I’m Getting By With a Little Help From Eliot Daley and a Million Other Writers
I tried Grammarly’s online grammar check free of charge because I wanted to see if it was smarter than me. It wasn’t, but it made some good subjective suggestions that were surprisingly intuitive for a robot.
Here’s the flow of events:
I subscribe to the Dr. Laura podcast. Yes, I do. (But that’s not the point here, so you can voice your objection over here.) Dr. Laura was giving away free memberships to Audiobooks with a free download of The Art of Insight by Charles Kiefer and Malcolm Constable to random members and I won one. Cool! I was interested because who couldn’t use more “Aha!” moments in her life? Not me!
Months later, I finally started listening to the book on one of my morning walks. “Neat,” I thought, and put it away for a few more months.
Today, I started it up again. And what I heard came at exactly the right time, on the right day, in the right saggy mood when I was feeling uninspired:
I heard this passage from a book by Eliot Daley, an author who struggled with his identity after retirement from a long, successful career in…many different things. He wrote about an exercise at an insight-building seminar (run by Kiefer himself) in which he was to pose a question and listen for seven minutes to his co-participants discuss the possible answers.
For this round, I decided to trot out my new and improved question: what is my identity now?
… Of their seven minutes of dialogue together, I heard only one thing—ten seconds’ worth. The young financier drew his right index finger across the left side of his chest as he quietly observed, “It sounds as if Eliot hasn’t decided what he wants on his name tag.”
My God! Oh, my God! An insight flared in my head like a sunburst, fierce and hot, searing itself into my mind: I have to decide! This isn’t something that just happens to me. I have to decide!
I never thought of that before. I’ve been waiting, but nothing was happening. I was going nuts, and on the verge of getting depressed, but still nothing changed. It never, ever dawned on me that it was just as simple as deciding on my identity. This is not a matter of fate—this is a free choice: Who do I choose to be?
Well, who do I choose to be?
The answer was instantaneous, unequivocal, certain. A writer. The answer leapt up from forever in my life. A writer. That is who I am, and that is who I choose to be. That is my identity, from this instant onward and ever.
As I walked through my neighborhood listening to this passage, which continues and can be found in its entirety at Mr. Daley’s website, along with, it seems, (curiously) the rest of his book, Formerly Called Retirement, I got chills. Chills. I had had that same moment of clarity reading Writing Down the Bones. Or was it On Writing? Either way, what I know now is this: I have been feeling empowered by reading (and now hearing) the words of other writers confessing their insecurities, encouraging people to find the true writer within, and sharing their tools and tricks for getting through the writing. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in a blanket of supportive letters from kindred spirits. These are people who have found success as writers, whatever their definition of success may be. Maybe I won’t know what mine will be for a long time. I used to think I knew but now, sitting here writing this post, I’m starting to feel like this is it: the writing itself.
It wasn’t an insight, exactly, more of a reinforcement of one that I had already experienced. Daley goes on to say that everything he did from that moment on would support his role as a writer: he would create the perfect space for it, only allow things into his life that enriched it. I struggle with that intention, of course — I have these kids and this husband and this house and that family and those friends. Everything demands time.
But another thing I am learning, this time from a group of my peers that does an online writing workshop, is that for a memoirist (which I seem to be), everything is research. Jane Gassner calls it “prewriting.” Staring out the window, walking the children to school, taking a “break” from writing so that I can sweep the floor and move my limbs a little. I remember something from Danielle Bean, noted Catholic writer and mother of 32. (Maybe she doesn’t have that many kids…I just remember that it’s a lot. She wrote that she got ideas for her writing while she was folding clothes, or doing other household tasks. That happens for me, too.
It occurs to me now, as a million thoughts and a million other writers and their words pop into my brain, that over all these years as a reader, a writer, a student, a friend, I have been collecting kindred spirits both in colleagues I have met and formed friendships with in real life, and in the readers I admire from afar. I am currently reading Karma Gone Bad by my friend and blogging colleague Jenny Feldon. When I bought the book last week at Barnes & Noble I held it proudly at the register and told the clerk with a little frisson of joy that “My friend wrote this!” He politely acted impressed, but I have a feeling things like that happen all the time. After all, it’s the only bookstore around. Feldon’s memoir of her 2 years in India is spellbinding, maybe because I know her, but definitely because she can describe a time and place and the way it felt so vividly. It’s what I love, and what I do. I want to hug her with every page — it’s recognizing a kindred spirit.
Daley’s words remind me that naming the thing is powerful. I said it a few weeks ago: I am a writer. One week later I started writing a book.
To a writer who has mastered the art of vomiting out a blog post and hitting publish with great success (as I measure it, just doing it is success – check the archives to the right, this blog is now 9 years old!), the idea of writing a whole book is daunting. So is getting in shape, raising a child, cleaning my entire house, taming the family budget. It’s a big, insurmountable task. I never wanted to actually do it. I always wanted to have done it. Dorothy Parker preferred having written to writing. But Neil Gaiman says writing a book is done “brick by brick.” So does Stephen King, but I believe he uses a different building block. They are all right, and I am learning to enjoy the writing, whatever form it takes: tapping away at the keyboard until my fingers are sore and my eyes are bleary, or firing out 1,000 words and then sprinting away from my office to go move my body because I can’t stand sitting there one second longer, or lovingly scrawling out sentences with a pen in my notebook in the gloomy light of 6:16 AM with my fresh cup of coffee before the kids wake up. Sometimes I still do hate it. In fact just this morning I woke up and in my head I said “I don’t wanna.”
But I am doing it now and I will again until the thing is finished, until and whether or not it changes its shapes and becomes a different thing. I am its shepherd from my brain into reality, and I will show up and do the work to let it out. Because I am a writer, and I am writing a book.
And here’s where I confess that I started this as a sponsored post about Grammarly and what do you know, some writing from my heart actually came out. That was weird. I’m still going to let it be sponsored by Grammarly, because they gave me the germ of the idea in the first place: “ideally something about books or writing.”