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It was so light when I awoke this morning that my first thought was that I must have slept in. I hadnít. Itís just that itís been the brightest and sunniest day for weeks and against a backdrop of a cold and bleak winter the contrast was extraordinary. Bidding farewell to February in the Northern Hemisphere is significant and the first day of March carries with it the promise of all that is to come Ė warmer days, more sunlight, an improved sense of well being Ė and it was with a renewed sense of optimism that I stepped out into the new day.
One of my favourite poems is Robert Frostís
The Road Less Travelled
. Its wisdom has often resonated with me, a wisdom which over the years has been borne out many times. We all have times in life when, faced with difficult and sometimes contradictory choices, we have to decide between the well and less trodden path, a choice we rarely retreat from once made. And for all the trepidation they may inspire itís often the decision to make the safer choice that can inspire such regret later in life.
As for me,
Two paths diverged in the woods, and I . . .
Three days in and I find myself seriously grappling with what to write. When I first began writing for this site I had no concept of an audience beyond the odd, unknown stranger who might stumble across it and by some twist of fate end up reading some of what Iíve posted here. Since then, things have changed. Iíve made friends with some of the other people who write here and have shared this site with friends, some of whom choose to follow what I write. And flattering though that may be it begs the question: what should I write?
Thereís something innately satisfying about committing words to paper, be they virtual or otherwise. I discovered early in life that I had a knack for stringing them together. I was one of those nerds at school who could knock out a four line poem and get an A while my classmates filled four pages and got a C. The ability to write gave me an edge, and although I no longer kid myself that I have either the talent or discipline required to create great literature I have nonetheless come to value highly the ability to mark time with words.
The pleasure I derive from writing is something Iíve been completely incapable of sharing with the students I currently work with. When I tell them that I keep a diary and a journal and that I also write 100 words a day they look at me as though Iíve parachuted in from another planet. Theirs is a world bereft of the pleasures of language, grounded as theirs is in the overuse of a pitifully limited range of expletives that to an anthropologist would no doubt provide rich fodder for the study of the cultural poverty of certain inner city communities.
I have a lot to thank my teachers for. Growing up in a manufacturing satellite city on the outskirts of a small Australian city in the 1970s, I was fortunate to have been on the receiving end of surprisingly high quality teaching. I was an undoubtedly precocious teenager in many ways and it would have been easy for me to get above myself had it not been for the rigour of the intellectual debate that went on in my English and history classes and the fact that my teachers pushed me hard and made no concessions in their marking policies.
I discovered early on in life that writing things down was a way of making sense of the world. When I was 13 I was given a diary which I maintained faithfully for many years. I soon discovered however that half a page a day was not always enough space in which to get down on paper all the things I wanted to say so I started keeping journals as well. Many were the times when I would pour out my heart in words when it seemed there was no one else who could understand what I was going through.
Writing oneís thoughts down is all well and good but letting other people read what youíve written is not without its risks. As a teenager I was a lot more trusting than most, not to mention naÔve, especially when it came to people I wanted to impress. I learned the hard way that taking people into your confidence is all well and good but there were many times when it backfired on me. Without going into details there were times when my words were thrust back at me in ways I hadnít foreseen by people Ė adults mainly Ė who should have known better.
Until quite recently Iíve always written things in longhand first before transcribing them to the computer. Iíve always felt that thereís something special about words on paper. Take letters for example. We live in an age when email has rendered the act of writing letters in the traditional sense is all but obsolete. Not that I have anything against emails per se but the act of writing and receiving emails is qualitively very different to writing and/or receiving a letter. Email may be faster and more efficient but nothing can compare to the resonance and feel on a hand-written letter.
There is a box in an attic on the other side of the world filled with letters I received throughout my teenage years and beyond. Some are written by people I have loved or cared about who are no longer alive. Some are written by people I thought Iíd lost forever and have only recently rediscovered. All are precious pieces of the tapestry of my life that allow me access and insight into not only who we all once were but who we were to each other. Iíve shed many possessions over the years, but not my box of letters.
