Ink in my notebooks

Why do you write?

A persistent, nagging question. But also ridiculous in some—many—ways to even ask. 

The answers are never-ending. Beyond measure. Boundless. Bottomless. All the reasons to write, and all the reasons not to.

I always hate when some famous writer is giving what amounts to a pep talk to wanna-be-writers (or I guess I should say wanna-be published writers, or wanna-be-writers who make a living from writing because they may very well all of them be writing a lot more words everyday than say Isaac Asimov on his absolute most productive day and are therefore, already, very legitimately, writers) and says, when talking about the great why of writing, say something about not having a choice. That is, some version of: "I can't not write." 

Now—how is that helpful? If you can't not write, then you really don't need to talk at all about how you get yourself to do it. You don't really need to make that part of your presentation about helping young hopefuls.

In a spell of insomnia two nights ago I read Big Magic by Liz Gilbert. My cousin laughed (in email) asking, "Why do you call her Liz? Do you know her?"

No, I don't know her. 

I've read Eat, Pray, Love of course. I know she left her first husband, which prompted the whole privileged and now immensely famous year of Find Yourself Tourism that resulted in the phenomenon that is EPL. And I know in Indonesia at some point during that year she met and fell in love with an older Brazilian man and eventually married him and wrote about her decision in a follow-up research/travel/memoir Committed. And I know that she dedicated Big Magic to Rayya, which, at the point of publication, was, to the average reader, I'm guessing, a bit of a question mark. A "Rayya whoever that is." Yet there is something so personal about the dedication, "This one's for you, Rayya." The other ones, were not, but this one, finally, through all the year of traveling, through the two marriages, through the infinite questions about whether I was fulfilling myself enough, living a big enough life, whether I, Liz Gilbert, was maximally self-actualized, finally, this one's for you.

But! Does that dedication strike me that way merely because I now know, speaking about what I know about this woman whom I don't know, this one Liz Gilbert, that last summer she left (divorced) the committed older Brazilian, found in Edenic Indonesia, for that woman Rayya? 

I don't know.

But I do like what Gilbert comes back around to again and again -- the lightness and the joy and the wonder of writing. As I read the book, at 3 in the morning, cozy by myself in the living room (not a bad scene at all when I think back on it), I kept hearing Ani Defranco looping in my head. "I do it for the joy it brings, because I am a joyful girl."

Gilbert feels like that. She rejects the martyr-writer myth. She advocates for what she calls the trickster-writer instead. "Lightly, lightly. Ever lightly" she advises. And her voice is charming and conversational and appealing, and it carried me through the insomniac hours (which, cozy at they maybe should be, and sound now, often feel quite dark) with that transformative, open, Oprah-ish, Molly-at-the-end-of-Ulysses, ecstatic, creative Yes!

And that kind of advice works, for me, at least in the short term. Reminds me about why I want to write. Reminds me about the joy of it. The luck of getting to do it. I don't agree with Gilbert about art being ornamental. About the main reason behind making always being: Why not? It's fun. It's wonderful. Why not? I think sometimes there is a bigger why, more at stake. And yet, if faced with this critique, she'd likely agree. At times, yes, there is. 

Gilbert contradicts herself left and right - write for yourself, write for the rest of us. There's nothing serious about writing. It is everything that matters. She celebrates those contradictions (without adequately crediting Fitzgerald, to my mind, and very bizarrely credits Joan Didion with a thought that rightly belongs to E.M. Forster) but there are other contradictions that don't fit into that kind of mysterious polarity. For example, Gilbert goes out of her way to point out that ideas can be in the ether and lead to "multiple discovery" but also early in the book makes much of the fact that an idea for a book she abandoned passed on to Ann Patchett (possibly through a well-timed kiss at a conference). It left her (Gilbert) and moved to Patchett. That was big. That was magic. That was amazing. But why not ideas in the ether there? Why the transfer instead of multiple discovery? Gilbert would likely wave away the objection. Keep traveling on. Not let it slow her down. And indeed, next to the joy, she is best when she is talking about being good enough. Being done instead of perfect. It's a method that has gotten her far. 

