I keep a journal near at all times. It’s nothing fancy, just a common composition book sold by most discount department stores.
To be sure, beautiful journals are a treasure though I find them a bit intimidating. I pick one up and feel I’ve nothing worth recording on its gilt-edged pages; but give me a humble notebook to mumble through, and I can write about anything and everything without a care of what it looks like or how it sounds. At best, it’s a rough diamond that may someday be taken out and polished for a wider audience. At worse, it’s just a bit of writing practice.
Whether its people or journals, it’s what inside that counts; isn’t that how the old expression goes?
My journal is my camera for the world, my way to capture and collect memories, pieces of life that I don’t want to forget. I tote it around to record life and as I do, it gives me life; where once I had little to say beyond my small introvert world, my filled pages grant me voice, a way to interact with my larger world.
In a similar way, my gal-pal Colleen always has her camera handy. To observe Colleen record life with her camera is art itself. Instinctively, almost effortlessly, Colleen positions her camera in front of her eye and as natural as breathing, she captures a series of photos. Years of practice have refined Colleen’s eye; even after countless photos, my friend cannot resist a beautiful sunset. Colleen’s careful discerning eye sees each one as unique. And why resist the call to create and share beauty? Colleen doesn’t. Every time she publishes her work at Blue Turtle Crossing, she pays homage to God and humbly invites us into her light-washed world.
Of course, no matter how practiced we become with our tools of creation, we can never quite capture the memory we are trying to preserve. The act of preservation shrinks the memory into manageable portions. It may be a gorgeous photo or a lovely line of words, but it’s just a small bite of the life we’ve experienced. Yet, somehow it doesn’t matter. We are drawn to express the inexpressible,whether our expression is in words that cast images or in images that speak words. We know no other way.
I had the opportunity to hear Marilynne Robinson — the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead — lecture on the practice of writing. In my journal, under the date October 5, 2007, are these five rules for a writing life that I scribbled down as Ms. Robinson was speaking:1. Write the book you want to read. 2. Trust and respect the reader. 3. Descend into self to write — discover your primary self – the beautiful, the true; it’s preparation for writing words worth saying. 4. We know what we are by what we do. 5. Fiction is true.
I don’t know whether I will ever write a novel. I don’t feel a novel ‘in me’ at the moment. But I do my best to observe Rule #2; and Rule #3 is a work in process, what my life has been about for the last 15 months. Robinson’s last two rules require no commentary.
Ultimately, while writing begins from within, the outside counts too, of course. Take care of the tree — make it good –and good fruit will naturally follow. Or to quote the Master Teacher himself, “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” One way I try to care for my self is to surround myself with beautiful words.
This morning, while responding to a comment left by one who writes beautiful words herself, I found myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet. A gift from my spiritual director when I was stymied in my writing, I found this book of letters — now more than a century old — incredibly helpful. In his first letter to the young poet, Rilke wastes no time in getting to the heart of the writing life:
“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write, find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you should have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?” Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must”, then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”
I keep my journal near because I must. The cheap cardboard outside cradles my inner lines to life itself. At times, it may even produce an occasional good fruit.