“Writing is not just a process of creation. It is also a process of self-discovery.”—Cristina Istrati
Self-discovery draws many writers to the page. We don’t know what we think or feel or even remember until we put pen to paper. Writing answers questions we didn’t even know we had. Some of us lean into this hard.
While I’d always dreamed of being published and had early success writing feature articles in high profile magazines, these finished products didn’t interest me as much as the writing process. As a result, my writing sometimes made it seem as if I didn’t care about the reader.
What about the reader?
When she teaches writing practice, my mentor, Natalie Goldberg, rarely talks directly about audience. It’s not that she doesn’t value her readers. She aims to dive to the bottom of the mind. If a writer goes deep enough, uncovering their own truths, she suggests they will also unearth universal truths—truths that will interest, entertain, and encourage readers.
I had to put that out of my mind while I wrote Depression Hates a Moving Target lest I be so paralyzed I couldn’t write a word. I had to set my white plastic digital timer, go for ten minutes, spill purple ink onto the page.
But as I wrote, my mind returned again and again to a friend I’ve had since childhood. She too struggles with depression, exercise, weight, and self-esteem.
I could see her face.
I asked what she might want to know. How could I explain running to her? What would she wonder about form and shoes and fear? Was there something about anxiety I could share that might help her? Did I know something she might need to know?
The vague notion of writing for an “audience” had left me cold. But imagining an actual person helped me focus. It made me care. I had to write for a living, breathing loved one with a face and a name and a family history. I wrote to her.
As it turned out, she wasn’t the only one who wanted to know.
Come to think of it, regardless of whether or not it is November or whether or not they are participating in NaNoWriMo, the question is still premature. In order to begin, a writer, new or otherwise, doesn’t need to know what words will follow the heading “Chapter One.” They just need to start writing.
But let me add a caveat. I write from my gut. I feel my way through. Not everyone is like this. Some people need to think a piece through or draft an outline. They may need extensive notes and research, especially for longer works. All that is fine, of course. But at some point, they just have to dive in.
That’s where writing practice saves me.
Decades of doing timed writing with no agenda except to put words on the page sidesteps the potentially paralyzing question of where the story should start. I figure it out by writing. I get in there and wallow around. Research or plotting or planning I’ve done ahead of time only serves me once my fingers are hammering the keyboard. I have to turn on the spigot and then, once the water is flowing, I’ll see what crevices it naturally wants to enter.
What is writing practice? It’s what I learned from best-selling author Natalie Goldberg. Timed writing. Set a timer and go. No thought. Don’t cross out or back space. Do not wonder if what I just wrote makes any sense. No stopping until the timer dings. It’s freeing and terrifying and the only way I know how to work. It’s the engine beneath everything I write.
And, it is just my way. I would love to hear about other ways in the comments.
KCEI Cultural Energy Interview with Mike Tilley and Nita Sweeney
One highlight of the New Mexico leg of my book tour for Depression Hates a Moving Target, was this interview with Mike Tilley of KCEI 90.1 FM – Cultural Energy. Not only had he read the book, but he surprised me during the interview by sharing memories of things we had done in common. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
I had the money. Publisher-funded book tours are few and far between. Most authors who want a book tour must cough up the money themselves. And, those travel dollars might be better spent in other forms of promotion. Gratefully, by the time Depression Hates a Moving Target came out, I still had a few dollars of the small inheritance my mother left my siblings and I. Mom, a shining star of a person, would have loved a book tour. If she were still alive, she would have insisted on traveling with me and likely found a way to share the spotlight. I used her gift on airfare, hotels, rental cars, and food, and thanked her when the credit card bills rolled in.
I had the time. I haven’t had a “day job” since 1994. This has not been a “vacation.” My depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder required hospitalization, intensive treatment, and medication to keep me alive. But not having a job allows me the freedom to travel. If I had to coordinate a book tour around another occupation, I might have made a different choice.
