I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
— Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck"
I was never a “Dear Diary” type of writer when I was younger. You know the sort I mean: one who diligently records major life events, minor changes in the weather, where she went for lunch, and with whom, and what she wore. I regret this, in a way, because aside from being a wonderful fact-checking resource—especially if you’re writing a work of creative nonfiction, or memoir, which I am—it’s WRITING. It’s the act of pen to paper, thought to hand, even if your diary is for your eyes only, even if you’d die a thousand deaths if anyone ever saw your shallow ramblings. As the acclaimed writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently said in an interview, such diaries are “a clearing house—a garbage can. Once I was writing seriously, I understood that this was the stuff that didn’t belong in my work.”
There’s value in shedding the detritus of one’s life in such a manner. I bump up against mine each time I dive into the wreck, which is to say my past, and the pasts of my long dead loved ones. The flotsam is submerged on the ocean floor of my memories—useless and irrelevant minutiae that I must sift through to find the shimmering treasures worth writing about, and all because I never rid myself of this mental clutter by keeping a diary.
The best I’ve ever been at keeping a journal was back when I was majoring in English with a creative writing sub-specialty at Oberlin College. I was developing my voice as a poet, and we aspirants were expected to think deeply about the reading we were doing and write about our discoveries in our journals. Nearly 25 years on, I still have those notebooks, still have the books—Denise Levertov’s The Poet in the World, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics—that inspired my entries. Dog-eared, with cracked spines, they rest on the shelf behind my desk, along with an array of newer books on craft and the creative process.
Here’s a brief excerpt from those days, when I was an older student learning what it meant to live a creative life:
Some thoughts on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet …
In his first letter to Franz Kappus, Rilke advises him to quit sending manuscripts out, to give up ‘looking outward’ for validations of his
poetry. He writes:
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way.
Go into yourself …
Rilke prescribes that one question whether writing is essential to one’s existence—a fundamental and dangerous question. If the answer is affirmative, ‘then build your life according to this necessity.’
I’m still trying to “build [my] life according to this necessity.”
Those writers among you who have, like me, spent a quarter-century of life working at jobs or careers, or raising families, will understand that while one must earn one’s daily bread (and sometimes bake it for others), “necessity” pounds an insistent drumbeat—sometimes quiet, sometimes deafening—a counter-pulse felt even while you’re off dancing to a different one. If you simply have to write—and you know who you are—you will do it. I’m now 58 years old, with necessity still pounding a counterpoint to my heartbeat. I’m not dancing to any other drumbeat now. I, as the hashtag would have it, #amwriting.
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.