When I was young, around the age of twelve, I’d start my mornings by making a to-do list. I also incorporated a schedule for the tasks. Homework, studying, practicing the violin, reading, “free time,” mealtimes, bedtime: they all got a specified chunk of minutes. I crossed off the goals as I met them. The daily itinerary was ambitious, impossibly so, and it made me perpetually anxious. Not surprisingly, my middle-grade years were pretty miserable.
I kept a journal during this period, too. Instead of devoting it to my pains, anticipations, opinions, and worries; I turned it into an uninspired log in which, on a nightly basis, I wrote about what I’d accomplished earlier, as if I had decided the point of the journal was to end each day with some halfhearted, missions-accomplished fanfare. It wasn’t that I had nothing significant to share. Terrible, interesting, humiliating, and funny things happened to me, just as they happen to everybody. It was that I didn’t want to divulge them or their effect on me, not even to my diary. (I think about that old reticence now. I wonder about it.) The only good thing I can say about this ritual is that I was faithful to it. I wrote in a journal every evening before going to bed. Doing so, of course, was on the itinerary. From my local bookstore, I regularly bought those pretty cloth-covered books with lined pages and filled them with a redundant I did this then this then this. “Nothing books,” I used to call them. Only now do I perceive the irony.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I gave up both the lousy schedule-making and the tedious journal-writing when I joined the poetry writing club my freshman year of high school. What I couldn’t do in a journal, I, for some reason, felt free to explore in a poem. The form unlocked my reservations. It gave me permission to feel and share. It urged me to notice the world, to pay attention to it, like what a hard frost on a lawn looks like, how it sheathes the grass, how it sounds underfoot, what I am walking toward as I cross that crunch of green, what I am running away from, what that first hard frost means, what it means to me.
Poetry writing felt transformative, necessary. It prevented me from worrying about what I hadn’t finished and what I had yet to do. It simultaneously drew from and operated outside of the grind of the everyday. It made me present. It brought me joy.
Last week, I had a conversation with two writing friends that left me feeling unsettled. Both of these writers have found success—indeed, by any reasonable measure, great success: publications, favorable attention. And yet both of them were decidedly unhappy. Unhappy that their successes weren’t greater. Unhappy that what they’d managed to achieve was so hard-won, so exhausting. Exhausting: yes. They sounded wiped out. One even said she was thinking about giving up writing entirely.
There are, in fact, many things that can dampen writers’ zeal and sap their enthusiasm, creativity, confidence, and happiness: a work-in-progress that isn’t progressing, a dearth of inspiration, publisher or agent conflicts, rejections, lackluster reviews, and the expectation to get out there and SELL THOSE BOOKS! So many obligations go with this profession—attending festivals, visiting bookstores, self-promoting, growing a platform, hustling, hustling, hustling, with charm and charisma and hopefully youth and beauty and sex-appeal, too. Many of these engagements are fun and exciting, but there’s no getting around the fact that some aren’t. There’s also no escaping the reek of desperation and the whiff of competition that accompany so much of the rigmarole. Even when such experiences are fun and exciting, they aren’t, alas, what a writer needs to do. Which is write.
Writers wear a lot of hats—teacher, speaker, reader, salesperson, book-signer, Tweeter, panel discussion participant. They wear them for good and bad reasons. But these hats aren’t what make a writer a writer. Only writing does that.
When I was a middle schooler, I kept a journal that wasn’t a journal. I called it a journal. It looked like one. And doggedly, dependably, I filled the “journal” (and then some) with many words. But I might as well have been scribbling. Without reflecting and expressing, without putting into language all that makes life life—the fretting, ranting, hoping, mourning, and celebrating—I didn’t accomplish much. The ritual was dishonest. A farce. Fortunately, I found poetry. Genuine and mysterious poetry, thrilling and surprising poetry. Composing it was a meaningful exercise: a way in to deepen my understanding of the world around me and tap my inner world. A means to summon joy.
“A writing profession” and “a writing life” aren’t the same thing. They certainly overlap, but if the profession eclipses the passion for creating, there goes the light. A lot of what people (publishers, editors, bloggers, other writers) say a writer must do in order to be a successful writer strikes me as icky, suspect, farcical, and even antithetical to the essence of the vocation.
I hope every writer can keep some part of his or her writing life sacred and impregnable. A core that can’t be marketed, publicized, rated, or reviewed. A heart that can’t be quelled or sold. This center should be a citadel. Protect it. Poetry and magic happen there.
Beautifully said, Melissa!
That sacred part that doesn’t need attention is what our core is. 💕
Melissa Ostrom says
Thank you, Swati! I’m glad you like this post. I very much enjoy your blog posts, too!
Rebecca Moon Ruark says
I love this! A huge YES! And I think this is why I came to blogging–somewhere to put down the messy essay (yours is anything but) and share my heart without worrying about the extra stuff–how it supports or doesn’t support some inane writerly brand, etc., etc. I will keep defending that castle, as you say! Thank you for this.
Melissa Ostrom says
Thank you so much, dear Rebecca. I really enjoy your blog posts and am glad you’ve given yourself that pressure-free place to express your beautiful thoughts!
Wonderful insight in this, Melissa. I agree wholeheartedly. I began a blog in my 40’s where I found a wonderful community of like-minded writers. I submitted to my first journal on a whim and got lucky. I’ve had a number of pieces published but I really have no desire to produce a book. I see the work it entails from friends and, at this stage of my life, I don’t want that stress. In general, writing is a joy for me and I don’t want to lose that joy. When I find myself feeling anxious about submissions, I pull back. (And take a Twitter break, lol.)
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We are definitely like-minded writers!
Charlotte Hamrick says
Oops, hit post by accident. I’m @charlotteAsh from Twitter. 😊
Melissa Ostrom says
I guessed that “Char” was my Charlotte friend from Twitter! 🙂 Thank you so much for your kind words. I think you’re smart to protect the joy that writing brings you. (And I always look forward to reading your gorgeous work when you share links on Twitter!)
Melissa Sarno says
I think I know those friends! ; ) I love your “nothing books”, your decision to hide from them, and the way you opened up inside poetry freshman year. Thank you for this inspiring message: I’m working on protecting and defending my castle. xo
Melissa Ostrom says
Yes, I bet you do know them. 😉 Thank you for reading this, friend, and thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re protecting that castle. You conjure some beautiful stories there!
Marianne Villanueva says
I’ve just come off an AWFUL experience with someone who’s known me since I was five (but maybe didn’t really ‘know’ me) She accused me of being “all about ME, ME, ME,” and I had to explain that I had to struggle to put myself first all my life, and finally found the courage to say that I need my writing time. Her response: Again, you make this all about YOU. That was just a few days ago. I’ve cried so much. Your piece was so nourishing.
Melissa Ostrom says
Oh, Marianne, I’m sorry you had this unfortunate experience with your friend. How hard and sad! But I’m glad my post made you feel a little better. Thank you for reading it! xoxo