Thinking places, or I am before I am

Feb 7, 2010

Like each February of the past few years, I’m floating on a high from the success of the ScienceOnline2010 conference, but also reaching for a return to balance in my life. Planning the conference takes a lot out of me.

“Go away,” Erin suggested. “Take a weekend to yourself and reconnect with who you are and where you’re going.” Sage advice from the person who knows me best and has seen firsthand my struggles this last year with the too-many-activities stress I’ve layered on myself.

I immediately thought of Portland, Maine, a place of raw and grey beauty in the winter (I visited a friend there once, and loved it) and how it could provide me the solitude to reflect. Too far, though. Charleston, South Carolina? A walkable city with plenty of coffeeshops and sunshine, and I’ve wanted to get to Hominy Grill for years. Still too far. Southport, North Carolina? A perfect distance, on the water, with a historic town empty during the off season.

So Friday evening, amid heavy rains, I kissed Erin and the girls goodbye and drove slowly south, arriving at the Riverside Motel near midnight. A good night’s sleep (already known that I need more sleep) and I woke in a cold, damp, overcast seaside town, wondering if I actually had woken in Portland. My computer off, my Blackberry away, I bundled up and went walking past the historic cottages of Southport, thinking, pondering and just being, wearing this solitude like an electric blanket, luxurious and warm in the freedom to peer inward and to think about myself.

Off and on throughout the day I walked the streets. In the afternoon I had Oak Island beach all to myself, too.

In between fresh-air strolls, I returned to my room to write. I filled pages and pages with the most free-flowing words I’ve put to paper in many years. That stream of consciousness manifesting in ink on paper helped me to understand the emotional wellspring I’d been neglecting.

I’ve long known, though, that I’m a reader before I’m a writer. Other writers’ words entertain me, educate me, challenge me and console me.

Over lunch, and then dinner, I devoured Writing Places, the latest book by William Zinsser, whose On Writing Well is perhaps the best tutorial on writing nonfiction you can read. Writing Places had me choking back tears often. His stories about places he’s written, and writers he’s taught, spoke directly to me, counseling me to “enjoy the day and its friendships and its unscheduled pleasures” and that “the hardest part of writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.”


My walking, my reflecting, my writing and my reading through the day made clear that I’d neglected a very important priority over the last decade — time to reflect and to write. And that loss of time to contemplate and think through my hands had helped to bottle up expression of my emotions. What I realized this weekend is that I think through writing. I get in touch with my emotions through putting words to paper. (I’m happy, don’t get me wrong: I have so very much that gives me joy. It’s the stress of juggling too many obligations, with no outlet for the pressure, that’s caused this sharing.)

This was a decade in the making.

Ten years ago, I was newly returned from my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Vanuatu. During my two years on Paama Island, I’d written daily in a journal, and letters home to family and friends nightly at the table beneath the dim flourescent light powered by the solar panel. But when I was back in the States, I turned full face to the Internet and started a blog to share my observations with my far-flung family — and anyone else who wanted to read my thoughts.

But those weren’t my full thoughts, because my blogging is not the same as the journaling I’d done on Paama. What I write on my blog shares only part of who I am and what I’m feeling. One time I did open up more fully, sharing a feeling of hurt at what I thought was a snub, and some of my friends quickly commented on how open I was with that post. (Read that post and you’ll see my overdoing it is nothing new. Hmmm.)

In 2000, for my 30th birthday, Erin and I gathered my friends in our Shaker Square apartment to usher in my decade of writing. My friend and mentor, John Ettorre (himself mentored by William Zinsser), had told me years before that I should “live in my 20s, and write in my 30s”. I didn’t write the book I promised — though I did edit and publish books by my grandfather and father — and I managed to write here on The Coconut Wireless (my blog’s name, which most don’t realize) for 10 years running.

For a few months now, I’ve been thinking about my coming 40th birthday, and how I will commit this decade of my life. I’ve long been drawn to narrative and storytelling, exemplified by my narrative journalism attempts, the idea for StoryBlogging and our partnering ScienceOnline2010 with the wonderful The Monti. But, I haven’t felt that I have the skills to be a storyteller, because I also think of myself as a listener before I’m a talker.

My self-examination this weekend, though, has shown me a window and a way. The more I write, the more I think. The more I think, the more I understand. The more I understand, the more I express.

So, the formula I’ll try is this:

  • personal journal writing — words for me;
  • letter writing — words to friends and family, sharing my inner life as appropriate;
  • blogging — observations and stories for the world, with more of who I am.

I know of other changes to make, and my personal insights have given me renewed energy to venture into 2010 and journey into my 40s. This will be a story, perhaps, of places to think.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC