using my words

My grandmother was a writer. She went to college. She had six children, three of whom died as children. Her husband died young, when I was a baby, after a long sickness. I knew her as a writer, a strong single woman, a newspaper reporter, a photographer. Opinionated and vocal, particularly about politics and world events. She traveled, and Lebanon was her favorite place, Beirut in particular. She was opinionated about the writing of others. She encouraged me in my writing, as did my parents. She wrote me letters when I went away to college. I always knew her to keep a daily journal, a daily ritual, written in the tiny space of a desk calendar, year after year. I am lucky to have her journals and other writing.

In college, my grandmother kept a journal for a writing class. Here is what she wrote there on the topic of journaling:
For almost a year, I have kept a diary that I write in absolutely every night. Twice, I have been in bed almost asleep before I remembered that I hadn't recorded the events of the day. Both times, I jumped out and scribbled a few lines hastily, conscientiously, and immediately. But that was months ago, before the habit was firmly established. Now the writing is as much a part of my nightly routine as scrubbing my teeth. I jot down everything that happens during the day as well as a good many of my thoughts. Believe it or not, the little book has an enormous influence for good in my life. Many times I've been stopped from doing things merely by the knowledge that I wouldn't like to see the fact recorded in my diary as being done.
Of course I am curious about what my young-woman grandmother might have been tempted to do but stopped. But more, I'm struck by her habit. To my knowledge, journals do not exist from the years when she was raising her family, only from later. Perhaps she didn't write then, or maybe they no longer exist? I'm so curious about what writing habits she may have followed and what she may have written when her children were young and at home, when her husband was still alive, when she was working as a reporter. 

And her writing is so seductive, as I want it to be deeper, more personal and searching. Her later daily journals are mostly factual, what she did that day, every day. Lots of baseball, jazz, visits from family, trips to the library and to the liquor store (to buy sherry for bridge games), the mundane day in and day out. There's very little editorializing, and virtually no feeling. Her college journal is far more introspective, but reads like a series of exercises for class, which is exactly what it is. I search for meaning in her words that I do have, and pine for more of her. I miss her.

One of my special-favorite authors is Terry Tempest Williams. I love her writing and have been lucky enough to hear her read from her work in person numerous times. I was joking with a friend recently that if I can't marry Terry Tempest Williams, I want to be her. She wrote at length on the topic of writing in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, an essay titled "A Letter to Deb Clow," part of which I share here, and all of which is worth reading:
I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation....
The importance of using your words. The responsibility to speak. The act of accessing your knowledge and using your words. Actively using them, not stuffing them down. A number of years ago, I found myself, for various reasons, shut down and not accessing my true self. I wasn't aware of it, I hadn't done it intentionally. I was just going along. Occasionally I would experience a lucid moment in which the real me came to the surface, and meeting resistance from those closest to me, I would push those thoughts back down. Usually with a note to self like "this is the path I've chosen" or "I signed up for this, it will be this way forever." I had dumbed myself down and mostly numbed myself as well.

The spell was broken one night while I was driving home from work. At that time, I drove 1.5 hours each way to work. (That kind of car commute, my friends, is numbing by itself.) That evening, my other favorite author, Michael Chabon, was being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. And as I listened I was completely blown out of my complacency. Here was Michael Chabon, talking in the exact same way he writes, smart, funny, passionate, articulate, and with LOTS OF BIG AND WONDERFUL WORDS. Like, this guy does NOT DUMB DOWN. Not at all. I had already read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a truly fantastic, beautiful and challenging book. But Michael Chabon's voice, his spoken words, just talking, answering questions about his book and his life, got through. I remember sitting there in my driveway as the interview ended, considering what in the hell I was going to do next.

Hearing that interview with Michael Chabon set in motion a series of events over the following months that upended everything I knew and completely changed my life's path. For the zillion-times-over better. And what I am so grateful to have learned from Michael Chabon, or what, really, he reminded me, is that It Is Important To Use Your Words. Speak truth to power, if you will. Don't dumb down or squelch yourself, not for anyone. And now, the stakes are higher. My children are watching. I love Almighty Dad Keith Wilcox's essay on being courageous. He says, "If you can't be proud of yourself then your kids will see that and learn from it." Read it.

I will use my words. I will use my words. I will use my words.


  1. Gorgeous and powerful. This is a topic that I come back to again and again and again, the power of words and expression and finding the space to do that.

    I apologize (really, really apologize) for the unbearable tackiness of quoting my own damn self, but I kept thinking of this line from my last blog post: I eviscerate myself in public because the truth that spills out of me is the only real power I own.

    That's what we've got: our voices and our pencils and our keyboards so we can use our words to speak our truth.

  2. This is a very striking post. This is a lesson everyone who truly desires to be a writer needs to learn. I would contend that honesty in writing exists on several levels, but it begins with being honest with ourself--a hard, hard thing to do without courage. Ultimately it's that honesty that people crave and connect with.

    I'm a huge fan of Chabon as well. I mark every new word I read in his books and then use them as my vocabulary word-of-the day. I must have 3 years worth of definitions to get through.

    Thank you.

  3. I just think this is such a lovely lovely post.

    This is such a moving tribute to your grandmother! She is gone, but her words remain. And those words have the power to remind, to warn, to encourage, and to love. What powerful powerful gifts she has left you.

    And what best thing is left for you to do in honor of your Grandmother and all of the powerful writers in your life? You write. Powerfully and beautifully, about your own moment in time.

    Because soon enough, this moment too, will pass into "forever gone."

    I love your words.

  4. *blush* and thank you.

    Hey CK, I feel like I grew up with Michael Chabon. Mysteries of Pittsburgh was published the year I graduated from Pitt, and I read that book in Hillman Library across from the cloud factory, struggling with identity and sex and whatever you struggle with when you graduate from college, like his protagonists.

    Whole other writer, David Foster Wallace, but here's some more homework/inspiration for you. I think seeing this a month or so ago is the thing that kicked me into action to actually launch runaway sentence. Enjoy!


  5. I'm with you all the way here Marian. Use your words. Speak your truth. Teaching is so much demonstration of self. Sharing. That's how kids learn both to love US for who we are & to live for real, for themselves.

  6. Talk about making a book come alive.

    Thanks for the link. That's quite a list to work through. =-)

  7. interesting post. your "feel" is honest and real. i love the past and present that you tie to. all a part of the fabric, for sure. well done!

  8. god, Marian.

    How did I *miss* this?

    Thanks for pointing me here.

    So much.

  9. ah, love, i don't think you had yet stumbled upon the RS scene yet when i wrote this.
    i so appreciate you going back and reading. especially this one.
    love and love and love.

  10. I, too, best express myself in writing and feel strongly about using my words. After creating a fabulous family and raising beautiful children, I've discovered the truth in the adage "to everything there is a season." I now relish this middle age of my life during which I can create, create, create in a different way.

  11. yes yes yes! (pumping fist in air!)
    although my kids are still very small and i totally resist the notion of "middle age." even though i know that's not what you meant! seasons, indeed, kim. thanks so much for coming over here, new friend.

  12. I love this, Marian. My grandma, too, was a huge influence in my life - likely the hugest. This so resonates with me. I am enjoying getting to know you better:)

  13. yes! oh just click over on "my grandmother" in the tag cloud and be introduced to her.
    me too, sherry. xoxo


Thank you for sharing your thoughts!