In Which I Soliloquize about Writing

August 1, 2011

Yesterday Dad, Kate and I went to Barnes and Noble in Lincoln searching for a book he would like the two of us to read, we left disappointed at the meager variety of books in the writing and illustrating section and without luck on the book we were in search of but I still came home with two treasures on the topic of writing and Kate bought one as well. Strunk and White is the first I picked out. I read Dad’s copy of the same title many years ago but have planned on buying my own someday; it’s kind of a staple for those who want to write well. The other book is called Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. I finally know what the style of writing I do is called: “Personal Essay” and it’s creative nonfiction. I had no idea there was even such a category.

A quote I came across in Crafting the Personal Essay is:

“The style of the essayist is that of an extremely intelligent, highly commonsensical person talking, without stammer and with impressive coherence, to him—or herself and to anyone else who cares to eavesdrop”. – Joseph Epstein.

Growing up I regarded memoirs and auto-biographies as a selfish way to write unless the author had a hugely impressive story to tell where people could really learn from the lessons. I was sure I’d never write my stories but in the recent years I have come to understand that everyone who writes from their own experiences has lessons to teach if they’ve taken the time and gained the wisdom to learn them and that even the smallest insights can help others learn and grow if they’re told in a way that the readers are able to connect with.

The world is a bustling market of ideas, readers glean from authors; readers become authors and teach other readers. The same is true with singers, songwriters, and any other profession you have, however public it may be. The key to doing this successfully is to use words in a way that others will understand, be inspired by, and be allowed to learn new insights from when reflecting on their own experiences. One of the most important things in this process is to remain humble, for writing well is personal but it doesn’t have to be self-centered.

Another quote from my new book is:

“One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” –James Baldwin

I disagree that people only write out of their own experiences but I do think that’s the only writing that turns out successfully. Many times people attempt at writing but fail because they are writing out of bounds—that is: beyond what they know and understand and because what they write is from outside of themselves, it isn’t convincing. It’s just like Gilbert told Anne in Anne of Green Gables after her first story was rejected by publishers, he tells her to write about what she knows and to let her characters “speak everyday English, instead of all that highfaluting mumbo jumbo.”

Writing well takes courage—it takes courage to look deep within myself and at my past. Sometimes it’s extremely hard but always worthwhile, for when I’ve learned from my past I’m able to “Give what [I] have. To someone, it may be better than [I] dare to think” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Writing is a teacher within itself for writing well is writing past the surface of stories to dig deeper, into the pain and sorrows and there, lying hidden beneath the heavy lid is the treasure of stories waiting to be told. To avoid the difficult things in life is sometimes to avoid the best for isn’t it through difficulties we become strong and learn the greatest truths of love, life, beauty and hope?

I have been startled by the impact I’ve already had on a few people by what I’ve written or the words I’ve said. In Peru, one young woman gently cried when she heard my testimony. To me it’s an unimpressive story that I tell with little interest but even in my dull way of expressing myself verbally her heart was touched. When I wrote about waiting to date, my disappointment and discouragement that so many young men don’t care about remaining pure, and my hope of someone who treasures what I have, one young man wrote this to me:

“Laurel, reading your note almost brought me to tears. I know I’m not that emotional but what you have to say is very true and very empowering. I know my life needs to change a lot, I’ve been pretty foolish. Please hold me accountable, I need to act more mature! . . . it made me think just how dumb I was in the past and how twisted my thinking is. I decided that I need to change some things and be a more Godly man. Thank you again for the inspiring notes.”

And in response to something I hoped would be an encouraging note to one of my friends before he went off to college he wrote back a year later:

“I was going through all my old papers and stuff from high school . . . and I found the letter you wrote to me at graduation. I read it and I just wanted to say, thank you. Though you may not have thought of it making much [impact on me] back at graduation, I think this has just given me the courage to keep going to [school] (if possible). For that Laurel, I thank God and yourself.”

So I have learned that it really is worth the time to say what I think, and feel once I have grasped the lessons that may be learned through my experiences. Others are then able to grow with me.

The most difficult part of writing for me is expressing what something is like. I am lousy at telling a gripping story and I can’t imagine myself a novelist. To show something well enough that the reader can practically taste it, touch it, and smell it without just saying “The savory aroma filled the room…”  takes a great amount of creativity. Another very difficult thing is to remember details when I’m writing about my past. Sometimes I don’t want to remember but much of the time it’s nearly impossible to remember the details vividly enough to describe well.

I have found the last couple years that the best way to improve my writing is simply… to write. That is part of the reason why I’ve journaled so much. Yes, I do want to record events and my thoughts but I also want to become a writer and people say, “Practice makes perfect”. I know that’s not absolutely true all on its own because if I don’t care to write well, I won’t write well and if I don’t study while I’m writing, I most likely won’t improve since I won’t always know what’s good and what’s not so good in my writing but if I’m actually pushing myself to do well and I practice, I will steadily improve.

“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why do I write? Because I love it and what else is there to do in the middle of the night?! Seriously though, sometimes stories whisper to be told and when you start listening, their voices get louder, louder and louder until you just have to start writing or you feel like you’ll go crazy. I think it’s at that point whether you’ve been published or not, that you can honestly be called a writer.

Writing is my creative expression, my chance to let inspirations take me away into something great that’s all my own, and an effective way for me to communicate. When I’m away from my computer where I’m able to write, my mind is spinning constantly with endless ways of critiquing my most recent essays or what to write for new ones.

More importantly though, is the question: What do I want to communicate? I want to convey the truth and for those who seek the truth, to them I hope to encourage and strengthen their faith. I love what Yann Martel said about writing:   

“I think art is unmatched in bearing witness because art provides its own context. A novel, a musical composition, a painting stands on its own, without need of external explanation. So art endures long after history is forgotten. Take as an example George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Common knowledge of twentieth-century Russian history may fade, but Orwell’s fable, using the language of allegory, will stand as a concise explanation of what happened to the Russians under Stalin. Art has an amazing ability to get to the heart of things. Art is the ultimate suitcase, conveying the essential.”

I’m finding out one thing for sure: Writing is a lot of exhausting work, because doing it well means not only learning about the use of language, reaching your readers, the power of words, and being honest with yourself but it’s also learning to live in truth, because truth is crucial for literary masterpieces. Finally, I’ve learned that it’s worth it; not for the money, the pain or frustration but for the growth. Growth is life.


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