My crystal ball tells me we’ll have to be awfully careful lest we come down with Covid-19 in the next three months of winter. Not a joyful thought. Maximizing our stay-at-home life can be both difficult, boring and lonely since we humans are by nature social beings.
That’s why it pays to have a hobby like writing our lives for future generations of our offspring. The citizens of East Alabama have the advantage of taking an OLLI course under the auspices of Auburn University called “Writing Our Lives.” We are indebted to Terry Ley and Cathy Buckhalt for offering us this course during these pandemic times.
For those over 50, there’s a bonus connected with keeping our minds alert. Writing keeps the creative part of our brains active. It inspires us to be “creative,” understood as the ability to transcend or go beyond the confines of convention.
In this connection, I’m reminded of the words of St. Augustine, who said “I count myself one of the numbers of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” And as James Joyce once quipped, “In the writing, the good things will come.”
Just as our arms and legs get weaker as we age, so does our imagination waste away if not used. The ability to imagine must be difficult to teach since we’re in a space entirely cut off from others. That little space inside our brains is hermetically sealed and entirely private.
Writing goes back a long time. It finds its origin in Mesopotamia, the same place where the wheel was discovered. The oldest written documents go back to 3100 B.C. and consist mainly of lists and invoices. We find in Hebrew, as in ancient oriental languages, words associated with numbers and writing. Take a look at the 2nd Book of Kings chapter 12, 11.
I like to think of writing as a nudist camp for words. Why so? Writing means getting one’s words down on a blank sheet of paper. It may be challenging at first. It’s akin to digging a ditch with a teaspoon.
Writers often have a specific place in which they write. In writing “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone handcuffed himself to the kitchen table. Thoreau wrote near his favorite pond and Flannery O’Connor wrote in her study facing the farmyard.
John Henry Newman, one of the four greatest prose writers of the Victorian era, penned his famous autobiography, the "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," at a large wooden lectern. While writing, he stood up the entire time and, remarkably, finished his autobiography in about four months’ time. I had the pleasure of visiting his room at the Oratory in Edgbaston, a suburb of Birmingham, in 1970.
It’s useful to select a particular time of day for writing an article or a memoir. I chose to write about 30 minutes after breakfast. That’s the time of day I feel really energetic. I do not like to write near bedtime. Otherwise, I have difficulty falling asleep. Nor do I like to write after lunch since I tend to fall asleep at that time.
Feelings are the basis for writing a good poem or a memoir. Strong emotions turn into a gripping story. It doesn’t hurt to share one’s vulnerabilities with one’s readers. The more one can pull from one’s gut, the better.
In writing a memoir, one should make use of a small journal to keep track of one’s progress. This is particularly the case when one does not write every day. Note down the day one wrote and what one must do the next time around for purposes of continuity. The journal may be used to write down books or quotations that may fit in with one’s thoughts.
The more one writes, the easier it becomes. There’s a special joy involved in seeing one’s piece in a journal or magazine. Writing resembles giving birth to a child. Few mothers speak about the pain of childbirth. Most speak only of the final product, a living baby. A published article is creation at its best, i.e., one’s own brain-child.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus-Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.