Saturday, February 8, 2014

on writing and other peculiar habits...

{Linking up again this weekend with the ladies over at the Velvet Ashes Grove, writing about... well, writing!}

Picture a little girl perching on a wooden stool at a low table, head bent over a small piece of paper on her placemat.  She grips a purple marker tightly in her chubby fist, poking the tip of her tongue out in concentration.  Finally, she heaves a sigh of satisfaction.  

“Look, Mommy!” she jumps up and runs to the kitchen table, waving her scrap of paper. “I filled it all up!”

Her mom takes the scrap of paper and looks at it.  From top to bottom, every inch of white is completely covered with wobbly rows of tiny little scribbles.

“See, Mommy?” the little girl says proudly.  “I’m writing!”    

One guess who the little girl is.  


My Mom still has the paper.  

My own little writer...
I remember sitting next to my Mom at the kitchen table, resting my chin on the tablecloth, watching her left hand move gracefully across the paper forming magical connected letters called “cursive”.  I would watch for a while, then I’d get a bit of paper from the basket by the phone and sit down at my little table to practice.  

I filled up reams of paper scraps with my “writing”.  I loved the feel of the marker or pencil or pen in my hand, the sliding, curvy motion as the tip curled across the paper, the look of the ink as it unwound itself in knots and loops and dips and dots.  I loved the tidy straight rows of inked shapes, one row under another, marching down the page.  It didn’t matter to me one bit they weren’t real words.  

I was writing.  

I remember sitting bored at my desk in front of my homeschool Saxon Math book (it was a good book - I just detested math), gazing across our postage stamp lawn at the huge scarlet-leafed maple tree.  Guiltily latching my bedroom door, I would slide Saxon aside and write a poem instead.  

In Jr. High, a friend and I wrote almost a whole novel together.  It was to be the first of a trilogy; we unashamedly plagiarized J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The heroine was a combination of the two of us, and the hero was modeled after a boy we both liked in youth group.  To our credit, we did create a completely original race of beings called “the Gargoilim”, but our “Nolbids” (Hobbits) and Elves were pretty much all J.R.R..  

I wasn’t good at making the plot exciting, so my friend would write the gist in outline form and pass the floppy disk to me on Sundays, and I would embellish to my heart’s content all week.  I was really good at embellishing.  Then she would take the finished pages back and draw beautiful, detailed illustrations with colored pencils.  We were completely absorbed in our project, and completely happy.  We wrote for the fun of writing and created for the joy of creating.

In the years since then, I have journaled.  And journaled.  And journaled.  Boxes of journals crammed with my handwriting are living in storage all around the world - my parents’ house in Sonoma, my mother-in-law’s shed in New Zealand, my desk drawers here in Central Asia.  Every era of my life is chronicled.  In detail.  If one of my great-grandchildren decides to write my biography, they’ll be in researcher’s heaven.    

Obviously, I can’t stop writing even if I wanted to.  In an earlier post I said if I was ever kept in solitary confinement, I’d write with my fingernails on my jail cell wall.  

It’s an addiction.

It was a couple years after college that I started asking myself, why?  Why do I feel this irresistible compulsion to move pen across paper, even if no one ever reads it?  

I remember sitting in an upstairs room in a little guest house during my first year overseas on a holiday with three girls from my English-teaching team.  We were enjoying the quaint touristy Asian town, and I was trying to process something - I can’t remember what.  (I was always processing something.)  That afternoon each of my roommates was occupied, and no one was really in the mood to listen to me think out loud, so I sat there on the bed and tried to do it by myself.  

I decided to think an entire train of thought in my mind beginning to end, without saying anything out loud or writing anything down.    

I couldn’t do it.  

I nearly drove myself crazy!  

I actually got scared.  What kind of person was I who couldn’t hold a coherent string of thoughts inside my head - was my brain a sieve?  Why was it evidently essential for me to use some external crutch - a pen, someone’s ear - to reach a mental conclusion?

Since those days, I’ve become intimately acquainted with the term “external processor”, and this perpetual urge I have to put words on paper or debrief with a friend in order to reach a conclusion has been partially explained.  (Whew!)

But aside from using words for compulsive external processing, I’ve had a life-long love affair with words themselves.  I always read them voraciously, thrilled to their savor and their power, and avidly put pen to paper to form them myself.

A peek at my ever-messy kitchen desk, where I do most of my writing -
complete with candy wrappers, old rubber band and TP...
“I write.”  That’s easy to say.  That can mean journals nobody sees.

“I’m a writer.”  Whew.  That’s a lot harder.  Somehow saying “I’m a writer” seems to ask a lot more of me and feels more intimidating than saying “I write”.

I’m still in the process of realizing and embracing the fact that the second statement is actually the same as the first.  If I write, I'm a writer.

I haven’t published one single article, anywhere, even online.  I haven’t even guest-posted for anyone.  Ever.  

So how can I call myself “a writer”, you ask?  

Because I write.  Every day.  Because I can’t not write.  It’s just something I have to do.  

"I’m a writer."  It’s starting to feel really good to say that out loud.

So… here comes the crunch, the part of this post where I get really honest:

Recently I’ve been feeling differently about this writing thing of mine… I want to Make Something with all this writing.  

