When I was 10, someone gave me a 5-year journal and I fell into enchantment with the idea of writing my life. One likely ending of that not uncommon story is: here I am going on seven decades later with a trunk brimming over with journals filled with life stories and transitions.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
My journal was green with a nubby leather-like cover and a cute lock with a tiny brass key. It was all mine and I was going to write my secrets on its endless pages. It didn’t take long to find the fly in that inviting dream. All my secrets revolved around my troubled relationship with my mother and there was no way that tiny lock was going to keep her from reading what I wrote. That was a path leading directly to disaster.
My solution: a code. The problem: I couldn’t remember the code and was afraid to write it down somewhere. I should make it clear: my mother was not an ogre but she did have red hair and the temper to match. My best strategy was to stay out of her way so I escaped into books and left the idea of keeping a journal behind.
However, two seeds had been planted … one grew quickly; one barely sprouted. The first seed grew into a magical cloak of many colors that let me blend in with any group. I became a young yogi, able to twist my body, mind, and spirit into a thousand forms, seamlessly fitting into the groups around me. Only my feelings wouldn’t conform, so they were put into a dark corner where they wouldn’t cause problems. The second seed went into that corner also, languishing but never quite dying.
Decades pass. I marry, divorce, marry again and become a widow. The dream of becoming a writer … about someone else’s life … flickers wildly, always meeting rejection. Journals reappear, collaged pages with abstract words but no context, hinting at possibilities with muted whisperings of an inner life. Most pages remained unblemished while glittery covers suggested a richness unfulfilled.
Grief does what yearning couldn’t. A siege of losses breaks me open and art walks in, speaking in a language I feel but can’t articulate. Behind it rolls a tsunami of words pulled to the shore of my deserted island of self.
Poetry begins bubbling up in the strangest places. Memoir acts as if it has a story to tell. I seem to be a passenger on a bus going somewhere but no one tells me where.
I think maybe I’m supposed to be a poet so I apply to an MFA program. Rejection. I apply to the most prestigious writers’ conference on the west coast. Rejection again … four times again.
I start my own newsletter and for eight years, no rejections. I write about outside things, useful things … corporate culture, innovation, creativity … while a cauldron of ghosts and eyes of newt bubbles away deep in the forest.
I flee to Mexico, thinking to flood myself with a new culture. In spite of the color, the stories, the exciting vitality of Mexico, I don’t find myself.
I return home not knowing why. However, words and images begin to pour themselves into little books, books only I will publish, books only a few will read. But, there I am, growing more visible on the page, taking that tiny second seed out of the dark corner, watching it stretch toward the light.
For a writer, I’m told, success is being published, ideally by a big name publisher with a big advance. For an artist, I’m told, success is having canvasses snatched up by eager clients and showing in a gallery whose spacious walls are devoted to one or two stunning masterpieces.
All of that would be nice. However, for me, a different yard-stick of success is emerging.
When I was in the fourth grade, Charlene Storm was the princess. Thin, beautiful, and creative, she wrote plays the four of us girls in the fourth grade (country school) would act out during recess. I wanted to write a play. So, I did and submitted it to Charlene. She was gracious about telling me that she couldn’t read my writing, which, at the time, was a tiny, unreadable mess.
(Aside: the only “C” I got in school was in “writing” which was what school called penmanship. I have to wonder if that was a factor in a life-time of trying to be a writer and considering myself mediocre, a c-level writer.)
I think back to that first rejection often and wonder why I didn’t just rewrite my play more legibly and resubmit it. Instead I ate that judgment, that platter of rejection, and let it become part of my core belief about myself. I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t good enough. That role was reserved for pretty girls whose waist bands never crumpled and whose petticoats never slumped bedraggled below their poodle skirts.
It has been a long, slow journey but I now know I am a writer … because I write; and know I am an artist because I make art. I am successful at both of those things because they come from my inner core; they are reflections of who I am. That is success enough. Rejection is just a puff of fog that I walk through on my way to the next writing, the next piece of art.
That ten-year-old child with her unused 5-year journal could not have imagined where we would wind up, the adventures we would have, the growing pile of writings and art with my name on them, regardless of their recognition by the world of judgment and fame.
And, that unloved seedling of creativity is now out of its dark corner, flourishing as I step into another aspect of myself. I have now become a maker of journals.
Five years ago, I created a gratitude journal and am now remaking it with a dear friend. This morning, it called to me, inviting me to walk into a shadowy part of my journey as I explore questions to help me and others explore our own selves and our journey in this "one, wild and precious life."
For all of this, I am truly grateful.
1/2/2022 ... Cleaning out Evernote files and find a poem from 1/10/2021 based on a snippet found in one of Maria Popova's newsletter ... was Brain Picking ... now The Marginalian <firstname.lastname@example.org>
a shadow with a mean hand
lurked over the green book
with its tiny, brass key.
a siren, beckoning words,
five years to the page, four lines per day,
space, inviting forbidden thoughts.
key and code. too weak:
marble secrets shatter
against cold concrete
stop. stuff real words
back into dark places,
like unmatched socks.
write vanilla smiles
onto bright white paper
in broken, braille letters.
wait. tears and years.
new notebooks still locked
by old shadows, until …
A new key scattered
words across the page:
“for yr own joy”
-- Joyce wycoff
From Brain Pickings:
Jack Kerouac began his 30-point list for writing with:
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy