“Technology gives us the facilities that lessen the barriers of time and distance – the telegraph and cable, the telephone, radio, and the rest.” – Emily Greene Balch
Sometimes life hands you a gift. My most recent present came in the form of an email from Cynthia Rosi, host of the podcast Word Carver which airs on WGRN 94.1 FM asking if I’d like to be on the show. What an honor!
She interviewed me about my monthly email publication Write Now Newsletter, my time assisting Natalie Goldberg, my teaching of Natalie’s techniques, the memoir I’m currently working on (Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two), and the changes I’ve noticed in the Columbus writing scene over the past fourteen years I’ve been publishing the newsletter.
Cynthia is easy to talk to. She’s smart and asks good questions. I love that she asked whether I have a “tip jar” – which I do – making it sound as if I’m a barista in a coffee shop brewing a special drink for each of you every month. I hope you enjoy this month’s selection.
You can listen to the interview here.
“That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.” – Kelly Barnhill
As I drove home from a recent evening run I’d done with my training partners, I noticed the body sensations I associate with a “good” run. My mood had lifted. My arms and legs tingled. My throat felt open and a warmth radiated across my whole body. Since I’m always writing even when I’m not writing, it dawned on me that I’m eleven (or more) drafts into a book about running (Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two) and hadn’t described how this post-run glow feels physically. The next morning, adding this became my first task.
While I searched (and found) a spot to best place this experience, I discovered I had overused “feel” and “felt,” words which don’t capture the sensations I tried to convey. So I searched for “feel” or “felt” and when appropriate, dove deeper for more detail. As a result, “I felt sad” became “I couldn’t swallow. My throat closed. The sun shone but everything still looked gloomy.” It goes back to the old adage “Show, don’t tell.” Natalie Goldberg instructed us to “be specific.”
When I posted about this revision process on my Facebook author page, a writer commented that she searched for “could” and replaced it with more active language. Back to the book I went and did the same. “I could see” became “I saw.” “I could hear” became “I heard.” Simple, but profound changes.
As I revised for “could,” I noticed “very” and “really” were often unnecessary. So I searched for those as well and made more easy changes. With each edit, the writing grew more vivid and once I finished, the book had shrunk by hundreds of words.
I share this to show my revision process: messy, nonlinear, and often dependent on cues from others. I used to think I was flawed because my drafts require these kinds of changes. I also chided myself for being unable to revise from point A to point B to point C. Now I know that’s just not how my brain works. The more I talk to other writers, the more I learn I’m not alone. We each must find our own way. I’m always eager to hear how others approach their work and often try to implement other artists’ strategies as a way to ease my path, but I no longer judge myself for being unable to do it the way someone else does. Accepting my quirky ways, I continue my circuitous process.
How would you describe your revision methods? I’d love to hear what works for you.
“The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.” – Henry Ford
Some days if I watch the news (which I rarely do) or read the paper (which I also rarely do) or hear from friends on either end of the political spectrum and all points in between, about the things happening in the world, I sink into depression about my own writing. As you know, I write mostly memoir. Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, the memoir I’m currently shopping to independent publishers, recounts my journey from mentally unstable couch potato to somewhat less mentally unstable marathoner.
Before that book, I spent a decade writing a memoir (still unpublished) about the last year of my father’s life. I’ve also written about my relationship with my mother and about an unusual situation in which a man lived on our sofa for two years when I was a child. My drawer of unpublished manuscripts also includes three novels, all romance-ish, but none involving topics of great importance. So when I learn of things happening in the “real” world, I sit at my desk and wonder why I bother. With chronic depression and extreme anxiety, becoming too involved does not suit my mental health. I’m not going to take up political writing or letters to the editor. Is my writing a waste of time?
But it dawned on me that, if nothing else, writing helps me heal my own world. I’m transformed when I connect with another person through words on a page. In writing all those books, the reading I’ve done and the writing itself, has made me a better person. It has given me a sense of purpose when I felt I had none. It’s given me a voice, forced me to think carefully about how I feel about certain subjects, and introduced me to worlds I would otherwise not know.
