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I recently saw friends from my former life, including a few who didn’t know what had happened to me since I left. For a while, it felt like I didn’t know how to answer the question, “What have you been doing?” For months I kept saying, “I don’t know yet.”
That was hard, since for most of my life I have known what I’m going to do, and planned my life in Capricornian ways: when I was going to get engaged (after my fiancé finished college), when I was going to get married (sometime early in grad school), when I was going to get my degree (then, multiple degrees). I still consider the timing of the births of my daughters as luck, but somehow both times I was pregnant over an academic year, home with them as babies during their first summers. I still love calendar books, to-do lists, milestones, concrete steps. (Really, I can still be fun at parties. I bring kick-ass snacks.) So it was hard, somehow ridiculously shameful, that I had to respond to “What have you been doing?” with, “I don’t know.”
I felt the same way when I was starting to write my blog, too: it wasn’t really a food blog (not enough of my own pictures and recipes), it wasn’t really a teaching blog (I was leaving that life), and it wasn’t really a reader’s blog (not enough book reviews). I kept introducing myself to new people by prefacing it with a description of what I used to be.
And yet at this gathering last month, there were the friends who asked the question again. This time, however, I was able to answer, “I’ve been writing.”
I’ve been writing all kinds of things: volunteer recruiting letters, nonprofit grant writing, web pages, social media community-building, author interviews, storytelling discoveries, personal essays, book reviews. And yet, I haven’t really been writing my book, which probably means that I am dancing too much around something that will take me somewhere deep, and painful, but true.
So, in addition to writing, I’ve been not-writing a lot, too. Not-writing looks like this:
- Link-collecting, especially relevant links that I want to use for the book proposal
- Epigraph-collecting, finding quotations that I think are useful. Cutting and pasting of other people’s words in order to make it look like I’ve been doing something.
- Reading articles that explain my procrastination
- Reading other memoirs and comparing them to the persona and structure of my yet-to-be-born book
- Reading writing books (lately I recommend Tell It Slant, The Business of Memory, and The Art of Subtext)
- Meeting with a therapist friend to talk about the impact of storytelling in trauma therapy
At some level this is writing, too. The part of me that calls this “not-writing” is the part of me that’s relentlessly linear, that part that loves calendars and lists. And yet the creative process, at least as I’ve come to see it, is anything but linear. There are days when I think I’ve solved the structure problem of my book, and all I have to do is just give myself short assignments until I’m done. There are days when I think I’ve healed enough to write the story of my losses without being brought to my knees. And then there are days when I know I could not walk into a room with certain people, when I know I could not walk to certain places on this earth and not feel devastated. Still. Who wants to feel devastated? Writers, that’s who. (And artists, poets, composers, dancers: anyone whose work takes us to places we don’t want to visit, but absolutely must.)
What my twin personal griefs have taught me is that so much of life is not linear. And yet I keep wanting to force grief and healing—and thus my narrative about these things—into being linear. That’s the structural problem I’ve been wrestling with for so long.
For right now, all I know is that the month that I have not-written has felt worse than a month of writing. I’ve gone to yoga and gone running at least once a week for several years now. I now get ridiculously cranky and tense and tight when I haven’t done any of those things. And now my mind feels that way about writing. When I haven’t written in a long time, my mind gets cranky and tense and tight. Writing is what loosens up my mind, although I have had to train it to feel that way for over a year. Writing is now that mental conditioning: not so hard to maintain, much harder to regain once you’ve been away for too long.
I wrote this for a former student, a brilliant one from my former life, who recently said, to my surprise and delight, “I’ve been reading your blog about writing!” It’s for those who read here but might not comment, but still want to know how I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing. Now I can say that my blog is a writer’s blog. And I’ve been writing.