Friday, January 06, 2012

Can I Get That In Writing?

"Put things into words and there's no telling when you'll get them out again."
~Carrie Fisher, The Best Awful

"What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth."
~Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend From Far Away

Though I have been keeping my Spiral Notebook Journal for about 28 (!) years now, there have been gaps--sometimes stretching into months and even, in one instance, over a year--where I've written nothing at all. The gaps tend to coincide with big, scary life stuff--capital-F Funks, above average turmoil and upheaval, that kind of thing.

And though the pages are often used to exhaustively analyze the words, actions and emotions of myself and those around me, there are all sorts of things that get put in there much after the fact or not at all. I've thought a lot over the years about why that happens. (I've even written a few extraordinarily navel-gazy entries about the phenomenon.)

Theoretically at least, the journal is private1 and there's no doubt that I use it primarily as free therapy. (It's the only therapy I know for sure will be covered by whatever health insurance I have (or don't have) at any given time.) So there should be no restrictions on what I write there, but clearly there are--and part of the reason has to do with what cdnkaro over at four under 4 (plus two) so succinctly said in her post "Pass" a little while ago: "There's something about the written word that lends significant weight to one's thoughts."

I know this to be true from experience. I need think no further than the enraged ranting entries that have so often made me angrier rather than helped me work through my anger.

And I know it to be true in my gut as well. There is a way in which writing something down--especially something painful or, worse, shameful--makes it more real. For me, it is something that goes beyond just leaving a written record that others--or even some later version of myself--might stumble upon. It is not about evidence, exactly, but about the way in which the written word helps to create the story we tell ourselves about our lives in a much more substantial way than the intangible thoughts that comprise the ongoing narratives in our brains.

While I shy away from writing the biggest, scariest feelings out on paper, I also know that sometimes digging around in them on paper will result in an understanding I might not have achieved otherwise. And, in fact, that light-switch click of insight is one of the primary reasons I've continued to keep a journal for as long as I have. The problem, of course, is that when you're dealing with putting big, scary feelings on paper, there's no way of telling when you begin where you're going to end up.

Lately, I've been thinking about what it means to avoid writing about the things I fear the most. How does that avoidance affect not just my journal writing, but the writing I put out there into the world?2

Natalie Goldberg addresses the issue of fear many times in her various books on writing. In Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, there is this passage:

This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden.

Here's another rule of writing practice: Go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous. Otherwise, you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. It's that large animal that makes your living room unique and interesting. Write about it...Get it out and down on the page. If you don't, you'll keep tripping over it.

Goldberg goes on to suggest making a list of all the things you shouldn't write about and then systematically writing for ten minutes about each one. I confess that even though I've worked my way faithfully through many of the other exercises in this book, this is one I've skipped up to now.

But, I'm determined--some day soon, I'm goin' in.

1. At some point, I decided that as long as what I was writing was true to who I was in that moment, I would stand behind whatever it was, embarrassed or not. I wouldn't be happy if, for instance, someone's feelings were hurt by something they read, but I decided that by reading work meant to be private, that was a risk they took. (Full disclosure: I copied and pasted this footnote from a comment I left on an earlier post. So naughty--and lazy.)

2. I also have significant concern for how this avoidance is affecting my overall mental health, but this was a post about writing and I left that concern out. Then, too, as a self-identified writer-type person, my mental health and my writing have been hopelessly entangled for as long as I can remember.


  1. Very interesting! I have found myself starting several blog posts, or pondering them, and then abandoning them as being something that need not be written down...I do the same in a written journal. I will die one day, and what happens to those journals then? Do I really want my children reading about certain things? Very interesting questions...particularly when certain things are wrapped up in my "baggage".

  2. Thoughtful post, MM - There was a lot to take in, starting, for me, with the Natalie Goldberg quote. I know I stumble around, not wanting to post the scariest things but , on occasion, I have. I know my hesitation is about what another blogger mentioned recently: I want to control how people see me. I always want to be seen as strong, positive, and cheerful. When I go to the dark places, I really don't want to let the world know that. There are some frightening posts in my archives and I actually like them. They are real. I did post something the other day that I fairly quickly removed as it was too transparent. I think the comparative-itis thing was operating. In this small blogging community, I feel vulnerable. Don't tell too much yet.

  3. I wrote everything down in my journals. Everything. When I had kids, I thought about how they might read my journals one day, and I went back through them and edited out all the sex. Left everything else, but figured if I didn't want to know about my mother's sex life, my kids wouldn't want to know that about me either! But all the other emotional highs and lows of my life are still there.

