A Question of Profession: Splitting Hairs


I am awake in the wee hours of the morning with a persistent voice in my head that shouts, “You’re no writer!”

I try to ignore this voice which tries to convince me being an amateur is less than being a professional. Writing is an art not measured by fame or fortune, or so I tell myself.
Certainly I would love to be recognized on a large scale, thrilled to have a best seller on the market but I cannot write with such thoughts in mind. I must write directly from my heart.
A quote I read recently comes to mind:

“Being an amateur author isn’t easy. It requires stamina, determination, and imperviousness to ridicule. Unwept, unhonored, unsung.”
– Leonard L. Knott

My curiosity is piqued. What do the terms professional and amateur really mean? I have a general idea but being the etymologist that I am (also amateur), I decide to delve into the finer points.
This is what I discovered: A professional is defined someone who is trained or skilled at something and performs this as a paying job.
The word amateur is Latin derived from French. (ametor, lover) and also means one who pursues an activity as a hobby or pastime or one lacking the skill of a professional.
It is clear to me that in these contexts I am an amateur.There is no glamour surrounding my writing and it is not my profession as it does not earn an income.
I don’t write for a newspaper nor am I a copywriter for an advertising firm. Screenplays are not my forte and neither are short stories. I am not the editor of a glossy magazine or a war correspondent. I haven’t written a book.
My creativity lives within my journals that include both essays and poetry. An amateur writer seems to lack the esteem and honor of his professional counterpart so I suppose in that sense I am unsung, unwept and unknown; certainly my name has been seldom in print.
I have been paid once in all my years of writing – a check for $25 for a short prose piece I submitted to a literary magazine. I was exhilarated, admittedly, and felt validated as a writer.
Since childhood my life and my writing have been intertwined. I attribute my love of language to the nurturing of my parents and to one particular English teacher.
I am continually absorbed in the whimsy of language and play with words even when I fear that the muse will not grant me inspiration. I am not college educated, having decided to be a full time wife and mother. In retrospect I realize that life experience has been the best teacher.
Being an amateur can be difficult, as Mr. Knott suggests. Derision plays its part, whether blatant or subtle, whether from external influences or self-induced. I am not impervious but in either case, ridicule be damned.
My efforts are not futile. My journals, essays and poetry are not pointless. What I feel or think is important to me and my stream-of-consciousness journals tap a creative source that is surprisingly deep, universal and something that my ego cannot take credit for.
Writing is my mission. My muse doesn’t seem to mind that I am unprofessional. She still comes calling, usually when I am clear and open to the creative process.
Richard Bach wrote, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
Perhaps I will redefine my status to that of “professional amateur” or term myself a “proficient unprofessional.” This might be appropriate and should quiet the voice inside my head. Now I can get some sleep.

Weaving the Thread of History

On a whim, curious about my maternal side of the family, I decided to do some online research to see what I could find out about my great grandmother. During this process a synchronicity occurred that showed me I was on the right path. I discovered a website called Find a Grave on which I found my great grandmother’s name, and my grandmother’s. I noticed a couple of discrepancies and emailed address of the person that was maintaining that part of the website. This person turned out to be my 2nd cousin once removed, who also just happened to be into family history and genealogy. Not only that he is a photographer and an expert at scanning photos. He was as excited to “meet” me as I was him and we have been emailing and working together ever since. I feel the thread of life weaving me to my ancestors, and I especially like what I have learned about my grandmothers and my great great grandmothers; all strong women, pioneer women that crossed the prairie in wagon trains to settle in Oregon and Washington.

My mother’s sister was kind enough to visit Mom’s while I was visiting there recently and the three of us sorted photos and stories. I took as many notes as I could. Mom and my aunt are the only remaining two of their generation of my maternal side of the family so I am thankful I got as many stories and photos as I did, and I hope I can do them justice.

My dad’s recent death has also re inspired me and to preserve old photos and papers that I found in my mother’s attic. Otherwise what is going to happen to this part of the family history? Who is going to tell the story? If I don’t take on this as a project there is a story that won’t be written and part of my family will be lost. I feel Dad’s spirit guiding me. He, as his father before him, did a good job with his side of the family. Now I want to do the same for my mother.

