On writing

As I run the tail end of my college career, I’ve been spending so much of my time mulling over my relationship with writing. How much I love it, how much it stresses me out, how much it helps me relax, how I don’t feel like I’m good at it or have what it takes to be good at it, how much I absolutely hate it when I know people are reading what I write but also how much I love it when people tell me they relate to something I say. I am not trying to sound like a moody tormented artist here because I’m so not the type but I do genuinely love writing for pleasure in a way I don’t love anything or anyone else because nothing else is as “mine” as writing is to me.

I was talking to my friend Clare on Friday and at one point of the conversation, we talked about Marina Keegan’s posthumously published book, The Opposite of Loneliness (we’re both a huge fan of the book—I highly recommend it). As we spoke, I realise a lot of what makes a good writer lies outside of the act of writing itself, and more in thinking and observations of daily life.

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Joan Didion

This brings me to Joan Didion. I’ve read a couple of Didion’s pieces for my non-fiction writing class and I’m quite enamoured by her. Most recently, I read her piece, On Keeping a Notebook and she talks about something I absolutely love doing: taking notes about random thoughts and observations. I have always asked myself why I do that, because what usually happens is I think of something and I say “oh that’s a good one” and I quickly type it into my Notes app but rarely ever do I go back to my notes and compile them and turn them into anything. They don’t amount to anything, they don’t get read by me or anyone else, and I almost just write them down just to keep them. But why? Why do I do that? In her aforementioned piece, Didion kind of weighs in on that:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Basically, she’s also saying that she isn’t quite sure why she does it and that it’s an explicable compulsion she has. Then a few paragraphs later, she says:

We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. […] The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful [reflections]; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

I know our generation is probably a lot more narcissistic than Didion’s probably was. We are now taught to believe we’re unique and important. But still, I think, there’s a sense that our public lives aren’t meant to feel interesting and special but in private writing, it really can be. And all these random scribbles don’t need to amount to something huge, they don’t need to be a means to an end but an end in itself.

This reminded me of Marina Keegan. Marina was a very recent Yale graduate at the time of her death in 2012. She was poised for a job at The New Yorker. She was and always will be an amazing writer. When she died, I think her parents and one of her professors (I might be wrong about this) got together to compile some of her best pieces which is what became The Opposite of Loneliness, titled after the very popular last piece she wrote for the Yale Daily News (read it here). Anne Fadiman, her first-person writing professor wrote the introduction to her book and in it, Fadiman says Marina applied to her class with this:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

It just comforts me so much to think that I sorta kinda share something with these very established writers. I mean, obviously, I’m no where near there but it’s nice to know that even though I sometimes don’t feel good enough, I have an intention and an inclination that is good and reflective and creative. Of course, I think writers don’t become great writers because they just have talent or creativity. I totally believe the creative life involves as much discipline as anything else does—it also means sitting down at your desk with your laptop or your paper day in, day out—but that much I feel have control over.


More Joan Didion: Here’s What Joan Didion Can Teach You About LifeJoan Didion on Keeping a Notebook.

More Marina Keegan: Remembering Marina KeeganThe Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan.

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