  4. After the discussion about Virgoan tendencies the other day, your disclaimer had a distinctly Virgoan flavor to it. Besides, from this technologically challenged individual, it is a lot easier to retype anything, rather than have to track it down, cut and paste, and probably lose it all once or twice in the process. I loved the quotes at the top of the piece. Putting something into words again, reminds me of Joni Mitchell's quip from "Miles of Aisles," when concert-goers were shouting out suggestions for her next song. She said, "No one ever told Vincent, "Paint another 'Starry Night,' Man."

  5. I am a 'venter' by nature but I forget that others are not and so when I 'Vent' I feel good but some might not get it. Although, it did seem that many of my readers totally understood. They understood that it helps me to heal. I get a lot out of my system and it helps me to move on. Sometimes, I even realize I am over reacting. I go back and read my 'vents' and think, "Gosh, you are being harsh." The problem, someone did dig around and find my blog and they can't get past my 'venting.' In the end, do I regret it? No, but I have promised not to write such things anymore and I feel my blog has turned into one of those 'sunshine and roses' kind of blogs and I feel inauthentic right now. It is frustrating. In addition, I think my readers can feel the shift.
    My point, I think a writer needs to write for themselves,what works for them and not try to please their readers because in the end your readers can feel if you are trying to 'snow them' or hide from them. In the blog world readers don't expect you to share everything but they can feel if you are faking it.

  6. Fantastic post, MM- I've read it twice and am still searching for something more to say than "I wholeheartedly agree!"

    I think that a lot of my hesitation in putting certain things down in writing- be it on the computer or on paper- stems from what Sarah said- one day, I won't be there to censor, to control who reads it...

    Though everything I write on my blog is 100% honest, I don't write everything.

    As with my post "It's sharing time", and item number 6 in particular- that was huge. But writing it down, putting it out there, has reopened wounds, generated difficult discussion...while it is certainly good for my mental health to deal with difficult feelings, it takes them to a whole new level.

    I love that you've kept my mind so busy today- thank you! (And thanks for the bloggy love as well:))

  7. I have been chewing on this post since you put it up. Still chewing. I ask myself (and don't ask myself) a lot of the same questions and will have to mull over the answers. Now a question for you: do you find that with daily blog posting, you spend less time with your spiral notebooks? Or do they serve different purposes? My journal and pen are feeling neglected these days.

  8. I have a couple of written journals, but they are all neglected really quickly. I have horrific handwriting and am often unable to decipher my own writing just days later. I love blogging because it is so much faster and cleaner. This is a great post that has given me pause. I know people who write for therapy and as part of their healing/cleansing burn the journals that hold the deepest, darkest pains and fears. I know that I don't blog about the hardest stuff. I might never. Those are the things I pray about and try my hardest to give to God. There is a sweeter release in prayer than in any kind of writing. For me at least. I know I will reread this post at least a few more times!

  9. I really want to thank everyone for their thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. The conversations that get started are one of my favorite things about the blog world.

    For me, this was really about two different things. It was about being afraid of what other people might learn about me from my writing, but it's also about being afraid of what I might learn from my writing.

    In the passage I quoted from Goldberg (as well as in many others by her) she advocates writing it all down, not necessarily putting it all out there for the world to see. Like Nicole said, a lot of people burn or otherwise destroy sensitive materials they don't want falling into other hands.

    There are things in my life that I have been afraid to write about EVEN with the intention of throwing it away. And I guess the point of Goldberg's pep talk is that I should deal with them in writing (even if only privately)because keeping them in will be crippling creatively in the long run.

    I think cdn & Lucy both make a good point about the importance of being authentic even if not completely open. Readers absolutely can sniff out inauthenticity and I know for myself, the writers (whether fiction, non or even blogs) I enjoy most are the ones whose belief in the truth of their work shines through.

    And S. Stauss, I have been neglecting my spiral notebooks for a little while now for some of the reasons I addressed here. I have found that since I've been blogging daily, my inspiration and desire to write in them has increased dramatically at exactly the same time that my time to do so has decreased. :)

  10. This is such a thought-provoking post. Neil Strauss said something very similar to Natalie Goldberg that has had me thinking about sharing some of the scariest aspects of my life. These are the things I don't write about in the blog, things I can't help but remember, things I don't want to share...not because I don't want you all to know me but because I don't want to hurt those who've hurt me. They are my large elephants and I still struggle to maneuver around them without acknowledging they are there.

  11. Late to the party, but in short, I agree. In long, I posted a response over on Periphery's Dancing With Elephants, Part 3

    You gals are all making me think lately. I love this!