Writing advice: Anne Lamott and Toni Morrison

This past Saturday, I watched Anne Lamott on a webinar sponsored by Book Passage. She spoke from her home for three hours, sharing her wisdom on writing.

She shared titles of books that might help with writing:

She shared books that gave her confidence that she could write using their structures, multiple points of view, etc:

She shared many tips, some from other writers. She told her us that we can use all that she shared. She cautioned, however, to give credit to the original source of her advice when appropriate. For example, E. L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In other words, Anne stressed, that we should start to write in short increments. We don’t need to have the whole picture before we begin.

She shared the following writing tips:

  1. Stop NOT Writing.
  2. Don’t be pressured to write well. Write badly. ( remember in Bird by Bird, Anne coined: write a shitty first draft?)
  3. Trust you are loaded with stories to be told.
  4. Don’t try to “think” the story—just be available and let it happen.
  5. If you feel blocked, just write about it.
  6. Don’t tell us—start with the action. Describe. It’s a movie behind your eyes.
  7. Don’t force humor.
  8. If you are too close to the story, pretend you are Margaret Mead studying the aboriginal tribes.
  9. Tape record dialogue. Edit when it’s played back.
  10. Spend the most time at the beginning of your work paying attention to structure.

 

In closing, Anne instructed us to google writing advice from various writers.

Here is a shorten version of an article in Lit Hub written by Emily Temple, August 6, 2019. I “sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing.”

Temple has highlighted some of her (Toni’s) wisdom below:

“You Don’t Know Anything.” And Other Writing Advice from Toni Morrison

I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.

By Emily Temple

August 6, 2019

I can’t think of another writer who is quite so universally beloved as Toni Morrison. Her work is magnificent, her legacy is unimpeachable, and she reveals her brilliance at every opportunity. She also taught for many years at Princeton, and I think it’s safe to assume she knows a thing or two about nurturing young minds. So, using the relatively flimsy excuse of her birthday—Morrison turns 88 on Monday, which is also Presidents’ Day (is this a sign?)—I sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing. I’ve highlighted some of her wisdom below.

Write what you want to read.

I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Figure out how you work best.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Use the world around you.

Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings . . . everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Let characters speak for themselves.

I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Be open.

It’s that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don’t know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Don’t read your work out loud until it’s finished.

I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Don’t complain.

I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort. . . . [Confidence] I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.

–from a 1998 interview with Zia Jaffrey in Salon

Beware of overworking.

Those [paragraphs] that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Embrace failure.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.

With physical failures like liver, kidneys, heart, something else has to be done, something fixable that’s not in one’s own hands. But if it’s in your hands, then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. None of that is useful. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Learn how to read—and critique—your own work.

People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work—that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that . . .

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Seek holiness.

What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. You step up. And as long as you’re up there, even if you’re a terrible person—especially if you’re a terrible person—you see things that come together, and shake you, or move you, or clarify something for you that outside of your art you would not have known. It really is a vision above, or beyond.

–from a 2017 interview with Granta

 

Emily Temple

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

https://www.emilytemple.net/

One day before this was published, Toni Morrison died from pneumonia.

Revisiting “The Artist’s Way”

A friend recently lamented that she wished she was more creative. “I am so left brain,” she said. “Everything I do is regimented. I would love to lose myself in some artistic project.” She had retired about three years ago and needed some help in reinventing herself after a successful nursing career.

That night—I do my best brainstorming while sleeping—I remembered The Artist’s Way, a book I still had in my bookcase but had not looked at in years. And I also recalled that Julia Cameron was featured in the New York Times not too long ago. Eureka!

I re-read the first few chapters and realized that I, too, would do well to follow Cameron’s instructions, which I first did over 20 years ago. I no longer do morning pages nor am I taking myself on artist’s dates. And, guess what, I have not been working on my second book.

I discovered that Cameron wrote a new book in 2016: It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond. I plan to buy the book at my local independent bookstore in order to rejuvenate my artistic skill. And begin writing that second book.

I’ve attached the article from the NYTs below for those of you youngsters who missed the hype caused by the Artist’s Way.

