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.

 

34 replies
  1. Deb Lund
    Deb Lund says:

    This touched me, as the perfect expression of my and our own recent letting go, as the ubiquitous longing to be known and to feel that what we do has meaning, as someone who has followed you through those Minnesota-and-first-book days to today. As always, your words are wise, welcoming, and wonder-full.

    Reply
  2. Kathy Jourdain
    Kathy Jourdain says:

    I love this Christina. Although it is a different aspect of letting things go, I am currently clearing out the family home. The things my parents kept – and my father in particular – are wide ranging. Never threw anything out because it might be useful. All the things I pick up, all the papers, all the memories. It makes me realize how ephemeral most of our lives are. I also have many versions of writing and a ton of journals. What will be wisps of memories.

    Reply
  3. Meredith Jordan
    Meredith Jordan says:

    Lovely reflections, dear heart, and I too am sitting in that space of letting go. I have copies of each of my two published books in my computer, as well as a novel I’ve finished (and will probably never publish) and much of an unfinished second. Everything else is gone but for one box of my published books that I’ve saved in the event someone still asks for one. I culled out piles of other papers last week for the same reason you are doing and am paying my ten year old grandson to do the shredding, a job he’s delighted to do for a mial amount of pay. The biggest one for me to tackle are my boxes and boxes of beads, all made by someone’s loving hand, but that’s on the list too. My bookcases are already down to my bare bones beloveds. I suppose this is how we prepare for the day when we’ll depart this good earth for our ancestral grounds, but it takes a certain fortitude to relive all the memories in the process. It’s certainly a time we become clearer and clearer about what marks a life well lived, isn’t it?

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah, you and I are connected in a kind of spiritual synchronicity that touches me. I am thinking constantly of what we leave for the future to find. Boxes of beads… hummmm they should be enshrined somehow, somewhere.

      Reply
  4. Kristie McLean
    Kristie McLean says:

    I can feel in my cells the visceral letting go of so much evidence of past dreams, a pioneer woman leaving behind the body of her child as the wagon train rolls on across unknown prairie. May you continue to be guided by the western sun, the remaining boxes of 100 handwritten journals blazing quietly like jewels, and the assurance that the stories you have lived and shared continue to blossom and cascade outward like love and stardust… everlasting.

    Reply
  5. Katherine Murphy
    Katherine Murphy says:

    Christina,

    In 2016, when I began to believe I would stay well, I decided to reduce my stuff and it was very liberating. I had sat, ill looking at the accumulating disorder and resolutely turned to finding joy. But now I could prevent my husband and siblings this chore.

    Then, when we embarked on this new adventure in Ellensburg and were packing, I realized that I could pull this feat off because I’d pared my stuff back by half. I lightened my own load.

    Your reflection helps me renew my efforts to further streamline because then I can more fully live today. My journals are flower/landscape entries in my Instagram/facebook accounts…. I send them out mainly for me.

    Thank you.

    Katherine

    Reply
  6. Cynthia Orange
    Cynthia Orange says:

    As always, I love your words AND you. I read this just after I had been on a semi-frantic search to find Journal #4 of the letter journals I have been writing for the boys since before they were born; before I knew their names (so I wrote to “Peanut and Bean” because that’s what they looked like in the ultrasound Jessica sent to me). I have been moving closer to wanting to clear out so much of writing-related “stuff” I’ve accumulated over the decades (with the exception of these letter/journals to Oskar and Quin). Your blog helped me prioritize and gives me strength to go forward with the sorting and–you nailed it: grief-filled–tossing of the so much of the rest of it. Who needs galley proofs???Cyber hugs from afar to you and Ann!

    Reply
  7. Pat Norton
    Pat Norton says:

    Thank you Christina. I appreciate your reflection – especially in these days.
    I’m not much of a writer or journal keeper. What I do keep is sporadic and online.
    It’s always been a wonder to me how you and others are so faithful to this practice.
    Again, thank you for your immense contribution to consciousness. You’ve made an enormous change in our community of women. Pat

    Reply
  8. Betty Till
    Betty Till says:

    Beautifully written Christina. I too have cleaned out, sorted and let go of many things and finally also took the time to write my advanced directives. I had been putting it off until a “rainy day” but realized that this was the biggest “letting go” that I will ever have to do. I am healthy and well, and taking care of this item on my to do list has been even more liberating than that kitchen junk drawer that is still calling me.

    Reply
  9. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    Gifts of the pandemic. I have totally emptied the 2 drawer file cabinet I allowed myself to bring 15 years ago when we moved to Whidbey Island. I must now approach the mostly forgotten boxes under the window bed. In between, I allow myself to use materials for collages, create hand made books, alter old books, creating a trove of gifts to give away.
    All these actions, while housebound, a gift of the pandemic.

    Reply
  10. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    You speak a personal story I know, and deeply feel. And I know you know this. And I know, too, this companionable grief. She is here, in my weeping as I read your words and type mine. Much love….much gratitude for you and your presence in our precious grieving world.

