I believe that writing can save your life. More precisely, I believe that the habit of writing has saved my life from being forgotten, dismissed, or misplaced by me. The habit of writing has saved at least parts of my life from being lived only once.
And for the better parts, both real and imagined, once is not enough—not for me to take it in, know it well enough to call it mine, and put it where I can find it. Life, like good a book or a gripping movie, requires at least a second chance just to catch it.
During the times when I’ve been most adrift in my life, most afraid of losing my bearings, I’ve taken up the habit of writing in a journal. In 1992 when I was overwhelmed by work and family, I spent the first hour of each work day writing journal pieces or fiction, at some risk to my academic standing and my sleep. I’ve now got a shelf full of these journals—starting in 1968, age 17—an erratic chain with long breaks in between, sometimes years. Since the early 1980’s the entries tend to focus on writing projects—exercises, plans, failed plans, resolutions, rejections, notes on books—anything to keep the habit going.
Now when I reread a page from one of these journals or stories, even one from just a few years ago, I’m often surprised by how much I’ve forgotten or misremembered. And I’m surprised to see how the experience appeared to me back then, that particular slant that seemed then the only truth. Now through the lens of amnesia, it appears new, or refreshed, or obviously slanted in a way I hadn’t noticed when I wrote it. And it’s not lost.
The habit of writing works not just by the replaying of experiences into words, but also by opening your mental pores. If you know you’re going to be writing about the taste of a musk melon, you bite into it differently; you feel that rapping knuckle on your breastbone with words as well as pain. You store it and you recall it more vividly. You start to write it before you can get your hand to your pen. It’s already more yours than if you had no plan to write it.
So when I write the real or imagined thing, I’ve lived it twice, at least. Raising kids is another way to get a second chance at life, but kids are slow hard work. I believe that writing, when I make a habit of it, delivers the low budget, low risk, fast return way to get a second chance on life.
So why is it so easy for me to let such a precious habit slip away, again and again, like a faith that wavers? Where’s the church for would-be writers? Believing in the habit of writing is part of what makes a writer, but I believe I’d like to figure out that other part.