MY LIFE - On cleaning ashtrays ... and writing

MY LIFE - On cleaning ashtrays ... and writing

“Where do you get your ideas?” people often ask, and I always reply, “That’s just the way my life goes,” which is the literal truth.

“Do you ever have blocks where you just can’t come up with anything to write about?” they will also often ask, and my reply is always, “I think it has happened only once, but generally no,” which again is the literal truth. The literal truth, however, is sometimes merely the facile response when the trickier truth would be, “No, it’s not that I run out of ideas, it’s just that sometimes I simply run out of the will to sit still and write, especially when it’s Friday morning and deadline is breathing down my neck.”

All of this came to mind as I was sitting here at 6:30 in the morning with all manner of other thoughts churning through my mind and I was mentally clutching at straws to postpone the inevitable. I had already checked my email, loaded the dishwasher, changed the sheets on the bed, and started a load of laundry (yes, I’m one of those annoying early morning people). But it was only when I decided to write a quick letter to my friend Diane that it occurred to me that I was in reality doing what author Jean Kerr of “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” fame once referred to as “cleaning ashtrays.”

For those of you not familiar with Jean Kerr, allow me to explain. Jean, a very real and a very funny lady, was married to Walter Kerr, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York theater critic in the 1950s. Years ago, long before I myself was a paid author writing on deadline, I remember once reading how she found herself cleaning ashtrays as an unconscious avoidance to actually sitting down and writing, even going out to clean the ashtray in her car. It made me laugh then and has on occasion made me laugh again as I find myself doing pretty much the same thing.

My mind is always churning with ideas, memories, observations, and stories just waiting to be told. When I am not physically writing, I am writing in my head. I sometimes jump out of bed to jot down a thought, a sentence or even just a single word on one of the scratch pads I keep nearby because no matter how great the thought may be at the moment, experience has taught me that it may be gone again a minute or two later leaving just a faint trace of something I can no longer fully call up from memory. It has even happened in the car, leaving me rifling through the crumpled ATM receipts in the door pocket, looking for something, anything to scribble it down on.

So it is now, and so has it been all my life, ever since I was old enough to pick up a pencil and write words on paper.

I wrote letters, and still do. Back then it was to aunts and grandparents in upstate New York. I wrote to Uncle Billy and Uncle Edgar who were in the Navy. I wrote to a pen pal named Gillian in Wales and Karen in Germany when I was in grade school. I still write to my pen pal Diane, as I have for somewhere near 20 years now, the kicker here being that she lives just about one mile from here as the crow flies, but it just sort of happened because of a letter she had written in response to a column of mine about shopping for a mother of the groom dress. We get together maybe once a year for breakfast or lunch, but we mostly still just write.

They say that “writers write,” and so I wrote. I wrote bad poetry, I kept journals, I submitted anecdotes (all rejected) to a few publications whose names I can no longer even remember, but I wrote. I wrote when there was no one there to even read it.

Writing for me is like breathing, it’s just what I do.

I write compulsively, because I need to. Sometimes it’s pretty good, sometimes not so much, but that’s okay. Sometimes I refer to it as vomiting words on paper as they come pouring out.

And I have loved writing this column, both here at The Valley Breeze, and before this at the Woonsocket Call, for more than 30 years now. I have loved the continuity of it for two reasons. Okay, maybe three.

First, because I am a social being and writing this feels like I am having a conversation with my readers and I love it when they respond, either when we meet somewhere in person or when they write back to me.

Second, because I am a compulsive sharer. I blame it on the fact that I am the oldest of four sisters and the biggest insult when I was a kid was being called selfish. So I learned to share, and writing is sharing my thoughts and feelings and stories.

Third is the fact that now I even get paid for doing it. Someone once casually asked if The Breeze paid me and then recoiled, almost gasping in shock, “They PAY you for writing?!” I wasn’t quite sure how to take it, but yes, once a month a check is deposited into what I call my mad money account. It pays for my bowling, golfing, card playing, and the occasional spending spree at places like Joann Fabrics where I fritter away my hard earned cash on all kinds of non-necessary fun things.

Rhea Bouchard Powers is a writer from Cumberland.