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Julia Cameron Wants You to Do Your Morning Pages with “The Artist’s Way.”

by Penelope Green

February 3, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. — On any given day, someone somewhere is likely leading an Artist’s Way group, gamely knocking back the exercises of “The Artist’s Way” book, the quasi-spiritual manual for “creative recovery,” as its author Julia Cameron puts it, that has been a lodestar to blocked writers and other artistic hopefuls for more than a quarter of a century. There have been Artist’s Way clusters in the Australian outback and the Panamanian jungle; in Brazil, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan; and also, as a cursory scan of Artist’s Way Meetups reveals, in Des Moines and Toronto. It has been taught in prisons and sober communities, at spiritual retreats and New Age centers, from Esalen to Sedona, from the Omega Institute to the Open Center, where Ms. Cameron will appear in late March, as she does most years. Adherents of “The Artist’s Way” include the authors Patricia Cornwell and Sarah Ban Breathnach. Pete Townshend, Alicia Keys and Helmut Newton have all noted its influence on their work.

So has Tim Ferriss, the hyperactive productivity guru behind “The Four Hour Workweek,” though to save time he didn’t actually read the book, “which was recommended to me by many megaselling authors,” he writes. He just did the “Morning Pages,” one of the book’s central exercises. It requires you write three pages, by hand, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes to mind. (Fortunes would seem to have been made on the journals printed to support this effort.) The book’s other main dictum is the “Artist’s Date” — two hours of alone time each week to be spent at a gallery, say, or any place where a new experience might be possible.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who has “done” the book three times, said there would be no “Eat, Pray, Love,” without “The Artist’s Way.” Without it, there might be no adult coloring books, no journaling fever. “Creativity” would not have its own publishing niche or have become a ubiquitous buzzword — the “fat-free” of the self-help world — and business pundits would not deploy it as a specious organizing principle.

The book’s enduring success — over 4 million copies have been sold since its publication in 1992 — have made its author, a shy Midwesterner who had a bit of early fame in the 1970s for practicing lively New Journalism at the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, among other publications, and for being married, briefly, to Martin Scorsese, with whom she has a daughter, Domenica — an unlikely celebrity. With its gentle affirmations, inspirational quotes, fill-in-the-blank lists and tasks — write yourself a thank-you letter, describe yourself at 80, for example — “The Artist’s Way” proposes an egalitarian view of creativity: Everyone’s got it.

The book promises to free up that inner artist in 12 weeks. It’s a template that would seem to reflect the practices of 12-step programs, particularly its invocations to a higher power. Butaccording to Ms. Cameron, who has been sober since she was 29, “12 weeks is how long it takes for people to cook.”

Now 70, she lives in a spare adobe house in Santa Fe, overlooking an acre of scrub and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. She moved a few years ago from Manhattan, following an exercise from her book to list 25 things you love. As she recalled, “I wrote juniper, sage brush, chili, mountains and sky and I said, ‘This is not the Chrysler Building.’” On a recent snowy afternoon, Ms. Cameron, who has enormous blue eyes and a nimbus of blonde hair, admitted to the jitters before this interview. “I asked three friends to pray for me,” she said. “I also wrote a note to myself to be funny.”

In the early 1970s, Ms. Cameron, who is the second oldest of seven children and grew up just north of Chicago, was making $67 a week working in the mail room of the Washington Post. At the same time, she was writing deft lifestyle pieces for the paper — like an East Coast Eve Babitz. “With a byline, no one knows you’re just a gofer,” she said.

In her reporting, Ms. Cameron observed an epidemic of green nail polish and other “Cabaret”-inspired behaviors in Beltway bars, and slyly reviewed a new party drug, methaqualone. She was also, by her own admission, a blackout drunk. “I thought drinking was something you did and your friends told you about it later,” she said. “In retrospect, in cozy retrospect, I was in trouble from my first drink.”

She met Mr. Scorsese on assignment for Oui magazine and fell hard for him. She did a bit of script-doctoring on “Taxi Driver,” and followed the director to Los Angeles. “I got pregnant on our wedding night,” she said. “Like a good Catholic girl.” When Mr. Scorsese took up with Liza Minnelli while all three were working on “New York, New York,” the marriage was done. (She recently made a painting depicting herself as a white horse and Mr. Scorsese as a lily. “I wanted to make a picture about me and Marty,” she said. “He was magical-seeming to me and when I look at it I think, ‘Oh, she’s fascinated, but she doesn’t understand.’”)

