Ever since I got home from my last trip to Laity Lodge, I’ve been trying to adapt myself to a new habit. It has a name, which currently escapes me, and it involves writing.
Last year, Joy Castro, a local author, sat with me and a few of my writing friends and talked with us about writing. Joy has one of the softest and most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. Each of us sat still in our chairs, or on our cushion on a couch, and Joy sat in a corner of the couch beneath the painting of a lush landscape which was framed in an ornate, golden-colored frame with curlicues and sweeps of fanciness. It was a juxtaposition, indeed: all that fanciness, bustling about on the blue-painted wall while Joy sat in comfortable stillness and practically whispered to us about the craft of writing. We barely moved, afraid the sound of denim-clad derrieres shifting against the upholstery would drown out Joy’s magnificent words.
Joy has written many books. You should read The Truth Book. And, if you write memoir, you should read Family Trouble. It’s been more than a year since we sat together and I still remember vividly the way the room seemed to swoon when Joy read to us about kissing ankles. I know. You should read her books. My, my, my.
Joy told us she writes all of her books longhand. As in, not on a computer. Surely, the words she writes eventually end up in some digital form, but the way she begins is with a writing implement and paper. It’s the first thing she does every day, she said. Before her feet hit the floor in the morning, she is writing. Her husband brings her coffee in bed. There is no talking. Only writing. Because she doesn’t want to miss the moment, or the words.
I am not a morning person, but I do believe in the writing of words with pen and paper. It doesn’t happen often enough for me any more. But, at Laity Lodge, my friend Helen suggested (by way of assigning me the task of) writing for thirty minutes every morning. Helen was specific in her instructions to me:
- No distractions. “Take down that calendar you have on your wall,” she said to me. She also told me to clear my desk. Easier said than done.
- Write longhand, on unlined paper. Something happens when we put pen or pencil to paper. It’s not the same as writing on a computer. Writing without lines takes away any suggestions about where the words should go on the page and which words should come next. I hope we never lose the art of writing longhand, without lines telling us which way we should go.
- Light a candle. Something about the flickering of the flame connects with something in my brain, Helen said. She knows what she’s talking about and, if you’d like to know the science behind it, she’ll be glad to tell you. I am a fan of candles, even without the science, so I needed no convincing.
- Play baroque music. This may surprise you, but I actually have a baroque music station on Pandora. Back when I was preparing for my TEDx Talk, another friend of mine recommended writing to baroque music. Something about the cadence of the music makes for good writing. I have tried disco music and praise music and classical music and jazz. But, for this assignment, baroque really does do the trick best of all.
- Write for thirty minutes. Just go. Set the timer, and write. Helen may have suggested I start with a question, and that has worked well for me. Most of the time, the half hour flies by and, somehow, I find myself ending with a question, just as the timer on my phone starts to buzz. Helen said this would happen. And so, I save that question for the next morning.
I’m supposed to write like this for thirty days, and see where it leads me. I doubt you’ll ever see the actual words I’m writing on those unlined pages, but you may see stories and thoughts these words have opened up in me, and will open up for me along the way.
I had lost myself. Back at Laity Lodge, I sat across from Helen at a desk in the library beneath the Great Hall. There is a bright red maple tree just outside the window there, next to the spiral staircase that always makes me feel like Cinderella. I barely noticed the tree this year. But, after I sat with Helen, and she assigned me the writing and the candle and the music, and I told her things just between me and her, I went back upstairs to the Great Hall, where all the people were gathered and a fire was burning in the gigantic stone fireplace. I saw the sunlight “take the tree” just outside the window, and it completely surprised me in the very best way.
So, I’m writing longhand in the mornings with the dog at my feet and a cup of decaf by my side. All of this meandering across the page is helping me find my footing and taking a load off my chest. I would never tell you what to do, I hope you know that. You know you better than I know you. But (and I realize the word “but” cancels out everything that comes before it), if you’ve lost yourself along the way, you might want to try writing longhand. If you do, I’d love to hear about it. If you care to tell me.
By the way, I know that picture up there has nothing to with what I’ve written.
But then again, maybe it does.
Some Questions for You: When was the last time you wrote something longhand? What does it feel like to write on unlined paper with a pen in your hand? Have you lost yourself somewhere on the sidewalk? What do you think would happen if you wrote longhand every day?