My personal story is enriched by the knowledge of my lineage and through the process of finding the threads of my past I understand myself in a deeper way and with a newer, wiser perspective on life.

Personal Letter Writing, a Lost Art?

     As Jane Austin said, “a person who can write a letter with ease, cannot write ill.”
Letter writing as an art form deserves respect but “snail mail” communication, as my kids refer to it is not, it seems to me, a popular way to communicate in our digitized, high speed culture. Personal communication has changed dramatically since the development of the internet through emailing, instant messaging, and YouTube. Cell phones, along with conversing, now enable texting and photography as a quick fix to get information and to stay connected. Receiving a personal letter though the mail doesn’t happen that often; at least not in my life. Personally I still like to get something in the mail and often I will write notes to my two grandsons although they only live about an hour and a half away. What child doesn’t love getting mail in the mailbox from Grandma? When I was young I had pen pals; kids from other states and even other countries. I have pen pals to this day; two of my best women friends exchange cards and letters the old fashioned way. One of these friends hand writes letters, actual pen to paper in cursive.

     My mother and I have exchanged countless letters over the years. We now email but every once in awhile I like to compose a letter and send it so that Mom will have some variety to their morning coffee sessions. Dad can no longer see to read so she reads the sports section to him. A newsy family letter to read aloud is always welcome.     
   When my 2nd born daughter was a little girl, she wrote to her great grandfather on a regular basis.  He appreciated these letters and told her that she was the only great grandchild that ever wrote him. He wrote her back and for awhile sent along gift certificates for JC Penny at Christmas time. I have a collection of letters written by some of my ancestors on my dad’s side of the family.  What a treasure this is to get a glimpse of what life was back then. I have often thought this would be a good resource for someone’s novel. When I was young and ambitious I thought this someone would be me.

     During Victorian times handwritten letters were used for intimate correspondence, and a skill that a Victorian Lady was obligated to cultivate. Paul the Apostle wrote the Epistles which were a series of letters to the Church, and there are other characters in history whose love letters have continued to inspire us today, such as Beethoven’s letter to his “Immortal Beloved”. The exchange of love letters between Robert and Elizabeth Browning are as poetic as the poems they penned.

I am not sure if letter writing is taught in school these days.  When I was a youngster in grade school we were writing letters as part of our English class. There were two distinct categories, the business letter and the friendly letter. Back in those days we stuck to the rules of form which were the return address, date, the inside address, the greeting, the introductory paragraph, the body, the closing, and the signature. God forbid we misspelled or used a comma in the wrong place.

I have often thought of my journals as letters to myself, letters of the most personal kind which prove time after time to be the most freeing and most creative because they delve into the unconscious mind and are not edited by my internal editor on the spot. One does wonder who, if anyone will read these personal entries? Will my journals be found by my grandchildren as they play in the attic someday? That I cannot predict. I don’t think my diaries are as exciting as those in “The Bridges of Madison County”   but read through another’s eyes you just never know.

Haibun

A few years ago when I was still writing poetry consistently I discovered a form that I like very much which is called haibun. I hardly ever see this kind of writing but I find it fascinating and something I might explore further. I believe that in writing, generally speaking, less is more and the challenge is to get your point across in the fewest words possible; quality, not quantity. A good writer will engage his reader to make him think, transport him into imagery, and entertain him.

My most recent revelation is that I need to remember to decide who my audience is. This will determine the style of the piece, the voice, and the tense.

I also believe that free writing or stream of consciousness is very important. I try to free write every day. This helps free my mind and gives me ideas. Thank you Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones.)

The River

I get up early and walk upriver to enjoy the fresh morning breeze and the birdsong. The sunrise reflects on the glossy surface of the river creating diamonds of sparkling light.  As I sit near the estuary I notice a creature swimming towards the shore. As it comes closer, I realize that it is a beaver. I sit very still and watch as he makes his slow progress across.

serene of morning

undisturbed; creation’s peace
sunrise in command.

