My Writing Life – A Story All Its Own

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To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive.

– The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Beuchner

Before Rainbow Dull I had a short lived blog on which I posted only a handful of times. This was about ten years ago, when blogging was just getting going. A couple of old college friends had emailed me links and invitations to their own blogs, so I read several entries and decided it might be something I could do – maybe a way to take all my daydreams and turn them into actual words.

I’d been obsessed with an Annie Lennox song in college, so I lifted a line from it and The Cultures of My Head was born. I showed it to my husband and he seemed to think it was cool. He can be a little vague in his encouragement though, and I didn’t realize he never cottoned on to my illusion. About six months later, I shared the site with a good friend, who was a huge Annie fan and when I told her about the title, she pointed out that the line actually said “contents” and not “cultures.” We had a good laugh about it though I was rather embarrassed, but in my defense, I was thinking about the people kind of culture, and not the science experiment kind.

I only remember a couple of entries from that initial blogging attempt. The first is about some long lost friends from junior high and was inspired by a viewing of Stand By Me. It’s pretty passionate, but it lacks structure and assumes too often that the reader already knows what’s in my head.

The other post I remember well was the late night letter kind. It was written to the picture in my head of a little girl that I never got to meet, the miscarried product of my second pregnancy. I began writing it a year and a couple of months after the miscarriage, but I didn’t finish until ten more months had passed and ended up posting it on the two year anniversary of that loss. The post was a way of finally saying goodbye and letting go so I could move on and take care of the four year old boy we already had as well as the baby girl I’d gotten pregnant with a month after that miscarriage.

Two years later, we moved to Tennessee. Our kids, Sam and Laney, were seven and three by then. We’d sold our house in Maryland, paid off all our debt and moved in with my in-laws because we didn’thave jobs yet, and my husband John was thinking of returning to school for a master’s degree. It was there in my in-laws’ basement that I decided it was time to get serious about my writing.

So I returned to blogging and came up with the name Rainbow Dull. I remembered that old doll, Rainbow Brite, I’d had when I was a kid and how her very essence was cheerfulness. I’d also been taking an antidepressant (for the first time) for about five months and was beginning to feel positive enough about my melancholic personality to try and make a joke about it. But like all good jokes, there was some truth behind this one. You see I wasn’t just popping happy pills, I’d also been to see a therapist (my second one) and together we had identified a few depressed episodes before this latest one. We talked about what depression meant for me – there are actually different kinds – and how I wanted to begin fighting it. Somewhere inside I knew that this tendency to analyze and get lost in the details was not simply how I “got stuck,” but could also be my way out. Once I got the analysis out of my head and all the details onto paper, I could examine it better – maybe even find joy and color, life on the underside of those clouds.

I was also quite ready, after twenty-nine years of crying on the inside, to tell the world that being a Christian did NOT mean peaches-n-cream, roses and sunshine, all the time! My childhood in the preacher family fishbowl had taught me to paint on smiles and stuff away sadness. The hellfire evangelical tradition I’d been brought up in made me feel responsible for the salvation of the entire world. And if one member of that world saw me with any sort of doubt or less than one hundred percent perfection, he or she wouldn’t want what I had and would remain lost and damned. It had always been up to us to convince everyone that having Jesus makes you happy.It was a lie much, much older than me, but I had learned the truth the hard way and was more than ready to share my discovery.

When I first began to write, I hoped to come up with a collection of stories about growing up in a nomadic preacher’s home: how our family got through the tough times, how we moved nearly every two years, how we all dealt with bitterness toward the church without ever losing our faith. I hoped it could be, in some way, the church girl’s version of Traveling Mercies, with a lot less cursing. But when I actually sat down to type I ended up writing whatever was on my mind at the time; I didn’t have a real plan or outline of which stories I should be trying to tell.

