Writing about writing

I recently finished the final chapter of the Geriatric Gymnastics profile of my friend Debby Bassin. She is the owner of Flipper’s Gymnastics, where I do my trampoline-flippy thing twice a week. After our interview, I was entrenched in a specific topic that I was really enjoying: writing about the extraordinary accomplishments of someone who I admire. The idea of owning a business, a brand, having so much clarity of focus in a professional endeavor is exciting to me. It’s also something that feels just slightly out of reach for me; I have been struggling with the concepts of “business” and “branding” over the last year and a half. As a teacher, those words aren’t really part of my daily thoughts.

Since COVID so rudely interrupted our lives, I’ve made writing a more significant part of my life. I’ve even gone so far as to start calling myself an author. In doing so, I’ve been wrestling with what that title actually means, asking myself all sorts of questions about if and how I could ever make a living as a writer. What would that look like? How would I cultivate an audience? Who would be interested in the things I have to say? Would I stay in the non-fiction memoir realm or would I ever write an actual novel? Could I be a regular contributor to a magazine? Writing is such a vast macrocosm in which I play a microscopic part.

In this moment, I take a bit of solace that I have started to insert myself into the literary world, even if I don’t have a clear picture of how my future self will proliferate content in that arena. At the very least, I am actively participating in the practice of writing in a tangible way. Self-publishing two books, podcasting, and actively blogging have been a good start.

When I first started writing, it was a once-in-a-while event. I’d get inspired to expound upon something – flipping, parenting, teaching – something I was actively a part of and felt the urge to share my experience. I had even made some excellent progress on a teaching memoir I’d been writing for several years that I was thinking about publishing in the summer of 2020. Then, COVID took over, leaving us at home, staring at social media and the incessant crush of the news cycle. Two months into the pandemic, my focus shifted to something very specific: the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Out of the swirl of social, political and cultural aftermath, I created an educational drama called How Do We Feel Right Now? for my Thespian students’ fall virtual production. Technically, I wasn’t doing the writing, I was really curating what others had written and organized it into a dramatic form. It was a way to put my creative energies to work in a space where I needed to feel like I was being a part of some kind of solution to an eternally-stagnating problem.

The teaching memoir got sidelined as the pandemic rolled on and the docudrama project became my primary focus. There was more that I would have to say about the shift in teaching, anyway. Between remote teaching, virtual theatrical productions, and emerging from the isolation back to in-person learning, there was a lot more to be said. The memoir could wait.

At the same time I was working on the play, my mom’s health took a sharp nosedive. She had been courageously battling cancer over the previous three years, over a thousand miles away. She was nearing the end of the war. I spent the final week of August 2020 laying by her side as she transitioned through her final moments of life. A different writing project commenced that week, when I opened my laptop and read to her a list of things that I had learned from her that I had written down. I figured, if this was my last chance, I would take that opportunity to connect with her in a loving way. If it was her time to go, I wanted her to know just how important she was to me.

That opportunity led me to ask her questions about her life and the things she remembered and thought about. I was hoping she would be willing to allow a little brain dump to occur. Thankfully, she was, and over the next few days, while she was still lucid and able, she dove into some of the memories that were stored in the folds of her brain. What a gift she gave me.

That experience was the start of my work on another book – a different memoir that I published a year later (What Ronnie Sue Knew, available on Amazon books). It focuses on her beautiful life and how it impacted mine. It’s a love letter to her and my dad, mixed in with a bit of family history (and some drama), and discusses how the way she lived was such a significant influence on the way I live my life. It also details my experience of grief over losing both of my parents, one at 22, the other at 48.

The pandemic, while largely a disaster for so many aspects of our lives, actually gave me the space to exercise my writing muscles in many ways. It helped me to process and deal with some very difficult events that were happening simultaneously. Despite our distancing and masking, it gave me the space to connect to myself and breathe.

I think writing has, over time, become a source of comfort. Since July 2020, I have been putting lots of time and energy into my blog. It has been a joy to upkeep. I’m not sure how many people actually read it, but it gives me a great outlet to organize and develop strands of thoughts that might otherwise go untouched. There are times when I go back and read through an old entry and think, “I wrote that? I didn’t even know I thought those things!” It show just how transient our thoughts can be when we are living in busy, emotional times.