In her memoir, “Floor Sample,” published in 2006, Ms. Cameron recounts the brutality of Hollywood, of her life there as a screenwriter and a drunk. Pauline Kael, she writes, described her as a “pornographic Victorian valentine, like a young Angela Lansbury.” Don’t marry her for tax reasons, Ms. Kael warns Mr. Scorsese. Andy Warhol, who escorts her to the premiere of “New York, New York,” inscribes her into his diary as a “lush.” A cocaine dealer soothes her — “You have a tiny little wife’s habit” — and a doctor shoos her away from his hospital when she asks for help, telling her she’s no alcoholic, just a “sensitive young woman.” She goes into labor in full makeup and a Chinese dressing gown, vowing to be “no trouble.”

“I think it’s fair to say that drinking and drugs stopped looking like a path to success,” she said. “So I luckily stopped. I had a couple of sober friends and they said, ‘Try and let the higher power write through you.’ And I said, What if he doesn’t want to?’ They said, ‘Just try it.’”

So she did. She wrote novels and screenplays. She wrote poems and musicals. She wasn’t always well-reviewed, but she took the knocks with typical grit, and she schooled others to do so as well. “I have unblocked poets, lawyers and painters,” she said. She taught her tools in living rooms and classrooms — “if someone was dumb enough to lend us one,” she said — and back in New York, at the Feminist Art Institute. Over the years, she refined her tools, typed them up, and sold Xeroxed copies in local bookstores for $20. It was her second husband, Mark Bryan, a writer, who needled her into making the pages into a proper book.

The first printing was about 9,000 copies, said Joel Fotinos, formerly the publisher at Tarcher/Penguin, which published the book in 1992. There was concern that it wouldn’t sell. “Part of the reason,” Mr. Fotinos said, “was that this was a book that wasn’t like anything else. We didn’t know where to put it on the shelves — did it go in religion or self-help? Eventually there was a category called ‘creativity,’ and ‘The Artist’s Way’ launched it.” Now an editorial director at St. Martin’s Press, Mr. Fotinos said he is deluged with pitches from authors claiming they’ve written “the new Artist’s Way.”

“But for Julia, creativity was a tool for survival,” he said. “It was literally her medicine and that’s why the book is so authentic, and resonates with so many people.”

“I am my tool kits,” Ms. Cameron said.

And, indeed, “The Artist’s Way” is stuffed with tools: worksheets to be filled with thoughts about money, childhood games, old hurts; wish lists and exercises, many of which seem exhaustive and exhausting — “Write down any resistance, angers and fears,” e.g. — and others that are more practical: “Take a 20 minutes walk,” “Mend any mending” and “repot any pinched and languishing plants.” It anticipates the work of the indefatigable Gretchen Rubin, the happiness maven, if Ms. Rubin were a bit kinder but less Type-A.

“When I teach, it’s like watching the lights come on,” said Ms. Cameron. “My students don’t get lectured to. I think they feel safe. Rather than try and fix themselves, they learn to accept themselves. I think my work makes people autonomous. I feel like people fall in love with themselves.”

Anne Lamott, the inspirational writer and novelist, said that when she was teaching writing full-time, her own students swore by “The Artist’s Way.” “That exercise — three pages of automatic writing — was a sacrament for people,” Ms. Lamott wrote in a recent email. “They could plug into something bigger than the rat exercise wheel of self-loathing and grandiosity that every writer experiences: ‘This could very easily end up being an Oprah Book,’ or ‘Who do I think I’m fooling? I’m a subhuman blowhard.’”

“She’s given you an assignment that is doable, and I think it’s kind of a cognitive centering device. Like scribbly meditation,” Ms. Lamott wrote. “It’s sort of like how manicurists put smooth pebbles in the warm soaking water, so your fingers have something to do, and you don’t climb the walls.”

Ms. Cameron continues to write her Morning Pages every day, even though she continues, as she said, to be grouchy upon awakening. She eats oatmeal at a local cafe and walks Lily, an eager white Westie. She reads no newspapers, or social media (perhaps the most grueling tenet of “The Artist’s Way” is a week of “reading deprivation”), though an assistant runs a Twitter and Instagram account on her behalf. She writes for hours, mostly musicals, collaborating with her daughter, a film director, and others.

Ms. Cameron may be a veteran of the modern self-care movement but her life has not been all moonbeams and rainbows, and it shows. She was candid in conversation, if not quite at ease. “So I haven’t proven myself to be hilarious,” she said with a flash of dry humor, adding that even after so many years, she still gets stage-fright before beginning a workshop.