I wrote when my son was at school and my daughter was napping, or after they’d gone to bed at night and my husband was job hunting. And one day I looked at our Narnia movie themed calendar and saw that the month of May had a picture of the White Witch: baring her teeth, sword and cold, pale arms. I’d been dreading the month anyhow because I knew the nineteenth would come and I would be forced to remember what I thought was the worst day of my life,but when I saw the picture I knew I had to write about it. So I found another picture, one I’d kept of myself, from Mother’s Day the year before.I posted them both and explained how it felt like the witch in the first picture had come for the girl in the second, how it felt like she was coming once again and the best way I knew to fight her off was to tell the story myself.

So I made myself remember what had started the bleak episode I was coming out of, another miscarriage. I forced myself into the sad memories, and I couldn’t help but compare this one with the first. My experiences had been exact opposites. The first miscarriage seemed so completely in my head that I sometimes wondered if it happened at all. The second one was so physical that I still had photographic evidence. So the theme I decided to explore was senses. My plan was to devote five posts, the week leading up to the nineteenth, to each of the five senses.

I never made it to smell and taste, as the grief work turned out to be too big a plate for just one meal, but the essays I wrote exploring the other three senses have long been some of my favorite posts, and I occasionally try to come up with ideas for the final two. If I ever came up with any, I wonder if I could pull them all together someday, either in a book solely about grief, or maybe as a chapter in the memoir I still daydream about.

Writing time is scarce these days with three kids, (we got pregnant again the month after I wrote those memorial essays) ages 11, 7, and 3. But I know I’m still supposed to do it, and I’ve come to see over the years how writing helps me puzzle out the pieces of my life until they make a picture I can see. In some ways writing is my new form of therapy, although I would not say it has completely replaced it – I’m wary of claiming any kind of cure as there are many days when a listening ear is still the best medicine.

Lately I’ve been questioning the justification of my blog, thinking perhaps it’s time to shut her down in favor of a more long term, less instant gratification type of project. I’m not sure what I will do yet, and I’m not really asking for an answer here. Rather I simply wanted to share what I have learned over the past few months of thinking about my writing and my life: certain themes have emerged. Kind of like when you pick what you thought was a unique name for your kid, then suddenly you meet twelve people with the same exact name. Is it simply that our awareness is heightened by our own experience, or is God actually lining these things up toward some greater purpose?

Depression, loss and grief are the subjects I keep returning to again and again in my writing. There are days I want to run from those topics, as any sane person probably would. I worry that people are tired of hearing such morose ponderings. But then I hear of yet another woman dealing with the loss of a child, or I find myself in the middle of another conversation about loneliness and depression. Even when I concentrate all my efforts to write something a little more palatable and sweet, I inevitably end up with dark and savory.

I hesitate to label myself or cast some grand mission on my life, but I cannot deny that life’s questions pulled me into a search for answers, and wrestling with them has become a near daily task. Blogging helps me mark the miles, for now. When I look back at the flags I’ve planted, I see a lot of the same color and can’t help but wonder if all of our Sacred Journeys are being shaded just so? Some green and lively, others muted and grey. Each playing the light off another, accenting hues in a band that spans the horizon, ‘til all is beautiful and bright.


11 Comments

  1. Toree

    You write so beautifully. I always look forward to reading your blog or when you post on here. I don’t know what I would do if you were to stop blogging. I really hope that you will continue because I think it’s a positive outlet for you and it takes courage to write your emotions and feelings. I’m proud of you.

