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Benjamin Franklin was 27 when he dipped his pen in red ink, drew a seven-column, 13-row chart and resolved to master all the moral virtues.
It was Sunday and the first day of July. The last of the 13 British colonies to be founded—Georgia—was being settled, and each colony was working out its own system of self-government.
Franklin was ready to look within and devise his own self-governance. He broke down his day—eight hours of work, seven hours of sleep, a two-hour lunch break—and dedicated one week to each of the 13 virtues he had identified, beginning with temperance.
“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” he wrote in his autobiography, “but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
It is an impulse that returns each January—to systematically detect and diminish one’s faults, day by day, row by row, like yanking weeds or drilling cavities.
This month, we adjust to a new year and celebrate the patron saint of writers, St. Francis de Sales. Whether the prospect of 2012 has you feeling ambitious or overwhelmed, I can think of no better response than writing.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough owes part of his career to the fact that founding fathers like Franklin wrote prolifically.
“The loss of people writing—writing a composition, a letter or a report—is not just the loss for the record,” he told Time magazine last year. “It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t [writing]. … People [that I research] were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”
McCullough uses a 60-year-old Royal typewriter to pound out his thoughts on the page. “I’ve written everything I’ve ever had published on it,” he said. “It’s a superb example of American manufacturing.”
But writing is not just an intellectual exercise. It can also be a religious one.
I recently interviewed Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, the best-selling memoir in history. The Detroit journalist told me that writing is an inherently spiritual endeavor. “You need to be infused with a certain spirit in order to be able to create,” he said, “and I believe all our talents come from God.”
We write to make sense of our lives and our world, to examine who we have been and who we hope to become.
That’s what Anne Bradstreet did. Among the British colonists settling in America, she was the first to have a book of poetry published. She chronicled her first impressions, having found “a new world and new manners, at which [her] heart rose.” She wrote about her pregnancy, her granddaughter’s death and the burning of her home. In a poem honoring Queen Elizabeth, written 13 years after Bradstreet had arrived in Massachusetts, she wrote of “terra incognita”—Latin for “unknown territory” or “unexplored land.”
Stepping into 2012 with our private struggles and secret hopes, our Catholic faith and our piecemeal education, each of us faces terra incognita, and we owe it to ourselves to process it on paper. Every journey requires a journal.
(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.) †