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May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'” — May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude, September 15th

This may not be how it happened but this is how I remember it: I was browsing the Kalamazoo library bookstore with my friend Danna when she handed me this slim volume, a paperback with a black-and-white cover photo of a typewriter and a lamp seen through a glass door. “Journal of a Solitude,” it said, “The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman.”

I don’t remember if I’d heard of May Sarton before. I was perhaps not yet thirty, I had perhaps not yet lived half-a-year in Provincetown where I wrestled with what it meant for me to be an artist. The years of “undefined depressive disorder” brought on my finally getting into therapy and raking up the hot coals of loss and anger I’d  long buried were still a half-decade in the future. I had no reason to suspect that this sixty-something Belgian emigre New England writer, typing up these daily entries in the autumn of 1973 through the autumn of the next year, could have anything to say to me.

I remember the shock of recognition when I read the opening paragraph, that quiet voice that understood why I loved long nights of cocktails and blues bands, but still hungered for long stretches of hours hidden away in my apartment with just a pen and a notebook and perhaps a pile of books. “I have written every poem, every novel for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”* How did she know that the only sure reflection of myself I knew was on the page? That it was the poems hidden in my body that helped me understand my wants, my desires, my griefs. Line by line I would tell myself my own secrets. Word by word I learned to recognize myself.

When I met Sarton, I didn’t yet know I was an introvert. Surely someone who regularly organized the company happy hours and spent two or three nights a week out at her favorite bar was an extrovert. I didn’t understand then that one could be a social introvert, enjoy the company of people immensely, but still need solitude in order to refill the well, recharge, refresh. Sarton helped me to understand the anger, the frustration I felt when I’d spent too much time in motion, when I’d not gifted myself one of those days when I was out and about but didn’t speak to a soul other than to pay for a purchase or say “excuse me.” She helped me to see that there was a difference between a day given over to contemplation and the completion of tasks that I wanted to do, and those days that weren’t restful even if I lay on the couch all day because of the endless loop of “I shoulds” running through my overcrowded brain.

I have re-read Journal of a Solitude countless times since that first discovery, and I buy copies when I find them to pass on to woman artist friends who too might find themselves struggling with that need for solitude that seems at odds with what women are supposed to want—to be at the center of family, blood or otherwise—even if we are, as I am, single and childless. I find myself craving Sarton’s voice when I feel lost, when I need to re-establish my sense of self because of some crisis or simply because I’m juggling too many projects at once. I have since collected most of her non-fiction, and I snatch up her novels when I find them though I’ve only read two so far—Kinds of Love, and The Magnificent Spinster (I think). I’m not a fan of her poetry though I buy those books too when I find them as it pains me to think of her voice disappearing, unheard by a woman who desperately needs it, and somehow I think that I will eventually grow into her poems, be able to see past the easy rhymes and “old-fashionedness” to appreciate the pure spirit behind them.

Did I mention that Sarton loved Mrs. Woolf too, and even went to visit her, Mrs. Woolf cool and in her declining years, Sarton eager, still a theater ingenue and not yet bloomed into the writer she’d become?

No matter how many times I’ve read Sarton, I find myself scribbling down her sentences again and again. She is my guardian angel leading me home, back to the quiet center of myself, where I rest alone. where I am equal to the task of honesty. She takes me by the hand, leads me to the blue-and-white couch, whispers forcefully, “The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.” **

* Journal of a Solitude, September 15

** Journal of a Solitude, January 18th

Who you calling a writer?

Uhm, did you really think this blog was going to be Christian Kane-free?

I’ve spent most of this last day of being 41 sleeping and catching up with my blog roll and reading magazines. Somewhere I read something to the effect that it was interesting that in the new year we roll out a new set of things to do and future goals but we really don’t reflect on the successes of the past year. I think if I had to give 2011 a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’d hold my thumb in neutral position mostly because I didn’t win the Pulitzer or get written up as a writer to watch. But really, taking a look back, I have accomplished a lot as a writer.

I’ve planned approximately 1,800 posts for the NEA’s Art Works blog, interviewed and written about hundreds of artists and arts leaders and arts organizations for both the blog and the NEA magazine, researched and written the editorial plan for four issues of  our magazine, expanded the unique content and interaction on our Facebook page, and somehow made the NEA Twitter feed interesting enough that we have more than 10,000 followers. I write that not to boast, but to remind myself that as a professional writer I’ve accomplished a heck of a lot!

As for my creative writing life, I published a chapbook, arranged two readings for myself, was invited to submit and was published by a couple of journals I admire, completed about 10 new poems, started a bunch more drafts, completed a manuscript, and got offered a staged reading for my play. So given that most of my writing energy went to my day job, I kinda did quite well in this arena too.

My mom once said that in order to avoid being frustrated we need to lower our expectations. But in my case, I need to broaden my expectations and really expand my personal definition of what it is to be a writer. I get so focused on the ways in which my job limits my life as a creative writer that I don’t give nearly enough credence to how my job has broadened my writing life. I’m way too fond of saying, well, this is my job, not my career. But if I want to be a writer—and not just a poet—I have to accept that it’s actually both. I do think that some day I will have a book-length poetry manuscript published. But while I’m working on that, I really need to get it through my thick skull that publication is not the only hallmark of the professional writer. Writing consistently is…and well, it turns out I do actually do that.

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