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.

About Lily Iona MacKenzie

A Canadian by birth, Lily Iona Mackenzie seeks instruction about writing fiction from clouds. Just as they provide the earth with much-needed water, stories have a similar function, preparing the mind to receive new ideas. Conditions inside a cloud are not static—water droplets are constantly forming and re-evaporating. Stories, too, change, depending on who is reading them, each one giving life to its readers.

She has taught expository and creative writing, the humanities, and English, at the University of San Francisco and other Bay Area colleges for over 25 years. Her poetry, critical and personal essays, travel pieces, and short fiction have appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian publications. All This, a poetry collection, was published in 2011. A recent issue of Notes Magazine featured her as the spotlight author, showcasing her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Fling, one of her novels, will be published in July 2015. lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com