Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Art of My Essays - Part II The Fog Changes

Also, as I lay there thinking of my vision, I could see it all again and feel the meaning with a part of me like a strange power glowing in my body; but when the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.
Black Elk

In her farewell editorial in the New York Times column Domestic Disturbances, Judith Warner wrote the following:

“’How can I know what I think until I read what I write?” the former Times columnist James Reston — quoted by (Anna) Quindlen in her final “Life in the 30s” column, in December 1988 — once wrote. Often, writing here, I didn’t know fully what I felt — about things going on in my own life — until I read what I’d written. And very often I didn’t understand what I’d written until I heard it coming back at me.

I read this editorial in December and kept it tucked in my mind (actually pasted into a document for a future post.) The reason? I completely understand using what I've written to understand myself. And the comments of others to further discern the meaning. What relief I felt to learn I'm not alone.

On January 12, I wrote Part One of this small series regarding the discovery of my own interest in writing personal essays. Through my efforts as the volunteer neighborhood newsletter editor, I found an escape from the days filled with wiping noses, changing diapers, and endlessly pushing the swing at the park. Not that I didn't enjoy that, but, I needed an outlet just to keep that bit of myself that still clung to the edge and wasn't sucked up into the life of the stay-at-home mom with a husband who worked 12 hours days. Thus arrived the opportunity to spew my life into paragraphs on Page Five -- and I discovered a voice by writing about those noses, diapers, and swings.

But, here was the deal. When I wrote those essays, I didn't know what I was doing. I could write essays on daily life to fill page 5 til the cows came home. I knew what it was like to yearn for solitude, to go to the the bathroom alone, just once. To have a need for something I accomplished to last longer than 24 hours. These things I had no trouble understanding.

But as my children grew, I yearned for more of a challenge. Had sort of a did that/what's next attitude -- beyond what I could easily produce and understand. I wanted to discover a part of me that was buried beneath the needs of everyone else and necessities of every day life. I not only wanted to discover it, I wanted to write about the progress and write it well.

Therefore, I had to figure out where I was going.

This is where I curse myself. Why can't I ever be satisfied? Instead of fulfilling myself with what I know, resting on a familiar ledge, some invisible force always plods me toward a further distance, to an unknown. To a place much more difficult to master. To another edge. Sometimes only a lateral move. Sometimes back down before I get to another rise.

In 1996, I came across Sarah Ban Breathnach's book Simple Abundance, Warner Books, 1995. Following along with her daily messages of utilizing comfort to seek out the self I'd lost in the mire of motherhood, my grasp on the side of that edge became stronger. Even pulled myself up a bit to see a world out there on the horizon. At the end of that year long search in that book, I had before me my first completed journal and a photo journal cataloging images of things I liked - not just a hodge podge of ideas in my head, but a clear vision of my passions, a pattern. Equipped with this knowledge, I set forth, with a sense of organization, onto a new, yet unfamiliar writing path.

Obviously that path also had many uncertain turns and detours. Even huge mountains appeared before me as I took unfamiliar roads -- writing groups, critiques, deeper searches into my soul.

As I took classes and studied not only the essay, but also the craft of writing, my first attempts retreated into the familiar. If not for the prodding of some fine teachers who challenged me to search deeper, to explore where I didn't want to go, did my essays change from the simpler days of yore.

Often I wonder what it is about me that just can't be satisfied. Why I seem to automatically wander in and out of the fog seeking adventures that require more of me. That I truly do love to rock and loll and float, and spend a great deal of time doing that. Given that scenario, it would seem I'd not end up in more challenging places, that I'd seek where I wouldn't struggle like tackling the novel or short stories. A non-fiction proposal. Essays on my place in this world.

Or to discover why it is some of those essays I begin with such ease end up in my incomplete file, sometimes for years, in an effort to focus in on what I've learned. Perhaps I have not mastered the art of deciphering my words. Perhaps a further look is required, like James Reston, Anna Quindlin and Judith Warner. To look further into the words before me on the page. To believe the words have come from me.

To not be afraid to find how far off the original map I've journeyed. To not fear that my organization may be off. That the next map may not be within my grasp.

To be continued...


  1. I found your blog listed on Jody Hedlund's blog, and glad I did. I am on a similar path -- a personal essayist. I've been writing and publishing essays for several years, and while I've published writing in other genres, the essay is the closest to my heart. Like you and many others before us, I write these pieces to discover what I'm thinking, to get a tighter focus on my view of the world. I look forward to reading more of your work. Thanks for allowing me a glimpse into your world.

