Did you miss me last month?
I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.
Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.
While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.
I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.
The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.
I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.
It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.
Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.
Now, let’s go write.
Last weekend, I attended a conference called “Compose” at Clackamas Community College near Portland Oregon. Unlike so many conferences these days, we did not talk about marketing, pitching, platforms or publishing. It was all about writing, and I learned something very important. I learned to try again.
In a flash fiction class taught by Samuel Snoek-Brown, we read some super short stories, then wrote our own. Then we wrote them again. And again. Each time, we were instructed to look for the moment, the epiphany at the heart of our story arc. Even though we were trying to write as short as possible, we needed a scene, a character, and something happening. We needed sensory details. In our second pass, we were to add whatever was missing and subtract whatever was not essential. In flash fiction, which can range from a few words to 1,000 words, much is left to the reader to figure out. There isn’t room to spell everything out. Finally we were asked to write one essential sentence that told our story. That one sentence was so rich because we could not waste a single word..
My next class was memoir, taught by Jay Ponteri, whom I had met last fall when he was one of our guest authors at the Nye Beach Writers series. He’s a dynamic writer but just as impressive as a teacher. With a two-word prompt, “laundry basket,” we filled pages with memories and story possibilities. But here’s the thing. We divided our pages in half. On one side, we wrote what the prompt first brought to mind. On the other side, we jotted down other ideas that came up in the process. Then we took a new page and wrote about those other ideas, starting a new column with what came into our minds next. People came up with wonderful stories, all different. In many cases the original prompt disappeared and the story became about something else. The writers were able to find it because they went beyond that first idea. They let their minds wander past the laundry basket to what else it made them think about and took the time to explore wherever it led.
So often we feel like once we’ve written something, we can’t change it, we’re stuck with what we have. Or we’re anxious to send it out, so we hit save and send and move on to the next piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can try again. We can dump all but the one gold nugget that we find and go where it leads us, to the gold mine
Of course it helps to be in a classroom with nothing to distract you, no kids, jobs, cell phones, chores, or Facebook. Look for opportunities for undistracted writing in classes, writing groups, or whatever. Leave your desk and go where all you have to do is write. Then try it again. And again. Don’t think about marketing or publishing. Just think about getting to the heart of the story. If it takes 1,000 or 10,000 words to find that perfect 100 words, so be it.
Now let’s go write.
Let’s talk about death and dying. Fun, eh?
We are writers. We process life by writing about it. My husband died four years ago yesterday. Throughout his illness, I wrote in my journal about everything that happened. It was a coping mechanism that allowed me to transfer painful experiences from my brain to my computer and move on. But, to be honest, the writer in me was also thinking, “This is a good story that I could do something with.” Crass? You bet. But it’s true.
I’m not the only one. In my reading, which includes books, magazines, webzines, literary journals, submissions for The Timberline Review and more, I find an overwhelming number of stories about death and dying lately. The authors write about the mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, best friend who suffers a long illness or a sudden tragedy and is gone. I get it. What’s the most dramatic thing that happens in our lives? What else can we write about when death is all we can think of?
A New York Times article titled “Why We Write About Grief” looks at the “literature of loss” through interviews with Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote about the death of her husband in A Widow’s Story and Meghan O’Rourke who wrote about her mother’s illness and death in The Long Goodbye. Other recent books in this genre include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death, Anne Roiphe’s Epilogue and Roland Barthes’ posthumous Mourning Diary.
I’m currently transforming my journal notes into a memoir, and of course I expect it to be a best-seller among the many other books about living and dying with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe it will. Or maybe readers will sigh and say, not another one. My challenge is to make this death and dying story different from all the others and give the readers something besides sadness.
As a reader, I’m starting to get tired of death and illness. I’m happy to find a book that is about something else. As an editor, I’m getting weary of bedside farewell poems. One of my favorite poems that we just accepted for Timberline is written from the viewpoint of Mozart’s sister and tells what a spoiled brat he was. Another talks about working in the forest cutting down trees. Another offers portraits of people seen on the streets of Portland, Oregon. There’s a dying poem, too, but only one because we can’t publish too many poems on the same subject.
Other popular topics these days are almost as grim as death and disease. Countless writers are publishing books and essays about sexual abuse. Others write about eating disorders, addictions, or coming out as gay. It makes me feel sometimes as if I can’t get published unless something horrific happened to me. I was raised by two loving parents who were not alcoholics, who did not beat me, who fed me well, took me to church and taught me my prayers. I’m straight, healthy, and relatively sane. What am I going to do with that?
Well, what about imagination and reaching out beyond our own experiences? What about putting a new twist on the old stories? What about writing something happy instead of tragic?
Death and dying are part of life. Go ahead and write about it. It’s healthy to express what you’re experiencing and feeling. But when you decide to publish what you write, think about these things: Has enough time passed that I can see my story objectively? How can I make my story different? How do I make sure it isn’t totally depressing? What will the reader get out of this? Read some of the memoirs mentioned above to see how they do it.
I just finished reading a memoir titled Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. Author Kelly Kittel went through horrible experiences. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say, she was pregnant 13 times and now has five living children. It’s a dramatic story that kept me reading all last weekend. I had to know what was going to happen next. And the story ended with a positive feeling. How? Read the book. If you can do it that well, you can write about death.
