Saturday, June 29, 2013

Words as therapy, words as dreams

One lovely Sunday morning in August of 1963, I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled to the little drug store near my home.  I purchased an ordinary spiral notebook there and pedaled home.  With pencil in hand, I sat down on the front porch of our house, opened the notebook, and began to write:

Sunday, August 11, 1963 (Morning entry)

I won't bore you with the teen-aged drivel-and-angst the followed.  After all, I was two months shy of fifteen so there was a lot of teen-aged drivel-and-angst to be written.

This was not, of course, my first foray into writing.  At a considerably younger age -- perhaps 9 or 10 -- I had started a number of the almost obligatory horse-and-girl fantasy stories, but by the time I reached junior high, my range of reading material had changed.  I was only in sixth grade, so not yet 12, when I began writing a pirate story in the style of Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood, with a bit of treasure from The Count of Monte Cristo thrown in for good measure.  The summer before the diary was born, I had started what would today probably be called a dark ages historical romance, set during the barbarian invasions that collapsed the Roman Empire.  Though none of that manuscript remains in existence, I remember enough details of the story to know that my historical research for that period was pretty much non-existent!  Can you spell "anachronism"?

Sometime between the summer of 1962 and the summer of 1963, however, I began work on yet another novel, a contemporary mystery romance titled A Party of Ghosts.  The plot is kind of not really there and the main character is very Mary Sue-ish.  But there are themes of murder and sexual violence and non-marital sex and there may even be an illegal abortion.  This was pretty strong stuff for a 14 year old.  I'm not sure how far along I was on this novel by August of 1963, but I had definitely made a healthy start on it.  Writing the diary was not a new adventure for me.

Interestingly, though, I kept at it.  And I kept at the other writing, too.  Eventually, perhaps in the summer of 1964, I finished A Party of Ghosts.  The first draft -- chapterless and single-spaced on an ancient Remington manual typewriter -- is about 100,000 words, and I still have most of it.  There are a few pages missing, and I'm not sure why, but most of it resides in the file cabinet next to my desk as I write this.  Like the diary, it's filled with a lot of teen-aged drivel-and-angst.

I continued to write through high school, through my first stab at college at the University of Illinois, through my wanderings to New York and France and Spain and back again, but none of my fiction reached the completed manuscript stage.  And again, I still have a lot of it, tucked neatly in file folders or three-ring-binders.  Most of it is, um, not very good.

With my marriage in June of 1969, I vowed not to write fiction any more and instead to put my energy into being a wife and eventually a mother.  That vow lasted a few months.  But I had never promised to give up the diary, and it went on.  Yes, by that time, the diary was almost six years old.  It had gone beyond that spiral notebook and now filled several.

As the years went on and I continued to write fiction, I continued to keep the diary as well.  It now, almost 50 years later, comprises 23 spiral notebooks of various sizes and has recently entered the 24th.  I spent a great deal of spare time over a  period of about eight years actually transcribing it all, often horribly embarrassed in the process.  Was I really that angst-ridden at that age?  And "that age" wasn't necessarily as a teen-ager!

Would I ever want the diary published.  Good goddess, no!  I'd be mortified.  As Susan Douglas writes in the "Introduction" to Where the Girls Are: Growing up female with the mass media:  "Reading the diary I kept as a teenager is now excruciating, so mortifying that, if someone were to find it, I think I would blind myself with hot coals or simply commit hara-kiri.  I look back at my former self . . . the words she wrote in her spiral notebooks obsessed with two topics -- boys and sex -- and I wonder:  Who are you?  How could you have been so insipid?  Are you related to me?  How did you become me?"

When I read the first page of Douglas's marvelous, witty, and yet devastatingly honest book, I knew exactly what she was talking about.  But I also felt she had missed one point:  The importance of being able to look back at that former self.  Douglas's book, however, is not about the value of keeping a diary.  And keeping a diary is not a luxury everyone has or wants to have.

But as recent events have unfolded regarding the publication of unedited, authentic personal accounts, lost in the legal ramifications is, I believe, the true empowerment value of being able to express, without reservation and without qualification, one's feelings, all the drivel-and-angst that assails all of us at any age.

I cannot remember a time when I didn't want to  write.  It was never a matter of wanting to; I simply did it.  And I can understand that there are people for whom writing isn't the joy it is for me.  But as I've read some of the personal accounts of people who have endured traumatic personal events, more and more often I've read that they found some comfort, some relief, some healing in the venting of their feelings through writing. 

This kind of personal satisfaction doesn't rely on good grammar or perfect spelling.  The writer doesn't need to know or care about the difference between affect and effect, accept and except, writing and writting and written and wrote.  None of that matters, and it shouldn't.  That's the kind of writing that is for the writer.  She and only she is going to read it, and she knows what she means and what she wants to mean.  Eyes off and hands off her words.  They don't belong to anyone else.

