“I’m fine!”

Long ago, back in my restaurant service-supervisor days (yes, I was such a thing), I had a boss named Stan who had been a Marine, and never really recovered. I forget what in the Marines. But he still had the haircut and the posture, if not the physique. He was a district manager and he dropped in a couple times a month. I opened 2 or 3 restaurants with him. If he asked you how things were going and you said, “Fine,” he said, “Fine! That’s when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Fine, a fine word with lots of meanings. I went to Merriam Webster on-line to check and found the following:

Free from impurity; very thin in gauge or texture–not coarse–very small (fine print)–keen (a knife with a fine edge)–very precise or accurate; physically trained or hardened to efficiency (said of an athlete or an animal); delicate, subtle or sensitive in perception (a fine taste in art); superior in kind, quality, or appearance; ornate (as in writing); very well, more than okay (often ironic–Stan was right!).

Then there’s a fine as in a penalty (a traffic fine), and fine as an intensifier, like very, and all of these deriving from the same root as words like fin (as in fish fin). Think finish, the end. 

Not quite sure where I’m going with this, except it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. A friend confided that she can’t stand to keep a journal. She asked what I do, “lists?” Sometimes I write lists. I usually include a paragraph on “what happened yesterday.” But I keep going, past that, into what’s happening in my brain, in my — well, for lack of a better word, in my heart.

When I’m stuck, I write questions. Sometimes I ask myself questions, and sometimes “I” answer. I sometimes write prayers. I write down quotations from things I’m reading. Sometimes I write snippets of poems or character sketches or short scenes.

I reread my journal every so often (especially the current one, but sometimes older ones) and I try to pick out topics that recur so I can write about them again. I’m sure that anyone else would find my pages mind-numbingly repetitive, boring! But when I worked in restaurants, back in the day, writing in a spiral bound notebook (in 100s of spiral bound notebooks, morning after morning and week and month and year after year), kept me alive. It kept the essential, moody, dreaming, creative me alive. Eventually, writing was what helped me reach what Julia Cameron calls “escape velocity.”

Writing 3 pages in a notebook every morning–even now, when writing is my job–drops me beneath the surface of my lifeI can’t lie to myself when I write in my journal. (Later, I might ignore or willfully forget what I wrote, but it’s all there.)

You can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages. (Not unless you want to bore even yourself silly.) Certainly you can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages multiplied over 12 weeks of writing.

“But even if you never share a sentence of your diary with anyone else, you will share it through your life. Its existence will touch other people by the way it changes you and permits you to develop in self-awareness, directness, and honesty. As you acquire and refine the talent for helping yourself in the diary, you will grow in your ability to understand and nourish others. While it permits you to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being, it also opens the way for a deep understanding of human nature.” -Tristine Rainer, The New Diary

Keeping a journal is kind of like my own, portable Stan, that bossy, buzz-cut ex-Marine who won’t let me get away with bullshit. It’s a fine practice and it gets me past “fine.” It gets me through the nitty-gritty of everyday stuff. It gets me down to the finer stuff. Over and over.

Digging deeper…the journaling process

Here’s more about what I’ve been up to lately. I’m writing a novel, set in a logging town in southwest Washington state in 1925. The main focus is marriage and I’m experimenting with multiple points of view (literally and figuratively, as it seems). The main character is a woman who, after the death of her first husband (and father of her two children) in the Great War, remarried for all the wrong reasons. Husband number 2 was a close friend of husband number 1, and he is a good provider. He represents financial security. She meets a man, of course, who promises passion (that’s the story). A second “main” character is a man whose wife left him two years earlier. His story is how to make himself a large enough person to win his wife back.

To write this book, I realized early in the process, I was going to have to dig deeper into my own stuff.  

In May I wrote 500-1000 words a day (sometimes more), just drafting and dreaming. In June I determined to get it all typed up and to begin arranging it. I also, prompted by two books on journaling, determined to dig deeper into my…well, my stuff. 

The first book was Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon.  The second was Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Connor.

I have been writing every morning in a journal for years and years and years. If you read my blog regularly, you already know this. So why would I need any guide to journaling? Why would I recommend one to you?

One reason is that I have been recognizing how shallow my journal habit is. Okay, not always. But sometimes it’s quite shallow.  When I read back through old journals they often sound like chronicles of what I’ve been up to with my family. Old journal entries are often to-do lists. Especially annoying, I find that I have griped about the same things, over and over and over. For years. This, however, 2014, is my breakout year. I’ve left full-time teaching. My main excuse for procrastination, for not finishing writing projects is gone. My main excuse for not doing the kind of teaching I would really like to do–that’s gone, too.

Now, how do I dig down below the surface and write into the heart of my deepest desires and dreams? That’s why I read these books, and that’s why I’m recommending them to you.

Light a candle, put on the music, and write for 20 minutes. Ask yourself–your deeper self (your soul, God, spirit, or whatever you wish to call it) what your assignment is. Then, as Janet Conner elegantly points out, once it tells you what your assignment is, then you have to do that assignment.

Writing this blog post was my assignment today.

What I’m Writing Down

“The habits of journal writing create a most interesting distance between you and your thoughts. Finding out that your thoughts are not inevitable and discovering that not only your thoughts but also your feelings change when you write your thoughts down, you can shift the emphasis, style, and content of your thinking. Experiencing your own powers of observation, coupled with a greater awareness that you have choices, increases your sense of self-mastery and inner stability. That is no small thing.” –Stephanie DowrickCreative Journal Writing, page 32

I’m mad at my husband. He decided a few weeks ago that he should replace all of the interior doors in the upstairs of our house. He hated the old doors, he claimed (we have lived here for 17 years, and that’s the first I’ve heard of it). Now that I look at that statement, it seems interesting psychologically. If he were a character in a novel, I wonder what his back story would be?

When I fight with Bruce, I feel like a child again. I feel helpless and out of control. I feel overwhelmed and besieged. I want to find a place where I can be alone, a defensible fortress of solitude. There was no place like that in my house last night. I also didn’t feel it would be fair to absent myself from my daughters.

For the record, I didn’t want Bruce to take on this project with the doors. I told him, very clearly, that I didn’t want him to. We have a houseful of kids right now, for one thing; this particular weekend is Emma’s big choir concert. Annie is home, and she’s borrowed a friend’s three-year-old.  When I thought I’d help out by making dinner, Bruce announced that he had dinner “under control.” Tarps on the kitchen floor, sawhorses, sawdust, random boards. (It was really no place for a three-year-old, or for a fifty-seven year old, for that matter.)


We fought. He won and he cleaned up everything and made dinner. He yelled at the three-year-old when she got underfoot and upset everyone (Annie cried). The wise child said, “Uncle Bruce is sad.”

After dinner I got out Dowrick’s book and my journal. I kept repeating to myself the words, you have choices. I didn’t work all the way through it, I admit, but it helped. My journal, if nothing else, is my defensible fortress of solitude. When I was ready to come out and be part of my family again, I felt stronger.