By the time I was 13 or 14 years old, I realized the children’s department couldn’t provide the depth of information I craved. Shyly, I began browsing the adult nonfiction shelves for exercise books, vegetarian cookbooks, step-by-step drawing tutorials, and a series that taught survival skills, in case I ever acted on my dream of living by myself in the woods, like the kid in My Side of the Mountain.
One afternoon I glanced through books on writing. A title caught my eye: Write to Discover Yourself.
I looked both ways and plucked it from the shelf, running my fingers over the green cover with the fuchsia gerbera daisy poking out of a cup of pencils. It was a little cheesy, but…
I desperately wanted to understand myself and unearth who I was meant to become. And deep down, I wanted to write.
Cheeks flushed, heart thumping, I tucked the book under my arm to hide the title from anyone who might question my right to write or ridicule my search for self.I feared my family’s response most of all. In a household of word-people—both parents were journalists and my brother would eventually become an advertising executive—I was the vegetarian runner who asked for art supplies at Christmas. Compared with my family, I had never demonstrated noteworthy writing talent. I lost every game of Scrabble, and at that point, my latest story was about a ladybug in search of a home.
Yes, I resolved. I would quietly write to “discover myself.”
This became my secret. I retreated to my room, scribbling responses to the author’s writing exercises in spiral-bound notebooks that I would stuff deep into my closet so that no one would peek.
I kept a journal and followed instructions to “portrait” the important people in my life, exploring memories, capturing life.
I sat on the wooden floor of my upstairs bedroom scratching out a word-portrait of my father, struggling to express the way his resonant voice, rising from deep within his barrel chest, could build and fill—even shake—the entire house. Or was it just me, shaking? On page after page of the book, the author encouraged me to continue being specific, to use concrete details and metaphor. On page after page of my notebooks, I poured out stories from my little world.
Digging into yourself requires a depth of honesty that is painful, she said, but imperative (Vaughn 25). She quoted a professor who said that a writer “is the person with his skin off” (24). This is how I began to decipher my life—on the pages of a journal, I wrote with my skin off: bare, raw, vulnerable.
My journalist-parents didn’t write like that, nor did my quick-witted brother. At least, I was pretty sure they didn’t.
Of my family, I alone seemed to practice this private outpouring of words and deeply personal stories that would form a base for future work. With the help of a stumbled-upon writing book, I privately peeled back layers to stare at my heart, my soul. And I began, through practice, through pain, through prayer, the lifelong process of finding myself.
Vaughn, Ruth. Write to Discover Yourself. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1980. Print. (currently out of print)
Note: this post contains affiliate links.
Is your writing life all it can be?
Let this book act as your personal coach, to explore the writing life you already have and the writing life you wish for, and close the gap between the two.
“A genial marriage of practice and theory. For writers new and seasoned. This book is a winner.”
—Phil Gulley, author of Front Porch Tales