Someone looking into the dining room of the White Hart Inn in Western Connecticut that Saturday morning might have guessed we were a women’s support group. Each of us cozy in fall sweaters and jeans, with an eagerness to begin something. Our backs straight against the lumpy sofas framed around the fireplace, signaling our full attention.
Although the seven of us came from different backgrounds and parts of the country—and I was the only Californian—I felt a kinship with these women. Intimate strangers, we peered at one another with a mix of curiosity and shyness, eagerness and trepidation, already knowing deeper aspects of each other’s stories because we had read excerpts before arriving. Like me, several were in the early stages of memoir-writing.
The author and teacher Dani Shapiro sat in a winged armchair at the midpoint of our circle. She was our reason for gathering. We had read or listened to her books and her podcast, Family Secrets. She smiled and looked around with intention. Then she took an audible breath, and as if we had done this together before, we took our breaths on cue.
Dani asked us to find our pens and a blank sheet of paper. We rummaged through our totes and backpacks—bracelets clinking, switching iPhones to “mute” mode—as she talked of instruments and tuning, and explained that we as writers must be vigilant in caring for ourselves. We are our own instrument, she told us, implying that there is something important to protect and maintain in order to do the writing—something worth putting up a fight for.
My shoulders relaxed into the kindness of this. After twelve years of mothering, of trying to hold one of my son’s hands as he wobbled through his early childhood, and then the next son, and the one after him, too, sometimes trying to hold all three of their hands with just two of my own, Dani was saying, You and your creative life matter.
Early on in the pandemic, I’d found my way back to writing, after years of decidedly not writing. I’d left a decades-long career at Forbes Magazine covering technology trends and entrepreneurs two months before giving birth to my third son, and three years after my father died. I was parenting while newly parentless, and exhausted from trying to juggle everything at once. My grief was so conveniently managed with distractions: toddler tantrums, doctors appointments, a kitchen remodel, and of course, a puppy with a sensitive stomach. I see now that I was manic with the momentum of motherhood. Life was happening to me.
I’d considered finding a creative nonfiction writing class at Stanford. I wanted to write again, but not in the same way. The stack of books perched on my bedside table had gone from business tomes to ones about early childhood development and parenting, mirroring the shift in my life. But I talked myself out of the classes: I was too busy; it would have been an hour drive on the 101 each way.
Then I watched in awe in the spring of 2020 as our three elementary age boys tuned into their school classes over Zoom. I could do that, I thought. In the stillness of those early pandemic days, I felt a new longing to be able to articulate my own stories. I noticed an email from Stanford Continuing Studies advertising the upcoming semester’s online-only classes and clicked the link. Weeks later, I was in a memoir writing class over Zoom, reading great literature, and writing for others who write. It was a start, a spark to light my creative side.
That summer, a fellow student pointed me to Dani Shapiro’s writing, and I went down a delightful rabbit hole. On my solitary runs on the gravel path along the Bay, Dani’s voice in Still Writing was in my AirPods telling me to notice more, tolerate bad writing days, and find comfort in writing rituals. It was soothing as the world felt perpetually slowed, that I could also slow myself down, one foot after the other. I did more listening than writing and told myself to enjoy this process. Then I went to Dani’s website and saw a post about an upcoming writing retreat. I had no notion of what this would entail. But I wanted to learn and be in a room with other writers where the conversations could meander into the hallways and over dinner. I wanted to understand how they were finding their ways to the page, what hopes and ambitions they had, and how they might fulfill those.
At White Hart that bright, late-October morning in 2021, Dani leaned in, gently and purposefully making eye contact with each of us, then asked us to create a simple grid on one sheet of paper, just four squares. In the top left, we wrote “did.” In the top right, “saw,” with the numbers one, two, three, all the way down to seven for each box. In the two boxes below, we wrote “heard” and “doodle”–for a freehand sketch of something we saw, and a single sound. Then she told us to draw a small spiral in the top center of the page. She explained that the cartoonist Lynda Barry created this exercise as her way into creative ideas. “Do this before you write. This can be your practice,” Dani said.
She gave us a timeframe. We could reflect back only as far as waking up that morning. My mind strained under this constraint. Coffee in a white mug, thick porcelain. The pattern of sunlight spilling through my bedroom window reminded me of my childhood in a Connecticut house with similarly styled mullioned windows. That’s two things I’d seen. Five to go.
Earlier that morning, I’d gone for a three-mile run along an old railroad path lined by trees with half of their amber leaves still on. I can draw this, the path, the two rows of trees flanking it. I created a fuzzy scribble in an upside-down U-shape. The trees could also count under “saw,” but this felt like cheating the whole point of the exercise. I ungripped my pen, tried to loosen my fingers. No one will see this, Vickie. You’re not trying to impress them.
