Writing My Way to Happiness

About five years ago, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Writing Your Way to Happiness”. I printed it out and have kept it ever since. For as long as I can remember, I was unusually inhibited when it came to writing … anything. So, when I joined our UU memoir writing group, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find anything to write about, let alone something that someone else would like to read. I just knew that I didn’t want to write personal stories about my joys and sorrows. I also knew that I would not respond well to strict guidelines on how to write properly. I didn’t know it yet, but what I really wanted was to find my own voice and write, in my own way, the stories that meant something to me.  Our memoir class turned out to be the perfect place to begin.

First, with a nod to Proust, I wrote a piece about memories that were triggered by the taste of chocolate gelato on a recent trip to Florence. At our writers’ meeting, each of us read the piece we had written. I loved that! To me, hearing the stories the others wrote, in all their variety, was an inspiration. I was reasonably happy with my piece, although I knew it needed editing to make it just so. My insecurity was on the line. In the discussion, the piece’s weak spots were noticed gently, including comma issues, but I received compliments on two phrases I especially liked. And just like that I found the confidence to continue.

Since that auspicious beginning, I have continued to write with greater or lesser satisfaction – after all, a masterpiece doesn’t come along every day. I have a three-ring binder with multi-colored inserts for my stories. I love the binder. It allows me to visually arrange the stories and think about what I have written. There are memories from childhood of my beloved aunts and uncles; stories of those I call “The Luminaries” who touched our family’s lives, some sketches of friends, my grandson, the pandemic. There are also odds and ends like the gelato story. Taken together, I can see what I have done so far, look for patterns, and think about the next step.

The best part has been sharing the stories. My husband John, who writes a monthly nature column, likes to read them and offers excellent editorial advice. Also, my brothers like to see what I’ve written. Andy is very sharp, being a good writer himself. He gave me suggestions on tying the threads of a piece together for a good ending. Russell is also sharp. What he really likes, though, is reading the background information I’ve found on the internet as I research our family’s history. So, I send him envelopes full of pages I’ve printed. He says he loves seeing the envelopes arrive in his mail box. I love the closeness we have recaptured. My cousin Fancy, after reading a piece I wrote about our Keats family connection, sent me a picture of Alice Keats’s gravestone in Ohio.

Neither of my sons are very interested in what I’ve written. My grandson, Soren, tells me he isn’t so interested in his ancestors, but he wishes I would write stories about myself. Oh boy! That isn’t what I’ve had in mind. But it is a sweet request, so I have to think about that. It’s just that when I think about my own life, I usually feel sad. Soren tells me therapy might help me face my sorrows and work through them. He’s seventeen! 

That brings me back to “Writing Your Way to Happiness”. The article begins with the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world. But sometimes our inner voice gets things wrong. Writing our stories, thinking about them, and editing the narratives can help us direct that inner voice in a new, happier, direction. 

Now as I write, and think about what I’ve written, and listen to what others think, I realize that I might be on that journey already. That would be something. But so far, I have just been enjoying the process of writing the stories I want to tell and working out ways to make them interesting. The discovery that the stories bring me closer to my loved ones is the grace note that lifts my heart.