“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 107: The Memoirist as Blogger

A friend from work has decided to start a blog about gardening.  Her flowers are widely sought out around town.  I'm telling you, a walk through her flower beds is a sublime experience; the colors alone are dazzling.  Her readers who are themselves expert gardeners will bring their specialized knowledge to the reading of her blog, and they will become part of her extended planting community.  And then there are the novices who will read: maybe, under her cyber-tutelage, those of us who don't have green thumbs (I, myself, am known to be a plant assassin) will learn practical things we can try on our own.   But I have a feeling I will love reading the blog even if I never try to grow anything again.  In fact, I might not feel the need to garden after I read her posts and look at the pictures.  Perhaps I will have satisfied that craving.

We've been e-mailing each other about the nuts and bolts of keeping a blog, and our correspondence has given me the occasion to reflect on what I have learned from writing "Winter with Zoe" and why I want to continue, even though my original assignment to myself, to meditate and do a post for 108 straight days, is coming to an end this week along with the arrival of spring.

I should point out here that just as I have a black thumb my friend, the gardener, is not someone I think of as a dog person, or at least a Zoe person.  The gardener loves cats and horses, but the first time she came to my house, Zoe scared her.  Zoe was a lot more skittish then and she barked at my friend from the deck.  Plus there's that wolfy stare.  But my friend still reads the posts about my dog, which is deeply gratifying to me, and our exchange made me think about what writing is, who we write for, and why.

Blogs, of course, have the potential to reach people quickly because of the speed of the web, and that is partly where their power comes from: their immediacy.  But I'm really talking about using a blog to write creative nonfiction: how an individual blog post can function as an essay, or mini-memoir.  I'm writing most of these posts about my dog and her illness, but the dog is the catalyst for writing about a lot of other things: time, mortality, mindfulness, meditation, and love.  It's about me.  Which means, when and if it succeeds as a piece of writing, that it's about you, gentle reader, as well.

Like many of my colleagues who teach non-fiction writing to college students, I subscribe to the view, posited by the French Renaissance essayist and humanist Michel de Montaigne, that (rough translation) every man (and woman) bears the whole stamp of the human condition.

I just came across a great blog, Writing is my Drink, in which the writer quoted a memoirist named Clairer Dederer, author of Posing, who wrote:
“Thinking the event is the story is the biggest mistake of student writers,” she said. “The transformation of the self is the story.”
Vivian Gornick makes this distinction in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  She describes the "situation" as the plot, the events we are narrating, the memoir (or in this case, post) about planting flowers or tending to a sick pet.  The story is how the narrator is transformed by those events, including the telling of the story.  The “emotional experience that preoccupies the writer" is the thing non-specialists will read for, and it's the part of the writing that people find nourishing.

And that's what I'm getting to in today's post.  If a memoirist is writing a blog, the story is never just the literal sequence of events: We tried this drug on Zoe, and it worked, but this one didn't. 

I would be so happy if I found out that anyone reading "Winter with Zoe" was able to use any information I provide in a practical way.  But others, the majority of readers, will come to a blog looking for nourishment they can bring to their own lives.  And those readers might not all be dog-lovers (or, in my friend's case, gardeners).

Although it has been a challenging assignment to write 104 posts in the last 107 days (there were three occasions when I had amazing student writers do guest-posts for me) finding something about every day that was worth turning into a mini-essay meant living far more thoughtfully.  I try to work stuff out as it comes up, gleaning its potential lessons.  So I feel like I'm living more richly, more fully as a result.

It's as though life were a series of meals, and having to make meaning of this life day after day, from moment to moment, allows me to draw on more of each meal's nutrients.

If you read yesterday's post, you know I got some bad news at the animal hospital.  I was in good form for the whole evening, but by bedtime, I was in tears. 

When I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and looking ahead to the next day, I didn't know how I could tell the story of this setback.  I don't share my pain and sadness with people readily.  I hate whining.  I know that people have much harder things to deal with in their lives than sick pets.  I certainly don't ever want to depress people.  But as I wrote, I tapped into the goodness and kindness of all the people who have been part of the story, especially for the last 24 hours.  And I let that kindness and care enter my heart as I wrote.  And I located that kindness and goodness within myself as well.  And I felt almost elated when I pressed "publish." 

In other words, by writing and posting, and making myself vulnerable in this way to a lot of people I don't even know, the writing is oddly, paradoxically, less about me.  It's about us.  The big wide web of us.  When that us comes back to me, through the writing and posting, I feel more resilient and strong.  Not strong in a tough way, full of bravado and stoicism.  I feel a greater tenderness around what hurts, and an openness, and that becomes the entryway to the wider web of caring we all share.

Today when I meditated, I opened Your True Home, the Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh at random and found this quote:
You contain multitudes.  Every one of us is a miraculous flower in the garden of humanity.  If you look deeply into yourself, you will see that you possess everything.  As the poet Walt Whitman said, "I am large. I contain multitudes."  The one contains all--that is the insight of Buddhism.  If you practice deep looking, you will discover this truth, the mystery of inter-being: the one contains all.
Now, I know there are a lot of blogs out there that help us get specialized knowledge we need to get something done.  When you look at a woodworker's blog on how she built the bookshelf, you probably don't want to know how she felt.  You want technique, woods, measurements, power tools and where they can be bought.

My friend the gardener knows stuff.  She's also a scholar, a multilingual historian who brings intellectual rigor to everything she does.  Her blog will appeal to gardeners who want to know stuff too, like how deep to dig that bed, how to deal with being in climate zone 4, and how to get rid of the aphids.   It will be a blog of real earth substance. 

I have a feeling, though, that what will flower from this project will be far more than the flowers themselves. 

Namaste, readers and writers everywhere.


  1. Amazingly (or maybe not), I was reading Your True Home, the Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh this week.

  2. I love when those coincidences happen! Today's post is kind of about that. Thanks for reading, sandy.

  3. Oh, I so wish I'd had this post while "teaching" my blog class! (I didn't really teach; they taught me...)

  4. Thank you, Brenda! You know how much I love your blog . . .