When I lifted the self-imposed expectation that this year I would write more, after becoming the chief pianist in the musical, I forgot one important detail.
Writing often saves me.
Locked away in various synapses of my brain are three weeks of blog posts. I composed paragraphs while driving, while putting on makeup, even while practicing the piano, but never actually sat at my laptop to write. And after two weeks, I felt the crazy start to creep in.
At one point in the whirlwind of last week, I wondered why I felt so off. Imbalanced. Not normal. Blaming the musical was easy–it’s a high pressure week. But really, my mental state was not helped by not writing.
So this week’s posts might be a bit rusty and disjointed as I get back in the habit of writing. Of the many lessons I learned in February, this is probably the most important: if I want to survive, I must write.
Prompt: Do you have a favorite quote you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?
Here’s a small behind-the-scenes tale of what it’s like to write a book.
When I wrote my book, I frequently returned to one quote when I started to panic. (And I panicked often.) One quote that reminded me I wasn’t crazy for writing a memoir. It’s from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird–not incidentally, the book that first made me think I could actually write. Lamott writes: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Writing a memoir about five men breaking my heart, and about my own struggle to make peace with the tenuous balance of my faith and marital status, wasn’t something I took lightly, and I often struggled with how much of those stories I should tell. But revisiting that Lamott quote reminded me that these things happened, they happened to me, and maybe–just maybe–those stories were actually quite universal.
If I’d known more about the publishing world and the business of copyright, I would’ve sought Lamott’s permission for that quote to serve as the epigraph for my book. That’s how vital her words are to me.
It’s still a quote I return to many days when I’m struggling to write, because of its simple admonition: tell your stories.
Over a decade ago, a dear friend of mine was in the process of transcribing audio of her dad telling his life story. I remember thinking, “That’s a great idea. I should do that.” And then I jaunted off to grad school for two years and when I came back, so many other things demanded my time.
Last year, my Aunt Sarah asked me to help with edits on a book she was compiling that told the story of my Nana and Gramps. My Gramps died in 1989, Nana in 1998, so she had spent hours cobbling together stories of their lives–mostly from secondary sources.
In November 2015, StoryCorps sponsored The Great Thanksgiving Listen, in which they encouraged high school students to talk to the older members of their families and record their stories. I offered my journalism students extra credit if they participated–they had to select questions, conduct an interview, and then upload the interview. When I told my newspaper staff about the opportunity, I shared with them how I wish I had asked my grandparents more questions about their lives.
On to present day, inspired by the background information:
This year for Christmas, I gave my parents each a notebook with 40 prompts. For at least 40 weeks, they will jot down important remembrances based on the prompts. I will show up to their house and record them talking about the prompt (the journalist in me gets to ask follow up questions when needed) and my nieces will help with the transcribing.
By the end of the year, I’ll have a notebook from mom, a notebook from dad, audio recordings, and transcriptions. All primary sourced, ready to be compiled into a narrative.
I didn’t want to rely on my and my siblings’ memories to tell the stories of my parents. I want them to tell their stories. And rather than hoping they’d get around to it eventually, I’m forcing their hand.
I hope they don’t mind.
In 2015, the year my book was published, I started to think of myself as a real writer.
Let me be clear–I’d been published before. I wrote for the Provo Daily Herald for a couple weeks on an internship. I’d been published in a couple of literary journals. I’d authored and co-authored academic work. And of course, the blog here. For some reason, none of that ever registered with my brain as being “real writer” content.
But here it is, January 1, 2016 and now I am A Writer.
A Writer who doesn’t write nearly enough as of late. So over the holiday break I did some reading and some thinking and some soul searching about how I approach writing in general, and blogging specifically.
All of the reading and thinking is still percolating, brewing a plan for what my writing life needs to be in 2016, but the end result is this: I need to write more.
So at the bare minimum, expect more writing here. It won’t always be great, but like I tell my students, two actions make us better writers: read more, write more.
My second class of the morning is a class of 21 students.
It’s a Journalistic Writing class, comprised of all four grades. And 21 students often means 21 different writing styles and habits–not the easiest of things to manage.
They are all writing feature stories right now. 21 different feature stories, from personality profiles to human interest stories to behind-the-scenes features.
Today, for almost 40 solid minutes, most of those 21 students wrote and wrote and wrote. They transcribed interviews, they rearranged quotes, they developed transitions and created leads.
While they wrote, I peeked in on their progress, since they are all required to write in Google Docs, and I held mini-conferences and left comments for them, or just spoke to them from across the room what needed to change and what I liked about their writing so far.
They made great progress today, and I am excited to read their final drafts next week.
I’m grateful that I get to teach writers. Even the students who don’t think they are writers–they proved today that they are.