Writing, like any other art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats—both living and dead, famous and not—apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.
This week’s inspiration comes from the French writer and film director Marguerite Duras.
“Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you.”
— Marguerite Duras, Writing
Solitude is where I first found my love of writing nearly 20 years ago.
I was a teenager, and like most, I felt misunderstood and completely alone. My home life had always been harsh and chaotic. The adults in my life were not equipped to help me make sense of all the ways I was changing or of who I was becoming. My parents had been only teenagers with no proper adult role models or direction themselves when I came into this world. My sibling couldn’t help, they are all younger than me and I never had many friends either since we moved around so much.
I had no way of knowing if anything I thought or felt was normal and no knowledge of how to navigate from child to adult without making mistakes that would follow me for the rest of my life. I had no way of channeling my emotions and energy. I was alone.
But there was light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, I would find a kind of companionship and a place to express myself and work through my thoughts and feelings, a place of validation, a place I could trust. I found a journal.
I remember that first one. I was around 16 or 17 years old, and I am almost positive I bought it at Barnes and Nobel, my favorite hang out when I didn’t feel like traveling all the way downtown to be at the library. It was double-sided, one had an illustration of the sun on it, and the other had the moon. I filled it quickly, sitting down to write multiple times a day about everything from my frustrations at my first jobs, my first crushes and questions over my sexuality, and soon after, my first real love.
As I got older, and sometimes happier, I began to ask bigger question of myself and of no one at all. I wanted to know why were people the way they were and why the went on living the way they did even when they wanted so much more. I wanted to know why people hurt each other so much and spent so much time doing nothing and pretending it all was of the utmost importance. I explored my thoughts and observations on religion and relationships, my fears, and my hopes, and dared to confess my sins and proudly state who I was. It was where I made no apologies and was never asked to.
My journal was my first real friend, and I loved and felt loved back by it as if it were a person. Those notebooks brought me out of many holes and back into the light. Those notebooks showed me the power and connection that comes from writing even if you are only writing for you, especially when you are writing just for you.
I still write in a journal every day, when I remember, but like any relationship that lasts there are times when I take it for granted. I forget how much just writing about my day and my feelings for me has helped. I get depressed and discouraged and forget about the one thing that has helped get me through those bouts every time. I have to try harder to keep the relationship going. I have to make a conscious effort to work at it every day.
There are many benefits to journaling, healing is only one. Austin Kleon recently wrote about a journal being a place to say things you shouldn’t say out loud, and he’s previously written about a journal being a good place to have bad ideas. I also use my journal to write my intentions for the day, a place to write encouraging notes to myself, and to keep track of good things that happen in my life to keep me from focusing too much on the bad.
In fact, I carry more than one notebook with me at all times. I carry one I use as a planner and a place to jot random thoughts, to do lists, or keep track of people, places, and things I’d like to investigate further. I have another to take more organized notes on books I read, documentaries find, and even educational YouTube videos I watch.
I use pen and paper to brainstorm, to connect ideas, and to work through emotions. There is no app or piece of technology that can give you that feeling of turning the inner workings of your mind and heart into something physical and tangible. There is no person and no social media platform that will be so open to you and so forgiving of your needs and confessions. Journaling is not something only for the angsty teen, it is for anyone in need of a place to unload their stress and all of the information we are bombarded with every day. It’s a place to make sense of yourself and this world.
So, when you find yourself stuck or feeling alone remember that a sturdy notebook and a good pen will get out of any hole if you trust it enough to lead the way and that writing can save you from much more than solitude too if you trust yourself enough to find the way.
Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, at Gia-Dinh, near Saigon, French Indochina (now Vietnam), after her parents responded to a campaign by the French government encouraging people to work in the colony.
Marguerite’s father fell ill soon after their arrival and returned to France, where he died. After his death, her mother, a teacher, remained in Indochina with her three children. The family lived in relative poverty after a bad investment in an isolated property and area of farmland in Cambodia. The difficult life that the family experienced during this period was highly influential on Marguerite’s later work.
At 17, Marguerite went to France, her parents’ native country, where she began studying for a degree in mathematics. This she soon abandoned to concentrate on political sciences, and then law. After completing her studies, she became an active member of the PCF (the French Communist Party).
In 1943 she changed her surname to “Duras” for Duras, the name of a village in the Lot-et-Garonne département, where her father’s house was located.
She is the author of a great many novels, plays, films, interviews and short narratives, including her best-selling, apparently autobiographical work L’Amant, translated into English as The Lover, which describes her youthful affair with a Chinese man. .This text won the Goncourt prize in 1984. The story of her adolescence also appears in three other forms: The Sea Wall, Eden Cinema, and The North China Lover. A film version of The Lover, produced by Claude Berri, was released to great success in 1992.
Other major works include Moderato Cantabile, also made into a film of the same name, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and her film India Song. She was also the screenwriter of the 1959 French film Hiroshima mon amour, which was directed by Alain Resnais.
Duras’s early novels were fairly conventional in form (their ‘romanticism’ was criticized by fellow writer Raymond Queneau); however, with Moderato Cantabile she became more experimental, paring down her texts to give ever-increasing importance to what was not said. She was associated with the Nouveau Roman French literary movement, although did not definitively belong to any group. Her films are also experimental in form, most eschewing synch sound, using voice over to allude to, rather than tell, a story over images whose relation to what is said may be more-or-less tangential.
In 1939 she married the writer Robert Antelme. During World War II, from 1942 to 1944, Duras worked for the Vichy government in an office that allocated paper quotas to publishers (in the process operating a de facto book censorship system), but she was also a member of the French Resistance as a part of a small group that also included François Mitterrand, who later became President of France and remained a life-long friend of Duras.
During the war, Antelme was deported to Buchenwald in 1944 for his involvement in the Resistance, and barely survived the experience (weighing on his release, according to Duras, just 38 kg). She nursed him back to health, but they divorced once he recovered his health.
Marguerite’s adult life was somewhat difficult, despite her success as a writer, and she was known for her periods of alcoholism. She died in Paris, aged 82 from throat cancer and is interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
Her tomb is marked simply ‘MD’.
Featured image via Unsplash