I love when life seems to be coordinating its small details to show you something, when inconsequential details, like ticket stubs and chance encounters, unite to stand up and point to a fact, once hidden in plain view, now revealed.
I came back from the holidays to find my brand-new copy of One Line a Day on my desk at work. It was thrilling in its perfection, unmarked by time just yet, and dazzling in its sheer heft. Five years of one lines is no slim pamphlet to be sure.
Then, I chanced upon a wonderful post by Katie of Cakes, Tea and Dreams, explaining how every year she chooses a single word to be her focus. This year, her word is attention because:
I want more wonder in my life, more quiet focus, more moments when I am aware of being fully present to the here and now. Less distraction, and greater clarity. I am hoping to gain some of all these things by paying attention.
I was blown away by that. I had just set my resolutions, the main one being something like: Learn to weather life’s ups and downs with greater poise and view them through the longer scope of tomorrows yet to come. Inspired by Katie, I shortened my resolution to something far easier to remember and, hey, chant if needed: Breathe.
And finally, I opened my inbox and fell in love with something Stephen Elliott wrote. Last year, I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and then Tiny Beautiful Things. I was on a bit of a Cheryl Strayed bender, if you will, and when I had exhausted those two books, I turned to The Daily Rumpus to get my fix. I noticed they had a free daily newsletter and plugged in my email address. I thought perhaps Cheryl would write for the newsletter from time to time–or maybe it’d be one of those summary newsletters with little teasers to that day’s content so I could find Cheryl.
It’s not. Instead what I found is Stephen Elliott.
The newsletter is something closer to being Elliott’s friend, a friend to whom he sends thoughts about whatever strikes his fancy that day. This particular newsletter was a response to a post on Gawker entitled “Journalism is Not Narcissism.” He ended up posting the newsletter on The Rumpus since so many people responded to it so you can read it here. It’s called “The Problem with The Problem with Memoir.” It is, as a whole, a defense of the art of writing memoir, but this is the paragraph that grabbed me:
In his piece Hamilton says that most people’s lives are not that interesting. In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that. Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.
He’s absolutely correct. How many celebrity memoirs are utterly banal despite themselves? And yet, some of my favorite books of all time are memoirs written by great writers whose lives have far less glitz or even action than the lives of most celebrities. I think of these great books wherever I go. I have ingested them and they are now a part of me. The works of Anne Lamott, of Cheryl Strayed, of Jeanette Winterson, of Peter Mayle.
It struck me that it is the business of every writer to slow down, to breathe, and beyond that, to record and reflect. I have never successfully kept a diary or journal, not even as a pre-teen who felt crammed full of secret crushes and infinite thoughts. In the past, I have laughed off this fault with ease, but now it seems to me that this trait has stunted my growth. Without a record of how I actually felt, it’s easy to color a memory how I want to see it in the present and resist learning anything from it.
But with my thoughts inked onto paper, the record is being set. Now when time passes and I am appalled, delighted, or confused by what the girl of the past has written, I will at least know it is a true record of that era and be able to reflect and examine–and hopefully learn from my mistakes.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel brave enough to do this, for I know that I will encounter things about myself I don’t like, things that feel out of step with who I want to see looking back in the mirror. But it seems like the diligence of a writer to live a life of reflection and I agree with Elliott: The unexamined life is never interesting.