A Writing a Day
Susan, a friend and damn good writer, agreed to attend Natalie Goldberg’s writing workshop in 2015. Susan traveled from Portland and I flew from Phoenix to Albuquerque, where we joined eight other women in a van headed to the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. That van ride with intelligent, interesting women was a precursor to what we’d experience during the upcoming writer’s retreat. Ultimately, there were more than 50 of us, mostly women, enjoying vegetarian meals, meditating, writing, being silent during daylight hours and sharing our work for four days.
Like most people who dream of being “writers,” I’ve been a huge Natalie Goldberg fan since reading Writing Down the Bones when it was published in 1986. Then she followed up with Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life in 1990. I formed a writer’s group with friend’s Kate and Richard, who both happened to be from upstate New York but somehow chose Atlanta as their home in the late 80s. We’d meet weekly at each other’s houses, on a rotating basis, and perform 10- and 20-minute writing practices about any old topic. We stuck to Natalie’s writing practice rules: Keep writing, don’t stop, don’t lift your pen off the paper, don’t edit, and be specific – Cadillac, not car.
Kate and Richard are both excellent writers, but we all suffered from the typical writer’s milieu; we had no central area of interest on which to focus our writing. We’d write and write between timer bells on topics that didn’t really matter, on short stories that would never go anywhere. It was a lot of fun, though, and hopefully we honed our writer’s craft even if we weren’t churning out bestsellers.
Writing has always been central to my life, even when I wasn’t doing it as a living. Please know, I’m writing for a living now as the Sr. Communications Specialist for an insurance company. I’m not making a living by being a published author or journalist or columnist, but writing about insurance is also not as boring as it might sound. I started a company magazine for our customers and enjoy researching and writing articles on many interesting topics, particularly people. So that’s this writer’s lemonade!
When I say writing has always been central to my life, it’s because I’ve written for my own pleasure these many years, even when doing a good bit of writing in my marketing jobs. Writing is a compulsion. I wrote my first “chapter book” when I was 9. Putting down words is as necessary for me to live as air. When I don’t write, I become moody. Tense. Back then, I simply didn’t know what to write about, so I fooled around with essays and short stories.
I found out writing fiction isn’t my thang, though I grew up reading fiction by famous Southern women writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers… and wanted to be just like them. McCullers The Member of the Wedding blew my young mind; O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find shocked my teenage sensibilities and yet resonated with macabre inner stirrings that felt like a birthright; and Welty’s One Writer’s Beginning was published in 1984, the time I was seeking a writer-guru… a path to self-expression.
When I went to Kenya in 2005 as a marketing advisor to the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, I found plenty to write about. Plenty of life or death topics. Topics that mattered. And after a year of posting to a blog in Kenya, I came home and compiled a portion of those blogs into Poverty & Promise: One Volunteer’s Experience of Kenya, a book that won several awards and was published by an independent press.
Since then, I’ve searched for topics that mattered as much as the lives of Kenyans (without having to move to another country). It’s not easy.
Back at the writer’s retreat, when all of the women writers (and the four or five men who attended) were gathered in the Zendo for one of Natalie’s talks, a participant shared with the group that she and one of the guys in attendance wrote emails to each other every day. They had done if for years. Committing to write to each other made it more likely they would send something, anything, as a way to stay on track, stay in the habit, and get the writing practice they needed. Receiving guidance from another writer was a plus!!
This struck me as an excellent idea and when I proposed it to Susan, she agreed. Of course, it was more than a year after the retreat that I asked Susan about being daily pen pals. After the retreat, we had agreed to share our writing pieces with each other for feedback, but we didn’t set deadlines. It wasn’t until March of 2017 when we began writing our daily practice emails.
Today, I set out to capture the content from all my practice-writing emails to Susan, and put them into one document. I dreaded it, even procrastinated for several weeks. As I went through the Sent folder and copied and pasted each email, I was surprised by some topics and astounded by others, both mine and Susan’s. Several were really good. And extremely interesting. And heartbreaking and funny. As I meticulously pulled my content and re-read hers, I didn’t want it to end!
We agreed no pressure about writing every single day; no reprimands, no guilt. We didn’t email every day, although we tried. We were compassionate about life happening, and days when we were exhausted, or if we were traveling. But I didn’t want to lose momentum, so I made myself write on some days even when I was brain-dead.
If I didn’t feel like writing on my computer in my studio (because it’s also where I work from home for my job and I sometimes get sick of being in front of a computer), I’d write to Susan from my iPhone while propped up in bed, very late at night, but not past midnight or I would have missed writing that day. Susan and I were both shocked at how much coherent writing can be accomplished on such a tiny keyboard.
Although we’ve only been doing daily writing-practice emails for seven months, when placed into the word doc, my writings filled 157 pages in Arial, 11 font size, single-spaced lines with a space between paragraphs. It was nearly 100,000 words (99,944 to be precise, including this blog post).
Just like with the Kenyan blog, words add up. And before you know it, you have a book. And a detailed record of your life and thoughts that would otherwise disappear into the ether.
Susan says, “Our partnership has inspired me to start looking at my writing as a thing of value, not simply an indulgence.” Just another bonus of this practice!
I’m so grateful to Susan for being my writing practice partner and my muse. She’s my ideal reader (something Natalie instructed us to find). She’s uncommonly wise and a knock-out voice the world needs to hear from. I’m the luckiest person on the planet to get to read Susan’s eloquent, life-affirming and charming writings (nearly) every single day!
Such an honor.