It has always struck me as mysterious, the way so many people
are intensely bothered by an insistent longing to write. The life
of each one of us is the unique, ongoing story of a personal exodus
from Mitzrayim, and the strong desire to get down in black and
white some aspect of what we have seen and experienced and learned
along the way, and to convey it to others, is an inexplicable
impulse planted in many a human soul.
In ten years of giving workshops, it has become apparent to me
that whenever a person is nagged relentlessly by that desire to
write, this in itself is a reliable sign that he or she has been
equipped, as well, with a corresponding ability to fulfill it.
It is never too late to develop this inborn gift for words.
I wish we could somehow sidestep the inner conflict which arises,
however, when for whatever reason, the desire cannot be immediately
fulfilled. During the years when my children were small and I
had neither the time nor mental space to write anything at all,
it would have benefited me to understand why the root of the word
for art, omanut, is the same as that of the word emuna. It might
have increased my patience and diminished my frustration had I
defined human creativity not merely in terms of tangible art,
but in the divinely given ability to do small, daily, mundane
acts of chesed in a thousand different ways.
I once heard Rav Noach Weinberg declare that the highest human
artistry is not necessarily manifested in that which can be achieved
with a pen, or a paintbrush, or with a musical instrument. "Give
someone a compliment," he said, "and see him smile.
That's power. That's creativity."
Get an attractive writing notebook, the kind that makes you want
to spend money on a new pen. The notebook's appearance should
please you, but shouldn't be so exquisite or expensive that you'll
worry about messing it up.
Carry it with you so that random moments turn into writing moments.
You don't have to restrict yourself to any particular objectives;
the notebook can have multiple uses, all of which will invariably
heighten your awareness and bring out different aspects of your
life. It can be used for writings which will never be read by
anyone but you, or things that will evolve and end up being published.
The chief advantage to getting something published is that it
will encourage you to keep writing, but many people keep journals
for years without publishing a thing, and writing becomes an indispensable
part of their lives.
It has been said that the art of writing is the art of applying
the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words,
you are your own best teacher, It's the ongoing process itself
of writing which strengthens your unique voice, develops the mental
habit of turning perceptions into words, hones your literary judgment,
and refines your ability to edit your own work.
Do not be deterred by the critical voice within that says you're
silly and presumptuous to even imagine you have anything to say.
Be tolerant of this voice but ignore it. It will never completely
Someone once said that when he wrote what he thought other people
wanted to hear, nobody listened. So he wrote what he himself wanted
to hear, and everyone was fascinated.
Your notebook's most obvious use is as a record of daily experiences.
One woman who has kept journals for years says that to her surprise,
it is often the least profound, least exciting entries that she
finds fascinating later on. Don't be afraid of dwelling on earthshaking
topics such as, "I'm on the #4 bus, going to pay my telephone
bill." Such is the stuff of our existence. Preserve these
seemingly insignificant events, and years from now you'll recognize
that all such things are precious.
Writing your own truth between the covers of a private notebook
will liberate you, to some extent, from the need to be understood
by others. It can provide you with virtually unlimited opportunities
to wallow in self-pity, dwell obsessively on the past, and worry
neurotically about the future. Then, if you so desire, you can
rejoice in the present. Your notebook is your own little corner
of the cosmos, one place where you needn't be shy of the word
You can't help but benefit from the discipline of a daily writing
routine, but there is no need to intimidate yourself with this
approach. You can write whenever you remember to, or when the
spirit moves you. It has been said that in any given day of any
individual's life, there is something which contains the material
from which great literature is made. Anything can trigger you.
Look around the room. "The half-open window." "The
broken chair." "The things inside my purse." "My
hands." "My teeth." Everything in the world carries
multiple associations utterly unique to you, as does every single
word in the language.
The more you write about what you experience, the more aspects
of the world you will find yourself noticing and remembering,
just as recording your dreams improves the ability to recall them.
It is vitally important to develop sensitivity to correct grammar,
word usage and sentence structure, and to be well-versed in such
things as the formal rules that govern poetry. The more you read
good literature (it may be hard to find) the more you'll be naturally
attuned to these things without having to think about them.
Nonetheless, please remember that when it comes to writing, the
rules exist to serve you, not the other way around. Grammar is
Your notebook can be a catch-all for stray and fleeting insights,
thoughts, fragments, commentary, memories, hopes. It can be the
home for poems that don't get finished, ideas you don't follow
through on, essays you'd love to develop and never get around
to. And sometimes it may bring about that which most people who
write would dearly welcome: not only communion with themselves
but the creation of something which can speak to others. As the
poet Emily Dickinson said: "This is my letter to the world."
Sarah Shapiro is the author
and editor of many books. She is an instructor at The Jewish Writing