That's how I feel about my diary.  When someone once read a part of it, I felt absolutely and totally violated, as though he had drilled a hole in my head and not only entered my thoughts and feelings but took them away from me, claimed them for himself, deprived me of my most personal possession.  For that reason, I never ever ever violated my children's privacy.  I never listened in on their phone calls.  I never looked through their dresser drawers.  When I found  a little "diary" that my daughter had written at the age of about 13 or 14, I returned it to her unopened and unread -- and it didn't matter that she was by then in her 30s!  The privacy of thoughts was sacrosanct.

When a writer decides to share her words, whether it's with one other person or with "the public," all those things that didn't matter before suddenly do matter.  Grammar and spelling and punctuation and using the right words.  All that stuff.  Why?  Because now she wants someone else to read her thoughts, and she has to use the tools of language to make those thoughts as clear as she can.  And the more people she wants to share it with, the more important her skill with those tools become.

As angst-ridden as my diaries from those teen-age years are, they are at least competently written.  As shallow and plotless and Mary Sue-ish as A Party of Ghosts is, at least a reader would understand what I was trying to say.  The verbs are right, the pronouns have proper antecedents, words are spelled correctly, commas are used where they're needed and not used where they aren't.

But that's because I always wrote.  I took the lessons learned in "language arts" class, as it was called at South Junior High in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and I used them to hone my storytelling skills.  These were the absolutely essential tools of the writing craft.  In all the years since then, I have often wondered if they might not also be the absolutely essential tools of living.

Maybe not.  Maybe now, in the days of Twitter and texting, when speed and brevity are more important, when feelings deeper than a :-) or a :grr: have no emoticons, when "IKR" is a whole sentence, what difference does writing make?

Writing makes a difference because we can't dream in emoticons and acronyms.  We still say "I know, right?!" in a way that means so much more than "IKR."  Maybe that will change with some future technology.  Maybe someday there will be tablets that you touch an icon and a whole emotional paragraph will appear on the screen or be broadcast through the speakers.  Who knows?  But for now, words are all we have to take what's in our hearts, our souls, our dreams, and make it real enough to share with someone else.

Sorrow shared is sorrow cut in half; joy shared is joy doubled. 

Sometimes it helps to share our sorrow, our grief, our fear, our anger, even if the only one you can share it with yourself.  Write it out, put it on paper or on the computer screen, and even if you don't share it with anyone else, even if you don't send that angry email or post that vicious comment or publish that scathing blog, just getting the words out can help.  Maybe it's just a vent for pressure and steam, or maybe it puts ideas into context, or maybe it helps understand.  If it's for yourself, that's enough.

But when the time comes to share the dreams and fears and joy and pain, then it matters how you write it.  It matters if you want someone else to be able to understand and feel what you felt. 

We do that, we who write, by following conventions so everyone is on the same page (pun intended).  Some of those conventions are so obvious they don't seem to need much explanation.  We all use the same alphabet, for example.  We all know what most of the common words mean: a, the, and, book, story, large, small, running, walking, eating.  We know, as both readers and writers, that something that doesn't follow those conventions won't make a whole lot of sense.

For example:

Deer Sirr:

I seed yoo wokkin outer the pos offiss yessaday an is hoppin yoo fown mi wollet gotz sum munny init.

Can you figure that one out?  Would it have been easier to read if I had written

Dear sir:

I seen you walkin outta the post office yestiday and I is hopin' you found the money what I lost.

In creating fiction, the writer has lots of options for re-creating the differences between what we consider standard English and non-standard.  Does the exact same feeling come across?  Maybe, maybe not.  But the compromise gives the same impression -- the person who wrote the note is not well educated and probably doesn't speak any more literate than he or she writes -- while still leaving the text intelligible for the reader without forcing her to back out of the reading experience to understand it.

This is part of the "invisible manuscript" technique that's so important for every writer.  You want the reader to forget she's just looking at letters and words on a page.   You want her to enter into the experience you're describing.

Some of us are lucky enough by fortune and experience to have acquired the language skills necessary to do that, and to have acquired them before we embarked on anything resembling a writing career.  For those who didn't, however, there are options.  Not everyone, of course, plans to become a writer.  Many who never wanted to write or who even actively disliked writing when they were in school find themselves years later wanting or needing those skills. Some never had the opportunity to learn.  But no matter what the reason, failure to write in a manner that allows the reader to enter the story rather than struggle to discern the meaning pretty much guarantees that the work will not find an audience.  If you want your story read, if you want people to get your message -- whatever that message may be -- you must make sure your writing conforms to the conventions established.

Does this mean you need an editor?  Yes, it does.

The necessity for a good, competent editor is never more apparent than when a good story that's been badly written is published, and all the world gets to see how terrible the writer is.  No matter how wonderful, how powerful, how emotional the story is, if the reader can't read it, all that wonder and power and emotion are lost.

Again:  If you are writing for yourself, if you are writing to get out the pain and fear and joy and frustration and excitement, none of it matters.  When you want to share that pain and fear and joy and excitement, it matters a lot.  And only a fool thinks it doesn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment