“I Write to Rumble”

“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

I was absent from my blog space for 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I began writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.When I entered a 100-day writing challenge I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of my memoir. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of my memoir. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, and so, come Wednesday’s, the scramble began.

Some perspective:

  • 3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.
  • The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.
  • The average word count for the President’s State of the Union is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

5 weeks, 45,000 words, and critique of 750 pages of other writer’s work. That’s about 50 pages and time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and my secret writing life went public. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question! I write to rumble; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of things, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me. My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped. Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado,  holding tight to the foolish notion that an un-examined ache will heal itself. Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my mind. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a haunted forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment you are skipping and laughing and, just around the bend, it takes you by surprise. Before you know it, trees unleash their apples on you, witches appear and try to set your straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys rule the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. That was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find my answers.When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening, I would find my strength. The 18 months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable. I worked my way through the task by writing.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

And so, I write to figure and navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor in the other side of the country. Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, “This Is a Happy Marriage“, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon, when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table and not feel so alone.

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About Ellen O'Donnell

Ellen O'Donnell is an emerging writer who is finally finding her voice in her 50's. Divorce, elder care, growing children and and mid-life heartache led to writing about her swirling thoughts. The discovery: the muddle of midlife is universal. Ellen lives in Connecticut with her Labrador, Seamus while her two children come and go as they discover their own places in the world. She is currently working on a memoir. When not writing, Ellen works with high school students as a Private College Counselor and plays a ridiculous amount of competitive USTA tennis.