Day 128 – Books

One of the things I appreciate the most about my parents is they never said no to a book. Mom started reading to Lindy and I way back when we were babies. And when I started reading on my own, my thirst for stories was insatiable. I was that kid who always had a book with me (and another book or two tucked in a pocket or a backpack, just in case I finished the first one and needed a spare).

When we lived in Bird City, my summers were split evenly between the library and the city swimming pool. And every time took a road trip to visit grandparents and made a pit stop at the Walmart in McCook along the way, I would tell Mom and Dad that they could find me by the books, and then I’d take off before they could think to say no. By the time they finished their shopping and came to collect me, I’d usually have at least a half-dozen books cradled in my arms and I’d ask if I could get them. Mom and Dad always agreed to let me have one, (sometimes more than one if I chose a few that weren’t too expensive), and I’d leave the store clutching my prize and itching to settle into the back seat of the car and lose myself in a new story.

If there is anything in this life that I’m irrationally attached to, it’s books. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

Cadence had a school assignment over Christmas break this year–count the number of books you have in your house. I apologized to her before giving her a pad of Post-It notes and a little advice–go room by room and shelf by shelf. When you finish one shelf, jot the number on a sticky note, stick the note to the shelf, and repeat.

Final count = 1,308.

I’m fairly certain there are a few more books squirreled away in boxes in the basement, but we weren’t going to make her take on that excavation. And in the four months since she finished the assignment, I’ve probably added at least fifteen or twenty more to the count.

If it was anything other than books, I might have to admit I have a problem.

But here’s the thing–books are magic. And I truly believe they are the only way we humans ever get a chance to see what goes on inside the mind of another human being. They’re the only way we ever get an opportunity to step outside of ourselves and our own private world and get a glimpse of another. Only words wield that sort of power.

So yes, I hold onto them and return to them, and I enjoy walking into my house and seeing them sitting there on the shelves waiting for me to dive back in. And I love passing them onto others, sometimes mid-conversation saying, “Oh, have you read _____?” and then plucking a copy off the shelf and pressing it into their hands telling them to take it and read it and enjoy it and pass it along to someone else when they’re done because I can buy another copy if I want to replace it. There’s no better gift than the gift of a story.

Pass it on.

365 Project – Day 283 – __________

It’s days like these when I begin to question myself.

Am I really a writer?

Because I’ve been staring at the blankness in front of me for well over 2 hours now and nada, zip, zilch, zero, a bit fat void of nothingness stares back.

I try to get myself going, try to think up some interesting topic, try to think of something that happened today that might be worth mentioning, but the thinking is just making my head hurt even worse than it already was and I’ve already taken 5 Extra Strength Tylenol. At this point, my eyes are starting to cross and tear up from fatigue and I am seriously considering just calling it a night and going to bed and congratulating myself on making it through 282 days of a 365 Project before I gave up.

Ah, but I come from a very long line of very stubborn stock. I started this project wanting to get back in the habit of writing, and so far it has been working. Of course, I should expect the occassional hiccup. So, I must press on.

I dive in tonight the way I have for so many years, free writing, just letting the thoughts flow from my brain without purpose, without direction, without a well-formulated plan. And when I get stuck…

Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. The mantra has pushed me through so many difficult assignments, so many bottomless pits of self-doubt over the years. It’s that repetitive voice that has kept me from giving up on this dream of being a writer. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing, because the words are always there, if I can just find them.

So, what is it about writing? Why does writing survive? Why does it move us? Inspire us? Anger us? Bore us? Why do readers keep reading? Why do writers keep writing? To me,  it has always seemed that life, and writing, is all about reactions. Every day, we are faced with dozens of conflicts and situations that we must react to and deal with and sometimes even overcome, and the best writing reflects that. Writing connects us to our fellow human beings, and helps us make some sense of the choas.

Just think of how different our lives would be if there were no surprises, no conflict, if we could move through our daily existence like robots, never having to respond to anything out of the ordinary. But it’s not so easy. At some point, we are all faced with monumental moments, grand life-changing events in which our lives suddenly do an abrupt about-face. Just think how different life would be if we could somehow be notified of these changes. What if there were bells, whistles, phone calls to alert you of the impending doom? What if we could receive a note, something to tune of:

Please take a moment to stop what you are doing and prepare yourself. Today, your life as you know it is going to change completely. Take a deep breath and sit down if you feel faint. Thank you for your attention.

