A Writing Life

When I was a young freelance writer in my late twenties, I read voraciously to find my place in the lineage of wordsmiths: books based on correspondence and journals, the complex relationships of the ex-pat writers of Paris1920-30s: Shakespeare and Company, Gertrude and Alice’s Friday afternoon salons; the Algonquin Round Table in New York city, the heady conversations of Oxford and London, and the socialist activists of Minneapolis and St. Paul. As I reached back to the earlier years of the 20th century, I found history and literature, poetry, liberated women, people breaking ground and taboos: biographies of writers, biographies of whole eras and places that held the seeds of the second half of the 20th century. I connected myself and my writing aspirations to a sense of belonging that has steadied me for fifty years.

When I began teaching journal writing, I dove deeper into this lineage of personal papers, both published diaries and trips into the Minnesota Historical Society to discover their treasure trove of the “not famous” early voices of the pioneer and Victorian era. I poured over files of spidery handwriting and vowed to keep records of my own correspondence. If these “ordinary people” were of value to the historical society, maybe the letters between my friends and I would be valued someday too.

International Women’s Writing Guild, keynote February 1977

When I wrote and published my first book at age thirty-one, my young agent and I twirled down the streets of New York, each of us intoxicated with our step into literary history. We did make history with that book: The Library of Congress had to designate a new category for it because the modern era of journal writing was so new.

“Someday, someone will want to know about this,” she said, “You are a pioneer, keep track of things.” So I did. For years I saved the first draft, the edited pages, the final draft of that book and the next several books assuming some future scholar would want to see how how a book grows from idea to finished product. I saved correspondence, made copies of my letters, filed things by relationship, by years, kept articles I wrote, and those written about my work, copies of speeches given, curricula developed: a body of work. A life in words.

The computer radically changed all this: drafts never really exist anymore the way they used to on a typewriter with scrawled notations in red ink. Correspondence too has changed into texts and emails. Something about that form changed how I write. Gone are the long, thoughtful and heartfelt missives I used to send and receive. Everything is jumbled into an inbox going back to May 2016—maybe when I got this current computer? I often find my email’s constant requests for response exhausting, though I work to bring heart to it, as though it was written by hand. I don’t print much of it, don’t actually have a real desk-drawer filing system for correspondence anymore. And who cares about emails (unless they are Hillary’s).

So in the midst of pandemic isolation I went into the storage room of our little backyard office and began clearing out boxes of files, making piles to be shredded. Correspondence from the era when I thought that mattered; records of the early years of my career—much of it I had forgotten, how hard I worked to hold that place of belonging to lineage that even by the 1980’s was historical.

I threw out the evidence.

I threw out the letters from my best friend in college.

I threw out the letters from a complex mid-twenties love affair.

I threw out the letters between myself and other struggling young writers wishing we had lives as glamorous as those we were copying from an earlier era.

I threw out correspondence organized by year, by book fans, by publishing companies.

I threw out copies of early freelance articles written for regional and national magazines.

And after a while the grief of what I was doing came and sat alongside me. Grief and I smiled sadly at each other—that young brunette who gave her first conference keynote, who sold book after book hoping to break through the mid-list. Grief that time moves only forward and that this kind of record keeping does not matter anymore. There’s not a place for this paper in the digital mania. We don’t live in that kind of world and I don’t foresee that kind of a future.

Oh there’s plenty of paper left from my life: I have been keeping a journal for sixty years and I have every volume of that rambling narrative, handwritten in way over a hundred notebooks tucked in boxes at the back of the closet and spilling out of the lower shelf of my bookcase. I have scrapbooks going back to high school, and my partner and I still spend hours every year in the week between Christmas and New Year’s compiling a record of the year past and our accumulating history of love and relationship. I have digital correspondence files in my computer going back to 2001, but they are nothing like the sheaves I set into the shredding boxes.

I am 74 years old. I have no children: I have no “daughter of the book,” who might be interested in my life/our life/this period of history, or what happened to writing and reading during this time. I am trying to make sorting simpler, for whoever survives me. I am not yet ready to throw out everything, even though I say to my students that the purpose of our private writing is for the clarity and healing it provides by doing it.

And it’s not about me, this companionable grief, it’s about what the world has become. In the world of now we drastically need now to face other issues so that some people can survive and source the phoenix world that will rise from the collapse of this one.

So I offer this paper trail to the shredder. I offer it to recycling. I offer it to re-emergence as new blank pages for unwritten stories, letters, journals, books that will become part of what we leave in the earth for the future to find.


Please Don’t Forget!

It is April 22, 1970. I am a junior at Iowa State University.  Spring has come to the small town of Ames, Iowa. The enormous old maples and oaks fringing central campus are leafing out. Tulips are blooming. The iconic lilac bushes are beginning to show promise of their white and purple fragrant blossoms. Students are sprawled on the grass sitting in small clusters on the immense lawnscape of central campus. Everyone is waiting for the daily 11:50 a.m. concert from the university carolinear who will play a 20-minute concert from the campanile tower with its 50 bells.