Iíve always tended to write more during periods of transition or change or when Iíve been upset or disturbed by something. Iíve been most prolific when life has been at its most turbulent and less so when things have been on an even keel. Writing for me is, amongst other things, an act of touching base with myself; of checking in with that part of me that acts like a silent witness to all that goes on in my day to day living; that wiser, more stable part of me that serves to guide me on the journey of life.
I know so many people for whom a large chunk of their lives is a blur. Certain key moments may stand out in their minds but when it comes to any chronological appreciation of their journey through life there are great gaps of forgetfulness. Their memories are patchy; vague at best. This to me seems sad. I am perhaps fortunate in being able to see what I was doing on any given day between the ages of 13 and 22, and thereafter I have more than enough material to fill in any gaps that may exist in the written narrative.
One of the interesting things about getting older is how we change. I remember when I was a lot younger vowing to remain the same no matter what, as though growing older was something to be resisted at all costs. I used to have a very negative attitude about the prospect of aging. After all, it doesnít always get the best press. Then again, thatís not such a bad thing. At least I didnít have too many expectations and therefore as the years have rolled by Iíve not been nearly as distressed by it as I once imagined Iíd be.
Some people look back upon their lives and have difficulty remembering who they once were. Others become miserable at the thought that their so-called best years are behind them. If I want to remember who I was once I simply have to pick up an old diary or journal and I can be right back there. And what I find so remarkable sometimes is how much I have written over the years. Great literature itís not but what it does allow for is the chance to reacquaint myself with so much of my past that might otherwise have been forgotten.
I was reading recently about new research being conducted into people suffering from Alzheimerís whereby small, discreet video cameras are used to record key events and/or special occasions that they share with others which are then played back to them later. The evidence is suggesting that this can help in the recall of significant events. It has often occurred to me that if I ever end up suffering from Alzheimerís or dementia then perhaps my diaries and journals might afford me the opportunity to revisit my life, even if I am no longer able to recognise it as my own.
A couple of years ago I spent some time reading aloud some old letters to my then 94 year old mother that she and my father had written to her parents who were stationed in Nova Scotia during the war. These letters chronicled their daily experience of the war while trying to raise a new family. Throughout my reading she sat transfixed, remembering some things while having little or no memory of others. When Iíd finished she became disorientated, as though caught somewhere between what had been and what now was and it took some time for her to readjust.
Itís not just diaries, letters and journals that have served me well over the years. There are other forms of writing that I have employed at various times for a variety of purposes. One of these is dialoguing. Itís a bit like writing a play except thereís no intended audience other than oneself. I first encountered the technique while participating in an Intensive Journal Workshop based on the work of Dr. Ira Progoff. Essentially, you can dialogue with anyone or anything. The possibilities are endless and the outcomes often remarkable, providing insights that might otherwise have remained hidden from view.
My most powerful dialoguing experience was with what Progoff refers to as Inner Wisdom; that part of ourselves that somehow has the bigger picture and can see through our daily self-deceptions. Following a very sudden and unexpected breakup with a partner many years ago, the only thing that got me through was dialoguing with my inner wisdom. At a time when my whole world was crashing around me I discovered I had a centre of gravity Iíd not known about before. It wasnít the first time that writing had helped maintain my sanity but it was arguably the most memorable.
Another technique is Morning Pages. Anyone who knows the work of Julia Cameron will be familiar with the technique. Essentially, upon waking each day you write 3 full pages in longhand. The idea is to allow whatever comes forth to be expressed with as little interruption or self-censorship as possible. Itís an excellent way of clocking up the pages but more importantly it allows for the emergence of things that would not normally surface. Itís not a technique Iíve managed to maintain for more than three months at a time but itís been a useful tool for clearing the head.
Then thereís creative writing. For a long time Iíd had this dream of writing a book and a couple of years ago, in partnership with my sister, I did just that. What began as a bit of fun gradually blossomed into some 400 pages of what at the time seemed to both of us a sure-fired best seller. As it turns out, thatís not been the case. Nonetheless, the pleasure of having written it and the sense of achievement that we both gained from doing so, not to mention the high level of creative interaction between us, was simply priceless.
When I was a small boy I used to sneak into my fatherís office early in the morning and bang away on his typewriter to my heartís content. There was something magical about the clackity-clack of the keys and the appearance letters on a page. Iíd try to type as fast as I could, feeling ever so grown up as I did so. What I wrote was pure gobbledygook (I hadnít learnt how to write yet) but there was something thrilling and intoxicating about what I was doing and to this day I still have a fetish for old typewriters.
