Thursday, October 23, 2014

Little Pink Notebook (Part 1)

Habits Inspired by Mary Oliver

For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket. It has always been the same kind of notebook -- small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn. By no means do I write poems in these notebooks. And yet over the years, the notebooks have been laced with phrases that eventually appear in poems. So, they are the pages upon which I begin.
~ Mary Oliver, "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air"

As an antiquarian at heart, there are few writers in the contemporary world with whom I can relate. A notable exception -- one who I've come to appreciate as a great heroine of the literary world -- is Mary Oliver. Though she is best known as a poet, I confess that I have actually not yet been acquainted with her poetry. But her nonfiction is brilliant. If I could make my writing look like any author's in the world, it would be hers.

Last summer, I encountered a little book of essays by her in a small bookstore. (Actually, it was a whole shelf, and with a skimpy wallet I had to struggle to settle for one selection.) The collection I bought was called Blue Pastures, and within days I had devoured all its words and wisdom. Oliver is an absolute sage in presenting the writer's day-to-day existence. Her essays in Blue Pastures are very much about the process and journey of being a writer. What I loved most about them was their eloquent manner of portraying the writer's life as something intimate, something contemplative. We see her at her desk frowning at interruptions, or outside wandering the wilderness, or as a young girl absorbing Whitman -- and always as a reflective, almost prayerful kind of scholar. It as though her whole daily universe was writing: the observation, the inspiration, the creation of it. In this sense, she has shown the habitualness of writing, how much it must saturate the writer's every moment.

One essay in particular stood out to me: "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," which provides excerpts of a small pocket notebook she keeps for moments of inspiration. For about a year now, I've kept a similar notebook -- mine pink and tattered from being stuffed haphazardly in purses and backpacks of all capacities. Whenever a phrase haunts me, or a certain sight I pass strikes me, I whip it out to jot down whatever words I can to record the idea. (This usually occurs while driving; I can't tell you how many times I've had to pull over to write even two words down.) In reading "Pen and Paper," I was glad to see this tradition validated by another, established writer. But more importantly, it struck me how much Oliver and I share -- if I dare presume so much -- in regards to the dailiness of our writing.

There is no moment, to my knowledge, when the writing process stops for me; it is always happening. True, the times I physically sit down to write are relatively sparse. My perfectionist nature is such that the actual practice of putting words into a word document is one to which I must devote an entire day -- hence, it is not a frequent ritual. But for me, writing is more than simply that one step of physical production. It's a habit, an addiction, a constant mode of mind. I see sunlight -- I appreciate. I read a book -- I contemplate. I hear a phrase in my mind -- I am inspired. These are the necessary steps in writing, which take about 80% of the entire procedure. What is finally written, what finally goes on paper (or, on the computer) is something I've accumulated throughout the day. The process never stops.

To be an artist -- and I truly mean be, in terms of identity and existence -- one's artmaking must never end. It must be the lens through which one sees and feels everything, even if only on the subconscious level. It ought to permeate every aspect of our life. It is very much like being in love: even when we are not physically embracing our beloved, love never clocks out, it is always there.

More to come. Grace and peace to you.


  1. Emma, You might find Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" interesting because it addresses this very thing. She argues that if we believe in God as creator and if we believe we are made in His image, then we are by nature creators. I'll try to find My copy for you. Because you need more to read. ��

  2. The above comment goes with the previous blog post. I am struggling mightily with my iPad. And so, good night.