In last week’s interview, Patrice Gopo described the stories that bubbled up inside her—personal stories about topics she cared deeply about as she grappled with her identity and where she fit in society.
Patrice grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, as a black American daughter of Jamaican immigrants. She wanted to explore that, to make sense of it all.
Through writing. She turned to the essay to figure out her life, to delve into her experiences—to discover self and live a more meaningful life
We, too, can delve into our experiences, diving beneath the surface to discover ourselves and live more meaningful lives.
Elizabeth Lesser writes in Broken Open:
If we don’t listen to the voice of the soul, it sings a stranger tune. If we don’t go looking for what lies beneath the surface of our lives, the soul comes looking for us.
I haven’t read Lesser’s book, but that line urging us to look for what lies beneath the surface of our lives? We can use writing to do just that: to look for what lies beneath and listen to the voice of the soul.
It starts with an image, perhaps, or an interaction that bubbles up—a scene or memory. Pay attention to each one. Capture in detail this scene or image.
You can do this on the spot or during a writing session later. Add sensory details. Try to recreate it objectively. That helps to examine and explore the meaning in it.
If you don’t have time to write at that instant, jot down in a notebook a key word or phrase that can serve as a reminder or prompt. When you settle in to write it out in more detail, you’ll have many to choose from.
Anne Lamott captures these snatches on 3×5 cards she carries in her pocket. Patrice uses a simple composition notebook tucked in her bag. I use Evernote or Google Keep.
When you write—when you start to dive in and look beneath the surface—be curious about yourself, about that scene or image or snatch of dialogue.
Why am I remembering that moment my dad grazed his leg with the chainsaw? Why does the sensation of flying back and forth in the swing keep coming back to me? Why does that glass doorknob make me tear up?
Patrice says that when we’re trying to understand what’s happening in our lives or in the world—when we delve deeply into an incident to see its significance and why it matters—that’s meaning-making on the page.
The incident could be big or small. As an example, Patrice said she noted in her journal that a couple of weeks ago her husband brought her a chocolate bar. It occurred to her he’s been bringing her chocolate bars throughout their entire marriage.
Why are these chocolate bar moments over the years coming to mind? Why does he bring them? It seems small, but it’s rising to the surface. She’s listening to the voice of her soul.
She pulled out her composition book and started writing some of the other scenes and memories, all because she was struck by that recurring image of a chocolate bar.
She doesn’t know the answer yet; the meaning is unclear. For now, she’s exploring it.
We can do that, too.
We can write scenes and reflect. Let’s let curiosity and a sense of discovery lead us.
Stay open as you listen to the voice of the soul; look for what lies beneath the surface of your life.
You Don’t Need an Outline or Plan
Thanks to our early academic training in the essay form, it’s tempting to set out with a thesis and outline our way into understanding, theme, and meaning.
Resist…at least, at first.
Anne Lamott, in a podcast interview for “Books of Your Life with Elizabeth,” says not to worry about outlines.
There’s that old saying that you can’t get lost if you don’t have a destination. People are always saying, “Don’t you have an outline?” And I say, “No, I don’t know what I’m doing. How would I be able to do an outline? I’ll find out what I’m doing by doing the writing.”
Start writing without knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going. What lies beneath the surface? Deep dive and look around before you leap to conclusions.
Like Patrice writing about the chocolate bar, not knowing exactly why it seems important, start to write about those images and memories nagging you.
- Write about that chainsaw still whirring when your dad let it drop to his side so that it slit his pants.
- Write how you felt both terrified and free when you’d swing high, legs straight out, pointing to the sky.
- Write how the glass door knob at an Airbnb transported you back to your grandmother’s house.
Write without knowing where it’s going or what theme is emerging. You’ll find out by writing.
That doesn’t mean it’s pretty, or easy, or quick. Delving into the meaning behind our lives without any kind of plan or purpose for the piece can be nerve-wracking.
Anne Lamott tells people she’ll figure it out as she goes, but those same people will say, “Doesn’t that just make you so tense?” She tells them, “Yeah. Totally. Look at me.”
But she also said it’s inspiring to tell people this:
[N]o one knows what they’re doing. Join the club. Welcome to the monkey house, where you sit down, you have an idea—you have an image, maybe, you have a memory, you heard some dialogue and it got you thinking—and you just start there. You start where you are.
Go Where It Takes You
You don’t have to know where you’re going, but you have to be willing to go wherever the path on the page leads. Through writing, we find meaning, clarity, and understanding.
Write with that terrifying sense of openness to what’s next.
Patrice says to write scenes, reflect, and stay flexible. “[T]hat is what to write an essay is, it’s a discovery process. You’re going to discover something new about yourself or new about the world or just new about the situation you’re in, whatever it may be.”
Rather than deciding ahead of time what it’ll be about or where it’s going, lean in close and listen to discern the truth, the meaning as you write.
The Writer’s Portable Memoir, which Patrice recommended in her interview, (loc 159), quotes the novelist Walter Mosley:
Nothing we create…is art at first. It is simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made.
Write Your Way to a More Meaningful Life
The essay form, as Patrice has discovered, offers a way to delve deeper, but you don’t have to write essays to benefit from this inner exploration. Much of my early work came out in poetry. You might use these insights to craft illustrations for articles.
Some of your writing may remain private, hidden away in a writing journal. Knowing you have that option may actually free you to do that deeper, exploratory work.
Natalie Goldberg says, “Writing is something you do quietly, regularly, and in doing it, you face your life.”
Whatever genres you pursue, write your way to a more meaningful life. Quietly, regularly, with curiosity, dig in to reflect and reveal more about yourself and the world around you. In doing so, you face your life. And in facing your life, your writing—and quite possibly yourself—will come alive.
- Ep 173: [Interview] Patrice Gopo on Meaning Making on the Page and Studying the Craft
Patrice’s Writing Resources: to help you develop as a writer – recommended classes, conferences, coaches and editors, craft books, and community
- “Anne Lamott’s Books of Her Life,” interview for “Books of Your Life with Elizabeth” podcast
“Finding Your Power Through Writing,” Psychology Today article that includes Broken Open quote
- All podcast episodes
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
Bobbi Linkemer says
I am writing a little book for writers and want to include a list of suggested blogs they might visit. In my search for excellent writers’ blogs, I came across yours and read your November 13th post: “What Lies Beneath the Surface of Your Life?” I can easily see how I could stop whatever I’m doing and keep reading. Not only will I put your blog in the book, I will also put it on my own list to visit often.
Sincerely. Bobbi Linkemer, ghostwriter, Book coach Editor.