Through the Looking Glass: Writing as a Process

by Natalie Mendolia | 5/3/17 2:50am

I’m the kind of person who has eight different desktop screens for my laptop, each with its own distinct wallpaper that inspires me to perform certain tasks or match my specific mood. But that Type A level organization fades away when I’m working with the wallpaper whose orange, blossoming rose lights my brain afire with the heat of summer suns and the rouge of a cheek just tenderly kissed. As a creative writer, everything seems to speak a lyric or hum a poetic line, whether a tree standing starkly under a white sky of snow or a crushed can of keystone outside of Rauner. You find the deepest meanings, the most intricate puzzles tucked away in the details of our haphazardly busy, iPhone-inculcated lives. Even on laptop screens.

Creative writing is both a force utterly out of your control and the most powerful way of trying to grasp onto a reality that is ever-changing. You pass through paragraphs or pages of prose that prod all the “heart cells” in your body, those delicate pieces of human soul that lay dormant under tax-filing, dirty laundry, ambiguous five-year plans. Phonemes become words as syllables traverse delicate structures of syntax, and sentences stitch subtle meaning into the body of a paragraph whose story could ignite a tiny universe.

Nothing means more to me than the moment my fingertips start to write a symphony of keyboard clacking as my stream of conscious flows uninhibited, freely crafting the world as I see fit. But that enchanting moment never comes so easily. It appears only when I seem to be in either my most muddled state of mind — head clouded with exam anxiety and the usual, baseline existential crisis most writers perpetually face — or when my life seems to hum with its own peaceful rhythm, as if my lungs were breathing in sync with the wind.

Finding your voice can become one of the most daunting tasks of being human, of crafting meaning out of the life and spirit given to us. From a young age, my family endured many hardships from divorce and illness to non-existent bank accounts and late night emergency phone calls. I’m sure you’ve read that line in many editorial pieces or memoir-like articles before: the heartwarming yet stereotypical plea to understand that a Prince-and-the-Pauper life has nourished my art, given me a reason to create, yada-yada-yada (I’m ironically looking at you, all of my “Seinfield” people, since “Friends” is downright better). That’s the whole point, though. My beautiful and disastrous college experiences so far have taught me a very precious lesson: everyone struggles. And for the longest time, I felt alone in that strife. But writing painted my very special yet common struggles with a color scheme that only fit my voice, my tears, my questions. I found a way to take the fragile vocal chords that only knew how to hum and give them a reason to sing, because although another teenager could be losing her father to illness or leaving home at 16, my pain spoke its own creed. I could describe the exact same experience as someone else but my adjectives had a different tone, my syntax a different style, my purpose a different breed. My footsteps may wash away in the sand but that doesn’t mean the imprint was never there.

And, when you have nothing original to say, that is when the true artist emerges. The stage you enter every time the Word document or leather-bound journal opens, anxious and curious to test your skill, feeling dim and empty without any flamboyantly costumed actors or enticed audience.

With a wry smile on his face and light-hearted laugh, one of my professors, a skillfully trained historian, recently mentioned how difficult it is to predict the past let alone the future. Why do we try to predict things, though? In order to find meaning. When I put my pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I find myself on a journey through the present as I use the gifts of past experiences to light the way. Creative writing helps me to draw connections between seemingly opposite things. It invites me to share my task, my achievement, with others by telling a story about it that draws in the reader, just like Foco cookies do with every normal human being. It adds jazz hands and ruby red slippers to basic assignments that I could complete without growing or learning much at all.

This term I decided to lead a retreat for the Catholic community at Aquinas House and was assigned to write a piece about my faith. Writer’s block thrumming in my head as I slouched sullenly in the 1902 room, I finally struck gold. I described the room and its paintings as vividly as I could, and out of that simple writer’s impulse I managed to find a flow of wisdom.

You can never achieve perfection in writing. It is a never-ending battle to create amidst a constantly transforming world through which innumerable thinkers, adventurers, creators have passed. Cloaked under the deep drapes of night, nestled between the tattered sheets and blankets on my bed, I would write as if each word were crafting my legacy. At 15, I knew everything but nothing at all, and so those words were how I made sense of my identity and found the freedom in being imperfect. I could craft characters who embodied every strength I ever hope to one day have and could accept their weaknesses with grace. Because writing truly is a weakness. No matter how many weeks or months I go without tapping into that neurotic yet magical vault in my brain, I always come running back, pen in hand, mind ready to explore. It’s the adrenaline rush you can’t resist when you find that perfect adjective; it’s the ocean-side calm that calls your sadness home when the morning sun doesn’t feel so bright anymore.

I have hundreds of notes on my phone, one liners and phrases that come to life while I’m trying to sleep. Titles of books that I aspire to write line the electronic library in my notes app as if my life depends on it. All unfinished, all with so much potential. That may just be the best thing about writing: shredding yourself apart and, like Stephen King said, sitting down and bleeding through your fingers to produce a mediocre piece but one that may just have enough beauty to inspire someone else to take a shot at this wild kind of art.