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)
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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
This post really resonates with me, as someone who spent half her lifetime writing journalistically and who now teaches it. It’s been a challenge for me to strip away layers and go deeper in the journey of self-discovery (and God-discovery!) through writing from new places.
I’m so glad you did, and so glad you still do.
You write in your blog more raw than I do; though I privately pour out my heart, I struggle to know how much to reveal publicly. This post, however, represents a first step in opening up my heart more…here, on my blog.
Diana Trautwein says
AND THANK YOU FOR DOING SO. This is lovely, Ann. And I know the feeling of hiding writing away. So glad you don’t hide it all away anymore. :>)
Michelle DeRusha says
Glad you are taking this risk, Ann — I am looking forward to getting to know you even better through your raw words to come here!
Sigh. It’s not exactly woo-hoo kind of anticipation, is it? 🙂
John Blase says
Ann, I grinned at you tucking the book under your arm so no one would see, almost like sneaking out with a ‘skin’ book…and in essence, it was such a book.
Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your journey.
I did have to reveal my secret to one person: the librarian who checked out my books that day.
Thanks for your note.
Megan Willome says
This is so personal & good!
Aren’t you glad you kept that stuff? I got rid of all my middle/high school writing. I do have my early elementary work from second grade only because my mom saved it in a book: “Megan’s First Book.” It remains my only book!
Well…I didn’t keep it all, actually, and I was thinking about writing that story (of disposing of several notebooks) in tomorrow’s post.
Thank you for your comment.
Kathleen Overby says
Your peeler peeled back sweet flesh, exposing you. Thanks for offering this gift. 🙂
Yes, and all that scraping is indeed painful…and a bit worrisome. To share? Scary.
I’m going to tag you on FB with the photo I just took of this screen AND this book, because I got a used copy recently! I have not had time to read it since I went back to teaching though…
How about that?? I loved the photo on FB–we share the green book, the pink flower, the words within. It’s dated, but the meat is in there.
Charity Singleton says
Ann – This is beautiful. I love that you worked away at those exercises privately, your young self having no idea that it would be the very fodder for writing years later. I wonder if other vocations have this same kind of self discovery. Are there budding accountants sneaking off with math books, quietly working equations in her bedroom? There seems to be something unique about writers.
I pulled out an old satchel with some of those exercises crammed in, dated in the early 1980s. Most are terrible, so I don’t think I can use the actual material; I guess what I mean is that the practice of pouring out my heart was preparation and fodder for now.
(I also found diaries from that time and before, and oh, my, they are ridiculous and unusable in any way.)
Hazel I Moon says
Amazon.com has used copies of this book for about $1.99 with $3.99 shipping Total roughly $6. if anyone is interested.
My mother took us to our local library each week, and although I did no find a book on writing, I did enjoy the books there. In grade school I submitted art, poems and stories to our newspaper where they had an “Aunt Elsie” column for children. If your entry was selected you received a prize. I believe that sparked my interest in writing, but I am yet to discover if – – I am someone else other than I think I am. 🙂
How fun that you submitted to the Aunt Elsie section. What a gift that newspaper gave to those children–and you!
The book may be currently out of print, but I just purchased one from amazon!
Thank you for always being an inspiration. I gonna write with my skin off!
Andrea, I hope you enjoy Ruth’s book, that she encourages you all these years later. She is a vibrant woman and will be thrilled to know that her words are impacting writers to this day.
JoDee Luna says
Your story gives me hope that my literacy students, especially those who share your youthful desire for self-discovery, will continue to write into adulthood.
JoDee, I guess I still have that youthful desire. 🙂 *blush*
Ann, thank you so much for sharing this story. I’m so glad you listened to that deep desire to write. Sometimes, stepping outside of the labels others have given us is the bravest thing we can do.
Hugs to you.
Yes. It was difficult.
Colin Fagan says
Thank you for writing this. I have never been the most confident of writers, but it is something I continually enjoy. Journaling was actually something that helped me get through some difficult years. It never occurred to me that in taking the time to write about those difficulties that there was something of myself I was discovering. I can now see that much of my own healing came through those hours of pondering and writing. Thanks for pointing out this often overlooked aspect of writing.
Colin, what a wonderful story! Could you write this up for your own blog?