Telling Our Story

What makes any of us want to write?

My bookclub touched on this last week when we discussed Oliver Sacks’ On the Move. Someone asked if any of us journaled. Two people remained silent, I presume, perhaps falsely, that they were not writers. The other five of us all replied with some version of “not successfully,” yet I detected that same yearning that I feel to get my thoughts down on paper (or electronic paper as the case may be.) A lament of “but my life is so boring” by one member brought the unanimous correction that she might think her life is boring, but her ideas and thoughts certainly aren’t. This blog has been by far my most successful foray into journaling despite its ups and downs. I absolutely don’t consider myself a writer, but I do think of myself as someone with a writing hobby.

Sacks was a brilliant and successful physician. Yet at the end of his autobiography, when he was essentially summing up his life, it was with these words about his writing:

…I rarely look at the journals I have kept…The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing. My journals are not written for others,…but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

I love the line, “they are an indispensable form of talking to myself.” Sometimes the only way to settle my mind as it is churning ideas and thoughts is to set them down somewhere: in a letter, in a journal, or in this blog. My powers of speech too often fail me, with my thoughts that seem clear-ish while still in my brain coming out of my mouth distorted and incomplete.

He goes on to write:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse. I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

This I consider perhaps the definition of a true writer, they are storytellers, and it is my not being that storyteller that defines me as merely a hobby writer. “Autobiographical memory,” what a great phrase. Isn’t the autobiographical story the one we all want most to understand? And for some, the best way to understand it is to tell it. This passage is also from On the Move, it is an excerpt from a letter that Sacks received from a friend:

I think we all live in a swirl of anecdotes…We (most of us) compose our lives into narratives…I wonder what the origin is of the urge to “compose” oneself.

My thoughts about all this were actually stirred up a few weeks ago when I heard this interview on NPR’s All Things Considered between Ari Shapiro and the memoirist Augusten Burroughs. At one point, Burroughs answers the big “why” question:

At heart, I’m a collector. I mean, that’s really, I think, what memoir is. I’ve collected jewelry since I was a little kid. I used to collect rocks. I’ve just always collected things. And memoir is a way for me to collect these moments in my life that at the time are so precious or so painful or so odd or so fascinating or so peculiar that it just seems a waste to let them go. And memoir is a way for me to sort of pin them into the shadow box. And there they are.

I’ve never read any of Burroughs work, but I plan to now. Thanks for reading along as I pin some of my own thoughts and moments into the shadowbox.


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