The Way We Write


Pugs, Merengue, Dolce & Gabbana

  By Terry Farish     

In a first draft, the one that makes me cry over some truth I’ve finally seen, for a flashing moment, I am sun god.

I am sloppy and haphazard in my journal keeping, but my journals are invaluable to me when I go to write that first draft. I have no idea how I will use a line. All I know is that when I gather details in my journal, I am writing from my best self, the self who is trolling the world, slightly amused, curious, often awed.

I know a woman whose speech I love. She speaks in animal metaphors—“I’m gonna buffalo through the job” and “I’m gonna ferret through my stuff.” My best self wants to write down all those wonderful animals she makes into verbs. I’m not responding to her from my ego—I’m beyond ego—I’m capturing a truth of how a person thinks. Power struggles and hurt feelings pale compared to anticipating her possible uses of pug.

My muse—you’re going to have to forgive this cliché—my muse comes out of giving in to love. I worked in a library with a woman who has just learned how to do story programs. She grabs dads by the arm and gets them to stand up and dance the merengue after we read My Feet Are Laughing, about a little girl who dances merengue with her mother in Harlem. Then the new storyteller takes a baby and whisks her away. The first born child of two bedazzled parents is up there dancing merenge in her arms. And I fall in love with this woman’s style and I have to write about her.

In my journal voice, I wrote down an old man’s stories during the years he was my neighbor in an English village. He told me the story of an old buddy and his cat, how the cat was getting on, and the old man needed to put the cat out of her misery. I wrote in my journal, “The man cried all the way to the river and he cried all the back.” I felt such affection for my neighbor and I wrote The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup for him.

In an essay by Julius Lester he told about his father dying and he was bereft because he loved his father. He posed the question, what am I going to do with all this love? He said he would use it to write. And I understood that. He turned all that emotion into his muse, his energy to create.

There’s plenty else to give in to in this world, to be enraged by, to abhor. I am writing about Sudan, not because of my hatred of the genocidal civil war, but because I met a young refugee from Sudan who took my breath away with her courage and my journal became full of her voice.

Recently I wrote about my stepdaughter, who was graduating from high school. She and I have had an awkward, silent relationship.

“You’ve cut your hair,” I wrote one day, “so you have jagged black locks across your cheek and forehead—a mod European look like pictures of models on your bedroom wall that say Dolce & Gabbana and you have a kind of duffle bag slung over your shoulder and you look like you’re leaving for Rome and I want to say, no, wait, you have to stay.”

When I find my best self, loving her, that’s when I can write.

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the New Hampshire Writer’s Project