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Write Yourself!

Photo by Riley Nelson

When I’m outdoors with my students, they carry their journals with them. We pause during our treks or other experiences to talk and write, and talk about the writing. This is an ancient tradition, maybe as old as humans themselves, to amplify the meaning of experience through writing. One might say that the first cave drawings recorded autobiographical information about the artist, the animals he or she hunted, the pathways to water. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about his life (c. 99), and Augustine (354-430) wrote his Confessions. Phillip Lopate, in Art of the Personal Essay, traces the tradition to Seneca (3-65) and Plutarch (46?-120) in the Greco-Roman tradition, to Sei Shonagon (Tenth Century) and Kenko (1283-1350) in Japan, and to writers during the Tang dynasty (607-907) in China. Montaigne did it, the Puritans did it, the Beat and Hippie writers did it, Islamic feminists do it. Whether they write autobiography, memoir, or personal essay, humans have used words to explore themselves for a long, long time.

I started writing about myself in my early teen years, when my cousin Scott Bennion’s interest in writing poetry infected me. Maybe we both had it in our blood, both our father’s wrote, his more than mine. Our grandfather was a historical writer, our great-grandfather wrote extensive journals, and our great-great grandmother was a poet. Scott and I wrote on paper bags, scraps of paper, in the mud out on the desert where we worked together on my grandfather’s ranch. We made up obscene lyrics, which we sang to the skunks and rattlesnakes, and impossible fantasies, generally having to do with girls, which we narrated to each other. Since then, for better or worse, industriously or lazily, I’ve written about myself, or recast my own experience as fiction. For more than thirty years I’ve worked to persuade others that the pleasure and pain of writing about your own life is worth it. Writing helps us see ourselves and others, our experiences, more clearly. I have a head-full of tactics to uncover material about our own lives. The purpose of this blog is to download what I’ve learned, to test new tactics, discuss theories about reflective writing and to publically experiment with writing myself.

“Write Yourself” can be read as instruction or imperative (“Write about yourself and do it now!”). The phrase also is a pun of what happens when humans write about themselves—a kind of psychological insight (Right yourself by writing yourself). I have watched it happen hundreds of times: someone with a tangle in their head sorts it out as they wrestle with the words to describe what is happening to them. In short, I believe in the benefits of writing the self.