  2. Julie, it seems to me that you are someone with a restless intelligence, and the challenges you look for provide a necessary stimulation. I recognize the paradox of being content to loll and yet always ending up seeking out something else, something more.

    The personal essay is my favourite kind of writing and it's been a bit surprising for me to realize that in the writing of a life lies self-discovery. And I have shared your frustration (if such a strong word is even appropriate) about things half-finished, sometimes because the interest wasn't there, and often simply because I didn't know where to go next with them. Did I really have enough to say?
    Writing gives roots and a certain stability to my thoughts, and without it I don't have nearly as much clarity.
    But I want to prove something more to myself, and the ultimate proof that I am a writer is to write a book. In my case, like yours, a novel, but I have pretty big doubts that I'm up to the task. It goes along, but it's doesn't give me the gratification that a thousand words of an essay does. And I'm such a sucker for gratification.

    I've gone on long enough, but wanted to let you know that nearly everything you said was very familiar to me. Thanks for that.

  3. Personal essays were the stuff of English classes. Remember? The teacher would assign a topic, and off we went revealing our attitudes, mores, history and biases. Yes, we tried to be clever and erudite too, quoting this or that. But, we ended up taking a stand on a previously unknown issue.

    Blogging seems to be a perfect vehicle for these essays.

    I too am enjoying and I feel comfortable in this genre.

    Great analysis. Can't wait to read more.

  4. Apparently, you are destined to challenge yourself. I think it's a good thing? How else can we grow? I look forward to reading more.

  5. Another great post! I love what you say about discovering your feelings through your writing. I have to agree. I also read Simple Abundance when it first came out and it had a profound effect on me. Coincidentally, I just recommended that book to one of our library patrons tonight. What a strange coincidence.

  6. Hi Julie

    I have a funny feeling I have been calling you Joanne???

    I have always has a thirst for challenges, learning new things, taking on new projects...until recently...I don't know where the drive went but I am happy...I was happy with it and am happy without it...I think now I have more focus on the little, the insignificant, the small and the mazing...

    Perhaps too I have lost the need to achieve and am content to rest in being. Maybe we search until we find a shady grove...(I also think menopause takes the oomph out of my drive to accomplish.)

    I agree that much of our self discovery and peeling off of layers can be done through writing. Many many years ago John Powell wrote "Why am I afraid to tell you who I am"
    It was a seminal book for me. In that he said that until we articulate our inner feelings and thoughts we don't really know who we are. That stayed with me.

    I also read Breathnach's book way back and found it useful.

    How are you finding Olive Kitteridge. I wanted to give her a kick up the bum when I began the book but then I grew quite fond of her.

    Keep the writing rolling along..

    Happy days

  7. This strikes a chord with me - never being satisfied. I've felt this way my whole life, like you. But when I was in my 20s, I told this complaint to a wonderful older man (he turned out to be a social worker) and I've never forgotten what he said. He suggested that I value being a seeker, for seeking is as important as finding.

    Every so often, like now, I remember his words.

  8. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and how personal writing can be. It is helpful as I ask many of the same questions.

    Great stuff.

  9. So you wrote on Page 5 till the cows came home? Because you didn't know what you were doing, as you said, but also, because of that, you were less critical of your writing skills, right? I think those of us who really want to be good writers (and who ARE good writers) have experienced something like this because we really know inside that we have the potential to be real authors.

    Just some thoughts . . .

    Perhaps when you get into the writing of an essay these days, your inner critic (read, perfectionist) is talking too LOUD and running amok with her bad self. Perhaps your inner critic needs to be silenced so that your very talented creative voice can find her way to the end of an essay and feel good about it. You can get plenty deep in your writing, as I have seen firsthand, but some things just aren't so deep and don't require more tugging and digging out. Or, maybe if they do, you could benefit from some constructive ways to uncover them.

    I think the next map is indeed within your grasp. You're that good of a writer. I wonder if when you get "stuck" in some of those essays, brainstorming would be a good option for you, by yourself or with your critique partners. Ask "what if" questions. Toss around ideas, do mind maps, brain dump, get silly. No ideas are off limits. Imperfect ideas wanted.

    Just some thoughts.

  10. This is a beautifully written meditation on life and writing. I can't wait to read more because there is so much of all of us in what you write...which means that it should be published so it can be read by a wider audience!

