Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Why I Write or In Which I Compare Myself Favourably With Joan Didion

Why I Write
This is a title borrowed more than once.   Perhaps I use it merely to put myself in the company of George Orwell and Joan Didion.  Or perhaps it is just a universal thing, a title for all of us.  For some of us it is akin to Why I Breathe.  I choose to paint, but I do not choose to write.  It is like eating and breathing.  One is not voluntary at all, the other is but is still required to sustain life.  Perhaps what I do is compose ideas, and painting and writing are both ways to express them, for express them I must.  If I could do neither I would be forever speaking out loud, like a crazy woman muttering to herself, which is essentially what I do when home alone anyhow.  When all forms of expressing myself are taken from me, that is when I will die.  I do not need an audience, but I must put the ideas outside of myself just as I must breathe.  So I write.

I have thought of myself as a writer since the age of eight.  I was a reader from the age of five, before I went to school, and only a few years later I learned that I could write stories.  At school it was called Creative Writing and it was my favourite subject, though it was only  marginally considered a subject.  It was not a serious subject but then reading, which was also a favourite was not even a subject at all.  I also loved report writing.  Reports written by an eight year old were rather more about looking up a subject in the encyclopedia, copying the sentences that summed up the content and putting one's name on the page.  Nobody told me about plagiarism until a few years later and I do not recall anyone ever actually teaching the skill of making notes and putting ideas into my own words.  I learned it gradually, slowly, after being told things like "don't copy" and "use your own words".  I puzzled over how to take something like "Rabbits have four legs and a short tail." and say it any other way, thus being able to claim the words as my own.   Influenced by the archaic books I was inclined to read, I fear I probably wrote things such as, "Four legs and a short tail, has the rabbit."

Eventually I took up writing poetry.  Very bad poetry, desperate to rhyme even at the cost of meaning, surreal yet childish themes of teddy bear battles and drowning dolls.  I abandoned it after witnessing the puzzled look on the face of my friend's father, whom I had proudly showed my latest work to.  I had misused the word ceased having completely misunderstood its definition from my literary experiences of it.  I was eleven.  I was crushed.  I stopped writing poetry.  I wrote some very long stories which were novels in my head, having written them out by long hand twice and achieving twenty pages.  One of them earned me an A and a bonus sticker, a butterfly, from my school teacher.  Then I discovered essays.  Essays had a mixture of fact and opinion, might be personal or might be on a topic of interest, an issue, a situation.  I fell in love with essays.  I didn't love the school assigned essays, write 1500 words on why Hamlet is a sorry mess,  for instance.  I could do them better than average and my ability to write them and my love of literature lead me to university where I pursued a degree in English Literature.

I loved this time and yet it was also a very crushing time.  At university I learned that I was not very smart, not very skilled or talented, and that other people who were much better than I wanted to be writers and weren't shy about it.  I did what I had to do to complete my degree and then I turned away from writing.  It wasn't for me.  I had better find something practical to do.  I had better teach small children to write instead, help them to understand how to write about rabbits in their own words.  Time went by.  Life does that; it keeps you busy and moves your forward until you get to that place where you finally stop and look back and wonder how it is that so much time has passed.  It's a different place for us all, but for me it was in my early forties, with big life changes that included acknowledging my inability to be employed due to chronic illness and the upheaval of my divorce.   Twenty years had gone by and in that time I had returned once to writing, for about a year and then again lost hope and confidence and faced the difficulties of finding time for it when my energy resources were so drained.  Many times in those decades I had begun and abandoned diaries, personal journals begun in a brand new floral covered coil bound notebook.  Half way through them I would decide this daily recording of my thoughts and experiences was drivel, nonsense, and dull.  What was the point?  I always destroyed the notebooks.  It would be mortifying to die and have my terrible writing found!

