In our house growing up, there was a plaque on the wall in the upstairs bathroom. It was one of those faux-parchment papers with burned edges, glued to a block of wood, on which a poem was printed by hand. "Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort . . ." read the first line, and many a body in the family, feeling the relief of abdominal tension while sitting in that bathroom, mouthed the words, or perhaps said them aloud.

In the lull that followed, however, one might ponder the rest of the poem, and wonder why Mom ever hung it there. Was it a poem so meaningful to her, she hung it in the one spot where all of her offspring were certain to memorize it?

The poem went on about the comfort "of having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, but pouring them all outright, just as they are, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away."

I just wrote that from memory. But perhaps more than committing the words to memory, I took them to heart.

I started keeping a diary when I was about eleven. My mother suggested I start writing to cure a weird childhood insomnia that kept me up late nights worrying that I was going to pee in my sleep, even though I'd not wet the bed since I was out of diapers.

When I was struck by pee-phobia, I would go stand by Mom and Dad's bed, and wait for them to wake up, which was weird, and when they did, often terrified by the stranger looming at their bedside, I'd say, "I can't sleep . . ." which is a phrase that, as a mother, I've come to associate with a caustic sense of annoyance.

"You can't sleep? Could it be because you're standing beside my bed rather than lying in your own?"

I wonder how many nights of sleep I pulverized for my mother before she suggested I write down my feelings rather than bringing them to her attention. I remember her saying something like, "How about for the next week, on the nights you can't sleep, write down what happened before you went to bed. Then we'll see if we can figure out what's causing it."

It was an ingenious solution. I stayed in bed rather than waking Mom up. I felt like I was participating in a scientific study. I'd write until I got tired, or until I realized that indeed, I did not have to go the bathroom. And eventually, pee-phobia went away.

I also developed this habit of writing down EVERYTHING that ever happens to me. And perhaps a new phobia was born—a phobia that events might occur without the proper documentation. Words took on an inordinate value to me. The volume of the words was more important to me than what they actually said. I liked to fill up composition books, and stack them, side by side. I write small, but I started writing even smaller, two lines to one on a college ruled notebook.

Then I'd look at all those words and feel like I'd done something with myself, something worthy. I had provided the evidence. I just needed someone to analyze it.

Where was the faithful hand? Who would take and sift all those words, and keep what's worth keeping? What a job.

When I was about twenty-two, I let a soul friend (you get only a few in a lifetime) read some of those words.

"Have you ever thought about filtering what you choose to write down?" she asked me.

The thought had not occurred to me. But I read back over what I'd let her read, and realized that, yes, a filter was greatly needed, and that the filter was going to have to be me.