Photo by Adrian Collins Photography, Yosemite National Park
First, let me address the elephant in, at least, my bedroom: It's been four months, almost exactly, since my last post. When I last wrote, I was still sitting on the cozy sheepskin-covered chair in a downstairs corner of the Maine house my mom and I had rented for three weeks. We were a week from returning home, two weeks from a wedding in Mexico, six weeks from Thanksgiving, eight from the Rock and Roll half-marathon, nine from a family trip to Vegas, eleven from Christmas, twelve from New Year, and sixteen from today. In between, though we didn't know it yet, would be the usual smattering of winter ailments, plus a family emergency and one very exciting pregnancy announcement (I'm going to be an aunt!).
To say that time passed quickly would be an understatement.
Still, none of this explains my sudden lengthy lapse in posting. Quite simply, I blame it on my book.
After finally reaching a stopping point in outlining and character development, and building momentum with forty pages written in Maine, my working focus turned almost exclusively to the book. So much so that yesterday, almost without pausing to notice, I reached a celebratory milestone: 50,000 words. (50,098, to be exact.) That's a solid 200 pages of novel. Halfway through.
Okay, so on the one hand, I feel it's taken an inordinately long time to get here. Returning to the half-marathon metaphor in my last post, I'm at mile 6.5 of 13.1. My knees are twinging, my shins are throbbing, I have a stitch in my side, and all I want is to be at Five Guys already, guiltlessly stuffing my face with a bacon cheeseburger and a regular side of fries all to myself (yes, thank you, Five Guys employees, I know they're big enough to share--this ain't my first rodeo). In other words, I'm looking ahead to realize that to reach the finish line, I have to do what I've just done all over again. Does that sound exhausting to you? It does to me.
On the other hand, I have 50,000 words! I am doing what I set out to do this year, and my excitement for the project has only increased the better I understand my story and my characters. There's a long way to go, yes. Writing can be difficult and defeating and emotionally draining. But it's what I'm meant to do. It's what I love to do. And I get to do it, on this book, for at least 50,000 more words! I am extraordinarily fortunate.
To celebrate this milestone, I want to share an interview I recently did with my friend and colleague Sarah Morrison for Round Table Companies' new guided program, Path to Purpose. This program takes everything we have learned in 10 years at RTC and packages it for those who have always wanted to write a book but aren't sure where to start, or for those who need help articulating their purpose and values, or for those who simply want to gain deeper self-insight. Trust me, you want to click that link.
While the recorded interview is available only to Path to Purpose subscribers, I've trimmed a transcript of it below. Spoiler alert: it's still long. But I hope the writers among us will find it worthwhile.
Sarah: Let’s start with the basics. Why do you write?
At a soul level, it’s a compulsion. I don’t really feel I have a choice. But when I try to dig deeper, to analyze what drives that compulsion, there are several parts to it. First, there’s the act of creating itself. There’s the quote I love by Elizabeth Bishop, who calls writing a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” [the namesake for this blog]. She says we write for the “total immersion of the experience, for the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear on a single act of concentration.” That rings so true for me. When I write, and I’m in it, everything else disappears, and yet it’s not escapist, because that same world that has fallen out of sight around me is reappearing, in different ways, in front of me, and I’m creating it.
Going even deeper than that, this world I’m attempting to create is doing two things at once: it’s removing me from myself, asking me to experience life from a completely different set of eyes, and it’s bringing me closer to myself, asking me to explore the questions I least understand and most fear. Writing forces me to practice empathy. To put my own small experience of the world in perspective. To stay open. To keep asking questions. To pay attention to the way people speak, the way they look when they lie, the way they appreciate beauty. And I think—at least I hope—all of this makes me a slightly better person than the non-writing version of myself.
Zooming out, you have the final product. If I’m successful in what I’m creating, and people want to read it, the hope is that some of these benefits extend to readers as well. That by immersing themselves in an unfamiliar world, or even a familiar one, they’ll look at those around them a bit differently, with less judgment and more curiosity, more gentleness, and remember that as much as there is ugliness and suffering in the world—and we should recognize that so we can change it—there is also magic.
Sarah: So much of writing, to my mind, depends on what we put into it. We hear over and over again that the more we write, the better writers we become. Yet writers all have their own preferences and their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the craft and discipline of writing. Let’s start with the bad news. What would you say are your weaknesses as a writer? You can also take it more euphemistically if you like and tell us areas where you’d like to grow.
From a process perspective, consistency remains a challenge for me. There are some days, maybe weeks, where I’m consistently productive, hitting a certain word count each day (right now my goal is anywhere between 1,250 and 2,000 words per day). Then I’ll get stuck, and instead of working through it, I’ll get lazy. I’ll have a few days, maybe even a week or two, of producing almost nothing. I compare it to exercise—the longer you’re away from it, the more you dread returning to it, but as soon as you return to an activity you enjoy, you wonder why you stopped in the first place!
From a technical standpoint, I find dialogue challenging. Some writers have such a gifted ear for dialogue, and whatever they write sounds so clear and particular to each character. I’m not like that. In the early stages of first drafts, all my characters tend to sound alike, or worse, like me. It’s not until I really know the characters, intrinsically, that I can hear how stilted they sound and revise until what they say and how they say it reflects who they are, rather than who I am.
Another challenge that I think is interesting—nice way to put it, right?—is that I sometimes struggle with having bad things happen to my characters, or having my characters do bad things to one another. And this is a problem! Bad things have to happen for you to have a story. But to write heartache, tragedy, addiction, death, infidelity, you have to look closely at yourself. You have to remember when your heart was broken, or when you broke someone else’s; when you grieved; when you suffered; when you cheated; when you lied. You have to ask: under what circumstances am I capable of hurting another human being? A stranger or someone I love? And under what circumstances might I be hurt? These aren’t pleasant questions to linger in, but you have to. It’s part of the work. And as if that’s not hard enough, in fiction, you then have to separate yourself from those answers and let the characters have their own reactions based on their unique upbringing and experience, which is not yours—it’s hard!
Sarah: Now for the good news! What would you say are your strengths as a writer?
Well, in thinking about the experience of writing this novel, I’ll tell you what seems to be working. First, I went against every natural instinct I had, and wrote an outline. This is a lesson learned directly from RTC—you need an outline! Spending the time up front, which is usually frustrating and rarely pleasant, to figure out your story gives you so much freedom later, when you’re actually writing. When I forget where I’m going next, I just go to my virtual corkboard of virtual index cards, each of which has a scene sketched out: what happens, whose perspective it’s told from, why it matters in the context of the larger story. And then I get excited again and write it. Or, if it no longer fits, I recognize it instantly and know pretty quickly what needs to happen instead.
I also spent a long time, weeks before the outline, in character development. For my main character, I wrote forty pages of background, just to figure out who she is, where she came from, what her fears and desires are, what she looks like when she’s happy or hiding something, what she sounds like when she’s crying or in love. Most of my other characters got around twenty pages each. If you google "Proust's questionnaire," there are some excellent questions to help develop your characters—you’re essentially interviewing them and letting them speak for themselves. Between the character development and the outline, the story starts to write itself at some point. But I think the key here is patience. At least in this project, that has been a strength.
I think at the sentence level, I’m a clean writer. My drafts are usually pretty polished, which means I can spend time in revision examining structure, deepening the story, and further developing voice instead of worrying about cleaning messy prose. And I have a strength/weakness balance with pacing. When I’m first writing, everything seems like it’s taking too long to happen. I worry that it’s too slow. But when I read over the previous day’s pages, I’m in editor-mode, and I have a clear sense of when things are actually happening too quickly, and I’m able to expand on those scenes where needed.
Sarah: Over the years, what strategies have you developed when it comes to writing? What key lessons have you learned?
Discipline is probably the most important piece. You can have all the talent in the world and never write a word because you have no discipline. I mentioned setting a daily word count goal earlier. That works for me most of the time, because it focuses on output. If I can stick to my 5-8 pages a day, it doesn’t matter if I sleep a little later or decide to work out midday or meet a friend for lunch. It just means that eventually, I have to sit my ass down and not quit until I make those pages or do something equally worthwhile. For example, I research a lot. If I spend a full day researching, I don’t hold myself to writing those pages. Same if I spend a full day revising a previous chunk of work because I suddenly had a realization about character or structure or plot. I think the key for me is to be productive, every day.
On the flipside, it’s a balance. If I’m stuck, I won’t stare at a blank screen. I’ll do something else, trusting that my subconscious mind will figure it out for me when I’m not paying attention. That tends to happen at night, when I’m in that half-lucid state between full wakefulness and dreaming. It happened recently, actually. I’d been struggling with my main character’s parents. I couldn’t see them, couldn’t figure out who they were to her. I’d been considering killing them off, for simplicity’s sake. But family is a theme in my book, and characters are always more interesting on the page than off, so I knew I was just being lazy. Somehow, half-dreaming, my mind worked it all out for me. I suddenly knew that Celia was the product of an affair, which was the reason the only father she knew could only love her so much. As a result, I saw her father clearly for the first time. I also saw Celia and her mother sitting together. I heard their conversation as her mother told her the truth. I heard her mother explain that she’d been in love, and that the only reason the relationship had ended was because Celia’s father had killed himself. The reason Celia’s mother was telling her this was because she was afraid of what Celia might have inherited from him. Suddenly, the distance I’d always seen between Celia and her parents, and the close relationship she had with her grandmother, came into focus. It was like watching a movie, and I had to consciously tell myself not to wake up, not to write it down, to just let it play out. I woke up exhausted but also thrumming with energy, and I wrote my 2,000 words in the first two hours of the morning. They weren’t sequential pages, carrying on from the day before, but they were a huge piece of her history, filling in plot holes I’ve been struggling with for months. So there’s a balance between discipline—that is, sitting down and being productive in some tangible way—and being open to the story itself, giving yourself an opportunity to hear it instead of forcing yourself to create it.