Iowa State University campanile, courtesy ISU website

However, it is more than an ordinary day for students with spring fever. It has nationally been designated Earth Day. Speeches will be given in many places on campus, including on the steps of Bessey Hall, the old botany building. There will be a rally at the football stadium with music and more speeches. Over 20 million Americans will participate in parades, dances, and speeches on this first ever Earth Day inspired by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. I am already an idealistic young biologist. This event will secure my dedication to a lifetime of service to the earth.

Earth Flag, photo by Ann Linnea

What to do? As I always do, I pause and look to nature for guidance and teaching. Outside our homes and apartments in the northern hemisphere, fruit trees are sporting their glorious, sweet blossoms. Grass is greening again after the long winter. The southern hemisphere is moving into welcomed cooler temperatures and moisture—I think especially of our friends in Australia who are so grateful for the end of a brutal fire season. At a superficial view, nature seems to be thriving during this time of human slowdown.

A maple tree about to bloom, photo by Ann Linnea

Aren’t we grateful for the continuation of life on this precious planet? Don’t we feel that gratitude more deeply than ever this year? Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate? Of course! This year has been proclaimed the year that Earth Day goes digital. And, as I mention later in this essay, it is more important than ever to also go outdoors!

Online Earth Day celebrations

So, how can we celebrate and still honor social distancing mandates? There will be a lot happening online. One official site for Earth Day 2020 celebration is http://earthday.org/. Their website banner states, “We have two crises: one is the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. The other is a slowly building disaster for our climate. On April 22, Earth Day goes digital.”

Sierra Club devoted their March/April issue to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. “On April 22, 1970 nearly one in 10 Americans flooded the streets and the woods and the seashores to call for an end to the merciless pollution of the country’s air, water, and landscapes.” They have many suggestions for Earth Day 2020 online: https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2020/04/celebrating-earth-day?utm_source=insider&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

The April issue of National Geographic is devoted to Earth Day 2020 and contains impressive background information and a look ahead 50 years—from both an optimistic and a pessimistic perspective.

And many local communities, including our own, previously had a month of celebrations planned—all of which have gone digital.

2020 Earth and Ocean Month logo for Whidbey Island, courtesy of their website



Actual outdoor observances

 Because of social distancing mandates, people have had to let go of traditional ideas for celebrating many spring festivals. Passover, Easter, and Ramadan, all occurring in April, usually celebrate by gathering family and community. They are mostly being celebrated online. Earth Day is no different, but If you can safely and legally get outside, do so. If you are inside,  tend plants in your house, handle vegetables with reverence, plant seeds, feed birds, listen to your pets with calmed attention.

So, what else can be done at this time of staying indoors and doing respectful social distancing? I think almost anyone can participate in a Sit Spot. A Sit Spot is a practice of outdoor meditation or noticing. No devices, just physical senses: you with Nature. I have a Sit Spot in our local state park that is waiting for me once the shelter in place restrictions are lifted and the parks open to the public again. My closest Sit Spot is on the front porch. You can sit on a balcony overlooking quieted streets, on a front porch, or the steps into your house. Find a place within a few minutes walk out your front door into your yard or garden. A senior in a wheelchair can participate.

Sit spot is both location and intention. Sit by yourself for ten minutes. Bring a notebook and a pen, maybe colored pencils. Be completely quiet and do not move except to write down anything you see, hear, smell or sense.

Ann on her front porch sit spot with notebook, photo by Christina Baldwin

My suggestion is to do this every day during Earth Week: April 20-24. It is best to go to the same spot every day so you can really practice your skills of observation and see what different things you notice each day—especially at different times of the day. At the end of your 10 minutes create something from your observations: a drawing, a short story, a collage, a poem. Then participate in the community aspect of this incredible celebration—send it off to children, grandchildren, friends, or even a local website.

Instead of participating in an outdoors youth celebration this Earth Week, as would be my custom, I am working with local elementary teachers to design some Earth Day celebration ideas for their online curriculum—which includes a Sit Spot exercise.

It is rural here and our local Land Trust has allowed its trails to remain open. People are very good about stepping aside and letting one another pass. If you have access to parks or beaches, enjoy, respect social distancing, and treat your outing as a privilege. So many of your fellow planetary citizens to not have this opportunity right now. Gratitude is a very important part of an Earth Day celebration.

The planet is getting a rest right now from many of the activities of its 7.8 billion humans. Perhaps, this is the greatest Earth Day gift we can bestow.

Fifty years ago, on Earth Day when I was that junior at Iowa State University, the speeches, the parades, and rallies were the most inspirational thing I had ever experienced in my young life. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin called this celebration forward as a way to bring environmental issues to the forefront of political action. The results were astounding. In the 1970s the U.S. implemented major legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.

Now more than ever earth wellness needs to come to the forefront of our thinking and action. My request for each of us in this time of pandemic is to remember and participate in the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. And even more than that—may we support political action that enables us to have the optimistic view of 2070 portrayed in this month’s National Geographic magazine.

Cover of April 2020 National Geographic, photo by Ann Linnea