December 7, 2010
I’ve been doing research about the aircraft carrier my father served on prior to World War II. And I was immediately struck by the fact that every take-off, every landing, every flight, every accident, every event (ceremonies like parades, a change of command, orders received, weather reports), every repair a plane needed was recorded in the “ship’s log.” This was done so that a meticulous record was available for, among other things, the writing of history. So that a historian can recreate what happened aboard that ship and a memoirist like me can recreate what my father was doing aboard this aircraft carrier day-by-day, and sometimes even hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute.
I read, somewhere, in one of my scores of books about organization, that ordinary people like you and me should also keep a “ship’s log.” We so often get caught up in making lists of what we have to do (the “To Do” list), that we don’t often make a list of what we’ve accomplished (our “Done” list).
How often do we clean up a kitchen and pause to gaze at how lovely it looks before moving on to the next task we’ve assigned ourselves? Not often, I suspect. How often do we look back at our day and think about what we’ve accomplished? Not often, I suspect. And I’m not only talking about accomplishment in the traditional sense, here, but about truly wonderful acts of self-nourishment like sitting and watching the clouds scud across the winter sky; like taking a long, hot bath; like reading, really reading, a book to a child; like taking a walk with a child without once checking our messages to see who is getting in touch with us. (An aside: on my walks around town, I’m astounded by how many caregivers aren’t “with” the children they’re caring for, by how many are talking on a cell or texting while a child sits patiently waiting for a crumb of a grown-up’s attention. How many of our children experience an uninterrupted hour of a grown-up’s attention? Not many, I suspect.)
I spoke, recently, with a writer friend of mine who’d been chastising herself for not having accomplished very much in the way of her writing for a few months’ time. Then one day she and her writer husband sat down to review what they had, in fact, accomplishment. This writer friend of mine was startled to discover that she had, indeed, accomplished a great deal. She’s reviewed and revised scores of her poems. She’d made a significant decision about the order of a book of poems. She’d decided to detach a run of poems from a book of poems and make it a chapbook. She’d worked hard on the biography of a famous writer that she’s researching and drafting at the moment. She’d passed her work along to a community of writers for review and suggestions. She’d helped scores of writers with their works-in-progress. She’d read a manuscript of her husband’s – a long one. She’d sent out a chapbook to a press. She’d pushed forward the publication of a collection she’d edited.
And until she sat down and wrote down her “Done List,” she’d been telling herself that she hadn’t done very much. Here, I’m only talking about her writing-related accomplishments. This writer friend, of course, does far more in her life than write. So if she were to write down her accomplishments as a teacher, a friend, a partner, a householder, a reader, and so on, her “Done” list would have been very long indeed.
Why keep a ship’s log? Why spend a few moments at the end of each day tallying what we’ve in fact, done as writers, and as human beings?
Well, if you’re like me, your perception of what you, in fact, do is faulty, like my friend’s. So many of us don’t honor our accomplishments. I know why I don’t honor mine. I came from a family, from a culture, where it was considered wrong – an act of hubris – to think that you were anything special. The idea was to live a life under the radar. To be noticed, to be prideful, was not only sinful, it was dangerous. My father always used to say to be, “Don’t get too big for your britches.” My parents were always pointing out what I didn’t do; they didn’t praise me (except rarely) for what I did.
Now, to me, honoring the work we’ve done (whether it’s the creation of a few pages or writing or the doing of a sinkful of dishes) has a lot to do with the creation of our self-worth. So, as writers, unless we keep an accurate “ship’s log” of what we’re in the process of doing, we can kid ourselves that we’re not doing very much.
Leonard Woolf kept a “ship’s log.” And it’s because of his detailed lists of what he and his wife Virginia Woolf did each day that we can write their lives accurately. Virginia Woolf kept a “ship’s log” too of what she did as a writer. Not every day, but often enough so that literary scholars can chart how she wrote her books. And they can coordinate her writing accomplishments with what was going on in the world at the time. So that we can accurately say that Woolf began to create working class characters in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse when England was experiencing a colossal strike, and for the first time in a long time, people realized just how dependent their lives were upon the labor of the working classes.
I keep a “Ship’s Log” of my writing. This allows me to look back and chart the progress of one of my essays or books. And I often reread it so that I can sit back and honor my accomplishment.
So I can, for example, accurately state how I wrote Vertigo, one of my book-length memoirs. I know that on 16 February 1994 I was revising a piece I’d written about my sister’s suicide, with the intention of trying to figure out how to incorporate it into a book-length memoir. I know that on 29 March 1994, I’d read Jay Martin’s Who Am I This Time? and that this prompted me to realize why the movie Vertigo was so important to me when I was an adolescent. I wrote, into my journal, on this date, material about my connection to the movie that made its way into Vertigo. I know that it took me until 11 June 1994 to actually begin work on the piece called “Vertigo.” I know that I was writing at the Douglass College section on 29 September 1994.
In short, by having this “Ship’s Log,” I can recreate my process of working on this book. So that when I’m in the midst of another book (as I am now), I can rid myself of false memories about how a work was created. In retrospect, I think that Vertigo was an easy book to write. But my “Ship’s Log” shows, instead, that it was hard work, just like the book I’m writing now. I learned, for example, that one particular piece took over a year to get just the way I wanted it. And it was the piece that I thought came quickly.
So what’s the virtue in this?
I’ve found that keeping such a record is one of the ways I honor my work. It’s not easy for a woman like me with origins in the working class to value the work of writing. My mother, for example, didn’t consider writing work. She felt free to interrupt me whenever I was writing, and wasn’t proud of the writing I did. So I must do all I can to remind myself that, indeed, writing is work, and that I work hard at writing.