I have a shelf of books on writing (that’s a lie, they were on a shelf but they were being ignored and shelf space is at a premium, so I put them in a stack thinking “a stack of books could tip over; I will certainly read them if they’re stacked.” And I have been reading them so I guess there’s that). Amazing books on writing that I’ve collected over the years and I’m finally starting to read them. Last month I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Amazing. And this month I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These are some of my thoughts based on some of the things she said that really stood out for me.
“There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem
that will satisfy you forever”
If you’ve been writing your whole life, it’s easy to look back on the things you’ve written and wonder who wrote them. A wonderful and also frightening thing. Isn’t it fascinating that the person you are now is so different from the person you were then? Isn’t it so incredible to be a person always changing, growing, becoming? Going through old writings is like running into someone I used to be really good friends with but we somehow grew apart and it’s sad and sweet to catch up with them again. I’m grateful when the catch-up is over and I can go back to the person I am now, the person I’m on my way to being, no longer waylaid by that trip to the past.
“In order to write about it, we have to go to the heart of it and know it,
so the ordinary and extraordinary flash before our eyes simultaneously”
Everyone says to write what you know. Everyone. More recently I hear writers giving the advice that one ought to make sure it’s their story to tell. That works too. I try every day to remind myself to look around me. There’s a light here that’s unlike the light of any other place I’ve ever been. They say the light in Paris is pink, something I’ve never noticed myself, and the light here, where I live is blue, sometimes purple. The light itself. Not the sky or the sunrise/sunset. The actual light, the molecules of air are tinted blue. It’s remarkable. And perfectly ordinary when you’ve lived here long enough to stop noticing.
“We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us”
I’ve always been an excellent myna bird; picking up a bit of slang here or an affected way of saying something there. I usually don’t even notice until I’ve said it a few times and then I realize I’m not speaking like me. It makes it easy to pick up the correct accent when learning a new language, difficult to shed when you’re trying to write something and it sounds familiar but you can’t place why. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you’d think we wouldn’t worry about sounding like ourselves. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write yourself?
“I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing and then dare to write it down so you can never take it back
is the most powerful thing I know”
A professor in college said something along the lines of “you write because you have to.” I forget that writing can be powerful because I’m so absorbed in the fact of writing, in the writing because I can’t not write. I love the idea of writing something powerful. I love even more than powerful, the idea that anything I say may matter to even one person.
“Finally, if you want to write, you have to just shut up,
pick up a pen, and do it”
And this is what it comes down to. I haven’t written any of my stories in three days because I’ve been dealing with sick kids and messed up sleep schedules and the general chaos that accompanies disease. I feel wound up, like I couldn’t possibly sleep even though I’m exhausted. I feel like I could stay up all night writing and not feel tired tomorrow. None of this is true, of course, because I’m 43 years old and a night without sleep is likely to derail my entire week. I know this. And yet…the not writing has created a sort of low frequency hum inside me. Sometimes, even if you don’t want to write, you have to just shut up and do it, because sometimes you have to write, there’s no choice in the matter.