by Joanna Tebbs Young
It was my dream job. I mean, come on! Getting paid to research the life of a historian and prolific writer while looking out over Lake Champlain from the picture window of said dynamic woman’s former home? Writing up her story, choosing the visual pieces from her myriad scrapbooks, and designing the layout of the book? And having my name on a published book at the end of it? The freelance gods had smiled on this writer-graphic designer-history buff.
For two years I worked on this project and loved every minute of it. Well, almost every one. As any writer will tell you, pursuing our craft is actual pretty tortuous. Most sane people would wonder why we do this to ourselves — over and over again. Richard Hass puts it this way: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
And so, we keep writing in order to be in that “tolerable state,” if only for a few minutes. (Case in point: I started writing this post barely an hour after finishing my weekly column. It had, for some reason, taken me far longer than necessary this morning. I just wanted to be free of it, get it off to my editor. But no sooner had I grabbed some lunch, my fingers were once again hungry for the keys, and so here I am.)
The truth is, at moments throughout that two years of putting the book together, I would find myself feeling down. Tearful even, especially when I was writing the text (as opposed to doing the layout work). I wondered what my problem was — I was, after all, doing something I had dreamed of doing for, what? Ever? So, what was it?!
When I first became a columnist for my local paper (another dream come true), after a couple years of writing about my community and the go-getters within it on a weekly basis, I found myself feeling the same kind of yearning. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy writing for a living, far from it. It was that I needed something else, in addition, in my writing life.
Then I realized: I missed heart-writing. Writing from the heart.
Once in awhile, in my column, I would decide to write about something that was important to me, something that pulled me emotionally in one way or another. I would always write these off-the-cuff, no interview or research, just me speaking from a place of personal truth. Heart-writing. While I would feel slightly raw and vulnerable when I clicked “Send” to my editor, I would also feel refreshed, more alive. And inevitably the feedback from these types of articles would be overwhelmingly positive. People would email me or even sometimes approach me at the coffee shop to thank me.
My other columns, the more fact-based ones, were, I came to call them, head-writing. This historical book was also head-writing.
Heart-writing versus head-writing.
Although I continued to journal all through this book project and once in awhile made time to write a personal blog post, I missed personal essay and memoir writing. Due to time constraints in the second year of the book, I’d also decided to call an end to my heretofore weekly sacred circle writing group where, although I was facilitating, I would write along with the participants from the deep soul-searching prompts. I missed communing with my heart.
I am a TLA practitioner — for others and for myself. I feel I was born to be. I need to write
On those days when I want to cry from frustration over an essay, article, or memoir section and my husband asks me again why I do this [to myself], I tell him, as I have told others over the years, I can’t not do it. I have to. I have to have “just written” from the heart over and over again.
So, while I will continue to Head Write for a living as needed, I will make sure that my heart gets a say too, and as often as possible. Because that is what makes my soul sing. And if my words give voice to another person’s soul, then I have done my true work.
Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA, a graduate of Goddard College’s Transformative Language Arts concentration, is a freelance writer and Expressive Writing facilitator and coach living in Rutland, Vermont. Her book, Lilian Baker Carlisle, Vermont Historian, Burlington Treasure: A Scrapbook Memoir, was published in June 2017 and is available through cchsvt.org. Joanna blogs at wisdomwithinink.com and rutlandwhen.wordpress.com. Her column can be found at rutlandreader.com/category/columns/circles/
4 thoughts on “When Writing Doesn’t Make Your Heart Sing”
Hey Joanna, I loved this blog post because for me “heart-writing” is all I know how to do. I would be terrified to write a history of someone but ask me how I feel on a topic and it pours out of me. I understand what you are saying and I respect and admire the discipline you must have to have. You are exceptionally gifted and your writing especially from the heart is always so intriguing. Maybe your next project will be a memoir and if so I can not wait to read it.
I am just seeing this comment! Thank you for taking the time to write. Yes, head-writing isn’t easy for me, but I believe I have learned to do it as long as I can balance it with enough heart-writing. I am indeed writing a memoir which I almost completed while at Goddard and I hope will be finished within a year or two. Fingers crossed!
Sorry, just realized who you are. Not Margo — Margaret!
Thanks for the reminder not to get caught up in things which don’t enrich our souls, Joanna. I think 80 % of my time is spent keeping commitments and managing life, the other 20 % in truly creative work. How do reverse that???