Musings + Essays

26 Letters and 14 Marks.

By: Jen Shoop

When are your most at ease and “in your element”?

Where are you and who are you with? Are you alone? Are you exercising? Are you cooking? Are you doing nothing at all?

There is a section from an essay by Natalia Ginzburg in which she writes:

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time. I hope I won’t be misunderstood; I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write. I know that writing is my vocation. When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me, I know extraordinarily well; I use tools that are familiar to me and they fit snuggly in my hands.”

I wrote recently that “for me, a good measure of the pleasure of living is putting it into words. It is as though I need to slip the amorphousness of an experience into a well-fitting suit.” Her variation on this theme rung so true to me I stopped in my tracks. When I am writing, I indeed feel as though I am using “tools that…fit snuggly in my hands.” I am comfortable, I am alive, I am moving with purpose. Everything as it should be.

In graduate school, I worked in The Writing Center in the bowels of Lauinger Library at Georgetown University. Students would come by for assistance and feedback on their essays, and would often tell me: “I’m not good at writing” or “I hate writing” or “I just can’t do it.” At the time, I was baffled by these protestations. I will admit to occasional bouts of ungenerous skepticism — was it just that they were being work-shy? In those exchanges, I had to lean on prefabricated lines from the “Introduction to Teaching Writing” course I’d taken earlier in my tenure as a grad student, which had emphasized that writing is process rather than product and presented various strategies for helping students unblock and embrace the messy experience of writing. Of course my assurances on this front felt alien, rehearsed, and disingenuous. The truth was I’d never even thought of writing as anything but natural, even pleasurable. I write to know what I think, I have said on many occasions. And it is true: for me, the actual experience of living is only half of life. The second measure lives in 26 letters and 14 marks. But teaching writing, and working in The Writing Center, made me realize that this is not a universal impulse, and that’s OK. Writing is, simply, my medium. I don’t know why, or how–likely, it is owing to some alchemy of patronage, parenting, practice, and personality. But like Ginzburg, “I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write.” It is pure instinct to live here, on this page. I make no claims as to its merit, or usefulness. (I do, however, feel proud of the community that lives on the other side of this page. There is purpose and good among you women, and if I do nothing but cultivate a space for us to sit together, I feel well with the world.)

This morning, I write as though kneading dough. I am working my way through the intersections between “feeling at ease” and vocations and language and purpose and I don’t know that these concepts always lay neatly upon one another for everyone. Perhaps it is a rarity that, for me, ils se feuillettent.*

I’m curious this morning to hear from you on this front — when and how are you most yourself, most at ease? Does that experience overlap with a vocation or not?

*They fold on top of one another, like pastry sheets. There is no exact way to phrase this as visually in English, I don’t think.


+Writing, fishing, and the Roaring Fork.

+My longtime experiment with language.

+Some of my thoughts today reminded me of the concept of “flow.”

+An ode to the em dash.

+Admiring a different medium.

+The first job each morning.

+Do you consider yourself creative?

Shopping Break.

+This sweater comes in great colors and looks far more expensive than it is. Reminds me of something by Nili Lotan (<<originally $895, on sale here for under $300!)!

+This dress was inspired by Carey Mulligan. YES PLS. I find this label to be exquisitely well made. Their pieces tend to run small in the bust/chest area, FYI.

+Speaking of La Ligne, this gives me La Ligne vibes for under $200. Very Parisienne-chic.

+Just added a few of these $12 fitness tanks to my cart. Tons of great colors. I have been reaching for tops like these while using our fitness bike at home!

+A trick for getting your kids into the bath.

+Into the silhouette on these reasonably priced pants.

+Do you know about the brand Charlie Holliday? I am swooning over so many of their warm weather pieces, including this bikini (Marysia vibes), this fruit print skirt, and this fetching hot pink dress. The prices are reasonable, too!

+Lake Pajamas teamed up with Schumacher for a limited edition run of pajamas in a fun geometric print!

