I have a habit, when I am tired, or frustrated, or blocked, or bored, of walking through the library. It’s my own form of meditation. In the stacks I stop thinking about the world outside. I pass through different sections each time, fiction, young adult, biography, history and look for a cover the calls out to me.
This was how I discovered Susan G. Wollridge’s Freeing Your Life with Words. It is one of those books designed for busy people looking for encouragement to get in touch with their literary muses. It’s not the kind of thing I often chose to read these days. At age 43, I’ve internalized my process to the point that I don’t need or want anyone advising me. I don’t need those kinds of external cheerleaders.
But I did like this word: “compost.” Sometimes you pick up a book to be sparked by one word.
“I’m trading in (and literally composting) some of my other collections,” the poet wrote, “driftwood, acorns and bits of colored egg shell– for words.”
In context, she is saying that she has given up her other hobbies and distractions for writing.
Here’s what I got: Writing is compost.
You begin, when you are a young writer, with what you believe is the main dish– those emotionally resonant episodes from your own life:
The horrible long break up you had with the boyfriend who kept coming back and twisting your spirit into knots.
The time you were so burnt out on your career that you went a bit crazy and could hardly get out of bed.
The time you idealistically decided to launch a ballet touring company with your Russian boyfriend and your former boss– a great character– hauled you into court in a ballet of the ballets.
OK, maybe that last one isn’t so universal.
In any case, you have experiences that shaped who you are today. When you decide you want to be a writer, you naturally assume that these are the stories that you are being called to tell.
You write furiously, spell everything out in great detail, but somehow it doesn’t come together as poetry, fiction or literature. You are too attached to your vanity to be fully honest, you can’t escape your own memory and point of view, you fear repercussions from the all-too-thinly veiled characters, you don’t have enough distance or perspective, the situations are so emotional for you that you forget to make them compelling on the page- believing anyone who reads it must feel the same. Maybe you just get tired of rehashing these episodes and you want to move on.
So you put your own stories aside and with a little metaphorical sunshine and rain and the passage of time, the individual dramas of your life start to break down into their component parts. You have a soup– what is that stuff in eco toilets? a humus?– made up of emotions, observations, and a few undissolved chunks of experience that have hardened into anecdotes. It is all indistinct and all mixed together.
That’s where the real stories grow.