                                                Signed,

                                                The Management

Would writing or poetry or art have a place in such a world? If there were no glitches or conflicts or surprises in life, would the writer find it more difficult to create? I think that it is life’s unpredictability that gives writers the freedom to ask that all important question, “What if?” And a writer is only restrained by the power of his/her own imagination. There is not a simple formula to explain what it is that writers choose to write about. There is no list of acceptable or interesting topics for a writer to choose from when they write. Instead, each writer tells a unique story each time he/she sits down to fill a blank page. Topics, themes, characters, style—the choices are infinite. One poet may write about the beautiful sunrise he witnessed that morning, while another writes about a world ravaged by war. For me, that is the most exciting thing about writing—anything goes. And there is always a new story just begging to be told.

It’s not an easy journey, the journey of the writer. As a child in elementary school, I remember how everyone used to say it was so cute the way I was always imagining and writing stories, the adventurous webs I would weave with my closest friends in the starring roles. But sometime around junior high the novelty wore off, and writing wasn’t so cute anymore. It was something I began to hide like a dirty secret.

Later, in high school, I remember vividly the first time I told someone that I planned to be a writer and major in English and Creative Writing in college. She just nodded and smiled blankly with an “Oh, that’s nice, but what are you going to do for a real job?”

Yeah, that one hurt. And I still hear that voice sometimes when I meet someone for the first time and they ask me what I do. As a writer and a photographer, I’m just picking my poison when I introduce myself.

But is writing any less “real” than building houses or waiting tables or selling insurance? Does writing really have a purpose? Or is the writer just a child chasing an improbable dream? And, if writing truly serves no purpose, why does it survive? Why do we still pore over Shakespeare’s plays or analyze Yeats’ poems? Why do people spend so much time debating books like The DaVinci Code or spend so much money collecting every book ever written by Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?

During one of my poetry classes in grad school, we started talked about the narcissism of the writer, and it really got me thinking about the motivation behind writing. Is writing really a selfish act? Does the writer simply seek attention, using words as a peacock uses its brilliant plumage in an attempt to dazzle the audience?

Perhaps.

But there is also something more to it.

For me, reading gave me glimpses into other worlds, allowed me to walk in someone else’s shoes for awhile. Reading even altered my beliefs and opinions a few times. On the other hand, writing allowed me to share pieces of myself with other people, allowing them to take a moment to see the world from where I stood. Writing gave this somewhat shy, introverted girl a voice when she was too scared to say the words out loud.

I’m intrigued by this idea of the writer constantly delving into the psyche in an attempt to dig deeper and deeper into his/herself. Just what is it that the writer is digging for? What rare jewel lies buried, waiting to be discovered? For me, writing has always been an emotional excavation, a way to work through pain, to capture joy, to dilute anger, to clear up confusion. Is it healthy, all of this digging and purging of emotions? Or is the writer a tortured soul, destined to self-destruct and die prematurely from stress-related illnesses or self-inflicted means? Is writing therapy, or something more akin to a medieval torture device designed to break down destroy?

For me, writing was always more of a therapeutic adventure. I always had a much easier time expressing myself in my writing. It seemed whenever I would try to speak, the words would get tangled somewhere between my brain and my lips. I could just never quite get it right. But the opposite would happen when I would sit down with a blank notebook and a pen. Suddenly all of the right words seemed to materialize, sometimes faster than I could write them. Writing was always the one thing I was sure of in my life. Even if I never “made it” as a writer, even if no one else ever read or wanted to publish anything I ever wrote, just holding one of my own stories or poems was the closest I could ever come to seeing my own soul, to actually holding a piece of it in my hand.

I was always drawn to literature and poetry for the same reason. By reading the works or other writers, I felt a deeper connection, not only to the authors, but to myself and the world around me. Writers and poets have a way of capturing moments in life that are universal, that we can all relate to in one way or another.