Let’s go write.
Book review: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
by Dani Shapiro, Grove Press, 2013
Still writing? It turns out I’m not the only writer who gets that question. I usually reply with some variation of “If I’m still breathing, I’m still writing.” Dani Shapiro, author of two memoirs and five novels, as well as Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, is also asked that question. She says she usually nods and smiles then changes the subject, but adds: “Here is what I would like to put down my fork and say: Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of y capacity to reason. Even if my fingers were to clench and wither, even if I were to grow deaf or blind, even if I were unable to move a muscle in my body save for the blink of one eye, I would still write.” Amen!
Sections of this book address all kinds of things about the writing life. Shapiro talks about writer’s block and finding time to write, common subjects in books for writers, but she also discusses insecurity, trust, envy, and luck. She shares generously of her own life, of her successes and failures and her struggles to balance family and art. Her reflections are personal yet universal because we are all equals as we face the blank page.
It took me months to read Still Writing because it was too beautiful to rush. It is filled with wisdom, inspiration and truth for the writer. Sermonettes is the word I keep coming up with. I recommend writers read this book not just once, but at least once every year, pausing between sections to reflect on what has been said. You will not find grammar advice, marketing tips, or how to build a platform here. It’s all about the writing, without which the rest is useless.
I recently purchased Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. I haven’t read it yet, but the one section I read in the sample pages on Amazon.com changed my whole outlook on the memoir I’m working on for National Nonfiction Writing Month. Years ago, Freymann was the literary agent who spent a half hour on the phone with me explaining why she was rejecting my book and what I needed to change to make it work. She was so right. That book is Childless by Marriage, which I published in 2012. I’ll report back to you after I finish reading Your Life is a Book, but I suspect I’m going to love this book.
Meanwhile, we’ve got some writing to do.
Let’s go write.
I learned an important lesson this week. In my new book, I wrote about a family member’s problems in his youth, which included some run-ins with the law. Another family member had mentioned a while back that he was unhappy, but I hadn’t heard anything from him. Besides, I figured, it’s the truth and it’s my story to tell.
I was wrong.
All my journalism training and years working for newspapers planted the idea in my head that the most important thing is to tell the truth. If someone gets hurt, it’s a shame, but we have to give the readers all the facts without bias. It was always newspaper policy never to show the story to the subject before publication because they might want to change it. That is still true when you’re writing news stories about public figures, but what about when you’re writing memoir about your own family? Or doing any kind of writing about private people?
As my publication date neared, I got a little nervous about what I had written. I took some stuff out and softened some things. But that wasn’t enough, as I learned when my relative exploded all over my head yesterday. When the phone rang, I was on the road. I had just left I-5 because I was getting sleepy and thought I’d take a nap in the mini-city of Proberta. Instead I pulled onto a gravel lot off a country road and answered the phone.
As soon as I said hello, my relative started screaming at me and asking why I wanted to “throw him under the bus.” If people read the things I had written about him, his reputation would be ruined, he said. It all happened a long time ago, and he thought he had put it behind him, but here I was using it in my book for all the world to read. He was pretty out of control, so upset, feeling betrayed. Also possibly litigious. Might he have grounds for a libel suit? Maybe. Although his claims might be hard to prove, I don’t want to find out.
He brought out a whole litany of things he feels I have done wrong over the last 30 years, including various blog posts that offended him. I prayed for God to sit close to me and keep me from making things worse by screaming back. I calmly assured him that I meant no harm and that I didn’t think it mattered after all these years, but I would take out the most damning parts. Luckily, Kindle e-books can be revised and the print version has been formatted but has not gone to press, publication interrupted by my trip to California.
In my motel room in Yreka, I opened up the book file and searched for every mention of my family member’s name. When I got to the part where I focused on his troubles, enlightened by everything he had said, I saw that my “good story” was something I should not have considered publishing without his permission. I cut a couple pages, changed a few other things, and wrote a note for the copyright page explaining that I had omitted some things on request. I added that maybe some people wish I had cut out more things, but this is my story and I meant no harm.
Meaning no harm and doing no harm may be two different things, I’m learning far too late in life.
I then texted my relative to tell him the changes had been made and I was sorry. I am. And not because I’ll spend the next week reformatting the book to make up for the missing pages.
This all makes me want to stick to fiction and poetry. Over the years, I have certainly had people go off on me about things I published in local newspapers. I have had people stand next to my desk screaming and threatening me. I was usually able to use the defense of truth and the public’s need to know. Usually my bosses backed me, although there were times when I offended an advertiser and was forced to “make nice.”
But this is not a newspaper; it’s a memoir, and I’m on my own.
So what lessons have we learned? First, I still think it’s fine to write anything we feel like writing. If we worry about what people might think while we’re writing, we’ll get blocked and never write anything. But when it comes to publishing, even in a blog or a Facebook update, we need to consider who might be harmed by our words, no matter how well-intentioned. When in doubt, we need to talk to the people we write about and even let them read our words before we publish them. It’s the right thing to do. We may decide we still have to publish what we’ve written despite their objections, but at least there won’t be any surprises. Perhaps some things should stay in our notebooks and computers and not be shared, even if it’s a damned good story.
What do you think?