She is likely to embrace a changed point-of-view, even midway through the book. After all, she is capable of radical change, seemingly overnight. In the book she describes how she learned to deal with fear by realizing, at one point, that it was boring to be driven by fear. Poof. Like that, it was gone! Not the fear, but the hold it had on her. 

In a 2015 New York Times article, Confessions of a Seduction Addict, Gilbert writes, "There is no way to stop a destructive behavior, except to stop." And so that is what she does. She is the writer giving advice who cannot not write. She is the scared teenager, suddenly brave. She is a writer-trickster. She is a shape-shifter, on the page and in real life. We've seen that—from the barest outlines of her biography, right? Yet she has always been committed to writing. As a teenager she took a vow, one of the only ones, it seems, she's been able to keep.

There’s certainly enchantment to spare in Big Magic. Plenty of inspiration for living your truth. And Liz is, let's face it, a great writer. Yet for those who have myriad commitments—other than writing—commitments they mean to keep, the path is not as insouciantly strewn with detours and contradictions.

Two writers in particularly, smaller writers, in some ways (and by that I only mean ones I wouldn’t refer to with an un-earned nickname of a first name I use for one who has perhaps gotten too big, too famous, become too much of a solipsistic cultural phenomenon) have been posed similar questions by their husband about not why but how they are writing, almost the same question, but in reverse.

At The Skeleton Club Kelly, describes a moment where her husband questions her daily blog posts. "Why write some obligatory blog post every night before bed, when you could take your time and write something better? Or get more sleep?" Kelly has many good reasons for writing on her blog, but admits the question bothers her as she is "already questioning [her] commitment to write."

Here, at Bread on the Water, Jeannette recounts the opposite dialogue. She reads out loud to her husband from her handwritten journal. He encourages her to post it publicly: "I think about it and then the day passes and the world's crazy energy swirls me around and I think how weak my words are and I leave them, just ink in my notebooks." She posts a picture of her journal writing instead.

Both writers wrestle with the question - not why they write, but here, how, in what medium. Both express a great deal of doubt. Both are caught up in the "world's crazy energy." Perhaps Liz Gilbert might say neither is focused enough on her own personal development and her own writing. Perhaps she might go further to venture a guess as to why: perhaps neither would be willing to radically alter her life based on truth a dedicated writing practice might expose.

I am intrigued with how others navigate the terrain between private and public, between "worth" spending time on (better) and not "worth" sharing with others. Jeannette offered the following advice, in response to my question along these lines:

“Inchoate ideas, however incipient or rudimentary, even they have roots...Exploring the fundaments of your current mindset, laying bare to yourself your full heritage and seeing, even experiencing, what it is you have covered over, abandoned or neglected to account for, such understudy can inform you in your journey forward and is likely to illuminate your chronicles. Some writing is like a mirror, some like a map. I try to be careful posting unless I have clarity about what I am reflecting and why. It is a great challenge, but then writers need to interact with people, that is to say, readers, and blogging is such an opportunity to do a sound check for resonance.”

Most of my writing remains in ink in my notebooks, as it should. Yet, on the other hand, I often write a blog post (now, would be a case in point) when it is not serving any larger goal, when I could instead spend my time, like Kelly's husband suggests, writing something better. And when I do post, it's often wrestling through  a feeling that seizes me, not a clarity of purpose about what I am communicating. I arrive at the end often still scattered, open-ended, questioning. ("Yes, that's exactly the problem" I can hear readers saying in their head right now. I am not giving you—at least I rarely do—a very clear "here's what to make of all this" anywhere in the post.) 