  11. Thank you for the generous reveal of your writing soul. Not many of us are as articulate. For me, writing is secondary to making pictures but the two quite naturally intertwine. After years of writing photo captions and magazine decorating stories for the Meredith Corporation, I find it difficult to free myself to write something else. Blogging helps--it's a venue without an editor, a critic, or a copy chief.

  12. Writing really puts a person out there and that is scary in itself. But challenging ourselves is so important and being fearless is necessary for that. Making mistakes is how we learn....we have to be willing to make a few...

  13. Sarah's book made me feel home, like visiting a kindred spirit. You are a poetic essayist, evoking vivid images for me. I love reading your posts. Keep exploring...

  14. I am loving this! I can't wait for part II. I know so many women who are looking for...... what exactly? Not just peace, but almost a new life! They want to get reenergized! The voyage to self-discovery seems to never end. Bring on the new world!

  15. There can sometimes be a blurry line between the restless feeling we have that makes us continue reaching for more, which enables us to continue to grow ... and the restless feeling that makes us continue reaching for more when we become too self critical.

    I look forward to seeing what you will create and how you have evolved from what you have already done.

  16. How can I know what I think until I read what I write?

    FABULOUS quote! I am like that, too. Perhaps you writing your journey is the best thing you can be doing. I want to live this end of my life really knowing what I think and alllowing myself to be okay with that.

  17. Oh my, you just expressed, so eloquently I might add, my life. I feel pushed, prodded to be more - to be what I was supposed to be? And no amount of dancing around it will change that fact. I anxiously await your next installment.

    I just read Deborah's comment and see myself there to - not sure I'm up to the task of a novel, but everything has pushed me to the brink. I'm worried what will be if I DON'T write it.

  18. I love this piece. A lot. I can relate to every word of it, and really understand your conflict with always searching out the next path when it would be so much easier to stay put. I'm honored to be traveling the path with you, and looking forward to reading whatever you have to offer, because it enriches me.

  19. My approach to writing could be described as serindipitous, coy or just plain word vomit. But nonetheless, I try to write daily. I used to scribble for a living (newspapers); now I teach high school cherubs how to write. Full circle? Hell, yeah. But whatever, the therapy of the written word stikes me as manna from Heaven...

  20. The first thing that came to my mind was, "That's deep."
    Love the quotes you included, and your soul searching expressed so beautifully.
    Now I have to go back and read part one! :)
    Thank you for leaving the comment on my post about job/careers. I replied on the blog so that the followers and readers will know how much it meant to me.

  21. Anna Quindlen is one of my idols, and that line is practically my mantra. I love the way you are exploring your own motivation in these essays--and the metaphor of the fog. Can't wait for the next installment!

  22. I love Simple Abundance. I also love being along with you for your search and discovery.

  23. Interesting post. I love that you created a photo journal of things you loved...I've been thinking about doing that on my blog, or maybe on a separate blog. I'm not really looking for a new career, but I still want passions in my life (besides grandkids, who definitely are passions).

  24. Curiosity is what drives you to seek more. Without curiosity we would be stagnant. I don't think it's that you are never satisfied.

    But this post ... now that's what I call a helluva personal essay1

  25. Very deep but interesting. As they say over here 'What's it all bout, Alfie'.

  26. I completely to relate to learning how I feel about something by writing about it. That and painting are my best ways of uncovering knowledge.

    And yes, part of the process is moving into unknown, risky territory. It's hard, isn't it?

    This is a post I could nestle into. That wasn't hard at all.

  27. "I completely TO relate to..." DUH. That was me moving into careless territory. :D

  28. What a coincidence. I just cleaned out a bookcase a few weeks ago and what did I find in that bookcase? The Simple Abundance book and the companion journal that I never took the time to read and ponder over... you've challenged me to pull that book out and do so now.

    I think it's energizing to go through journeys of self-exploration and to challenge ourselves as we dive into our midlives!

  29. You are so onto it here. Often, I just set myself to writing and then look back later and think, "I had no idea what was going to come out, but once it did, that showed me what I was thinking."

    The essence of yourself seems to be what you're questioning--that is, the nub of you is that you always want a challenge and to push into slight discomfort, at the same time you love comfort and rest and ease. The two are mutually incompatible. They just have to take turns!

  30. After this year and all the things in your life that are happening, perhaps you will be able to sit down and write more and grow more. Don't be disatisfied with where you are. If you only could look back as I can and see how far you have come you would realize that you have always been on your way in this journey and you will continue to keep on reaching further and harder goals. You go, girl. You have already touched many with your work.

  31. I believe that, sometimes, life happens so that we can share it at some later point.
    Thanks for the post.


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