I got up the courage once to submit a children's story to a publisher. It was rejected of course, and probably had not even been read.  I am easily crushed.  Easily told I am of no value.  It's not something I am proud of but it is a sad fact.  At nearly forty eight years old I am finally getting stronger, better able to believe that my value is what I say it is, not what anyone else says it is.  I didn't know it could be like that.  I had always assumed that life was about proving myself, being awarded approval by others, and then hoping to maintain it.  I didn't know my own strength until I had a child and had to fight for him.  If I could do it for him, surely I could do it for myself.  In fact, I had to do it for myself if I was going to remain strong for him.  I learn slowly in this life.  I am a late bloomer, a slow developer which is odd for someone who was also born an old soul, whom everyone had commented on throughout childhood for having great maturity.  It is a strange combination, maturity that lacks self confidence.
I appear self confident.  It seems to ride on the coattails of maturity so I was always treated by others as much more confident than I was.  I imagine this was to my benefit over time, that it helped me to become what people thought I was, but it was hard.  I have lived much of my life pretending in order to survive.  I am a good actress.  I can look and behave as though I have all the confidence in the world but how different it might have been if I had not.  Perhaps I could have hidden away more, withdrawn more, looked as timid as I felt and been left alone.  But I am who I am and I did what I did and writing is how I live with the person that I am and the world in which I live.  My thoughts, my observations, questions, moments of enlightenment, moments of doubt, all are best processed if I write. 

Joan Didion writes that writing is how she knows what she is thinking.  That may be true of me also.   I suspect it is the reasons I am writing this now.  I frequently write in response.  I read something, hear something and immediately as thoughts start to form I am compelled to sit down and write them.  When I am asked to write on a particular topic, when I am trying to find thoughts on something I would not normally have pondered, I have to talk first.  I think out loud as I build my collection of ideas.  Then I am ready to write.  When I am faced with my own thoughts, ideas I have not been asked or told to come up with but the things that come unasked for, I will talk or I will write.  I do love to talk, but if there is nobody to talk to, nobody with whom it is safe to explore my ideas, to think outloud, nobody with the patience or desire to listen to me and feed my ideas with ideas of her own, then I write.  And since I am so often alone, I write.  The ideas must come out of my head in order for me to see them. 

Joan Didion and I have two other things in common, and they may well be all.  We both completed degrees in English Literature and we both missed out on any formal teaching of grammar in our schooling.  I know what I know from reading and I suspect that is what she would say too.  She compares it to knowing how to play piano by ear.  I know how English grammar should be employed but I generally cannot tell you why it is so other than that it arranges the words so that they say what you mean.  I cannot explain or point to past participles or dangling modifiers or adverbial clauses though I could work backwards and figure out what they are.  And at the very least I know when I don't know something.  I know when I need to look it up or when I am perhaps deliberately breaking a rule. When I re-read first draft work and find the run-on sentences I blush.  Joan figured out that she was a writer, accepted that she was a writer, boldly put herself forward as a writer much sooner in her life than I have.  I am well behind.  It has taken me a long time to understand that I am a writer because I write and not define a writer as someone who is paid and published.  Paid and published means accepted, validated by others, being awarded that approval and then maintaining it through fame.

How I would hate fame anyhow.  Acclaim, well yes I would like that.  But fame? Public appearances and book signings and things said or written about me in the public domain? I loathe the idea of selling myself and I am fantastically bad at it.  I do not think that I fully comprehend how writing and putting it on the internet makes it very public and very permanent.  It is probably best that I not think about that too much but inevitably I will and I will write about it.  Can a writer ever not write about why she writes?

Here I am last week, attired in cosy, loose and unbelted layers so I could go out with my dear friend Sheila for our little cafe loving writer's group of two.  I am grateful for door frames to hold me up and to Sheila for driving that day.

                                          Hippie?  Who Me?


  1. Shawna, you're up and at em already...you look sweet and cozy here. I love your writing on confidence and maturity. I agree, they can be from two completely different paths and not necessarily simultaneous. As I age I see that if I'd had confidence I needed in my early years life would be completely different. Though my confidence grows with time I also feel myself without a heap of energy to tackle goals or dreams I once had. So, I guess I just need to enjoy where I've gone and where I am now without regrets.
    Hope you have an enjoyable writer's meet up.

    1. Thanks, Joni. I see that what I wrote is misleading and shall change it. I went out last week and then ended up in bed for three days. Today I am showered and dressed and on the sofa! Yay me! I definitely agree that we must embrace who we are right now and not worry about who or what we might have been. That is sometimes easier said than done. Regrets take too much energy that neither you nor I have! xoxo

  2. I feel you with the door frames! I love the assymmetrical top that shows off the underlayer. Your scarf perfectly matches your jacket!
    I too need to write or speak my thoughts to make any sense of them. I do doublethink a lot (thinking two opposite thoughts at once) which is only exposed on speaking or writing.
    This means I ramble on to my husband, and he sits quietly attentive. Then suddenly I'll hear myself and see the way forward! He is a great listener. Of course he, annoyingly, can do all this in his head!
    Yay, getting up and showered! I'm in my dressing gown at the breakfast table, all dirty! :-(

  3. Wonderful post. I see so much of myself in it - mature for my age as a child but lacking confidence and acting through my early adulthood.
    You are great with words. I hope you get published so we all can read your words.

