Invited remarks delivered as part of the panel “Books in the Making” at the December 2009 meeting of the New Mexico Chapter of The Association of Women in Communications. The Luncheon took place on December 9, 2009, at the Hotel Old Town in Albuquerque, NM.
Four hundred and forty four days ago I wrote my first word of fiction. It was the day after my fortieth birthday, a handful of days before I would officially submit my Ph.D. dissertation, and – as a somewhat lavish gift to myself – I was in the middle of my first writer’s retreat (at a glorious spot overlooking Tomales Bay in Northern California).
The retreat was my way of consciously honoring both my birthday and my completion of the dissertation – my way to “treat myself” – in both idiomatic senses of that phrase – to “treat myself” as a writer, and also to honor the healing I had effected in within my writing life over the previous handful of years. I felt I was beginning, aptly enough, a new chapter in my life as a writer, and the choice to go on this retreat felt like an apt way to celebrate this more healthful, more joyful way of writing.
Because – you should know – my writing life during much of the previous decade had not been so healthy or so happy.
For most of my adult life, I wrote because I had to. I wrote because it was a job requirement. I wrote because books and essays are the currency of my chosen profession. I wrote to impress or convince or cajole. I had become accustomed to writing from what I now call “a toxic well of ego” and, as a result, writing had become a “bad task,” something I did only so that it would be over, or so that I could “get over.” And, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhere in there, I had just stopped writing.
I hit a kind of bottom around my use of writing as a toxic task sometime around 2005. I wasn’t writing really at all and the thought of opening a blank Word document filled me with something like panic. I faced a terrifying choice: stop writing and start a new career OR find a different way to write, because the way I knew just wasn’t working.
I am grateful today to be able to say that I chose to write. And, in the years between then and now, I rebuilt my writing self from the ground up – with the help of a writing group, a coach, a very patient dissertation advisor, and a blog (my blog, StinkyLulu.com which gave me two life-saving gifts: a rigorous routine and a sustaining community of generous readers). Somewhere along the way, I finished the book-length manuscript that had been looming over me for nearly a decade. And, today, as I think back over these last couple years, especially the last four hundred and forty four days, I see that I truly have entered a new phase in my writing life.
For, today, I write for process, not for product. I write as a discipline and as a practice of self-care. I avoid “binge writing” and other compulsive patterns as best I can. I do my darnedest to eschew the temptation to write so I sound good, clever or smarter than thou. I try to write in service to my stories and to my readers. I opt to share my work rather than to hoard and to hide it. I do my part to contribute to and to sustain on-line and “real life” writing communities. And as do, I write academic history for my job; I write cultural criticism about popular film and television for my blog; and I write stories – long ones and short ones – for kids and young adults for no good reason except that such stories keep popping up, demanding to be told. But, mostly, I just try to write – as often and as enthusiastically as I possibly can.
And, so far, I am enjoying this new chapter of my writing life – a lot – and I can’t wait to see how it turns out…