2) They are (seemingly) unafraid to share their opinions with the world. (3) They are prolific. (4) They are dependably good writers. And (5) they are paid for their writing, in fact writing is their full-time job. Apparently, these things are also what I want for myself (I’m already a woman, so I’ll check that box)? This is a life-complicating realization, because it means that if I don’t someday become a successful writer, then I may be, tragically, filled with regret. And then there’s the even more confounding issue of how to go about becoming a real, paid, prolific, unselfconscious writer.

At least I’m writing. And I’m thinking about writing all the time.

Last week, my husband and I went to a storytelling event that took place in a local brewery here in Jackson. It was kind of like The Moth; all the storytellers were amateurs, but they had received some coaching on their stories. There was a stage, programs, and about 150 people in the audience. Since it was the day before Valentine’s Day, the theme of the night was “Romance…Or Not.” I love listening to stories and watching storytelling as performance, so I was an eager audience member, especially since I knew a couple of the storytellers. Three of the stories were very good, and the best two were told by native Mississippian women–one white, one black. There is a knack for storytelling that is engraved in Southern DNA–the impactful pause, the quirky turn of phrase, the lilting Southern accent. The other three storytellers were okay, but I found myself editing their narratives in my head, picking apart what worked and what didn’t and what they could improve upon. That’s when I realized–maybe I am a writer. And another light bulb: I want to be on this stage next year to tell my story.

But then my critical inner voice tells me “you’re not a real story teller; you’re not a real writer.” I haven’t written much, nor have I told many stories. And I’ve definitely never been paid to write anything. But if I’m being kind to myself, it’s not hard to uncover the writerly breadcrumbs of my life–the essay that earned me 3rd place in a high school writing competition, the poetry I shared with my first real crush, the honors thesis I wrote in college, the academic article I published in collaboration with a professor, the blog posts and articles I wrote for FoodCorps, the blog I kept while traveling around South America for three months, the other blog that I kept on and off when I first moved to Mississippi, the content I’ve written for my business, the grant applications I’ve composed, etc. Teachers, family members, bosses, coworkers, and friends have been telling me for years that my writing is good. And now, I’m choosing to believe in their words and in the winding path my breadcrumbs have illuminated.

And the thinking about writing? I’m taking a coursera about developing character in fiction. I’ve ordered the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I’m looking for a writing group to join. An imperceptible shift has occurred in my body, the subtle movement of tectonic plates separating, loosening a flow of words from my brain onto the page. My mind is on fire with new ideas and fresh inspiration. Now I’m wondering: how much of writing is thinking?

 

 

 

Starting

Starting is hard, but following through is even harder. I’m getting better at it as I get older. I’ve started many projects but given up quickly. I mean, I said I’d stop drinking coffee in February, but literally on February 2, I had a cuppa joe. Damn. But in general, I’m getting better. I started a business and I’m still running that, so that’s something. I now consistently unload (or “download” as my stepdad says) the dishwasher instead of letting the cleaning dishes hang out for weeks. I even started doing yoga most mornings right when I get out of bed, and I’m still doing that 3 months later.

So, I’m starting this blog. I’m starting it because I don’t want to let my childhood self down. See, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I recently just found my notebook from when I was 9 years old. In the first page I wrote in careful cursive: “Dear Friend, [I was reading a lot of the Dear America diaries at the time] I’m going to start writing in you to list my thoughts, feelings, and just how my day goes. I might even write stories since I’m going to be a writer some day. I for one know that as a fact.” Spoiler alert: I never wrote any stories unless they were school assignments. But I liked the idea of writing stories. I think the idea of being a writer started  because I loved reading books. I devoured them whenever I could. On weekends, I would stay in bed an extra couple hours reading before getting up to eat breakfast. I was like the opposite of the kid who stays up late reading with a flashlight under the covers, because the idea of getting less than a minimum of 7 hours of sleep has always disturbed me.

I did keep journals though, off and on. Even as a kid, I was attracted to the palpable energy of a fresh new journal with crisp blank pages and all the writerly fantasies it contained. In my single digit years, I liked those diaries that would give you cute writing prompts with little questionnaires and a place to tape a lock of your hair.  Inevitably, I would write in the first few pages, get distracted by my Tamagotchi for a few months, and then become disheartened by the diary’s discontinuity. [The Dear America writers never skipped more than a couple days!] Then I would either rip out those pages in an attempt to start afresh, or I would just get my mom to buy me a new journal. In my mind, discontinuity was the opposite of being a writer. I just needed to find the right journal that would inspire me enough to fill it to the brim with words.

For instance. I had this journal with a soft padded cover illustrated in an abstract design of soft pastel yellows, greens, and pinks. I loved its aesthetic. I loved the idea of it so much, that I think I ripped out pages and started over a dozen times. I wish I could see now what I had written before so violently tearing out it’s existence. Only two pages with writing on them remain in this journal. One of them contains this gem:

Nov. 22, 1996

Today was such a pain especially this evening.

I was the cause of it all. First when sam was reading I breathed in his ear then I told mom she didn’t do good at a science experiment which she actually did. Almost everything went wrong. I hope tommorow (sic) is better. I wish grandma would feel better she’s crying. I don’t understand why grown-ups cry about silly things.

Nov. 23, 1996

I can tell it’s going to be a good day not like yesterday.

I read this out loud to my mom as we were going through boxes of my childhood detritus. She actually remembered that day. My full-time working mother had come to volunteer at my school to lead a science experiment. My mom has a masters in geology, she is legit a scientist. Apparently, I said something mean to her as kids are wont to do. And my step-mother, a narcissistic bully with mean-girls blonde hair and acrylic nails, had confronted my grandma (who was visiting for the week) in the school parking lot. It’s unclear what my step mom said, but it was definitely some evil shit. My sensitive, overly dramatic, painfully self-deprecating grandma did not do well with straight up Real Housewives confrontation.

See? That’s the kernel of a story right there. If I only had continued writing, haltingly, even one sentence, or one word a day, instead of becoming discouraged at not writing a Dear America style diary entry every day, then maybe… I would be a writer by now?

To be fair, I did journal more consistently in high school, slightly less throughout college. I wrote moody poems that make me wince when I read them now. And then I stopped journaling around the age of 23. I was beginning to grow into my identity,  I very suddenly became less introspective. My need to put my thoughts on the page evaporated. My last journal entries are–depressingly–about food. About how much sugar I ate or didn’t eat. It was so painfully obvious that I was wrestling with some internal shit, but I externalized my pain by trying to control my diet. But that’s nothing new, right?

I didn’t journal about starting a business. I didn’t journal about meeting the man who would become my husband. I didn’t journal about how we bought our house, or our dog Champ, or planning our wedding. I did start watching more tv. I read fewer books.

I’m 28, almost 29 now. Why do I feel the sudden need to write? I don’t know. I’m reading more books now, and watching less tv. But now that I’ve restarted my writing habit, I don’t want to stop, even if it’s only one sentence a day.