I had the focus and the energy. Travel is exhausting. Add to that the pressure of talking about your book to strangers. Even the best-organized book tour is no small feat. It might make more sense for an author to spent that time doing online marketing. For decades I was on medication that saved my life, but dulled my thinking and sapped my energy. Exercise has allowed me to stop taking the more powerful drugs. As a result, I have the energy and focus to write articles and send out marketing pitches from a hotel room when I might otherwise need to sleep.
I had help. Ed, the #onehundredpercentgoodhusband, is a master at logistics, and my sister, Amy, also helps with marketing. Without them, I would have lost precious time coordinating events, time I needed to use for online marketing. If you don’t have an Ed or an Amy, perhaps you can find an intern. Some colleges offer credit to interns looking to learn from “real world” experience. And if you have an Ed or an Amy, thank him or her every single day.
It allowed me to support independent bookstores. While I don’t shy away from appearances in chain bookstores, most of the readings I’ve done on my book tour have been at independent, local booksellers. Indie bookstores are the heart of a city. I’m sad every town doesn’t have one. And many of these lovely shops struggle to meet the bottom line. Attracting readers to their stores by giving a reading or a book talk feels tremendous. It’s a win-win, of course, but it feels like the best kind.
It gave me an excuse to see friends and family. You’ve probably figured out by now that what you see on social media is ever-so-slightly contrived. We scheduled book tour stops in places we wanted to go. Los Angeles Times Festival of Books? A visit to see Ed’s 102-year old mother, Ed’s son, other members of both of our families, and some friends. Cleveland? Seven friends were running their first marathon. Lancaster, Pennsylvania? A Dead Runners Society gathering. The Bay Area? Ed’s Berkeley fraternity reunion and the possibility of meeting my editor. Lexington, Kentucky? Time with Goddard classmate, author Lisa Haneberg. New Mexico? Natalie Goldberg and too many other friends to name for fear I’ll forget someone. Yes, I sometimes stay in a friend’s guest room, but for the most part I’m using it as an excuse to see (and thank) people I love. We would have taken these trips at some point. We probably wouldn’t have piled them all together, but hey. It’s been lovely.
It looks good on social media. Success begets success. Social media images matter, so I used my desire to see family and friends as a way to shape my online image. I want my social media followers to ask, “I wonder where Nita is today?” I’m grateful because Mango shares on their social media accounts nearly everything I send their way so my marketing posts serve double duty. This is the world we live in. A book tour looks good!
It was my dream. But the main reason I decided to arrange a book tour was because it was my dream. I’m old enough to think that a book tour is a hallmark of success and mature enough to know that if I want that, I have to give it to myself.
When your book comes out, examine your priorities. An honest self-appraisal will help you decide if a build-your-own book tour is for you.
You’ve heard of the “to do” list, but what about the “to write” list? It’s a powerful tool in my writing kit.
Sitting in the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, I watched as best-selling author Natalie Goldberg picked up her cheap spiral notebook, flipped to the back, and showed us a list of scrawled topics she’d penned on that last page. She said she carried a notebook everywhere and jotted ideas on the back page of the notebook as they occurred to her. “If I’m stuck, I look at these,” she said.
She’d mentioned this list in one of her books, most likely Writing Down the Bones, but to see the real thing left quite an impression. I began to do the same and still carry a notebook at all times.
We also did list-making exercises in the many workshops I took from her. The topics varied, but here are a few of my favorites:
~ The things I carry (a spin-off from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien). ~ Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met ~ Write the names of every place you’ve been ~ Name your pets ~ Tell me every car you’ve ever owned and what happened to it ~ Write down everywhere you have lived ~ List all your loves ~ Tell me everything you know about the color blue
When I write a list, sometimes I’ll fill the entire writing practice with listed, but more often, as I made the list, something would occur to me and I’d soon be writing an essay instead.
Do you use writing lists? I’d love to hear if they work for you!