+Zimmermann has made this dress several seasons now and it is just so fetching — romantic but tailored. Would be perfect for a bride-to-be, for a wedding anniversary, or for a family portrait on a beach.

+Cute (!) $22 smocked top in the white floral or black. Hill House vibes!

+Diptyque has some fun new limited edition scents out. I love the packaging on this one!

+Speaking of candles, many of Hotel Lobby’s previously sold out candles are back in stock. I was so impressed with the winter scent I burned all holiday season long! Will be back for more soon.

+Attractive, zippered clothing storage boxes.

+Fun smocked mini. Neckline reminds me of Doen or Loretta Caponi, but only $128!

+You know I live in shirtdresses. This one in the delicate daisy print reminds me of Miu Miu or something? Love!

+Sleek porcelain canisters for a modern kitchen.

+OO. This dress! Looks so easy and comfortable to wear and SO chic. Could be worn with sandals or cute sneakers/Supergas.

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8 thoughts on “26 Letters and 14 Marks.

  1. I, too, write to know what I think and I loved reading your thoughts on a practice that’s so near and dear to my heart. I recently read an article on Joan Didion in the New Yorker, and she once said in an interview, “Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.” That really resonated with me as well! I find I am most obsessed with writing essays on real things that have transpired that feel somewhat impossible to make sense of.

  2. The idea of a “vocation” is such a nicely nuanced one – so different from a “job”! Interestingly, I think that when writing is your vocation, it is much harder to teach it. I taught writing for years in graduate school, and I often struggled. Yes, I could lead the class, I could give technical lessons, I could grade papers, etc. But actually teaching someone “how to write,” or to give advice about “how I write” felt impossible, since writing feels like second nature to me. Perhaps it’s because, as you suggest, writing is actually thinking, and it’s much harder to teach someone how to think — to reflect, analyze, and then express. There are fewer neatly-digestible “rules” for all that!

    One more idle thought: editing, on the other hand, is more like a skill than a vocation? Maybe? My dissertation director certainly taught me plenty in that arena 🙂

    1. Such provocative points, Susie. I like your observation that writing is really “thinking” and less so the mechanical aspects of putting pen to paper and organizing into an outline. I do think that the bulk of writing happens in the “pre-writing” phase for me, i.e., when thoughts begin to coalesce and I feel the urge to put things into letters.

      I agree with you on editing — definitely more of a skill in my eyes.


  3. Words, in all forms, have always been easy for me. I love to read, I love to write, I love to be in conversations with others. In my personal life, this comes through as a confidante for my mother, cousins, sister, friends. I feel like if I have a gift, it’s not freezing up when someone says something hard. I’m not saying I always get it right – far from it. I put my foot in my mouth a lot too. But I never struggle to write a card or respond to a text or even write a paper. The words just flow. In my career…well I’m in law school, which is all about words. In fact, it’s only words.

    But what I love the most – math. Oh boy if you gave me a packet of calculus I would love nothing more than to sink my teeth into it. Instead of doodling, I’ll sometimes just do basic math problems in the margin of my notebooks. I like that it’s just for me though. No pressure to produce. And keeping my “math” brain sharp has only helped me in law school.

    PS – I agree with Danielle that the throughline of writing/communication in your career is so clear.

    1. What an amazing gift, Molly! I was just thinking the other day how, despite the fact that I have made a career out of words, I still have trouble delivering what I want to say to people in the moment. Sometimes I get it, but a lot of times, I don’t, and I find myself writing a note or correcting myself later. I wonder how to improve on this front? Anyway, what a great talent to have. I so admire people that can say what they mean the minute they need to. I wrote a post about this a year or two ago —

      Also, totally blown away by your casual marginalia computations! Wow!!


  4. Just happy for you that you have found your purpose. You wrote once about the circuitous nature of your professional history, but I can see a through line of writing in it all.

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