Sounds, what did I hear? Total auditory void. It was as if my chattering mind was a white noise machine forever set to high.
We did this again to begin the next two mornings of workshopping. It got easier. It became a comforting ritual, a moment I looked forward to, like sitting in a well-worn cozy chair. When I returned home to San Francisco, I found an old, barely filled black notebook I’d used for to-do lists. I tore out the scribbled pages and began a new morning routine. I made my insulated mug of French press coffee, lit a candle, then did the journaling squares and some creative writing before my boys woke up. I liked the structure of the squares and the numbers. It felt doable.
One afternoon, I searched for an unused notebook for my journaling, and found a dozen former notebooks in various drawers and on a closet bookshelf, quarter-filled journals from various phases of my life: the teen years after my mother died, my college boyfriend years, then my twenties with the boyfriend who became my husband. I wrote most often when traveling on vacation. As I cracked these open, I felt a whiff of why bother fatigue, a deflation. About 25 pages into each of these journals, they go blank. I gave up, moved on, lived life without the effort of reflecting through words.
Then I found the periwinkle blue Smythson notebook my running group friends gave me when I’d turned 40. It is embossed at the bottom right corner with my initials, VB and 40. I was touched back then: everything about it was refined and thoughtful. And then there was a part of me that had rejected it. Nothing I wrote would be worthy of its soft blue pages. It was as if this beautiful thing was telling me how far I had fallen from my writing life.
I moved the periwinkle Smythson notebook from the closet shelf to a corner of my desk next to the candle. The next morning, I began my lists of sevens, and I instantly loved the feeling of my PaperMate pen on the crisply thin paper. This would become a ritual that I would crave, and not let myself skip, even if it meant writing two or three days all at once after a busy stretch of living. There is something about putting words to the ordinary that gives it worth.
In her spiritual memoir, Devotion, Dani writes of her mind being “a trash can full of Post-its and to-do lists,” and this is so very relatable. I have those days, those weeks even, of Post-it note living. There is a difference though, lately, like I’ve actually transformed myself. In those boxes “did” and “saw” and “heard,” I am tuning in. I am finding the moments of meaning and beauty within the mundane.
My “do” 1-7 often reminds me that yes, I am doing. I am getting enough done. Sometimes it’s as ordinary as 1. “went to the gym,” 2. “paid bills.” The bills need paying. Maybe this first corner of the grid is the pat on the back I need, and license to move on to “saw.” Look up, look around, pause, capture this for yourself. Last winter, I changed “saw” to “noticed.” I wanted more latitude for feelings, not just seeing. I liked the awareness that comes with noticing my emotions in the swirls of any given day.
I have good stretches of noticing—the quality of hazy light on the Bay at sunrise, the endearing smirk my son gave me in the car, and the relieved look on the older woman’s face in the grocery checkout line when the woman behind her quietly offered to pay for the amount she didn’t have. There can be profound beauty in simply witnessing.
I have less good stretches—when my mind gets in the way, when I am obsessing over rejections, real and perceived. A wall of worry stands between me and the world I am numbly moving through, barely noticing because I am so inwardly focused. But this, too, is worth noticing because then I can re-center.
This self-fulfilling aspect of the exercise reminds me of Ross Gay’s collection of essays, The Book of Delights, where he chronicles a year of simple pleasures, joys—delights. He writes, “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle.” Gay is telling us that what we notice matters and can shape our very experience of being.
Last April, I came to the final pages of the Smythson, and ordered a new one in a bright teal green. At 45, years away from VB 40, this felt fitting. As I flexed the spine of my new notebook, I looked back at the last chunk of entries I’d done in the old one. It occurred to me that I’d stopped doing the doodle. I’d let the “notice” box extend all the way down the page so that instead of four squares, I only had three boxes. For months, I had conveniently deleted the part of the exercise that made me the most uncomfortable.
Now, I am back to my ill-formed doodles. I find the doodle reminds me to loosen up–in my writing and my life. Most of the time my doodles are of the trees where I run, or stick figures that create barely legible snapshots of a moment: kids lining up to swim a watermelon across the pool on Labor Day weekend, my husband on the other side of the restaurant table from me with our dog at his feet.
There is a part of me that’s always yearned for more. It might be a cashmere sweater that flashes in my Instagram feed, or a habit change in the name of self-improvement. Lately, this has evolved. More than anything, I want more time, and I want to be present within that time. There are days I forget the four boxes. Life takes over, and I notice myself wobbling like a spin toy about to bounce off of the table. Remember the journal, I tell myself, and I begin again.