  4. beautiful look!!!! love that white lace peeking out!
    i have the same thing with the grammar - the german one of cause. this makes it really hard to learn another language at a school. all my english is from MTV England, traveling and reading english books and blogs.....
    i too was thinking that i could only be a artist if i have a degree, get payed for it and have "publicity". this is what one is told. BUT THIS IS WRONG! you are an artist/writer/musician just by doing it with heart and soul! there is no business in creativity! the one lucky moment we can sell some of our output is exactly that - a lucky moment.
    wonderful to see pictures of you standing - even with the help of a doorframe! xxxxxxx

  5. Shawna, your work reminds me of the later writings of M. F. K. Fisher -- and that is not a bad thing! It's quirky, polished and worth re-viewing. The same may be said of this charming outfit for an outing. The sweet lace and the Mary Janes appear as frosting on a sophisticated chocolate dish: very nice!

  6. You look FANTASTIC in this outfit! WOW! So beautiful, and so genuinely you. Layers represent you perfectly - you are a multi-layered person.

    I'm very glad that you have your little writer's group - little in numbers, but great in what it does to you, building the confidence, the writing skills, but more than anything - helping you in accepting the fact that it is Y0U who define you, it is you and only you!

    I can relate to many things you're talking about in this wonderful, wonderful essay! Not confident, doubtful, highly sensitive, old soul, late bloomer. There are also a few differences. Studying at the university, I actually discovered that I was one of the brightest ones (and I was soooooo afraid that I would not be good enough). When I write my best - it's never from my thoughts/brain. It pours from my naked soul. Maybe that's the reason that I often write when I sit naked in my bed. Dressing up is for a totally different occasion. It's another facet of me, not related to the writer in me. The real writer's closet is a naked closet. It's within myself. I'll write about it some day.

    Also, even when easily crushed, I stubbornly continue to do whatever I want to do. I find the way, another way to still do it. Through all the crushes and hurts. But I do believe that other than obstacles, that definitely form us too, we absolutely need support and unconditional love - and if it's nowhere found around, then you start looking in yourself and giving this love and support to yourself.

    You are absolutely a writer, and an artist, and a stylista - a talented, warm, beautiful woman and wonderful soul that is Shawna. xxxxxxx

    1. You are always so sweet, so kind and supportive. Sometimes I think it is quite possible to believe in similar things but express or explain them differently. I do not really have a belief in soul in a religious sense, not of something that is separate from my physical body so I rarely use the world soul. At the same time I realise most of us feel some sort of essence of self that needs a word or a label in order to be able to talk about it. I have this sense of self, of being something beyond just a brain and a body and yet I also do not believe that there is anything beyond the brain and the body and that it is our brains which give us these feelings of self. Our brains give us all of the religion or magical thinking we are creative enough to develop. I identify much more with my brain than with my body, but my body looks better in a nice skirt than my brain does. It seems to be quite possible that what I identify as my brain, you identify as your soul but of course we will never know. I am fascinated by your two opposite ends, your naked self and your dressed up self. It's like a framework for all that comes in between. My body does not like to be naked, because that feels too vulnerable. I even use bubbles in the bath because that feels less naked. But my soul or brain or being is often naked. My essence of self seems stronger to me than my body. I trust it more. I can allow it to be naked. I can only ever be myself and even if I am trying to be something that is not my preferred option, something that is perhaps less true to who I am, I am still doing it the Shawna way. I don't know how to do anything else. I think I will always look around me and believe that I am not smart enough or talented enough. What has changed is that I have learned it is okay not to be the best. I do not have to be the best, the smartest, the most talented because I will always be able to find those who are less so and those who are more so. It is the way of things. So I no longer look and compare. I just do what I want to do. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that, but then if I took a different path I may not be the same person I am now and I rather like her. xoxo

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  8. Some people never realize they're supposed to live for themselves not others, so I wouldn't day you're too much behind…I feel the same way about writing as you do,it's like breathing for me, but astma kind of breathing and often it's a struggle.


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