I spend long summer days by the banks of the mighty Columbia River considering its mystery and ponder the workings of my own life.  The river is wise and powerful and its silence is comforting. Despite rocky shore, various plants thrived on the sandy ground and bloom with tiny wildflowers.  The osprey flies to and from its nest on the opposite bank. Once or twice a day the train etches itself along that ridge. The rocks scrabble noisily down and I wonder if the bank will give way. I shed my clothes; wade into the chilly water in as far as I dare and plunge under.

deepness, cold water
soaring birds against the sky
sharing river life.

Dreaming the Impossible, My Attempts at Fame

DREAMING THE IMPOSSIBLE

John Steinbeck once wrote that a writer attempts the impossible. I assume he was referring to writing, not flying or becoming invisible. It takes considerable effort to create images and feelings that transport us to other worlds and enable us to experience different perspectives. The right words can be elusive. Ask any writer. John Steinbeck was a talented and prolific author, one that I admire and I have concluded that his point was to set high goals, to dream. This familiar advice is wisdom I have heard throughout the years about life in general, and can certainly be applied to writing. My dream has been to write a book, my “impossible” book. I spend a lot of time staring at the blank screen and sometimes wonder why I bother. Although Doubt rears its ugly head I forge ahead stubbornly. I give myself no choice.

In my daydreams I am a famous author and have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. I imagine a glamorous photo on the back cover of my best seller. I travel on promotional tours; sign autographs and appear on Oprah, right up there with Frank McCourt or Alice Walker. I bask in the glory of fame and fortune. (I think of all of those royalty checks. Hmmmm.This may take some doing!) All I really know is that it is essential for me to put words on paper, whether I am writing an assignment, the passionate ramblings I put into my journals or the poetry that emerges from my heart in times of deep emotion.

My love of language began in the mid 1950’s when I was a shy first grader. I was sitting at my desk in school one day trying to make sense of the jumble of letters in my reader. The moment of truth came to me when I realized that letters put together in a certain way made words. Words made sentences, sentences made paragraphs, and then you had a story. (Thank you Dick and Jane)! With that epiphany a new world open up and thus began my love of the written word. It wasn’t long before I was scribbling out my own little stories. By the time I completed middle school I discovered writing was second nature. Compositions and stories flowed from my pen. I took pride in my work. I entered writing contests and had pen pals. My English teach gave me A’s in both grammar and spelling and composition. My parents (a writer/editor team) also nurtured the talent that became my lifeline.

I took an unintentional sabbatical from writing in the seventies. Life was a swift and complex series of episodes that gave me time little to reflect, let alone write. I was a young wife and a mother at the age of nineteen. Raising my children and coping with my abusive husband consumed any creative energy that I may have had.

The years sped by and by the mid eighties I was writing again. The floodgates opened and I wrote passionately pouring out anger, sadness, joy, dreams and prayers into the pages of my journals. I re discovered my love for poetry when my second grandson was stillborn. I was profoundly moved by the experience and compelled to express my emotions as a way of closure. The outcome was a poem called “Quintessence,” which I submitted to a poetry contest. Weeks later I received a notification that this poem had earned an honorable mention. I was thrilled and so inspired that I decided to take a correspondence course in English Composition through a local university. This led to more submissions, two of which were published. I was a writer! My perspective of life had deepened with the realization that I have to write. It is my passion, my gift, and my responsibility.

Who I am as person and what I write are one and the same. The blank page comes vividly to life and demands to be shared. Fame and fortune may elude me and I may never get that interview with Oprah but I certainly enjoy the process as I continue to write, to dream, and “attempt the impossible.”

Journals

Writing bridges the inner and outer worlds and connects the paths of action and reflection. We sit down, face the receptive blankness of a piece of paper or a computer screen, pull our thoughts together, and begin to write.

Writing is sorting. Writing down the stream of consciousness gives us a way to respect the mind, to choose among and harness thoughts, to interact with and change the contents of who we think we are. And that is what the spiritual journey is: a major change, over time, in who we think we are, followed by a corresponding change in what we believe ourselves capable of doing.

