Why I Write: Lily Iona MacKenzie

Tonight I skipped my daily hour or more of writing. A discipline I’ve maintained for many years, it has resulted in four novels, numerous short stories, poems, and essays. Not writing today made me think of a toddler I dreamt of last night. He told me he didn’t feel emotionally connected to me. At the moment, that’s how I feel about writing. Since I’m currently not immersed in writing a novel or poetry, I feel emotionally detached from the process, but not because I’ve stopped producing. I’m 300 pages into a manuscript that starts with my days as a high-school drop out—an autobiography that is also an analysis of the genre.

Frustrated that my novels weren’t selling, I thought non-fiction might be more marketable. I’ve enjoyed entering the halls of memory, reconnecting with my younger self. But while working on this project, I’ve felt only half alive. My non-writing life—the time I spend teaching rhetoric and composition, representing adjuncts in the union, enjoying time with my husband, and working in our garden—has suffered. If my writing doesn’t go well, nothing else seems to either.

For a few days, I took a break and worked on a couple of short stories and some poems. They animated me, stimulating my imagination, leading me into unexplored parts of myself. Characters and imagery and situations materialized that hadn’t existed before I took up my pen. Taking over the page, they roused some youthful part of myself that delights in new discoveries, and I was their conduit. It’s addictive, this dance with creation.

However, I don’t want non-fiction writers to think that I’m belittling their genre. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy writing more factual pieces. But the effort doesn’t give me the highs (and lows) of poetry and fiction. They invigorate me, revealing what hovers in and around the mundane, the everyday, lifting me out of myself. That’s the most exciting aspect: fiction and poetry open me up and allow me to inhabit multiple identities.

When I’m socializing with friends, I rarely discuss my writing process. Most aren’t aware of the commitment I’ve made to the writer’s life. I rarely mention my work, and they usually don’t ask. But they must wonder how I can continue writing books when the publishing world is so unfriendly to unknown writers. Till now, I’ve been satisfied with seeing my work in newspapers, magazines, and journals. If I Google my name, numerous sites come up. Those small successes are satisfying and give me pleasure. Yet they don’t carry the approbation that a published book does.

Still, nothing measures up to the act of creation itself. Why do I write? Because if I don’t, it feels as if part of myself has checked out. It’s as important to me as food. It is food, the word like a communion wafer that melts on my tongue, nourishing body and soul. It’s also like having a lover that never loses his attractiveness, always beckoning on the fringes of my days, waiting to embrace me.

Writing itself is a mysterious act. Putting symbols on a page not only connects us with our own inner worlds but also with others. It’s the ultimate act of communion, as intimate in its way as sexual union. It’s amazing how letters generate other letters, combining into words that lead us out of ourselves and articulate the wonders of this planet.

Perseverance? Is that what it takes to keep writing in the face of adversity and rejection and lack of recognition? The word sounds so duty bound, so driven. To me, a better word is discipline because at the root is disciple. Yet there are many lovely variations on this word that I actually prefer: student, follower, learner, devotee.

I’m devoted to following the intricacies of language and where it takes me. I’m ardent about words and what they evoke in our minds and imaginations, the worlds they create. And I’m constantly learning, a student of the writer’s craft, eager to open myself each day to the endless possibilities this calling presents.

While writing in itself can be enough motivation, it is lovely to finally have a book published. In October 2011, my poetry collection All This was launched at Book Passage in Corte Madera, one of the country’s few remaining independent bookstores. And next summer (July 2015), Fling, one of my novels, will be published. So my message for all aspiring writers is do not despair and keep writing. Having a book published, being an author at last and not just a writer, is lovely. But it’s the process that counts.

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About Lily Iona MacKenzie

A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken, founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees, one in Creative Writing and the other in the Humanities. Her reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir have appeared in over 155 American and Canadian venues. Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, launched on 9/21/17 2017.  Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released on August 1, 2018. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She taught rhetoric for over 30 years at the University of San Francisco (USF) and currently teaches creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning. She also blogs at https://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com/