Somehow, the best writers are able to see into our souls and record our own feelings on the page. Like a kindred spirit, the writer holds up a mirror into which we can gaze and see pieces of ourselves. Reading a good piece of writing can be an exceptionally intimate experience, and yet it somehow also helps us feel more connected to the people and the world around us.

Yet even as some pieces of writing seem to speak directly to my soul, I wonder how much of the writer’s message has been lost in translation. And I’m not talking about just the translation from one language to another. There is also the translation from the page to my brain, and the translation from the writer’s own mind to the blank page before him/her.

Words, though they have a recorded definition, remain somewhat ambiguous. Readers are given the opportunity to explore and imagine and create within their own minds. The true beauty of writing lies in the infinite possibilities. And perhaps that, above all else, is the reason that writing survives. In this lightning fast, digital world where we are spoonfed ideas and opinions through radio, television, internet, and media, writing is the one place where we are only bound by the limits of our own imaginations.

And so, tonight’s 365 Project is dedicated to all of the writers out there, all of those courageous souls who dare to dream and to share their unique vision of the world with everyone else. As long as there are writers who scribble words upon pages, there will be readers to read them. And that is enough of a reason to keep writing.

Keep writing.

Keep writing.

365 Project – Day 233 – The Death of the Pen

Many moons ago, when I was just beginning my educational career, we spent a lot of time practicing our penmanship. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, was a formidable woman, with a head of curly reddish-orange hair and a habit of standing over me and my classmates and making us nervous as we carefully copied letters and printed words in our handwriting and penmanship workbooks.

In spite of the anxiety caused by Mrs. Smith’s looming presence, I fell hopelessly in love with writing.

There’s just something about holding the notebook in my hand. There’s something about flipping open the cover and thumbing through to find an blank page, and seeing those empty white spaces trapped between the rigid blue lines. There’s something about the way the pen fits between my fingers, something about pressing the tip against the page and watching the words form beneath it like a sculpture emerging from a block of stone.

My brain works differently when I sit down to compose my thoughts using a pen and paper, and I’d wager a guess that the same is true for anyone. Handwriting forces you to slow down, to think, to form your thoughts and your words more carefully. It can even help you remember things, which is why I also take notes by hand instead of typing them during a class or a lecture.  Give me a choice between the keyboard and the pen, and I will choose the pen every time.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love computers. Hell, I’m sitting here typing up this blog right now. But when time allows, I much prefer to handwrite everything before typing up the final draft. Call me silly and old fashioned if you want, but handwriting is one of those things that keeps me sane. I’ve been known to handwrite dozens of drafts when I’m working on an essay or a story, crossing words out, adding sentences, making notes and sometimes even doodling in the margins, and then setting each draft aside as I write up the latest.

I pity the poor soul who will be cleaning out my file cabinet when I die.

I think it is a shame that handwriting is slowly dying in favor of typing and texting and instant messaging. Things like spelling, grammar and punctuation are languishing. Creativity and imagination are being stifled. And penmanship? Trying to decipher the handwriting of anyone under the age of 20 these days is like trying to decipher a meaningful sentence in a bowl of soggy Alpha-Bits cereal.

Many people believe that it won’t be long before things like pens and paper will be completely obsolete. Perhaps they will even disappear from the face of the earth altogether, like floppy disks and public pay phones. One day here, the next day gone.

There are dozens of things that have gone the way of the dodo in my lifetime, and I can’t say that I was really sad to see any of them go. Okay, so maybe at first I was a little peeved with CD’s and DVD’s replaced cassette and video tapes. After all, I had amassed quite a collection and was suddenly faced with the burden of replacing them all after my last tape deck and VCR finally crapped out on me during college. But the impending demise of good old fashioned handwriting? Now that has me on edge.

See, I’ve never been completely comfortable in front of a computer. Sure, I like to surf the internet and catch up with my friends on Facebook, and I’ve even been known to hammer out a last minute essay or two and then sprint to class so I can turn it in on time. But even so, the computer will always play second fiddle to my notebook and pen. And I sincerely hope and pray that it will be the same for my daughter, and that she will continue the good fight against the death of the pen. After all, it is the only thing that has ever been mightier than the sword.

Tonight’s 365 Project entry is dedicated to all of the other hand writers out there. No matter what, I hope you’ll keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.