Just Write!

I recently read Julia Cameron’s book Right to Write. If you are familiar with her name but can’t place her, she wrote The Artist’s Way. I love her writing because she not only encourages creativity but also provides concrete steps on how to be more creative, no matter your medium. She introduces writing as a communication process between you and you. I’ve read The Artist’s Way at least four times now, but other than morning pages and art dates, I’ve not implemented many of her processes, and none of them for long periods of time.

To be honest, I’ve been a writer longer than I can remember. My mom tells the story of me writing my brother’s name on the wall and claiming it was him. He wasn’t even a toddler. I would have been 3. Paper and crayons, markers, pencils and pens were my favorite inside toys. I never was very good at coloring, especially if I had to stay inside the lines, but I’ve always been able to fill a page with words, even if it is the names of everyone in the family over and over.

In The Right to Write, Cameron invites everyone to write. She says people are born with words, and they need to get them out. OK, she didn’t say exactly that. But it is true. All of us are born with the need to communicate, to be heard. Some have more difficulty putting words on pages, but almost everyone can write, especially when we consider the modern tools at our disposal that allows us to literally use our voice for written communication. Certainly everyone has something to say and deserves to have his or her voice heard. Cameron’s premise is that we all have the right to write. By writing we communicate, first with ourselves, then with others. Cameron invites all of us to write and teaches us how to write.

What I find fascinating is that on page 10, Cameron describes what I have such a hard time doing with my writing: Thinking up what to write next. I’ve never been very good about coming up with stories to tell. I think that’s why I did well as a journalist. The editor assigned the story, or as I gathered experience, I also gathered my own “story” ideas. But those stories were always about real people, people that I usually could talk to and question. People I could describe. The stories were always about them, and I didn’t have to worry about making any of it up.

Now I’ve decided to write a novel. And on the face of it, it seems similar – historical fiction based on my great-great-great-grandfather’s life in Ireland and immigration to Canada at the age of 14. I have pictures of him and his siblings, wife and children. I have stories passed down through generations. I have an outline of where he went, with whom and how he got there. I have a small essay of his life that he wrote for the historical record of Cass County, Michigan. But I don’t have much to go on before he got on a ship to Canada. I can only guess what happened when he landed. I don’t know how the conversations went. I don’t know how his parents lived or died. History isn’t written about poor people with no influence even though most of history is made by them, and not much has been written about the impoverished Irish before the Great Famine, so I get to make everything up. Except it’s really hard to make stuff up. But I plug on and on. Thinking about what comes next.

Cabin at Lang Pioneer Village in Ontario
My ancestor lived in a cabin similar to this for at least four years after emigrating to Canada from Ireland. Seeing an example helps inspire my writing.

It’s fascinating to think about the process. Non-writers, including me before I started writing fiction, always want to know where novelists get their ideas. Part of it is from life. Part of it is from the “What if” questions that all of us ask but few answer. For me, it is kind of like watching a movie in my head. I watch what William and his family do. That is his name, William. I listen to his conversations, fully aware that I probably wouldn’t understand him through the brogue, but I try to capture the words and the meanings while allowing the accent to provide a little bit of flavor. I also try to make the language easy to understand for my modern readers. I’m aware of how many “classics” are difficult to read because of the language, language that would have been more easily understood at the time of writing but is difficult now because the language has changed so much.

As I watch and listen, I try to pick out the details that make life in Ireland in the 1820s authentic. I do a bit of research every time I sit at the keyboard. What was the weather like in December? In May? What do I need to know about potatoes? What clothing did they wear?

I’ve watched a few movies to fill in some gaps. Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman helped. It was set 70 years after William, after the Great Famine, after so many people emigrated or died. No mud hovels in Far and Away, but the stone cottages are there. They had stone floors. Now that makes sense. The part of Cork County, Ireland, I am writing about has plenty of stone, but no lumber. So of course the cottage floors would be made of stone. I didn’t think about that. So I’ll change it in my story.

At any rate, all of us have stories. Most of us have lots of stories. That was my favorite part of working as a journalist – listening to people’s stories and getting to ask questions. Of course, my favorite ones were the hardest, both for the person to tell and for me to write. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying William’s story so much.

If you have an inkling to write, write! Start with a journal. Many published authors started with blogs that were essentially online journals. If you never publish, that’s OK too. But consider the legacy you leave for your family. What lessons have you learned over the years? What aspects of history did you witness? What is life like for you you know? What are you struggling with? Write down those stories. You can share your wisdom, and also, your life.  I am glad William wrote what he did. I wish he would have written more. Now it’s my turn to write my story, or one of my stories.

I am including a link to The Artist’s Way if you are interested. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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