Sarah: Shifting into your role as an editor, I’m curious to hear if you’ve noticed common struggles among the writers you work with. Are there areas you see a lot of less practiced writers needing help?
In fiction, it’s usually character development, plot, and pacing. I see a lot of writers so eager and excited about their story that they just plunge in and start writing, and they write themselves into a thousand messy corners. Again, I think this goes back to patience in the front end, doing the grunt work of outlining and character development.
In nonfiction, memoir, in particular, I see a lot of people struggle to figure out what’s important. It’s hard, because every experience, every interaction, has shaped you into who you are, so it can all seem essential. Less practiced writers often want to tell their story from start to finish, birth to current, every meaningful conversation, and it can be tough to instead pinpoint a crucial slice of time to focus on instead. Nonfiction writers also struggle with how to write about real people in their lives. Most people write protectively even about those who have wronged them, but some go in the opposite direction and use writing as revenge. Again, it’s a balance: you own your perspective of your experiences, but you have a responsibility, I think, to portray those as truthfully and multi-dimensionally as you can.
Finally, I think less practiced nonfiction writers often struggle with their own vulnerability. I see so many people shy away from admitting and examining their own culpability when, actually, that’s one of memoir’s greatest strengths, and one of the most essential ways we connect with others: admitting to each other our flaws and weaknesses, mistakes and fears, and mining those experiences for a truth that's worth sharing. There’s a quote by Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird—a great book for writers—that I love:
“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
Sarah: Are there areas where less experienced writers are often strong, maybe even without realizing it?
Yes! Dialogue, in both fiction and nonfiction, is often something that blows me away from less experienced writers—in part, I’m sure, because it’s something I struggle with. But you don’t have to be an experienced writer to have a natural and intuitive ear for capturing the way others speak, and I’ve seen some first-time writers--including my mom, whose book I'm pushing her to finish--do this absolutely brilliantly. I think less experienced writers also often have fresh and startling voices. They’re not crafted yet, maybe, but they’re there, and they’re surprising and unique to the individual writer. I love seeing that. That’s one of those exciting things, as an editor. There are also descriptions, emotional insights, comedic or beautiful turns of phrase from new writers that blow me away. There’s a rawness to those moments that makes me ask, how can we get more of that?
Sarah: In your editing career, are there strategies you’ve used with clients that have really helped them flourish?
For many people, I think editing shorter chunks at a time is helpful—having a client work on one chapter while I’m editing the next, for example, rather than giving someone a full marked up manuscript, which can be overwhelming. From a delivery perspective, I like the Oreo Cookie approach: first, tell someone, honestly, what you think is working about the particular piece. Then, with respect and kindness—but also honesty—tell them where you see areas for improvement. I like to start with big picture and then zero in. Then go farther than that—it’s not helpful for someone to get a long list of what’s not working; as an editor, you’re a problem-solver, so offer suggestions on how some of these issues might be approached. Finish with reminding the writer what’s novel, or moving, or funny, or just damn good about the piece. You want to be honest and straightforward, never sugarcoating, but you also want to be encouraging. From there, I think it’s about developing a working rhythm with the writer, which is different for everyone. Some people like to go over pages together on the phone. Others are comfortable taking that initial feedback and running with it. I personally like Word's Track Changes feature—making specific comments and questions in the margins that writers can respond to directly in the manuscript. Most of the time, this is an effective way of passing changes back and forth. Finally, I think it’s important for editors to remember that it’s our job to listen as much as it is to prescribe—kind of like doctors. If you don’t really know a writer’s goals for the piece, the danger is that you end up trying to make it your own, and that’s not the point.
Sarah: I believe it’s fairly common for writers to struggle with the question of why they write. Have you struggled with why your stories are important? And if so, how did you resolve that struggle for yourself?
