Why I write: “We still and always want waking”

photoI’ve been fascinated, over the last month or so, to read so many of my favorite bloggers’ answers to the following questions about their writing process.  (Don’t we all want to know what inspires the writers we love to do what they do?)

Today, thanks to Nicki Gilbert’s invitation, it’s my pleasure to hop on this train and try to put my own writing into some kind of context.  And it’s an even greater pleasure to introduce three fellow writers I consider among my must-reads, Jeanne Henriques, whose gorgeous photos and vivid descriptions of her ex-pat life give rise to all sorts of fantasies; author Beth Kephart, who writes about books and the writing life with sustained insight, eloquence, and passion; and Amy VanEchaute, new to the blogging world and already accruing many devoted readers at her exquisitely executed site My Path With Stars Bestrewn.

 A little background. . .

Fifteen years ago, when my two sons were small, I found myself haunted by a lack I couldn’t even name.  I had a steady editing job I could do from home, babysitting help during those working hours, a comfortable house in the suburbs, two precious little boys and a husband I loved.  A “good” life.   And yet I juggled all the balls – mothering, working, household chores, activities, socializing, going and doing and getting – with a sense I was missing something essential. As my children grew and entered school, as I got busier and our days more complicated, this inchoate longing only intensified.

One afternoon, while sitting on the sofa with my five-year-old son, crocheting mitten strings as snowflakes drifted past the window,  I finally realized what this painful yearning was: a desire to inhabit my own life more fully. Not to do more, but to be more.  To have more quiet moments just like this one. And so I began systematically, and a bit ruthlessly, to simplify our family life. I also began to write about it.  Having spent years as a literary editor, I never imagined myself as a writer.  But suddenly I had something I wanted – actually, needed is not too strong a word here – to say. I needed to remind myself, again and again, what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to lead.

Writing demanded that I sit still and pay attention.  It required time, reflection and, most of all, a confrontation with my innermost self.  If I really wanted to inhabit my life, it seemed, then the best way to do it was to slow down enough to notice the details.  And then, by subtle alchemy, something inside shifted. As I began to shape words, the words I wrote began to shape me.  The more I saw, the more deeply I felt.  And slowly, day by day and word by word, the hunger for something that always seemed just out of reach was transformed into gratitude for what was right in front of me.

I didn’t ever set out to write a trio of books charting the journey from mothering young children up through midlife and beyond.  And yet, here I am.

What am I working on?

I’ve had the idea for a while to write a book I’m calling, for now anyway, “Offline: Reclaiming the Simple Pleasures of a Real-Time Life.”  I spend way too much time sitting at my computer.  And even when I’m not typing at a keyboard, my devices are ever present, woven through my days. I suspect I’m not alone in my concern about the complexity of our relationships with technology. I feel anxious if I forget my phone at home, yet I also wonder what it might be like to take a complete technology vacation.  And much as I love the convenience of my fully wired life, I also miss the textures and challenges and diversity of my life as it was not so very long ago.  I’d love to explore a different balance for myself, and write a collection of short reflections about rediscovering the beauty (and the necessity) of non-wired, hands-on experience.

I’m also in the process of compiling five years worth of blog posts into a small book.  I thought this would be a quick project, but as it turns out, I want to revise and edit and turn them into a more thematically cohesive whole.  So, it will take me a little longer than I thought, but I hope the results are worth it.

How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre?

Whenever someone asks what I write, I always find myself pausing awkwardly after my answer of  “memoir.”  To say I write memoir is to imply that I’ve confronted and overcome some kind of major life challenge that’s worth sharing with the world. Explaining that I write about my own ordinary, everyday life feels both incredibly self-absorbed and utterly boring.  And yet, these really are my themes.  I have no philosophy to share, no trauma to heal, no addiction to recover from, no dark secrets to reveal.  My books aren’t exactly page turners!

Yet my hope, always, is that in writing from my own experience I also touch on something universal – perhaps simply our human desire to honor life as it is by illuminating the sacred in the everyday.  There is a hidden meaning and beauty in life’s most ordinary moments, and deep inner work to be done as we wrestle with the inevitable questions that are part of every human existence.  My writing tends to be quiet, exploratory, transparent, intimate.  And perhaps what I’m trying to do is not so much tell the story of my own life, which is nothing special, but rather tell a story, which just happens to be mine, but that is also a reminder that what we have in common is greater than what keeps us apart.

Why do I write what I do?

I actually answered this question above, in my introduction.  So instead of repeating myself, I’ll share a quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I cherish.  She answers the question of why we read and why we write better than anyone I know:

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.”

How does my writing process work?

I am a very slow writer and a terrible multi-tasker.  A friend of mine keeps a notebook in the car and writes at traffic lights.  Another writes on the train. I seem to require solitude and quiet and clear space and lots of uninterrupted time – which means I’m not very productive. I don’t write every day, because not every day affords me a luxurious stretch of vast silence.  Nor am I one of those writers who needs to write in order to feel alive.  I can feel very much alive and fulfilled by working in the garden or making dinner.  And yet, if too many days go by without writing, I feel myself pulled to create that quiet place for myself.  And once I sit down to work, I will go six or eight hours without even moving.