I share the uncertainty Kelly and Jeannette feel, in any media, the questioning, the wondering, the not knowing which path to follow, the struggle between desire for privacy and desire for communion. And I'm grateful for Gilbert, reminding me to not only indulge the wondering, but to follow the wonder, too.
Wonder seems personal, but there is that word, communion, that gives me pause. That question, Gilbert tries to straddle, never answers, about writing for yourself or for others. 

Kelly is undertaking a 365 blogging challenge, I believe, committing to post something every day, as Sarah did last year on One Blue Sail. And that turns writing—the little bit of it we grasp at daily, among the "world's crazy energy"—into a communal ritual of sorts. That sanctifies it. Daily writing for ourselves, ink in our notebooks, our Morning Pages, notes jotted in our journal at night, these can be sacred too. Yet as much as we want to go inward, something insists on reaching out, reaching for the light, reading Ecclesiastes: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." 


  1. Hello Rachel,
    I have not, nor am I drawn to read, Elizabeth Gilbert, so I can only respond to your characterization of her writing.

    While you highlight your appreciation and identify with what she offers as lightness, joy and wonder you also discern that her attitude about life in general and commitment beyond her own desires seems to be casual. I hear in your pondering a sense that in such a set-up there is undoubtably a utility bill for those "lights" that may be so hidden that it is not being paid up front and is therefore likely not only costly, but accruing interest.

    You write about Kelly and me:
    "Both writers wrestle with the question - not why they write, but here, how, in what medium. Both express a great deal of doubt. Both are caught up in the "world's crazy energy." Neither are focused enough on their own personal development, neither dedicated solely to maximal self-actualization, as to stay continually focused on their own writing. Perhaps Liz Gilbert would say that is because neither would be willing to radically alter their lives based on truth a truly dedicated writing practice might expose.”

    This was an interesting analysis to sit with. My mindset doesn’t tend to employ handles like “maximal self-actualization” and I certainly don’t continually focus on my own writing, but I am trying to listen for what I might be able to hear in it. In the prioritized pursuits in my life, I can never assume I have entered in fully enough, but I do find that doing what I can and then standing fast a little bit more is attainable.

    As far as being willing to radically “alter my life based on truth a truly dedicated writing practice might expose…” unpacking the core assumptions in that phrase, highlighting the underlying beliefs and consequent values that would undergird writing as a method to define my life’s goal would be a lengthy treatise. The core value I find in that question is the willingness to alter ones life when truth is encountered; and that is, to the degree I have thus far proactively responded and willingly surrendered, very much the focal point in my life. That multi-dimensional journey is reflected in what I write, it is not the writing that is the reality, or even the journey through the reality itself. However, it is sometimes writing that reveals or coalesces what transformative abundance may have grown in previously untended fields. As others have said in various ways, I sometimes write to better know or organize what I have thus far learned, encountered and actively laid claim to.

    I think what I am coming to as I ponder this from “your point of view” as best as I can understand it, is that I released myself a number of years ago from needing anything I ever write to be any kind of seller, best or otherwise. As I watched the whole realm of print writing change and the global reach of the web and all manner of strident voices claim ground in the lands, I felt a freedom that I had not tied myself to selling writing as a goal. I gave writing back to myself as a privilege I could visit when life’s other demands allow and I feel the impetus. and of course I am also free to enter the fray as I choose.

    I appreciate the interaction our blogs allow us to have, so thank you again for your wrestling and sharing.

    with best wishes,

  2. Jeanette,
    What a generous response and first I have to say I mis-spoke or very crudely spoke when I wrote that neither you nor Kelly are focused enough on personal stay focused on writing...First of all, in your case that's especially absurd as you were clearly describing your process of writing in a journal but not always feeling that it needs to be posted. I am annoyed at myself because the point I was trying to make became so convoluted that I think it may have mischaracterized both of you. I merely meant that you both seem to have many *other* commitments in your life including, perhaps especially people, and that makes the question of writing or not, where, how, very different than in Gilbert's case. That only answers one small part of what you wrote or rather attempts to redress one part of what I wrote. I will respond more thoroughly soon. Thank you.

