Can the physical activity of writing eventually push a writer out the other side of inertia to discover personal meaning?
I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.
– Sarah Manguso
My mother wrote in hieroglyphics. Every morning she would greet the first faint light with her notebook, her pen and her Bible. She believed this sacred writing time was the source of her strength. Pages and pages covered in indecipherable shorthand, learned at secretarial school and then refined into a personal code.
My mother’s morning pages were such a part of her that the only time I can remember her not writing them was when she was dying.
Last year became the year of the blank page. It was meant to be the year of the long-awaited novel; however, instead of writing, I accompanied my father to the edge of his death and somewhere along this journey my ability to write, or even think creatively, shrivelled.
Understandable, you might say.
But it’s not. I’ve written through trauma before. My husband’s death, the birth of our son only months after, the sudden death of my mother eighteen months later, then years of two small children and single motherhood – through all that I wrote and published. A history book, essays, an award- winning memoir – since then a novel I’ve been chipping away at, another memoir about new love and a move to Tasmania to live on a sheep station, an essay here and there, words and ideas ticking over in my head.
But I’m now forced to look back on 2015 and account for an absence of words. To use a tired metaphor (but an apt one because, to add to everything, we are in the middle of a terrible drought), I had gone to the well and the well was dry.
When the American writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams’ mother died at the age of fifty-four, she left her daughter her journals.
They were beautiful books; cloth-bound, some in solid colours, others floral or paisley, filling three shelves. Their permanence and mystery were a constant in Tempest Williams’ childhood. But when she opened them, hoping to discover her mother, she discovered they were blank. A journal for every year, and for every year not a word.
A journal for every year, and for every year not a word.
Tempest Williams, who is now the age her mother was when she died, has recently published a memoir, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice (2013), in which she seeks to understand her mother’s bequest and asks, what does it mean to have a voice?
I first came across Tempest Williams when I was a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. Her writing was a modern echo of the nineteenth-century women’s diaries and journals I was there to research, and quite unlike anything I had read before. Hers was radical voice, creative and brave. I liked it very much for it gave me a framework to think about how writing located women in place, and pushed back against displacement and homesickness.
Sixteen years later, in one of those moments of serendipity where my reading matches my life, I visited Salt Lake City in Utah, where Tempest Williams grew up.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Salt Lake City, but in a moment of desperation, as a possible antidote to the terrible anxiety brought on by my father’s hideous journey toward death, as well as the tightening drought, my partner and I had seized on the chance of a breakaway from the farm.
We left Tasmania and its freezing dry winter, left the lingering tensions over my father’s last wishes and flew into the bright warmth of San Francisco. There we hired a car and drove east over mountains and into a different landscape.
While we drove, I wasn’t thinking about Tempest Williams (I hadn’t done so in years), but I had been scrawling, in messy longhand, a daily account of our travels. It was a most basic attempt to push back against the frantic anonymity of a massive road trip and make some sort of sense of the preceding months.
We wandered through the city; its late summer warmth like a welcoming kiss on our pale winter skin.
We wandered through the city; its late summer warmth like a welcoming kiss on our pale winter skin. We passed a bookshop, the first since San Francisco, and so we turned in.
Amongst the rows of religious texts I came across a copy of Julia Cameron’s creative self-help book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (2002).
All I knew about this book was that it encouraged you to write everyday and, at a moment when I was struggling to do just that, it appeared like a sign among the explanations of tabernacles and such like. I handed over the money, walked out of the shop and into the balmy Mormon night.
Later that same trip, after high plains, and higher mountains, after weeks of driving and long stretches of sparsely settled lands, after tiny towns and empty motels, we found our way to the Californian coast, to busy towns with bookshops. And there, among the throngs of American tourists who licked dripping ice creams and talked in loud voices, on a spinning stand was Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds.
I picked up the book and read the first pages. This was a book about voice, written around a set of blank journals. I bought the book immediately. The two books sat in my suitcase and then shared the bedside table – Cameron’s passionate exhortation to write every day and Tempest Williams’ sensitive, intelligent investigation into one woman’s refusal to do such a thing.
I need to pause here and tell you Tempest Williams’ mother was a devout Mormon and in Mormon culture, women were expected to do two things: write a journal and raise children. More than this, Tempest Williams’ mother was diagnosed with aggressive cancer at the age of thirty- eight. She had four children under the age of fifteen. She felt acutely, I suspect, a lack of time.
In When Women Were Birds, Tempest Williams writes: ‘My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank… The blow of her journals became a second death.’ Then she takes us on a journey of discovery, of imagination, of empathy, and shows exactly how loud a silence can be.
Sitting with the blank notebooks, Tempest Williams reflects, ‘My Mother’s Journals are paper tombstones’, before diving deeper into this thought:
It is the province of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems. Placed in a circle of immunity, we carry only the crisis of those we love. We mask our needs as the needs of others.
I scrawled these words in my diary. On the facing page I’d tried to make sense of the tangle of emotions I was feeling at being on the other side of the world to my children.
My eldest, in her last year of school, had seemed to collapse at my absence and was sick with the flu and paralysing anxiety. Worry for her blinkered me from the freedom of the road, the release I’d hoped to find in travel, and when I read, ‘We mask our needs as the needs of others’, I recognised myself.
Perhaps part of my inability to write was this subsuming of self, leading to a loss of voice. At its heart, When Women Were Birds is a meditation on motherhood and how such a state changes women’s voices.
Before I left on the road trip I read a tiny memoir Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015) by the American writer Sarah Manguso. It is a meditation on time and memory. Manguso discovered after writing 800,000 words that most were unusable drivel, no matter how strong the compulsion was to write them.