I wrote Magical Journey by pretty much holing up in a room for many months and writing for many hours a day, moving from my lair only to eat and sleep and take a walk so that I could go and sit again.  I didn’t know, when I began, where the writing would take me.  I had to begin as if I were embarking on a journey, put in the time, and see where the road led.

When I sit down to write a blog post, it’s the same; I begin right where I am without really knowing where I’m going.  Eight hours later, I’ve arrived somewhere.  I take a break, go do something else to clear my head, then come back and edit and revise.  I’m embarrassed to admit how long it takes me to write a simple blog post.  And I’m a bit in awe of anyone who posts more than once a week.

What kind of writer are you?  Journal-keeper? List-maker? Story weaver? Truth teller? Steady or erratic? Fast or slow? Public or private? I’d love to know!

Meet my fellow blog hop writers. . .

1471822_10152442427702796_667154247_nJeanne Henriques is wife to a nomadic husband, mother to four independent children, one well-travelled dog and is the writer behind the blogs, Collage of Life and Expat Diary Viet Nam. Over the past 26 years, her family has packed up and moved between America, Australia, New Zealand, UK and Vietnam. She has some ideas of when and where the Expat Express will go next but can never be certain. Jeanne recently added “empty nester” to her repertoire with her four children now living between America and Australia. She looks to the years ahead as an opportunity to explore new horizons. She hangs her hat and camera part of the year at Chateau Mango in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and the other half at Tahilla Farm in the foothills of the Monadnock mountain range in New Hampshire. She writes to tell the tale. You can follow her adventures on her blogs, Collage of Life, and Expat Diary Viet Nam. Jeanne can also be found chatting on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

_MG_0012Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of eighteen books, an adjunct professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer, and the strategic writing partner in a boutique marketing communications firm. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir won the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award (Motivational Category). Nest. Flight. Sky., Kephart’s first memoir in years, was recently published by Shebooks. Most recently, Beth’s ninth young adult novel, Going Over (Chronicle Books), a 1983 Berlin story and a Junior Library Guild Selection, was launched to three starred reviews and was named a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth.  Beth writes about books and writing and life at Beth Kephart Books.

Amy's head shotA self-described closet writer who surprised herself by making the decision to dip a toe into the blogosphere this year, Amy VanEchaute lives in Illinois with her husband, Jeff. Together, they’ve raised three (splendidly) literate children. Amy studies and reveres nature, subsists on poetry, and chooses peace for her daily portion. She enjoys sharing her photos and her perspective on My Path with Stars Bestrewn.

nickigilbertpicSouth African by chance and Californian by choice, Nicki Gilbert lives in the Bay Area with her husband, four kids and an aging dachshund. With dreams of reporting live on CNN, she majored in Drama and Journalism at Rhodes University in South Africa, met a boy, married him and moved almost 180 degrees west to San Francisco, to live her life as a wife, marketer, event coordinator, non-profit board member, and eventually stay-at-home mom. There was very little writing and even less acting during those years. Last year Nicki started blogging for Times of Israel, and now writes on her own website Red Boots – from dancing to walking and everything in between, and beyond. As a reluctant yet full-time, barely-at-home mom, writer, avid reader, country music lover and wannabe surf diva, she writes to keep perspective about it all. With tears, humor, skepticism, love, pain and truth. Trying to keep it real. Follow her at www.redboots.me and on Twitter @nixgilbertca.

Might there be a writing retreat in your future?
I took the photo above of my “outdoor office” at The Lavender Inn, in Ojai, California, where my husband and I stayed while on vacation last month.  It is, quite simply, a writer’s paradise.  I want to share this exquisite experience!  So, I’ve reserved the entire inn for  3 nights next March (22-24), to host a small writers’ retreat.  I’ll have all the details here soon.  But if you think you might be interested, say so in a comment below or write me here and I’ll make sure you receive all the info.  Space will be limited to 10.
for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. First of all, I DO find your books to be page-turners. Seriously! I want to keep reading so that I can understand myself better … on every single page you expose something that I didn’t know about myself and my world. THANK YOU. And oh, a retreat … divine. Heaven. You know how I fantasize about sharing that experience with you!

  2. Heidi Calma says:

    I must admit that I could not put any of your book down once I began them, so page turners they will always be in my heart! It’s so wonderful to have a little peek into your writing process!

    And a writing retreat- what an incredible experience. I’d love to be a part of it!