  3. Site looks good, Rach!

  4. I haven't read Gilbert, but from the quotes you provide, my experience of writing doesn't seem to jive with hers. What Annie Dillard has written, “You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence's head while its tail tries to knock you over.” - now that I can relate to!

    And Thomas Mann: "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." But I don't know about this Lightness and Joy experience. I write for two reasons, I think. Sometimes I want to capture an experience or reality in a way that conveys it to other people, either either out of of a primal urge to connect with them as fellow humans, or out of love that wants to communicate Truth. Those might be two sides of the same motive, I don't know.

    The second reason I write is to hone my own thinking about something, to understand it. In either case, it's a lot of work, for many reasons, I suppose, not the least of which are the distractions of my own mind.

    I write because I have Something to Say. I know that many writers want to say whatever it is to a larger audience, or they want to say more than they can put in a blog post, or they want to earn some money as well, but none of those applies to me. Often all I want to say could be put into one or two decent sentences. That sounds easy, doesn't it? Should be all lightness and joy!

    I may not have those lovely feelings while writing, but I am encouraged when sometimes the things I write resonate with people, either in their saying, "Yes, that's my experience, too! Isn't it wonderful?" or "I never thought of it that way before, and you have opened my eyes." That human connection makes me want to keep writing.

    1. Well put! You got this alligator to eat out of your hand.

    2. Beautifully said! I relate so much to all of this.

  5. I never really thought about Gilbert's contradictions before, but now that you point them out -- so true! Trickster energy for sure. I love how you capture such a variety of experiences and bring them together here. I'm honored to be in such good company, and excited to find a new blogger to follow! Thank you.

  6. First, more thoroughly to Jeannette - whose name I kept spelling wrong! My sincere apologies...First, I'm curious (I guess partly b/c of how obvious my own mixed feelings have become toward her) why it is you're not drawn to read Gilbert. If it's absence of a positive draw or if there's some kind of active disinterest. I think you've articulated the dynamic that irks me perfectly - re: the casual commitment beyond her own interests. The analogy to the utility bill is dead on! One wonders if it will catch up at any point.

    "Maximal self-actualization" I meant in a tongue and cheek we should all, I'd hope, strive for self-actualization, however we interpret it, I also think there is a point where it becomes too much of a project--I must be fulfilled at every moment--and I don't know if that is, in fact, the way to grace or whatever we are seeking on the (giant quotes here) "journey." I love your goal of "doing what I can and then standing fast a little bit more" - man, that to me is so perfect in terms of our own writing and also in terms of the resistance movement in which many are now participating (and activism many have been participating in for decades...). I also love your phrasing, "proactively responded and willingly surrendered"--& I agree, it is often true that this growth has been going on but hasn't been fully named or claimed.

    I think it is extremely generous to ponder this from my POV, especially as the way I'd originally written it (before revisions in comments above) sounded quite caustic, not at all my intention. Writing as a "privilege" is a beautiful way to understand it- and I got that from another lovely comment of yours, where you "gave me permission" (I felt) to give up the measuring stick, the shoulds, the expectations, and be more gentle and patient with the practice overall. I too appreciate the interaction and the guidance (more from you to me, I fear, than the other way around).

    You too provide excellent and patient guidance. Love the Annie Dillard quote and the Thomas Mann. I like thinking about whether or not those two motives overlap, dovetail, are flip sides, whether they are really two ways of seeing the same thing, or separate. Connect (primal urge) or communicate Truth. I suppose, yes, at bottom, those must be the same thing.

    And the writing, you're right, is a great deal of work, largely because of distractions.

    That human connection, as you write, is more than reason enough to keep writing. It is the thing I want the most, what my best friend in high school and I referred to as, taken from our psychology textbook "peak communication"—
    From your writing at "Gladsome Lights" (a name, btw, Gilbert would surely endorse as she speaks of writing with a "glad and determined heart"), the struggle, the alligator wresting, is not remotely apparent.

