I wrote it in the bathtub

3 01 2008

I have found that writing is very much like practicing for a sport. When I don’t take the time to maintain my writing life, I find myself having to really dig deep in order to write anything. I can also get out of practice with different kinds of writing. When I spend a great deal of time working on an academic piece (such as the one that sucked the life out of me the last three weeks of December), my creative muscles begin to atrophy. Certain episodes will spark a piece in my mind and I’ll begin to chew on it like a piece of beef jerky until it is soft enough to digest. The experience I had with the old man in the grocery store yesterday was singular in that I actually began crafting that entry in my mind when I got in the car on the way home. The writer sees an opportunity to reinvent an experience so that it can be relived in HD… of course, the fact of invention requires that some of it be made up. Although I am not always conscious of my “making it up,” I know it happens. I read or heard somewhere that memory is shaped by emotion–that is, we remember things, situations, events to the extent that we feel them. It makes sense. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast last Sunday morning, but I can remember every word the doctor said as he sewed me up after my C-section (despite the drugs).

Joan Didion says that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I agree with her. We are very much like toddlers in that way. My grandmother tells the same stories over and over again. When I was younger, I would beg her to tell the story about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, and how their heads were small enough to put teacups over them. I also like the story about her job as a secretary at Sears where she made like $1.25 a week or something like that. She learned that the world was round on the Christmas Day when her father gave her an orange. These stories are my grandmother–they define her history and they reassure her of her identity. The accuracy of her stories is less important than their truth.

So the trick is to recognize a good story and to write it down whenever it hits you… Merle Haggard said to one NPR reporter that he wrote several of his new songs while he was in the tub. When she expressed her surprise, he said, “Well, I guess it was in the bath tub. There was water all around.”

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