The origins of her book are born out of the exact opposite impulse of the blank journals and yet they share a preoccupation with the interaction between time and memory.
Tempest Williams’ mother also struggled with time: she had too little of it, so she wrote nothing in her journals. One of Manguso’s favourite exercises to set her students is to sit and write about the passing of time. For Manguso, the solution was to write everything, and so I found her essay, despite its different approach, had parallels with Tempest Williams’ book about her mother’s blank journals.
I’d never heard of Manguso before I read a review comparing Ongoingness to Heidi Julavits’ latest book, The Folded Clock: A Diary, which is a reconstructed, carefully shifted, mined, trimmed and elaborated record of Julavits’ life. I loved The Folded Clock, because it was also a story about a forty-something woman juggling writing and motherhood in the exotic and rarefied air of New York, interspersed with summers in Maine and a sabbatical in Berlin. What isn’t to love?
Yet Manguso’s extended essay still remained more difficult to digest. It wasn’t an object of beauty like Julavits’ book, with its tactile cover and cut paper, and the thinking within it was challenging.
Reading Julavits was like going to stay with a terribly clever, rich friend whose brilliance and sparkle, by association, made you more glamorous, whereas reading Manguso was like hanging out with a prickly friend who is easily insulted, who feels too much, someone capable of great insight but who must be listened to, understood, cajoled into a conversation.
But the rewards of such conversations are deep and long- lasting.
Mansguso writes that she ‘started keeping a diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full’. She takes the compulsion to write and asks, is it about control, is it about time, is it about the need to record, to bear witness to a life? I think, of course, it is all those things.
I place Manguso’s desperate need to record alongside Tempest Williams’ memoir of her mother’s blank journals. The books that come from the blank pages and excess words are both things of distilled beauty and wisdom. Both ruminations raise questions about voice, about time and about erasure. Both question the way motherhood changes the way and the why these women wrote. In that year of the blank page, I read both as if they’d offer salvation.
Cameron’s The Artist’s Way reminds me, forcibly, of my mother’s daily writing habit. Cameron’s advice is rigid: three pages, longhand, every morning, shown to no one, this is the way into creativity. I find it hard, which is surprising because I used to do this every day without effort or fail. I used to be my mother’s daughter.
I’m not sure when or why I stopped. Trauma perhaps. Small children. A combination. Forced to think of it, I realise I stopped after my mother died, when the world no longer made sense on the page. Manguso notes a shift in her diary writing after she had a child:
Then I became a mother. I began to inhabit time differently. It had something to do with mortality.
Whichever it is, I had lost the habit of the private daily scribbling. I still kept a notebook, but this was filled with things I’d been reading, or shopping lists, not a daily account.
The blank page was mocking me, the keyboard of my computer no longer comforting under my fingertips.
In all the private women’s diaries, journals, unpublished memoirs I’ve read (and thanks to years researching for a PhD I’ve read a lot) there’s power. It’s the power of self-discovery, of stealing a small amount of control over the day, in the corner out of sight, of shaping fears into words, wonders into scenes, memories into history. It is scribble against complete erasure.
Tempest Williams knows this and perhaps it’s this that bewilders her so completely about her mother’s blank journal. Her mother’s quiet subversion was in her refusal to write.
I’m curious about my hesitation; my difficulty in writing three pages that no one will see. I know I’ll destroy that notebook when I get to the end of it. But I do care, for I realise I write for me, I write to make sense of things, and when my ability to write feels inadequate to the making sense, then I suffer a crisis of confidence.
Then it is easier to write nothing.
This brings me to Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015).
It is not a how-to guide; it doesn’t have the rigid instructions or the exercises in delving into yourself that The Artist’s Way does, but it does have an authenticity (a characteristic Gilbert is keen on) of experience that despite the short preppy headlines makes me take notice. Gilbert is a genuine creative and she genuinely wants others to be set free in their creativity rather than be bound by a fear of failure.
At first, I’m suspicious of the way her message is packaged, but when I read the book I realise there’s not much I don’t agree with. She says, write not for glory or even for publication but because you want to, and that may be hard but don’t shirk the hardness – and, most certainly, don’t give up your day job.
Common sense. But it does little to help me as I had been feeling crushed by my inability to convert my good ideas, my time, my persistence, into anything publishable. Even worse, according to Gilbert: if I don’t get a move on those ideas are going to move onto someone else.
It’s an arrogant act to claim time to write a diary – fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour – to record your daily mundaneness.
It’s an arrogant act to claim time to write a diary – fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, an hour – to record your daily mundaneness. It feels ridiculous. But something in my mother’s devotion to this sort of writing points me back to Cameron’s morning pages. In this age it’s a rebellious act. It doesn’t pay. It doesn’t improve you.
If you’re true to the sacredness of it, it never sees the light of day. It’s wholly selfish. All it does is take a mark. All it does is demand an honesty of you, an account. It’s a pushing back against the depression of procrastination. For despite the uselessness of the words, there’s a satisfaction in reaching the end of a once blank page.
Towards the end of 2015, a year I was truly delighted to see the sun set on, I began writing almost daily in my diary. I burned this diary, for I have neither my mother’s skill as a hieroglyph nor Terry Tempest Williams’ mother’s fortitude to not write at all.
Don’t be mistaken. I think these morning words are anxious drivel, mostly about fear. Nonetheless, almost imperceptibly, they have given rise to new words, and perhaps when I look back on my forty-year-old self I will see they hold an importance I can’t credit them with now.
So, in an effort to taste some of Elizabeth Gilbert’s magic and create another work of substance, I’ll keep writing these daily words well into 2016 and beyond.