“The world could be burning,” a friend once told me, “and you wouldn’t play the fiddle. You’d be writing about the flashes of flame and the smell of singeing hair.”
It’s probably true, but I’d like to think I’d be trying to put out the fire.
Journaling is the first exercise I that remember ever writing, other than learning the alphabet or cursive writing. My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Carrubba, assigned journaling as homework.
She seemed so old then, but I couldn’t describe her now. Memory hides in strangeness and seeming randomness.
I tried to journal, but my life was boring. I didn’t drive; I didn’t work. I didn’t have interesting vignettes to write, so I told stories.
“Tellin’ stories” is a Southernism for lying. “Are you tellin’ me a story?” my mom would ask. Her hand was probably on her hip. I probably told another story to solidify my first.
“Now, Nancy,” the teacher sighed. “Are you sure this really happened?” She was too classy to call me a liar. Her voice was soft like my grandmother’s, and held a Southern accent. My name in her mouth sounded half-way between Nun-cee and Naintsy.
Memory really does hide in strangeness and randomness.
“Yes,” I assured her with the backbone of a thirteen-year-old. I may or may not have told her that it was “the God’s honest truth.” I don’t remember what I wrote, but I am 90 percent certain that the words told stories of traipsing through the woods with my cat, Romeo—the truest part of the narrative—and dinosaurs and Greek or Roman mythology. I loved dinosaurs and mythology then. Actually, I still do, but they have fallen into a deeper basket of interests.
I lack the typical historical narrative that other writers have about their childhoods. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or rather, I did, but it changed every five minutes. I did not have a real clue until I hit my 34th year. I don’t think I wrote short stories at a young age. I didn’t win any essay awards. I don’t know if I wrote much at all. I wonder sometimes how different my life would be had I pursued it then.
But I loved telling stories.
As I grew older, I journaled off and on for years. At times, the writing reflected less a collection of stories and more a spectrum of emotions; other times journaling revealed less an account of my day and more a reaction to the world.
I journaled by candlelight after Hurricane Katrina destroyed my idyllic fish camp; I lacked the foreknowledge of the unity and hope that would follow—eventually—in her wake. I journaled about the Columbine massacre, rocking in horror at the thought of such a thing. I scrawled furiously about the attack on the World Trade Center, breaking the New York skyline and slaughtering coworkers I had never met. I wrote about the shooting of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and my horror that someone so ignorant wanted to kill Indian-Americans because he mistook them for Muslims; I wrote then about the ensuing prejudice and hatred against, not just terrorists but all Muslims, including and especially American Muslims.
Everything wasn’t rage and helplessness, however.
In writing about 9/11, I celebrated courage of those who thwarted the fourth plane. My words sang of the fleeing of a friend from Venezuela with the help of her friends all over the world. I explored the beauty in forgiveness displayed by the surviving members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church after nine of their members were slaughtered. I wept at the humility I felt as an alcoholic taught me about grace. I wrote about David Tennant’s charging us with being “rebelliously positive and positively rebellious” and Zachary Quinto’s “It Gets Better” video and Shane Koyczan’s “Instructions for a Bad Day.”
Writing is a means of working through grief, of recording those incidents that have forever shaped us. Writing is a way of finding out what we really think, and not just what we say we think, those snap and surface answers we hold at the ready just in case someone asks us what we think.
Sometimes we can even discover why we think the way that we do. Journaling allows us to explore themes, patterns, and reactions. Journaling allows us to rainstorm change.
When people approach me hurting, I listen to their pain. If I’m asked for advice, I tell them without fail to just write. That is usually my ill-received advice to myself. Writing forces us to be in our heads, and sometimes that’s a very uncomfortable place to be.
But we should
write when we grieve and write when we celebrate. Write of all the things we’re afraid to talk about: our weirdness and wildness, our pleasure and our pain. Write down our dreams, the steps we can take to make them reality, but also our nightmares and how we might escape them. Write because the world is burning, and write because we can extinguish it. Write because, from the ashes, we can create something new.
Without concern for grammar or spelling or punctuation; without counting adverbs or worrying about dangling participles. Fragments and run-ons, word choice and usage—none of these matter.
Free write. And write free: to free, to be freed. Just write.
Nothing matters but the pen running along the paper or fingers pressing the keys. The mere act of writing allows everything we think to spill out, safely. Yes, it can be very hard. Yes, it’s definitely very messy. But it’s liberating, too.
If we’re afraid someone will find it, we should throw it away after. Shred it. Burn it.
If we’re afraid of what we’ll discover, this is one of the most important times to write. And write. And write. We should keep on writing. Tears won’t hurt us, only help. We cannot know who we are without this discovery.
Fears can’t hurt us either, not when we’re in the depths of writing. We can discover the fear, face off against that enemy, and vanquish it, becoming our own hero in the process.
Spitting out words allows the things that come up to come out.
It forces us to focus on one thought at a time.
And that can be one of the best gifts we can ever give ourselves.