I started my blog when my first son was born, mostly for my Mom (and other dedicated, wonderfully loyal friends) to read stories and see pictures of our kids and our overseas life.  But gradually, over my six-year blog life thus far, I’ve started to think almost as much about writing books as I do about reading them.

I do not have a big announcement to make (as in, watch out, world - here comes the next NY TImes best-selling author!).

But I do have Heather Seller’s inspiring book Chapter after Chapter: Discover the dedication and focus you need to write the book of your dreams living on my nightstand.  

I do not know what the future holds.

But I do dream of {gulp!} writing a book of my own someday… (I’m saying it out loud.  On the internet.  There’s no going back.)

I want to Make Something with all this writing, something more concise, profound and useful than stacks of journals hidden away in boxes.  

But since I’m not to the book-writing stage - yet - for right now, the Something I’m Making with words today is... (drumroll please) 

...this post.  For you. :)

And here’s what I want you to hear today:

Whatever “weird” (in the most flattering sense, of course) or insatiable habits you may have, pay attention to them.  Why do you feel the need to do them?  What is in you that isn’t in anyone else?

What is it that only you can do?  

Kenneth Atchity in his book Write Time (recommended by the ever-wise Heather Sellers) advises, 

“Stop doing things no one needs to do.  

Stop doing things someone else will do if you stop doing them.  

Stop doing things that aren’t the kind only you can do.  

Start doing the things you want to do, the things only YOU can do.”

Get the picture? 

Maybe the reason I can’t stop writing is because I need to keep writing.  Maybe there’s something God’s put in me to say, and all this writing is practice for letting it out one day.  

Maybe the thing we can’t stop doing is what we’re made to do, and we could stop putting it under lock and key and saying we don’t have time, and just let it out to breathe a little.  

Emily P. Freeman, in her lovely and inspiring book A Million Little Ways: Uncovering the Art You Were Made To Live, says, “Being an artist has something to do with being brave enough to move toward what makes you come alive.”

She goes on to say, “God is on the move.  But he is not invisible.  As long as there are people on earth, the world will have glimpses of God.  He chooses us to move through.  He chooses your personality, your spunk, your passion, your strengths, and your weaknesses to work in and through and with.  Christ still moves around in the world through the filter of your you-ness.”

My me-ness definitely includes writing.  Writing helps me process life.  I think better when I write.  I love better, calm down, and see clearer when I write.  

I can’t not write.

What is it you can’t stop doing?  

Maybe that’s the thing you were meant to do - the art you were made to live.

Be brave.  Write.  Create.  Be you.  


  1. Carolyn, I remember not being fond of my Saxon math book either. :) I found myself relating to so much of what you had to say in this post. Thank you for being brave and writing about writing. Laura

    1. I love your writing, Laura. I spent some time on your blog the other day, and found myself liking you more and more... thanks for visiting, and reading, and for your encouragement!

  2. Carolyn, having just written group emails every night (or early morning) this past week to process, record, and inform people of our sprint (at least that's how it feels in hindsight) with Dad from the ER, the ICU, to a regular hospital room, to hospice, and then after his death. I'm with you, I can't not write :). I told people I was sorry for all of the emails, but I realized it helped them be a part of our journey too. xoxox to you!

    1. Oh, Amy... I'm so glad writing those emails helped you process this whole ordeal... I'm sure people are so thankful to be included in your process - sometimes it's so hard to know how someone's feeling, and how to be there for them. So thankful for your openness and honesty with all of us at Velvet Ashes! We love you, that's for sure :)

  3. Hi I'm coming over from Velvet Ashes and just getting to know everyone. I'm a mom of 3 and living in SE Asia. I am so excited to read this, Carolyn. I am coming to these same conclusions about my stacks of journals and my poetry. I have a fear of the editing and revising process that is involved, partly because it seems like a painstaking task and second because there is a part of me that doesn't want to fix or change it with a critical eye. But I'm working through these issues and moving forward for the same reasons you mentioned in your article. I can't not write! And it's the way I process life too. I'm looking for ways to write in community. So glad to meet you and hear your story.

    1. Welcome, Amy! A fellow mom of three... and a writer! So glad to meet you too. :) And hand over anything you want edited, because I love editing! It's the re-writing (and re-writing, and re-writing) of my own work, honing in on what I'm really trying to say, that's challenging for me... I love the quote at the end of one of the writing posts from VA last week: "I try to leave out the parts people skip." That's becoming my goal too - it's harder than it sounds! :) Keep writing!

  4. Carolyn, I knew I felt a kindred spirit in you. This post confirms it. :) Love it. All of it. Here's to you, The Writer!

    1. I felt the same way! So glad we can know each other this way... and here's to writing together for some time to come!

  5. I can't not write... So true. Thank you for a challenging, thought provoking piece of writing, especially for someone who like you, is learning slowly, more slowly than you, that I can't not write. I think part of it is learning, what I can't now write... I am just now beginning to become strongly aware of that, and finding confirmation in an unexpected way in my new study (which requires lots of writing). Thank you for sharing your heart.

    1. You're welcome! Learning is so huge... for all of us - I'm just now starting to realize the layers of learning needed for me to become the writer I want to be... and trying to take deep breaths and submit myself to the process, knowing the only way out is through! So glad you're finding confirmation of your writing urge... keep going!