I’m not sure writing about things always makes us feel better, but perhaps it sometimes does make loss, tragedies, disappointments more actual. It can turn them into something with a clearer shape and form, and therefore make it possible to see them more deeply and clearly, and more usefully turn confusion and pain into understanding and perhaps reconciliation. On paper our greatest challenges become A Real Thing, in a world in which so much seems ephemeral and transitory.
That is a kind of afterlife all our own stories, inconsequential and important as well, can assume when we record them. To write the present is to believe in the future. So what if your story of a small, unremarkable life is read only by you, in some quiet corner, or by one or two people you love and trust to understand? If those are people who can learn from and value it, isn’t that a notable achievement, a valuable audience? Audience is, after all, one of the great barriers to writing, those outsiders who will peek in and sadly shake their heads: oh, no, not good enough. Even after all this time I still fear that judgment.
The wonderful thing about a journal, or a personal letter, is that most of the time there is no need to fear the audience. Someday that audience may grow, if the journal is passed down through generations, and the letters, too. But for now the face of the reader is a friendly face, seen either in the mirror or across an imagined table.
Sometimes people will tell me something I wrote made them feel less alone. But the fact is, I feel less alone when I write as well. The process models a kind of empathy, because even if you are simply writing your own experiences, your own feelings, it assumes an ability to connect on a human level, to meet some unspoken need of your own, and maybe of someone else’s, too. The process is not always easy, but the result is sometimes invaluable.
When you write for a living and go out into the world and talk about it, one of the most omni-present questions is “Where do you get your ideas?” I don’t know about the rest of my colleagues, but I cook something up when I have to answer that question. It’s not exactly a lie, but it’s not exactly the truth either, because for a fiction writer the question of where things come from is, in my experience, a bit mysterious. Or, as the novelist E.L. Doctorow said once when I told him I was going out on a book tour, “Oh, now you will have to pretend you know how we do what we do.”
The problem with leaving the issue as a bit of a mystery is that it smells of inspiration, or the muse, that sudden stroke that is meant to leave you gobsmacked for a moment at the desk and then pushing words around helter-skelter as quickly as possible, the light bulb of a dozen Looney Tunes cartoons having appeared above. It doesn’t happen often. There’s this observation, most often credited to W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Butt in chair. That’s the piece of direction I give to anyone and everyone who wants to write, who is thinking about writing, who is asking how it’s done, who is fearful of and intimidated by the act. It’s not poetic, and it doesn’t bespeak inspiration. What it does suggest is a way into what is not a mystery but a process, a way into the story of yourself.
Butt in chair, paper and pen at hand, or computer, or typewriter. A word, then another, then another after that. “A word after a word / after a word is power,” Margaret Atwood once wrote. It’s like building a wall, brick by brick, and at the end you have something, but it doesn’t have to be something that considers the sweeping, the notable, the historic. It doesn’t have to be an account of a birth or a death or a crisis between the two.
The ordinary stories are sometimes the most illuminating of our lives because the simply factual can lead us to the deeply philosophical. They allow us to stop time, to preserve not only who we are but who we once were.
When you write, you connect with yourself, past, present, and future. I remember myself, the little girl who once wrote poems, the college applicant who said without guile or humility that her goal in life was to be a writer. Writing can make memory concrete, and memory is such a hard thing to hold on to, like a Jell-O mold, all wiggly but with solid bits embedded clearly.
When my family was all gathered together during the endless months of COVID-19 quarantine, my daughter-in-law created an aquarium for her children, borrowing a tank from a neighbor whose boys had outgrown that kind of thing, and as the weeks went by, we all watched its contents grow. Tadpoles. Salamanders. A small fish that research told us was an eastern blacknose dace. The tadpoles turned into frogs and toads and were released. The salamanders and the fish went back into the pond. In a huge glass urn next to the aquarium we put caterpillars, and stalks of fennel to sustain them, and watched as the caterpillars wound themselves into dun-colored cocoon coats and then crawled out, their wings first damp and limp, then unfurled so they could fly away, beautiful tiger swallowtails. Sometimes it occurred to me that we were our own aquarium, our own glass jar, a small contained space set up to seem like the world, from which someday we too would be liberated.
My grandchildren were very young when this happened. Maybe writing it down will help them remember it all. “Life is all memory,” wrote Tennessee Williams, who in The Glass Menagerie wrote one of the great memory plays, “except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you hardly catch it going.” The point is that writing is a net, catching memory and pinning it to the board like people sometimes do with butterflies like the ones we hatched. Writing is a hedge against forgetting, forgetting forever.
A young woman wrote an essay in The New York Times about her father, who had gone down the deep mental well of Alzheimer’s. She found comfort in the old journals he had written, which showed his brio, his zest for life, his love for his wife and his daughter. The person he had once been was alive in those pages. What a gift he had left behind for those he loved! As I read that essay, I wept, not simply because of what she had lost — the journals just stop one day, and never resume — but for what I had never had.
There are no journals written by my father. If I could go back in time, I would ask him to keep one, but maybe, like so many busy people, he would think it was a waste of the scant hours in his day. Why? he would ask. What would I write about? I would offer you the same answer I would have given him: Nothing. Everything. He could have written a recollection of college days gone by, or an account of the morning’s fishing getting skunked out by the secret spot, a paragraph about the night he went out with my mother for the first time, or how he met his best friend, Ed. That’s all.
I wouldn’t ask for the hard stuff, the bad stuff. I wouldn’t care about revelation. I’d just like a little piece of something. That’s all I want, just a little piece.
Couldn’t you manage that, for someone you love, who would probably treasure it every bit as much as I would?
From the book Write for Your Life by Anna Quindlen, Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penquin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen is the author of nine novels, including Blessings, Rise and Shine, and Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and of the nonfiction titles Living Out Loud, Thinking Out Loud, and A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Her New York Times column “Public and Private” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. For more, visit annaquindlen.com.
This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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