  2. Loriann S.

    It took about 20 years walking with God to get where you are! I too, am a meloncholy girl figuring out how those many years of the grief of “not belonging” (one of the themes I see being redeemed in my life) have created the light and shadow on the walls of my inner world. I began blogging almost 9 months ago when my husband and daughter were nearly killed by a drunk driver. I write, they recover, I recover. I am drinking a cup of coffee with you here, knowing that you and I understand each other, and it is so very good to be understood and to understand. In our real home, we can rock on a porch with the cool breeze of heaven on our skin and see the divine soup of color produced by our sadness. Until then, we sort it out the best we can.
    Your friend on the pilgrim road, Loriann

  3. Michelle

    Thank you so much for telling this story. It struck me when I was reading that you said ‘Even when I concentrate all my efforts to write something a little more palatable and sweet, I inevitably end up with dark and savory.’ and then at the end, you describe such a beautiful scene that the pattern of each of our lives is building. And how that beauty is evident only when we’re living out our real lives in front of one another (community) instead of the fake veneer of those pasted-on smiles. That fake veneer might seem more appealing at first glance, to both live and observe, but it is unsustainable and actually not beautiful at all. Thank you for sharing where you are on your journey. Much appreciated.

  4. Cory

    My wife and I had two miscarriages over the past year, and I wrote a little song saying goodbye to those children I never got to meet. I heard later that another writer had written an incredibly upbeat (and successful) worship song about God’s faithfulness after two miscarriages.

    I felt a little bad for resting in the sadness, but you’ve shown me someone out there feels like me. That being sad for a while is part of conquering sadness.

  5. Janna

    Thanks Toree, You’re so kind.

    WordLily, Now you’re gonna get me started.

    Loriann, It’s so good to hear you knowing where I’m coming from. Cofffee and porches sound dreamy.

    Michelle, Unsustainable — you are exactly right.

    Cory, There used to be ritual, guidelines and an actual time period for grieving. It seems our contemporary culture is so wrapped in bubbles, so separated from pain and hardship of any sort that we no longer know how to handle real sadness. Grief and tears are gifts from the God who knew we would face loss in this world. Thanks for telling a bit of your story here.

  6. Phil

    Great post Janna…I loved these lines:
    “I was also quite ready, after twenty-nine years of crying on the inside, to tell the world that being a Christian did NOT mean peaches-n-cream, roses and sunshine, all the time!”
    …and…
    “…the grief work turned out to be too big a plate for just one meal.”

    Reading your words — or heck, ANY words — concerning miscarriage always hits me hard. Sometimes one chance is all you get, and there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about that one missed chance and wonder why things happen the way they do. I can’t say that I’ve ever shook my fist at God, but we’ve had some pretty intense staring contests over the past few years, and there’s nothing that sucks worse than being angry with your Dad. Nothing.

    Thanks for sharing this…and thanks for not liking spicy Indian food so that I can steal your husband away for a lunch every now and then.

  7. Leanne George

    I loved this Janna! So much beautifully written truth. Hope you keep on with your writing-I’m jealous of your talent 🙂

    PS. I’ve always hated that Sunday School song-” I’m In-right out-right up-right downright Happy all the time”………….

  8. meredith

    Janna, I sense a kindred spirit! I can’t thank you enough for your honesty. My husband and I have five little ones in heaven that I long to meet one day. There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of them. I often wonder about them. Who do they look like? What are their personalities? How would we as a family be richer because of their presence among us?…. I have often heard that once we are face to face with the Father that our questions will no longer matter, that we will only be consumed in worship, but I think I will ask to be brought to the “wing” that was added on for my children. I long to know them!

    The fishbowl is a hard place to live! Weather it is real or imagined it remains a prison of its own kind. The struggle to break free of the hold it has is great! It feels like you don’t know who you are, or if the real you would feel what you feel or respond as you do, because you sense that you are always living for others.

    It’s almost 3am and sleep hasn’t come, but I must try…I will look forward to visiting your blog soon. So many people feel so alone in the sad and the grief of miscarriage. Thanks for providing safe community to honestly wade through the pain.

    Meredith

  9. Judith

    Janna, thanks for your honest sharing. I hope you keep blogging–you never know who is reading. I tell my students that we don’t choose our topics so much as our topics choose us, and yours sound like important territory. In light of how your writing steers toward heavier themes at present, you might appreciate the last two posts on my blog.

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