    Kelly, thank you. I love the ability the blogs give us to find communion, connection, communication, understanding, in an ongoing, alive way. It's immensely satisfying.

  7. Rachel, I just ran across this post that I wrote many years ago, touching on some of these issues: Not lightness, but hunger....

    1. GretchenJoanna - Thank you. I've posted my responses over at your post and I thank you for the guidance. I too feel that gnawing unease when not writing. It is helpful, though, to think about the full and purposefully busy lives we're leading, that so often keep us from the page.

  8. oops - not many years ago at all...

  9. So much to respond to here! My writing attempts of late have felt less “joy and wonder” and more, as Joyce Carol Oates says, like “pushing a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose.” I read most of Big Magic when it was first published and listened to many of the Magic Lesson podcasts as well. Gilbert is a terrific cheerleader for budding artists, the creatively stuck, and those suffering from Imposter Syndrome. But there’s something a little icky about a big name author capitalizing on The Creative Dream while ever dutifully reminding people to (tsk, tsk) “keep your day job”—because art doesn’t owe you anything and art shouldn’t bear the responsibility of paying the rent. I think Gilbert’s at her best when she talks about ways of overcoming fear. (Fear can sit in the backseat, but it can’t choose the radio station or tell her which way to go.) In one podcast episode, she nudges a working mother of small children to get up at 4:00 a.m. in order to make headway on a photography project. It’s assumed that this woman has the physical stamina if only she’s willing to reprioritize and work hard enough. There’s nothing discussed about the emotional energy the project requires, a photographic journey of her brother’s struggle with addiction. In the follow up interview, Gilbert focuses on the woman’s progress, but little is mentioned about the struggle or sacrifice involved in reorganizing her life to accommodate the art. I guess I crave a more nuanced discussion about the way art does or does not fit into a busy, ordinary life, the way it tugs and nags, the way leisure time and money, and not just hard work, affect creative output.

    I love the quote from Jeanette, especially that sentence “Some writing is like a mirror, some like a map.”

    Apparently, even Lorrie Moore struggled with balancing writing and life. From a 2001 interview with The Paris Review:
    “From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about.”

    I’ve been missing the communion and conversation that comes from blogging and keep vowing to post. I even wrote a long post, but then somehow couldn’t bring myself to publish it. I keep thinking of that Ferlinghetti quote, “Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans.”

  10. Pushing the dirty peanut! Ah yes, that is quite apt so much of the time. Your posts though Sarah were so often light and joy and that makes me wonder--as I'm sure you posited many times--about the way the 365-project gave permission for lightness. You *have* to write something, so whatever it is, it is, and yet with your talent that daily task so often soared off the page. I didn't know about the Big Magic podcasts - now I am curious. I did find the "keep your day job" line rather hard to swallow from someone who is not a parent and therefore, even with a day job, presumably *has* free time at nights and on weekends. Not the same balancing act, exactly. Yes--the emotional energy. I think that is something we are all starting to clarify - it is not merely the physical stamina/ the willpower. Like Kelly wrote about the mental clarity, and you many times, too. There is something else - and it's not just "big magic" or the muse, we're not just sorting two categories - 1) actual time 2) inspiration. There is something else - that something else is what I've been circling around, digging at, obsessing about. It's what I think we're burying with our over-consumption of media, our hyper-connection, our broad but shallow networks, our need for immediacy. "Tugs and nags" - this sounds like GretchenJoanna in the post she pointed me toward above
    Oh yes I love Lorrie Moore's reality check - not that it's impossible, to manage it all, but that it's difficult, and a struggle.
    Oh my gosh -somehow after hearing about the long post you haven't published (I wish you would) to then read the Ferlinghetti quote - I had to laugh. Yes. Seeking that connection and communion. Wondering about the shortest distance. I too have been thinking--many times a day--maybe I should return to music. There the distance is more easily bridged. Prose writing is a long path.


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