    Reply
  11. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    Just read with unexpected results of tears in my eyes. Your words obviously struck a huge cord in my heart and soul. Thanks for your story, thanks for taking the risk at sharing. We are not alone in this journey of life that continues to unfold itself with each step taken and each year lived, even when we feel that our journey is a sola one . And too thanks for your example of how to sit with grief instead of stuffing it down. That is where freedom resides. Most gratefully!

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I just watched the documentary, The Booksellers, about antiquarian book dealers/lovers… very thoughtful addition to this stream of thought and the decisions we make with the evidence of our writing and artful lives. I think you’d love it, Jeanne, and many who are commenting here.

      Reply
  12. Jeanie Robinson
    Jeanie Robinson says:

    I am also nostalgic tonight and deeply appreciate your thoughts, Christina. The words “companionable grief” sit with me along with the poem The Layers, by Stanley Kunitz, who invites us to “live in the layers, not in the litter”…..I expect litter means shredded paper from our files(: Love to you and Ann!

    Reply
  13. Anne Peek
    Anne Peek says:

    Thank you Christina, this is so moving and powerful. Stirs up recurrent thoughts/worries about what to do with so much personal history of my mom and my dad, both history-makers in their time, as well as my own sheaf of writings.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Ah yes, Anne, they were both history-makers. And I would contact the MN Historical Society. Let them know what you have, and see what they want. I sent some family papers of my godmother’s back to Connecticut after she died, old letters going back to colonial times. They were glad to receive them. When I watched this documentary, The Booksellers, about all these folks who collect massive numbers of antiquarian books, I realized these places are designed to house for a certain time these collections and pass them along through history into our unknown future. Be well. CB

      Reply
  14. Floralyn Groff
    Floralyn Groff says:

    Thank you Christina for this thoughtful blog. This is actually something that I am dealing with right now as well. So helpful for you to put it in perspective for me. No need to hang onto a lot of the old journals and paperwork. They have already accomplished what they were meant to do as they helped me define who I am.

    Reply
  15. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    You blog touched me in a similar way. While I am not a writer, per se, I had years of sermons that I went over. I was always determined to start fresh each time and so I archived my sermons (thinking maybe a book one day?) and never went back to look at any of them. I’ve been sorting through them now, noticing how my theology and spirituality have canned over the years and while each one held some message, I knew it was time to dispense with them – and yes grief is a companion. But at the same time, new breath, new challenges, new opportunities. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      All clearing counts… your sermons, my files, my mother’s teacups collected from her mother. And now we find out what the clearing makes room for. Blessings to your day! CB

      Reply
  16. joanna baymiller
    joanna baymiller says:

    Dear Christina,
    Hello from 50 years ago, from St Paul, from a young writer and friend and colleague.
    I am smiling at and connecting to your reflections. In the next room, a box of over 100 letters written from my father to his sweetheart, later his wife, my mother, from 1942 to the beginning of 1946. They are hard to read, and they are compelling to read. When i have finished with them, they will be part of what I let go of, along with boxes and boxes of columns for Minnesota Monthly and dance reviews for the Pioneer Press and architecture commentary for magazines. They are place keepers, and I’m fond of the memory of being a free lance writer and journalist. And I’m astonished at my father’s poignant and pointed commentary on the war. But what i wish to keep now are the bonds of friendship: they sustain who i am now. The other stuff just reminds me of the path chosen, and it was a good path. I liked it. I’m proud of it. And i can let much of it go. I’m so happy to read your words and remember the free spirit from St Paul whom I so admired in my 20’s. Shine on, bright star. Joanna Baymiller

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Oh Joanna, I loved your spirit as well. We were good 20-somethings, and hard to image it is 50 years ago! I am writing a novel based in the early years of WW2. There is so much interest in that period, and museum devoted to collecting memorabilia, testimonies, and research, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you before you throw out those letters. Especially intrigued by your father’s view of the war. Be in closer touch if you like, I’d love to have this conversation! Shine on as well, old friend.

      Reply
  17. Margaret L Brown
    Margaret L Brown says:

    A brave move. I recently read, belatedly, the Art of Tidying Up. I got rid of a lot of things, and I fold my clothes differently now. The next step (after clothes) in the process is books. I see the sense of this–many of them are dust catchers. Still, I think part of the delay is the grief you describe.

    Reply
  18. Andrea Leary
    Andrea Leary says:

    Thank you Christina and Ann, for touching my life today. You are exactly what I need at this time.
    I am so glad you are here!
    You fill the world with love.

    Reply
  19. Lynn Ellyn Robinson
    Lynn Ellyn Robinson says:

    Providential, post, Christina. We met in 2008 at the Denver Journal Conference but I’d been following you for a long time. My elderly mother moved in with me recently. Being buried and overwhelmed has finally given way to grieving her reduced capacity and the need to purge what is not essential in favor of enjoying only the precious and what we can safely navigate. Mother staffs the shredder while l make the decisions – my father’s sermons to my early writing. There is now a sense of lightness as we near the end of our joint journey.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Sending you lightness and trust in this process. It is so difficult to take apart these pieces of life lived.

      Reply

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