On Writing

Like Taos, New Mexico, where I lived for many years before emigrating to “Old” Mexico, San Miguel de Allende is a haven for veteran and aspiring writers and artists of every stripe. Art in all its forms is valued here, and artists of all kinds are respected and welcomed.

Earlier this month, for example, there was the world-renown San Miguel Writers Conference (www.sanmiguelwritersconference.org), which has attracted thousands of participants every year for eighteen years. And just this past weekend there was a grand art walk in one of San Miguel’s liveliest neighborhoods (colonias), San Antonio, in which forty-six artists, Mexican and ex-pat alike, opened their studios to the public.

Me on the art walk (photo credit: Kim Malcolm)

As a veteran writer – of more than forty-five years — and newbie watercolor painter, I’ve learned that we all have our own ways of doing things, and our artistic motivations may differ wildly. For me, writing has always come more readily than speaking; I get tongue-tied when nervous. And now I find the process of wielding a paint brush and swirling it in vibrant watercolor paints, all while listening to soothing music or podcasts, to be the height of relaxation. Now that I’m retired – which is my term for free (at last) – I’m not concerned with making money at either pursuit. It’s the doing that satisfies me.

But for me writing has never been what I’d call relaxing. It’s always required large chunks of quiet, dedicated, undistracted time, in which I must dig deeply, like a dog for a bone, to get to the inkwell in my heart, where, I trust, the good stuff is. Light, frothy, quickly dashed-off writing, like cotton candy, has never appealed to me.

This week, though, because I’ll be moving again (I’m beginning to feel like a Bedouin), from one house-sit to another, still waiting for my new apartment’s construction to be completed, I know I won’t have that kind of time.

So, to solve this problema, I’m reposting a WOW essay here from eight years ago — just before I came to SMA to live — on the subject of writing because I think you’ll like it and because it still holds true today:


The sturdy old wood-topped desks in the grammar school I attended had holes in the upper-right-hand corner where inkwells used to be. These round empty spaces fascinated me as much as whatever my teacher happened to be writing on the blackboard. I wondered what color the ink had been, what those old-time students were like. Did the boys wear britches? Were the girls named Sarah or Adelaide? Did the teacher smack the kids with a ruler if they spilled some ink on the floor?

We modern, post-war boomer babies didn’t need inkwells because we had ballpoint pens (and pencils and crayons) at our easy disposal. Nevertheless, that empty space on my desk drew me in. I wanted to know the stories the ink in that once-wet inkwell had once produced. Were those stories much different from my own? Do we all have inkwells – real or imagined – from which we draw our deepest stories?

My parents had moved to this middle-class town in northern New Jersey because of its good schools. This grammar school, an immense (it appeared to me at the time) red-brick structure, seemed to have been there forever and could withstand whatever bombs — for which we regularly practiced air-raid drills — might strike it. I loved it. It was my haven.

What little diversity the town offered was in terms of religion. Some of us kids went to Bible class one afternoon after school every week, others went to Catholic catechism class, others to Hebrew school. Yet I sensed no divisiveness; we were just one big class.

Mrs. Hanlon’s fifth grade class. I am the blond in the dark jumper in the second row; Jeff is in the row behind me, third from left.

One of my friends who went to Hebrew school was Jeff Newman, a super-bright, earnest boy who was in almost every one of my classes from grammar school through to high school graduation. In fact, Jeff and I attended our 50th high school graduation celebration together in October 2013. I knew then that Jeff was ill, suffering from chronic leukemia and a rare blood disorder that turned his fingernails ink-blue, but no one at the reunion seemed to notice. Jeff was buoyant and stoic; he hid his illness well.

Last week I received a phone call from Jeff’s younger brother telling me that Jeff had just died and asking me whether I would care to write something for the memory book he was putting together.

I went to the inkwell in my heart and pulled up this:

Of all my former schoolmates, Jeff was the one I saw most regularly over the years. We both lived in New York. We both had our own businesses in the City – he a law firm and I a catering company. We met for lunch now and then.

I’d take the subway from my apartment on the Upper West Side — near Columbia University, which both Jeff and I had attended many years before — down to SoHo, where Jeff’s sunny, art-gallery-cum-law office was. He’d greet me with a bear hug and a big grin, and then we’d find a quiet little place close by where we could eat and catch up.