She has written about her own internal critic, imagining a gay British interior designer she calls Nigel. “And nothing is ever good enough for Nigel,” she said. But she soldiers on.

She will tell you that she has good boundaries. But like many successful women, she brushes off her achievements, attributing her unlooked-for wins to luck.

“If you have to learn how to do a movie, you might learn from Martin Scorsese. If you have to learn about entrepreneurship, you might learn from Mark” — her second husband. “So I’m very lucky,” she said. “If I have a hard time blowing my own horn, I’ve been attracted to people who blew it for me.”

Penelope Green is a reporter for Styles. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times — an early iteration of Styles — and a story editor at the Times magazine. @greenpnyt • Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 3, 2019, Section ST, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: She Guides Your Process. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

With “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron invented the way people renovate the creative soul.

 

 

 

Rejuvenation

Another sunsetMy definition of rejuvenation is spending five days at Fort Myers Beach with my good friend, Lois, walking the beach, watching sunsets, having one humongous scoop of ice cream from Kilwin’s each evening, and reliving the fun times we have had over the 45 years of our friendship. Like the time we decided to join the Navy. We were just shy of 42 years of age, the cut off age to enlist as an officer. We were both master’s prepared nurses, wives and mothers of high schoolers. We wanted to travel. We liked the uniforms and dark blue was on our color wheel.

Lois remembers her husband was nonchalant about our visit to the recruiter. I don’t remember my husband’s reaction. I think both husbands weren’t surprised at anything we decided to do together. We never did pursue joining the Navy, but we had many belly laughs thinking about our visit.

So here we are enjoying each other’s company, grateful for our special friendship, and staying in the moment as we treasure the magnificent environment surrounding us.

View from our room
View from our room

 

Morning walk
Morning walk
Evening entertainment
Evening entertainment
Great place for dinner
Great place for dinner
One of the locals
One of the locals
wrinting-by-the-beach.jpeg
Writing by the beach
sunset
Another lovely sunset

 

NCWN Fall Conference

I attended the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference in Asheville this past weekend.

The Keynote Speaker was Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain)

Q & A with Charles Frazier

Frazier spoke of how he came to be published. His wife’s good friend was an agent. How lucky can you get?

 

Sessions I attended:

I.  Screenplay: Fake vs Fiction with Maryedith Burrell

Me & Maryedith Burrell

To Do: Adapt my book to a screenplay-optional.

2.  Power Up the Truth You Tell with Christine Hale

Make situation significant for the reader

To Do: Create a compelling protagonist for my next book.

 

3.  The Limits of Perception with Tessa Fontaine

Writing Practice

To Do: Try this prompt at home– and others.

4.  The Ins & Outs of Small Press Publishing with Luke Hankins

To Do: Appreciate the fact I worked with She Writes Press.

5.  Creative Ways to Promote Your Book (& Yourself) with Anne Fitten Glenn

To Do:  Pat myself on the back for doing lots that Anne suggested. Plus look into Audio Books and begin to use Instagram.

 

*   *   *

 

vets reading
Luncheon with Joseph Bathanti and Brother Like These.

 

Brothers Like These is a program at the local VA hospital to help veterans from the Vietnam War who suffer with PTSD heal through writing. Moving. Good thing I had tissues in my tote.

 

cover w:awards
My book with award stickers on the cover

 

I sold 4 out of the 5 books we authors were allowed to place on the conference sales table. Last year I sold only one book. Did the award stickers make a difference or the discussions of my book with other attendees?

 

I bought a fellow author’s, Charley Pearson, medical thriller at the NCWN Fall Conference. 

To Do: Read. Enjoy. Write a comment on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning the hard way about book promotion

My son-in-law and daughter left for a weekend in Chicago so he could run the marathon. I stayed at their home, watching three grandkids and the two dogs. It was good timing. My life, up to now, has mostly centered on promoting my first and only book. I have been doing little else.

Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic: A Nurse Practitioner Remembers, came out a year ago. Initially, I had a publicist but for the past few months I have been driving the marketing train by fits and starts.