In the blog, I can practice this new craft without judgement or criticism. I look forward to opening my laptop, gaze at a new blank post, and let my itchy fingers facilitate the brain dump. I think the quick clicking also reminds me of my mom, who was a master typist. Hearing my fingers click the keyboard reminds me of her and is quite soothing; it’s become something of a Zen experience. I even enjoy the editing process now, reading my words over and over again, making sure the ideas flow smoothly and efficiently, that I’m not repeating myself or using words that don’t really express what I’m thinking. I like writing much more than I do talking, when I often don’t have enough time to pause, think and edit what I have to say. I can add or delete words as necessary, as I hone in on how I really feel about something.

Regarding my future as a writer, someone once suggested to me that over time, I might be able to use the blog to uncover just what I want my “brand” to be as I move closer to the end of my career as a high school dance and theater teacher. The blog’s subtitle is Musings as I enter my second act and I think it is, in part, my attempt to figure out exactly what I want to focus on after retirement. While I still have my day job, I can start thinking about what I want to be when I grow up. Honestly, it’s a good mental place to be; thinking about my future self over the safety net of my present self.

Writing has become something of a passion, perhaps an obsession at times. Not a day goes by when I don’t want to write something. If I don’t get to write, I’m thinking about the next time I’ll be able to sit and write. I don’t even always know what I’ll write about. But when I sit down, if I am uninterrupted, the time just slips away as I dig into the folds of my brain to figure out exactly how I want to express the next idea that pops up in my consciousness. I remember spending entire days over the summer typing and editing away as the hours passed one by one. It was like I was ensconced in a quiet bubble where time stood still and I could just let the thoughts flow out of my head. Then, I could go back and find better words, construct stronger sentences and organize the paragraphs into a more coherent slice of life.

Last August, I wrote a blog post called Navigating Writer’s Block, which talked about a moment of pause in my well of ideas, which I am finding myself in at the moment. I came across a quote by Author Charles Bukowski: Writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all. Inspired by the simplicity of that idea, I decided once again to keep the gears turning and allow for a little stream-of-consciousness rambling. At worst, it would allow me to participate in this activity that I have found I love doing. At best, maybe it would uncover the next great idea that I’d like to pursue.

I started to write this particular entry right after I finished putting the finishing touches on the final chapter of Debra Bassin: Courage and Grit Personified, I kept wondering “what will I write next?” I felt compelled to type, but what about? After dinner, when the family decided to watch something on TV I had no interest in viewing, I snuck upstairs, put on my comfy pajamas, climbed into bed, and opened my laptop. Staring at a blank page, I just started to type the first thing that came into my head. I had no direction, just an empty canvas that needed words to paint the picture. In the subsequent few days, the post took shape in ways I didn’t initially see when the page was blank. I’ve learned that once the brain dump happens, I need to walk away get some sleep, and open it back up tomorrow. Then I see the ideas in a new light and the big picture becomes clearer in my head.

Right now, my goal is to write as much as I can, about whatever topic interests me in the moment. I’ve read that writers should write every day. Apparently, in his book On Writing, Stephen King says he writes 2,000 words every day, and he suggests that aspiring writers aim for 1,000 words a day. I was curious to see where I stand in light of this recommendation.

I decided to look at my stats (a phrase I never thought I’d ever think to write), which revealed that in those first six months of the blog’s existence, I wrote 11 posts and 9,159 words. In all of 2021, I wrote 43 posts and 46,859 words. Last summer, I wrote ten Mindful Meditation podcast episodes, totaling about 11,000 words. In the first two months of 2022, I’ve written 15 posts and 22,687 words. My book, What Ronnie Sue Knew (published in September 2021), is just over 39,000 words, which I wrote over the course of a year. I also penned a case study chapter in an upcoming book (I’ll talk more about that in the future) which was another 5,400 words. After some back-of-the-envelope math, I figure I’ve increased my word count from an average of 50 words per day to 500 per day. Of course, there are days that I don’t get to write, or that I’m editing what I’ve already written, but I’m improving and getting more practice. I don’t anticipate being quite as prolific as Mr. King, but I can certainly keep his advice in mind.

Bottom line, keep writing.

Now, I continue my quest to find topics to write about. Whether it be about flipping, teaching, mindfulness, self-care, family or something completely new, I hope to stay inspired to click away at my laptop keyboard. Even though I’ve published two books, I still consider myself a novice. I’m a good writer, and I’m also a good learner. Every word I scribe takes me one step closer to being a better writer. It is an ongoing, upward continuum.

At the end of this writing about writing entry, I’m not sure I’m any closer to discovering my brand or if I’ve better defined my future-grown-up-self pathway, but at least I’ve put a lot of coherent words on a page. For today, that’s enough. Maybe tomorrow the next big idea will emerge; I’m looking forward to that “Aha!” moment.

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