Jeff was my friend, my lawyer, and my one-and-only rabbi. He had, it seemed to Protestant me, a rather somber, rabbinical air about him at times. His views and pronouncements seemed to come from on high (Mount Olympus? Mount Sinai?). I sometimes wanted to chide him, “Come down to earth, Jeff dear,” but I didn’t. He was on another plane.

Jeff was good to me. And kind. We could talk. He listened (from on high). I will miss him. But I know his spirit lives on in a place where we’ll all meet and catch up again one day. Until then, I’ll keep replaying Jeff’s classic parting words to me, “Be well, Bonnie,” and I’ll try my best to follow this wise counsel.

I live in Taos, New Mexico, now, where I teach workshops in Creative Nonfiction writing. My students, mostly retired professionals – doctors, lawyers, pilots, photographers, psychologists, professors – have begun to dip into inkwells they didn’t know they had to write true stories about their lives and the lives of their loved-ones that only they can write. I know the color of their ink. It’s a dazzling, crystal-clear blue.

18 thoughts on “On Writing”

    1. Thank you, querida Kim! I love your word for retirement! I’m thinking of doing a person-on-the-street type blogpost, asking people what the word retirement means to them. I know some people really hate it and refuse to use it! Vamos a ver…

  1. Oh Bonnie! You transported me to my youth and made me re-visit a memory. My classroom also had singular wooden desks, with the lid that enclosed my schoolbooks for the day, in the compartment beneath, and with the wrought iron legs. The right-hand corner hosted a space for the inkwell, as well, but what captured my imagination, were the engravings cut into the wood from the irreverent students prior to my time. In my leisure time, I would create stories about those boys and girls, aka Anne of Green Gables style, wondering where they were and what lives they were living.
    The inkwell fascinated me too. I begged my parents for an ink pen and a bottle of ink. My mother reluctantly bought it for my birthday, no doubt, concerned that our carpet would sport blue ink stains!
    Your writing on Jeff was beautiful. And having had him as a friend on your life journey, was such a blessing! Few of us are fortunate enough to retain such loyalties over our lifetime. I also loved the concept of a “memory book”. A compilation of memories from Jeff’s friends. What a treasure for Jeff’s family!
    Take heart that you will be in your apartment sooner than you imagine.

  2. Bonnie, always in a hurry, I would sometimes read your stories, each time thinking how beautiful was your writing, but not finishing. Or, I would pass it up for a later that never came as I whisked away to another commitment in this very busy “retirement”. I now read it each and every time for the tranquility and pleasure it brings me. Thank you, Bonnie.

    1. How kind of you, Betty. I’m so pleased and thankful that you enjoy reading my WOWs. I try to keep them short, knowing how busy everyone is. If you know of any others who might enjoy them, please spread the word! — Gracias, Bonnie

  3. Dear Bonnie, what a lovely testament to your dear friend and a lifetime of friendship. Your inkwell of the heart is a part of you that goes in your writing.
    Did you know Nancy Hazen in Taos who recently published a book? thanks for your wisdom and generosity shining in your writing.

    1. Thank you so much, Judith. Your kind words mean a lot to me. No, I, I’m sorry, I didn’t know Nancy Hazen in Taos. I’m planning to hear you speak at UUs this Sunday. Best, BB

  4. This is wonderful Bonnie……Jeff was a good person and friend. After that reunion when he learned that my husband Scott had passed away he would reach out to me in a text or email just to say ‘hi’ or check in. That’s how he was…..thanks for the memory. Good luck with your move. Good wishes to you…
    Pam ❤️

      1. Yes thank you Bonnie we are. I’m actually down on John’s Island, SC near Charleston now visiting my daughter. She and her husband just bought a place here where they’ll retire in about five years. They still live in Dallas tho so will go back and forth. Wishing you all the best…

  5. Dear Bon,
    What a wonderful picture of you entering the trompe- l’oeil house. You look like Alice in Wonderland!
    And what a touching tribute to your friend Jeff. I saw him so clearly in my mind through your writing. It is heartfelt and lovely. And “The inkwell in my heart is the most beautiful image. I’m writing the sentence down right now in my copy book. Thank you for re-posting this.

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