  3. I loved reading this and smiled so hard when you wrote about your writing process–the sitting down and discovering where you are going at that moment. Such a polar opposite of my own way of doing things and yet, we still get words on the page. I swear, it’s a miracle that words ever see light. xo

  4. Katrina, you describe your writing as “quiet, exploratory, transparent, intimate.” This is precisely why I treasure it so, and why it is so universally appealing. Thank you, my friend – for providing a closer look at your creative processes, for opening your heart in this, and every one of your lovely posts, for sharing your extraordinary gift. You may not think so, but I know you’re something special. xoxo

  5. Dear Katrina…let me count the number of things I love about this post..from the notebook on your table to your reasons for writing and how you write. Each time I visit, I learn a little bit more about you and feel the connection of a kindred spirit. Your book, Magical Journey, was enlightening, as I have told you many times. A funny thing happened this week as you set me on my task of writing a post for next week. Another discovery, one of wonderful writers and beautiful and thoughtful words as I hopped from blog to blog. Within those words I found answers to questions I have been asking myself for a long time. You gave me a task and I have had so much fun these past few days trying to answer the questions you answered above. It has been a journey and I love journeys. As always, thank you for sharing…xxx

  6. Katrina,

    As always, you set the bar so high. I am honored to be tagged here, in your post. I am drawn in (I always am) by the possibilities of your next work. And I think that you are very dear. Let’s go offline together sometime. That’s where my heart is, too.

  7. It was a joy to read your answers to these questions. I love knowing that it takes you eight hours to write a blog post. Good to know I’m not the only one. “As I began to shape words, the words I wrote began to shape me. The more I saw, the more deeply I felt.” Yes to all of this. Thank you for your exquisite voice. xoxo

  8. I love to read about your process, Katrina. And Im so looking forward to the next books! xo Kate

  9. Linda Rosenfeld says:

    I will stop anytime anywhere to read your blog. It is my connection, a lifeline, to you and other women like myself, who wish to share and to grow. It forces me to think and to be mindful of the present as well as the past. It forces me to think of how thankful I am and how lucky I am to live in this day and time when this kind of communication is possible.
    I so enjoy exploring with you, why and how you do what you do, so beautifully. I can’t
    wait till your next book comes out.

  10. “As I began to shape words, the words I wrote began to shape me.”


    I’ve joined in the tour too, and had the pleasure of tagging my niece and my neighbor…
    more: http://chakrawriting.wordpress.com/about/interview-writing-process/

  11. Please tell me when I can pre-order “Offline . . .” My goodness, am I looking forward to reading that! My oldest child will turn 7 this summer, and even in the short span of time since she was born, our day-to-day lives and interactions have changed so much. (Not for the better, I often think.) I find myself wistful for the days, 6-7 years ago, when all(!) I had was a laptop, and I kept it closed whenever my daughter was awake. No mobile devices that could connect me to anyone, anywhere, and strangely enough, but wasn’t I actually more connected before all those avenues for socializing entered my life . . . anyway, all this to say that no, you are not alone in this complex balancing act. And I can’t wait to read your thoughts on it all.

  12. Katrina,
    Your writing process sounds a lot like mine, slow and deliberate but a connection to something within I can’t describe. I live in Texas but I would love to meet you in California!

  13. I love hearing about your process…it’s a bit different from mine, but the idea of spending eight hours a day locked away and writing sounds absolutely heavenly! I’m a morning-hours type of writer-before the kids are up and my teaching day starts. I take notes on my iPhone (Google Docs) when I read or am thinking of something that might be an interesting idea…I find my memory less and less reliable these days! I’d love to know more about the retreat-I live in CA, and would love to spend time next year working on bringing more stories to life.

  14. Katrina….I’m an erratic, slow, venturing into the public journal-keeper, list-maker and truth teller….but it’s the venturing into the public part that challenges me.

    Your writing images good friends sharing ….and that’s me…i want to share with others and in the process know more about each other.

    It’s just the “doing” part that keeps me back….maybe, i must just “be” when I write…

  15. the thought behind “offline” is what this cultural moment is begging for. that rumbling in our hearts? it’s the aching to connect in that ever-rarer way in which we read each other’s faces, look into each other’s souls.

    and your writing retreat sounds heavenly.
    and thank you for the introduction to the lovely work of amy, finding beauty right here in the land of lincoln…..

  16. Everything you write resonates so deeply with me, and this post is no exception. Like you, I am preoccupied with ways to spend more time in the “real” world and less in the digital one. Like you, I am in the process of compiling a book of blog posts, and, yes, I thought it would be easy too, but find I want to revise and re-order them so it’s taking longer than I hoped. And, like you, I am a slow writer, needing plenty of time to find out where the words will take me when I unleash them from my mind.
    It’s so good to know I’m not on these paths alone…

    The writer’s retreat sounds like a dream come true. I want to know more when you’re ready.

  17. I adore this post. And I would love the opportunity to take this (or any!) writing retreat with you.

  18. Wonderful! Have you read Anne D LeClaire’s book Listening Below the Noise? You might enjoy it in light of your current project, which I can hardly wait for!

  19. Nib's End says:

    In Shadowlands, William Nicholson writes: “We read to know we’re not alone.” After reading your post, I resonate with that idea more than ever before. You have articulated beautifully my own process and approach to writing; articulated it so beautifully that it catches in my throat. To recognize yourself in a stranger can be profoundly moving and deeply encouraging. Thank you, Katrina.

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