Hopefully, when the running book comes to fruition, it will also help others. As my friend, author Pat Snyder put it when I asked her why a publisher might want to publish my book, “You so believe in the healing power of running that you will bring to book promotion the same perseverance you showed in running those marathons.” That’s my intention.
But more importantly, this same theme is true of writing. I so believe in the healing power of writing that I will bring to my teaching and my publishing the same perseverance I have showed in continuing to write for twenty years with only limited success. It’s not always about the product.
So if you’re out there wondering if anything you are doing on the page will make a difference, ask yourself if it makes a difference to you. Yes, perhaps, like me, you hope to influence some people or to make a change in the world or at least entertain people and distract them for a bit. But more importantly, is writing saving your life the way it has saved mine? I’m pretty sure I know the answer.
“Caress the detail, the divine detail.” – Vladimir Nabokov
I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I do take a personal inventory when the calendar flips to the next year. This year when reviewing my writing skills, I looked back over the rules of writing practice as set forth in Writing Down the Bones. Specifically (pun intended) Natalie Goldberg’s admonition to “be specific.”
A few of the beta readers who reviewed Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two noticed that my entries about running were full of sensory detail while other parts of the book lacked it. So my revision process has included finding those places where I drifted into vagueness. “Be specific” grounds us in the here and now. While we may be writing about something that has already happened, we should not record just what we think about it, but features and particulars to help the reader experience it as we have.
Yet I don’t want it bogged down in description. Like everything, this requires balance. Narration helps move the story forward. But it must be grounded in the here and now, the place where we want the reader to be. Nineteenth century England? We need to feel the china teacup in our hands and taste the first sip of hot tea. Running along the Olentangy Trail? We need to smell the musty woods and hear the Olentangy River sloshing along beside us as we move through damp air.
As the author, I need to feel this myself. If I don’t, I can’t communicate it to the reader. And that requires me to slow down and remember the details myself. Only then can I put them on the page.
“Of all your troubles, great and small, the greatest are the ones that don’t happen at all.” – Thomas Carlyle
What if agents don’t want my book? What if small publishers don’t want it either? And if I self-publish, what if no one wants to read it?
If I had worried about these things before I began writing Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, my memoir about running and mental illness, I would not have started writing at all. And now, even after I’m far into the process, I still can’t think too far ahead. Rather, I must focus on the small tasks that make up each activity. Write the email. Double check the requirements on the agent or publisher’s website. Check the email again. And again. Hit send. Then wait. Small steps. None of them overwhelming. None of them all that complex.
Depression and bipolar disorder render me easily overwhelmed. I have to chunk things down and keep it very simple. Perhaps other writers are more skilled at doing these things naturally. Perhaps their minds don’t spin negative scenarios the way mine does. Perhaps. Or maybe we all struggle with this in our own ways. I’m thankful I have meditation to help me stay centered. I find my breath. I feel my feet. I look around and ground myself in my surroundings. I think of one small task I can do right now. And then I do that. And then I think of the next small task I can do. And I do that. These small tasks make up my days as a writer. It’s not the big stretches of time. It’s the minute by minute things.
In November, I took a break from submitting and picked up a project I’d set aside many years ago, a book tentatively titled, Eat Your Toast. Ironically, it’s a book of daily practices geared toward helping people, myself included, live in the moment. I struggle with this more than anyone I know. I needed the reminders. I needed to read quotes about it. I needed to research teachers who focus on this. And I needed to write out exercises I could do all month while I was writing the book. I wrote 50,860 additional words on that book as a rebel project for National Novel Writing Month.
And now, in December, I’ll pick up Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two again and continue my journey toward publication. I still don’t know how this will play out. But if my project in November taught me anything, it’s that I don’t need to know the outcome. All I need to know is the next step.