The complicated and sticky part of writing your life into story is that you have to connect to your inner life to do it and it's so much easier to chug along the surface of things. Just about any activity beats facing your own imperfect self on the page. You suddenly develop a compulsion to work out at the gym, clean the garage, put your CDs in alphabetical order, locate all your old classmates from junior high on the internet, or my personal favorite: cook enough hearty soup to get whole armies through arctic winters. Once when I was really stuck in my writing, I dug up half the backyard to create the world's largest compost pile. Any compulsive activity seems so much easier and more useful than writing.
It takes practice to write about personal things and you need to find a way to write without any expectations attached. This is what journals are for - or notebooks, or diaries or whatever you want to call yours. This is the one place you can forget about craft. There is no craft to keeping a journal and that's the value of it. Anything goes. Whining, endless descriptions of the weather, walking down memory lane, complaining about not being able to write, writing rants to people you'd never say to their face, copying down quotes that you love, lists of things, and pouring out your dreams, frustrations, pain, joys, fears et al.
But intimacy on the page takes time, just as it does in any relationship. Novelist, Gail Godwin wrote about feeling like a virgin when she started keeping a diary, but finally, after much writing in it, she felt like they had an old marriage: "The space between us is gone."
Florida Scott-Maxwell who wrote short stories as a young woman and then in middle-age trained as an analytical psychologist under Carl Jung, began keeping a notebook at age eighty-two. It was meant to be kept private but she finally allowed it to be published under the title of The Measure of My Days. She didn't date her entries because she felt there were few external events in old age, but she used writing in it to examine her life, to continue growing, In one entry she writes:
You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.
To Do: Check out these books for inspiration to get started
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
This is my favorite of favorites. A book that truly encourages you to write, understands you, makes you laugh and cry as you read it. But you don’t just read Anne Lamott, you fall in love with her writing.
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Good books never go out of date. This one was published in 1938 and still speaks to the scared writer. Ueland’s summing up at the end – twelve things you should know/do if you want to write is timeless and I include the list in all my handouts when I teach.
On Writing, Stephen King
My copy is fluttering with Post-its. King writes about the true magic of being a writer, and also tells the famous story of how he threw his first manuscript in the trash. It was rescued by his wife and turned into Carrie.
Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See
I’d have sold more copies of my own books if I’d read this first. See is hilariously funny and then at the turn of a page you can find yourself in tears. Incredibly inspiring as well as practical.
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Published twenty years ago, Goldberg’s Zen approach to creative writing was a landmark book. It’s still fun to read and inspiring.