Itís been many years since Iíve lived anywhere with space to spare but when I do so I think Iíd like to start collecting and restoring vintage typewriters. I have a couple stashed away here in our little flat in London which I intend to take back to Australia with me in a few months time. It may seem like an odd thing to collect but for me they are (the old ones at least) objects of great beauty and technical ingenuity. For convenience and functionality I love my laptop but for romance and sensuality, old typewriters win hands down.
I think I was 11 years old when I got my first typewriter. It was an ancient monster of a thing that weighed a ton or more but to me it was the best gift Iíd ever received and I immediately sat down to write a novel which, at a little under four pages, was perhaps one of the shorter such works in the English language. What remains with me still is the incredible sense of power; the feeling of having something with which to translate my ideas into concrete form. Itís a thrill I still get to this day.
From the age of 11 to 14 I was firmly convinced that I was going to become a world famous science fiction writer. Indeed, I was going to put Australia on the Sci-fi map. Having graduated from Enid Blyton to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov in a very short period of time I imagined life laid out in front of me with all the accolades I would one day received for the many books and short stories I was going to write. As it turned out, my life took a rather different course but I remember these fantasies fondly.
Some people have just one style of handwriting. Over the years Iíve acquired thee or more. If Iím making notes or writing anything official I use a very formalised and neat, capitalised style. If Iím getting ideas down quickly I have an untidy, scribbled style that is more focused on speed than anything else. If Iím engaged in any kind of reflective writing I have a forward leaning, printed style that tends to look as though itís joined up but isnít. Then there are the styles I use more out of laziness than anything else and donít warrant a mention.
Until quite recently Iíve always written something in longhand first before typing it up afterwards. Thereís something innately satisfying about filling a book pad of paper, just as thereís something about picking up an old volume of writing or bundle of notes that is completely different to simply reading the bare text. Iím fussy about what pen I use. It doesnít have to be expensive but it does have to feel just right in the hand and the ink needs to flow easily. With the right pen and the right paper I can happily write for hours, and often do.
Where I write is as important to me as what I write with. If I have to I can write just about anywhere but I do need to establish certain conditions. For example, as I write these words I am sitting with my laptop at a makeshift desk, a white laminate cupboard door resting on an ironing board in the middle room of our London flat. I have my regular desk with my desktop computer behind me but that is where I sit when I go online which makes it far too distracting for the purpose of writing 100 words.
My favourite place for writing here in London is the coffee shop downstairs. Being on the corner of the block it affords views of the street which are interesting enough to make it a pleasant place to sit while being familiar enough to avoid distraction. Itís a place where I can enjoy a coffee and allow the voices of patrons to wash over me while my mind wanders freely enough to find the words I need to give form to whatever it is that arrests my interest and attention enough to warrant writing down. Iíll miss it when we leave.
Every month I fear I may not meet the deadline. I wonder whether I still have anything worthwhile to say. And while I probably shouldnít admit it there are times when I play catch up but Iím not going to beat myself up over it. The fact of the matter is Iíve made an (until now) unspoken commitment to this project for the rest of my days whether or not the site continues to exist and flourish or not. When I first started I imagined Iíd keep it up for a few months maybe but now I canít imagine stopping.
I remember once listening to an interview with Julia Cameron in which she described writing as a basic human need. Itís a view that has resonated with me ever since. To be sure there are many people for whom writing has no allure but for those of us for whom it does, whether we write purely for ourselves or for others, the allure is both magical and compulsive. Strange as it may sound to some, if I donít write I donít feel whole. Itís become such an integral part of who I am I canít imagine my life without it.
It occurs to me that my theme for this month has been something of a naval gazing exercise. I suppose thatís the nature of this style of writing. As I suggested at the start of this month, writing is a way of helping me make sense of the world and of myself. I cannot profess to being a prolific reader although I do read regularly. Nor can I profess to being a great writer although I have at times written prolifically. In the end I write because itís become a lifelong habit.
I write, therefore I am. Itís that simple.
The Tip Jar