In August, I traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the very tip of Cape Cod, to attend a fiction and memoir workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center with my literary idol, Dani Shapiro. It was an intense week of work, discovery, and joy, a week in which I learned many new things and relearned a few others, not the least of which is the importance of keeping a writing journal.
Shapiro, like the most insightful physician you’ve ever encountered, honed in on our individual manuscripts, but only after each of us chimed in with our notes and comments, questions and praise. She always went last, offering keen observations from her vast experience as a writer and teacher, and reading choice excerpts—carefully chosen to apply to the work at hand—from her small notebook, what she calls her book of “curated wisdom.” For example:
“In order to write well, one must have an empathic imagination .… The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” —Virginia Woolf
“We don’t choose the stories we tell. They choose us. If we don’t tell them, we are somehow diminished.” —Honor Moore
Read this next: On Creative Writing and Curated Wisdom: Part I
These prescriptions, seemingly compounded expressly for each woman (10 of us in all), would help shape and guide what we were trying to do on the page. I’d forgotten how useful the practice of that sort of diary keeping is for a writer. In the busy-ness of my days, I’d forgotten how a careful copying out—extracted and exacted like some medieval scribe hunched over an illuminated manuscript—extends the power of reading and deepens the learning.
Shapiro’s own notebooks, purchased in London, she told us, are intentionally small, forcing her to write slowly and neatly, thus internalizing the wisdom she’s curating. She told of her sadness at no longer being able to find those books, despite searching for them on her travels, despite scouring the Internet.
When I returned to Ohio, I found some beautiful, small notebooks in a small, independent bookstore in Oberlin that I thought might work for her. I sent her one—receiving a lovely note in response—and bought one for myself.
Certain writers resonate with other writers. For me, for this past year, it’s been Shapiro. Her voice, the rhythm of her language, her sensibility, touches that counter-pulse that runs through me.
It is fitting that for my own notebook, the first piece of curated wisdom comes from her memoir Slow Motion:
But today, something begins to shift. I see that there might be some
way I can take the raw material of my life and transform it into
something that transcends my own experience. I can organize the
noise in my head into something that has order and structure. I can
make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.
And so, as I #amwriting, I work to make sense of the senseless, to find shimmering bits of truth amid the detritus that I never recorded in a diary, aided by the wisdom I discover and curate as I go, notes from others to light my way through the wide, deep, dark sea of memory.
Writer Marci Rich's blog, “The Midlife Second Wife,” was honored in 2012 by the Huffington Post (where she's a contributing blogger) as one of the top seven blogs for readers over 50. Among the print and online publications in which her essays, poems, and articles have appeared are the Richmond Times-Dispatch; the Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio); the Oberlin Alumni Magazine and the magazine for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (she edited the latter for 10 years); Silver Kris (Singapore); Katie.com, the website for the Katie Couric show; BlogHer; HumorWriters.org (Erma Bombeck); and the literary journals FIELD, Timbuktu, Synaesthetic and the Abiko Quarterly (Japan), among others. Rich is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oberlin College, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, and where she won the Academy of American Poets student award. More recently, she studied with author Dani Shapiro at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Rich lives with her husband in Rocky River, Ohio, and is writing a memoir.