Christine Baldwin
Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest





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I have been journaling all my life; since the first penciled scribblings in my little diary with the plastic cover. I treasured this diary and the experience of being “just me”. I was a faithful writer and after each session I locked the little lock and hid the book underneath my mattress or in the depths of a dresser drawer. I wonder sometimes where it is and if it got lost in the shuffle of my growing up years or got thrown away.




I think the only time I didn’t journal was during my first marriage. I was so involved with trying to make sense of my life and I literally didn’t know who I was. I was consumed by my husband and had no time to myself. I started writing again back in the early 80’s. Someone had given me a journal as a gift, so I began to sort out my feelings and experiences on paper once again. There were the years in China Bend which were for the most part idyllic as the journals reflect. The beauty and simplicty of that time have been such a blessing and a precious gift that I hold close to my heart.




When I was living at our family ranch I experienced some trauma and here was no other way I could cope with what was going on. Not even my best friends could totally understand. I was deeply depressed and felt isolated. So I kept journaling, this time in spiral notebooks as I felt those were much more freeing. They had more room and I could write lots and quickly. They were barely legible but they served their purpose. I have since disposed of these journals.


There was a pattern of my behavior that emerged I didn’t have a name for it at the time. I only knew that I was miserable and that I felt repressed and spiritually claustrophobic. I later learned that I was co dependent and also I had not totally resolved being separated from my two oldest children, but this was only one aspect. My self esteem was destroyed and I was struggling to get it back. I kept blaming myself for my failed relationships. I am amazed at how well my children have weathered all of this.


One of my friends gave me a book on spirititual healing through journaling. This was a wonderful gift and a wonderful discovery. It is called Journey Notes. This was the validation that I needed to continue.


I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” which is now one of my writer’s Bibles. The stream of consciousness…..there was no one to please, not even myself. The very act of freeing my mind was the healing path I had stumbled upon and have been on ever since.


Poetry had its voice now and then during those years as well, and when I was given a computer my life changed drastically. I discovered blogging, and now post nearly every single day. I am now unafraid. Whoever said that practice makes perfect certainly had the right idea. But of course then I ask, “What is perfect?” Perfect for what? Whom? I am discovering it’s all about the journey.

LAUNCHING MY CAREER

I sit the desk in front of my new computer, thrilled that I, at last, am a real writer. My computer and I are partners in creating a great literary work. This fine piece of equipment will enable me to launch my career. I am new at this Word thing, but how hard can it be?

The words flow like a river and I can hardly type quickly enough to keep pace with my mind. Every now and then I stop to check my word count and, just for fun use the spell check. What fun it is to move the sentences around! Copy, cut, and paste; oh, it doesn’t get better than this. Computer, where have you been all my life?

The phone rings. I ignore it. The doorbell rings. I ignore it. Lunchtime passes unnoticed expect for the roaring of my stomach. I don’t care. I am feeling good. This is what writing is all about. There will be no rejection slips this time, no siree. This is going to be the prize article that launches my career. I am moving into the big time and people are going to notice. Agents will beg for my business.

My sentences are flowing, my choice of words perfect with just the right number of adjectives and adverbs. How’s the syntax? No problem. I re-read my work several times over and allow no disagreeing verbs, no dangling participles, naughty gerunds or sloppy slang. My beginning paragraph is awesome. I hook my readers in with the first sentence. My voice is clear and strong, yet gently entreating. My point of view is consistent as each mesmerizing sentence builds towards the scintillating climax.

The moment is here and the final draft is complete. I follow submission guidelines to a “T”. Every space, every line is precise on the page. Every word is spelled correctly, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Wait, perhaps just one last spellcheck before printing, just to make sure it’s perfect. Taadaa! I smile, touch finger to key, and then…Oh no! What happened? The page is blank, and for a moment, my mind. Where is my story? The realization hits. I pressed the wrong key! My unsaved masterpiece is gone forever.

Woe, oh woe and much sorrow! That which was created is not, and has dissolved into the ethers. My once in a lifetime creation is never to be remembered. It is but a mere particle of mist in the sky of my imagination. Apparently a computer does not a career launch make. Maybe I should use the save feature next time.