I ease into the morning with coffee and some quiet time to meditate, read, or think. Today I picked up again one of my favorite sources of inspiration even after all these years. It was the first book of hers I ever read, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird – Some Instructions About Writing and Life. It fell open to page 173, the start of a chapter titled: Writing As A Present, and in it she talks about what I still think is the best possible reason to write. So I’ll send this out to you, all the writers I love who are not famous, not the most gifted or the most successful, whatever that means to you. You are gifted, with a truth that is your own, worth sharing.
In “Writing As A Present” Anne Lamott says: “Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems… will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and will probably not make you any richer…” and she provides some other reasons, such as, “the potential for rich reward where your sense of self and abundance really can be changed.” And then, “Twice now I have written books that began as presents for people I loved who were going to die.”
As I’m gathering notes for a course I’m building about “Writing As a Spiritual Practice: Journaling, Memoir, and Legacy” I’m discovering more good reasons to write, whether you want to get published or not. My own mother began and didn’t have time to finish a legacy, writing about our family. It would never have made the bestseller list, but we who loved her all treasure it. She told us things she’d never told us before when we were too young or too busy to understand. Now as I write my memoir, I’m seeing all of our lives in stunning ways I never saw back then at the time I was experiencing those events. I was too young to know. Age, or something, has given me greater insight now, and greater compassion.
As the chapter goes on, Lamott quotes Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else…” And I must add: to free yourself in doing so. She continues, “if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else.” And to this she adds: “Not everybody will be glad you did it. Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets.”
Is this arrogance? This idea of creating something that is a truthful picture of a life, your own or someone you love? Telling the truth about the changes, the joys and sorrows, how it felt, and what it meant to you? I don’t think so. No, it’s a gift you give. It’s a gift that no one else but you can give.
And then, oddly enough, I remembered that my first book of essays and poetry actually was a present, a birthday card for a writer friend, Wilfred Galila. It was a sort-of random collection of poems, stories, and essays from my “bone pile” of pieces that were cut from longer works for page-count, or orphaned bits that had never had a home, but were too good, too sweet or too true to be shredded. Together they became a little chapbook, off the cuff, just for fun, that also shared some personal feelings and thoughts about life that I thought my friend might understand. He did, and he paid me the most magnificent compliment I’ve ever received in my life, ever. He said “I didn’t have time to read it, but I decided to read just a couple of stories. I read it all the way thru, cover to cover.”
Wow. Something simple in there had meaning for someone else besides me. Originally it was about 24 pages. A year or so later I added some more odd pieces and published the book, now 56 pages, Inchworms: Poems, Sketches, and Stories. The back cover says: “A surprising little flea-market of a book…” and it was truly that. The moral of this tale: Don’t rush to throw anything away.
She says of the book for Pammy: “It was really a love letter, mostly to her and her daughter Rebecca. So she knew that there was something that was going to exist on paper after she was gone. That would be, in a sort of way, a little bit of immortality.”
Anne Lamott confessed that a story she once sent to an editor got this response: “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.” She says, “Then I took out everything that sounded self-indulgent. I wasn’t trying to hitchhike into history, I just wanted to write a book for my father that might also help someone going through a similar situation.” (italics mine) “Some people may have found this book too personal, too confidential. But what these people think about me, is none of my business. I wrote for an audience of two, whom I loved and respected, who loved and respected me.”
The next chapter, “Finding Your Voice” begins when she asks her writing students why they want to write. “Over and over, they said in effect, ‘I will not be silenced again.’ They were good children who often felt invisible, and who saw some awful stuff… They didn’t tell what they saw because when they tried, they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives, and at life. But now it is very hard to find their own voice.”
Amen to all of that. I am exactly like the writing student she describes so perfectly. But I am finding my own voice in my book, and yes, there are disappointments, and people I love and respect who don’t like it. Shall I then stop? And write something for people to like, instead? Of course not. I am here to tell the truth as I know it, my own truth. To help and to heal, and yes, to free someone else, who probably I will never meet. I’m okay with that.
Getting older has some gifts. A big one is that you don’t have to give a damn about a lot of things that you worried about, feared, regretted, or were ashamed of when you were young. You don’t have to feel the need to apologize for anything you did in innocence, or any honest mistake you made. You can tell your truth.
Whatever age you are, you can dare to tell the truth if you want to, and I think we all know the world right now is in tragic need of more of us telling the truth. Go ahead. Do it.
If you’d like to read some of Inchworms, http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-inch.html