Well, I’ve never written a memoir, because I absolutely think, what would I write about? Why should anyone care? Ha. Fiction is a bit of a different animal. Sometimes, if I spend too long reading the news, I wonder if what I’m doing matters. Aren’t there more important, more pressing, things I should be doing, rather than spending my time having conversations with imaginary people? I do have those moments, but thankfully, they’ve always been fairly brief. Most of the time, I wholeheartedly believe in what I’m doing. My novel, right now—it feels important and meaningful; it certainly is for me, and whether it is for others remains to be seen. But even if it’s not, even if no one ever reads it, I think of all the books and stories that have changed my life—and changed the world. What if Homer had never existed? Or Shakespeare? Or Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters or Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou or Virginia Woolf or Jorge Luis Borges or Scott Fizgerald or Gabriel Garcia Marquez? The world would be different. It would be worse. And remembering that gives me confidence and faith that even the attempt to contribute something meaningful through story is worthwhile. Plus, I’ll admit: I have a bit of an ego. I think you have to, in order to keep believing in yourself, because in the writing world, there’s certainly more rejection than acceptance, so there needs to be something inside you that can’t be broken, that tells you to keep going because you have something important to say.
Sarah: Have you seen clients struggle with this question as well, doubting the importance of their stories? How have you seen them resolve this, and perhaps even helped them to do so?
Of course. Most of my clients have actually been writing nonfiction, most often memoir blended with an area of expertise, so they encounter this doubt a lot. They might be super confident about their expertise—business, medicine, psychology—but they struggle when it comes to their personal stories. They wonder: Who’s going to want to read this? Is it even interesting? Who cares? And it comes down a very real, very deep question: Do I matter? Do I matter to the world, do I matter in the world, do I matter to myself? I’ve asked clients this question, and so many times, I’ve been moved to tears by how they struggle to say, yes, I matter. Other times, I’ve been moved to tears by how fiercely they say they do, because it’s obvious what a hard-won thing it is to say, let alone to believe. If, in their heart, someone does not believe they matter, it will probably be impossible to convince them that their stories matter. The only thing I can do is tell them why those stories matter to me, how they’ve already impacted my life—and they do, invariably! I think people need to hear this—that what they’re saying already has value, even if they’ve only said it to you. And if you, as an editor or writing collaborator, really believe this, then it’s your job to help that client see it through.
Sarah: These next couple of questions are very open-ended, so feel free to take them in any direction you choose. What kind of storyteller would you say that you are?
That is open-ended! From a craft perspective, I’d say I’m a storyteller who is equally interested in language, character, and plot. I’m trying to write the kind of book I’d be drawn to read, which is a book with sentences that occasionally stop you and make you read them out loud, just to feel them in your mouth; the kind of characters that are so sharp and particular and real that you remember them years after you finish the book; and the kind of story that makes you stay up till three in the morning, telling yourself, just one more chapter. That’s a tall order. I recognize that. But that’s what I’m striving for, because those are the kinds of stories that have changed my life.
More abstractly, I would have to say I’m a hopeful storyteller. Another Anne Lamott quote:
"I honestly think that in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?
"Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you've read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone's soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of--please forgive me--wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious...
"...That kind of attention is the prize. To be engrossed in something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass--seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one."
I think a lot of writers might cringe at the word “hope”—many equate it with sentimental stories, or moralistic stories, or simple stories, or stories with happy endings. But I don’t think that’s what Lamott means, and it’s certainly not what I mean. I want to tell complex stories that have the capacity to surprise, and in the surprise itself, there is hope. Otherwise, like Lamott says, what’s the point?
Sarah: My second very open-ended question is, what stories have been most important to you?
This is such an interesting question, especially since you said “stories” and not “books.” The first thing that comes to mind is family stories. In my family, and probably many families, there are stories I’ve heard since I was a little girl, and I’ve heard them so many times that they've become mythical. There are stories of my parents’ childhoods and their dating, the story of my mom becoming pregnant with me, the story of my hometown sixty years ago, the stories of different houses we’ve lived in, funny stories, sad stories, somewhat supernatural stories—of all the stories I’ve read and heard, the stories of my family are the most important to me. They ground me, and remind me who I am when I’ve forgotten.
Sarah: I have just one more question for you, based on the premise that one of the most important parts of growing as a writer is being a reader. What are you reading these days?
I think this is so true. Actually, the book I’m reading right now is a bit of research for my own book. It’s called The Things They Cannot Say, by journalist Kevin Sites. Sites has spent the majority of his career embedded with various platoons in different wars, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. The book started as a recognition of his own trauma as someone who has seen people kill and be killed, and even been complicit in what can only be called murder. He recognized how much soldiers keep to themselves upon their return, how little ability they seem to have to share the burden of their stories, and he hoped that telling those stories to him might relieve them somehow. He also hoped, of course, that if we, the general public, were to read these stories, we might have a different, clearer understanding of what it really means to be at war and to “come home”—there’s never really any coming home, it seems. One of my main characters is an Army veteran, but I realized at some point that this was coming across like an afterthought, rather than something deeply entwined with his way of looking at the world, so I wanted some insight from real soldiers. The book has been devastating at times, but it’s one of the things I love about writing—learning entirely new ways of being.
If you've read this far and have any additional questions or comments, I'd love to see them below!