In the long days of the continuing COVID pandemic, I’ve complained that my muse has gone into hiding. My daily habit of writing has suffered. Oh, I still open my notebook and write, often beginning, these days, with the weather–a few words to get my pen (and my brain) moving. But I confess to a spiritual malaise, a lassitude, that I work to fend off daily. My notebook pages attest to the lack of inspiration, the aimless paragraphs that seem to go nowhere, broken only by the periods I lead writing workshops for Gilda’s Club, buoyed by the inspiration that ignites in me.
It’s not just cancer that gets written about in these groups, but life–the places, people and experience that make up one’s whole life, not just the cancer chapter. The shared writing in my cancer writing groups got me to reconsidering my other blog, www.writingtheheart.ca, previously focused on the lived experience of heart failure, a condition I have. I’ve experienced decreasing motivation to create new posts for it for the past many weeks. Ironically, my heart just hasn’t been in it. “Heart failure patient” is not an identity I want to claim—other than its necessity in the routine checkups with my cardiologist. To continue to write about living with heart failure was only making me feel depressed. I was heading down a rabbit hole.
I decided to completely re-vamp the heart blog site from writing about theheart experience to, rather, what we “carry” in our hearts—events, places and people who’ve mattered; the memories of who we were at different times in our lives. I returned to a favorite quote from novelist Alice Hoffman, whose oncologist wisely reminded her that that her cancer was not her whole book, only a chapter. The same is true for any of life’s crises. Many writers, well and lesser known, began writing from a crisis, as poet and MD William Carlos Williams once remarked. Writing gives us a means to express the tumultuous emotions accompanying unexpected loss, trauma or serious illness. It’s one of the most important aspects of its healing benefits: getting the words on the page as a way to make sense of what we’re feeling and release the negative emotions from the body. But once the crisis has passed, then where do we find the inspiration and motivation to continue writing? Er, Doctor, heal thyself? I needed a dose of my own advice.
Where do we find our inspiration? It’s in the raw material of life: the people, places and experiences we’ve had. I remember the inspiration of artist and writer, Joe Brainard, best known for his memoir I Remember (1975), described as “a masterpiece,” “completely original,” and “funny and deeply moving.” Brainard captured his life story in a series of brief sentences, each beginning with the words, “I remember,” observations about his life growing up in the 1950’s. For example, here are a few: “I remember Davy Crockett hats…,” “I remember Easter egg grass,” “I remember birthday parties,” or “I remember pink and brown and white ice cream in layers.” Not surprisingly, his “I remember” lists inspire us all. A single “I remember” can take us into memories and stories of our own. Poet Kenneth Koch was inspired by Brainard to first use “I remember” as a writing prompt in his classes. Natalie Goldberg later suggested a similar exercise for writing memoir. I have used the same exercise in my writing groups. Sadly, Brainard died in 1994 of Aids induced pneumonia, but his book continues to delight and inspire anyone who reads it.
Memories, the stories of our lives, are also triggered by our everyday objects, our keepsakes, the artifacts of life. I remember the first time I met Pat Schneider, former founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. I’d signed up for a week long workshop with her at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley shortly after completing seven weeks of radiation and a painful experience of downsizing a nonprofit. I hungered to rediscover something creative in myself. Writing was something I’d done all my life and loved most. But I did not expect to find so much inspiration in the ordinary. I was very much mistaken.
The enduring memory I have of that week is in the very first exercise Pat offered to the group. Once we’d introduced ourselves, she quietly spread a cloth in the center of our circle of chairs. Without explanation, she began taking objects from a large wicker basket and silently placing each on the cloth. The objects were random ones that seemed to have no connection to one another, things like a metal hook, a rosary, an old shaving brush, a wooden spoon, a ring of keys. When her basket was empty, she began speaking: “Every object is full of story, she said. “Objects are how the world comes to us.” Then she invited us to take something from the assortment of items on the cloth, hold and study it, then begin writing.
I remember staring at the objects, my heart racing. We had only twenty minutes to choose something as our “prompt” and write. I scanned the assortment and quickly chose a half empty pack of old Camel cigarettes. It smelled of stale tobacco, and I was transported to my pre-adolescent years and a memory of my father, one hand on the steering wheel of his old Chevy pickup truck, a cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, resting on the driver’s side window, opened to draw out the smoke, and allow his occasional flick of cigarette ash. We were driving the back roads of Siskiyou county in Northern California, delivering appliances to rural customers. It was something special to have my father to myself. I listened with rapt attention as he regaled me with stories from his childhood—largely true but always adorned with fiction. I began to write, pen racing across the page. For a time, my father came back to life—he had died of lung cancer a few years earlier—his face, the twinkle in his eyes as he told me his childhood stories–all triggered by a half-empty pack of cigarettes.
Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined. They trigger our memories, just as making a list of people, places, events you remember will do. I’ve taken my own prompt in hand now as I dig my way out of the “dry spell” induced by the months of life being “on hold” during the pandemic. I’m on a mission to write my stories and memories to share with my daughters and grandchildren. It’s about writing from life, not just the tough stuff it hands us, but the innocence, humor, events that shaped us, the people who mattered. In all these many weeks of feeling empty of anything creative, being bored with my own words, inspiration has been here–not hiding, but in plain sight. All I had to do was remember.
- Try the exercise inspired by Joe Brainard’s book, I Remember. Set the timer for three minutes. Begin making a list of “I remember” … be specific, but brief. For example, “I remember my grandmother’s gold Bulova watch.” “I remember the class valentine box in my kindergarten class.” “I remember hiding under my raincoat when I went to see the film “Psycho.” “I remember the smell of baking cookies in my grandmother’s kitchen.” Once your time is up, read over your list of “I remember.” Choose one. Set the timer again, this time for 15 minutes and begin writing in detail the experience associated with that single “I remember.” Chances are, you’ll want to write more than fifteen minutes allows!
- “Every object is full of story.” What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables? What memories and meaning do they hold? Think of those objects as the keepers of stories. Choose one (or more) and write the story or memory that each represents. You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.