UnknownMy recent effort at marketing has been to hop aboard the lecture circuit. I chose a topic, Empowering the Patient, that would attract an audience both interested in my talk, and additionally, would buy my book. I knew about this subject. I am a nurse practitioner, after all. Never mind that I haven’t practiced for twelve years. I have been a volunteer at a local hospital and exposed to the advances in practice and management. Besides, I have experienced the health care system as a caregiver and patient. And I have read lots of books and used online sources to educate myself. I put together an outline, did a Power Point presentation, and developed a reference list to hand out. My audience, I decided, would be impressed with my knowledge and engaging manner and purchase my book.

The lecture sites I choose had restrictions on overtly selling my book. However, I could say I authored a book and leave my promotional literature near the sign-in sheets.

I didn’t sell one book!

While I enjoyed giving the lectures and especially liked interacting with my audience, what became clear was that I didn’t enjoy the time and commitment it took. I was always on the lookout for updated information and the latest health interventions, which took up more time from family, pursuing my other creative endeavors like painting, and time away from writing my second book.

Besides, I found that I was stepping back into my previous nursing role to help out members of my audience. I felt their frustration in dealing with the complicated health care system. I didn’t stop at giving them needed tools. The nurse in me wanted to help by telling them what to do. Could I get sued for giving inaccurate information? Was all this worth the time and effort when it didn’t seem anyone was interested in my book.

What surprised me most of all was how I let myself get so obsessed with book promotion. I am usually sensitive to keeping a balance in my life, protective of my personal space and set limits on getting overly engaged.

Spending time with the grandchildren provided a change of scenery that took me away from my self-imposed author responsibilities. I have come to realize that while I am proud to have authored a book and want to see it sell well, it is after all, only a book

Computer Crash

I have been without my computer for four days so I didn’t work on today’s post. I didn’t have a computer to track any other posts that I could reblog. I didn’t want to scratch out a new post longhand. Maybe I could’ve been more aggressive or use my I Phone to pick up the slack in order to get a post out today, but I didn’t. This rant serves as an informal publication. I decided that not having access to my computer let me off the hook. Frankly, it was liberating. I enjoyed the forced separation from my constant sidekick. The computer is my portal to writing and without it I am free to pursue other activities—like shopping—even if I don’t come home with any purchases. When did I last have lunch by myself?

Not to be productive, to me, is paramount to being slothful. I am a writer and must write and/or complete one book promotional action every day. Well, how about I am also a person who enjoys a day off or a moment to enjoy myself without guilt. If my computer is not working how can I feel guilty not accomplishing my daily goals?

Sadly, my computer was up and running as of 6 pm yesterday. I didn’t rush to document this morning’s post. In fact, I put the writing off until now. I will be back to my routine soon.  In the meantime, I am holding on to this wonderful guilt-free break for as long as it lasts.

What Was My Memoir Really About?

This guest post was written for She Writes Blog on November 29, 2018.

My book, Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic: A Nurse Practitioner Remembers, took me about seven years to complete. I couldn’t seem to rush the process. A mentor told me “the book will take as long as it needs to take to be done.” And only after I finished the book did I understand what my story was really about.

My nursing career covered forty years. As soon as I retired I began to record those years starting with nursing school. When I reached the early 80s, a tug in my gut told me that I couldn’t go any further. During that time I was the coordinator of a not-for-profit clinic in Chicago targeting the underserved elderly. Throughout the years, I always remembered the clinic as being totally different from any other job I ever had. Located on the tenth-floor of an apartment building for low-income seniors, the open door policy allowed anyone to walk in—with a heart attack or carrying a loaf of zucchini bread.

As a new nurse practitioner (I had been a registered nurse for twenty years before I went back to school to become an NP), I narrowly viewed my role as a health care provider. I would see patients in the clinic for illnesses or health maintenance. That the elderly had multitudinous social and economic problems initially eluded me. Or was it that my lack of education in geriatrics, a new specialty at the time, that contributed to my misconceptions?

Many of my patients’ stories were captured in a journal that I kept while I struggled with the dilemmas that challenged me—patients choosing between food and medicine, or were victims of family abuse, or targeted by scam artists from the community. I often vacillated whether I had any right to step in and take over a patient’s finances or change the locks on the doors. With no road map, I fumbled along, sometimes butting heads with my staff in deciding how to intervene. 

I learned that what I wrote initially in the book was not a clear map of what I wanted to convey. I just wanted to tell this story. But what story? My memory cast my co-workers in roles that inhibited my progress. With each rewrite, I softened my harsh critique of others and uncovered some detrimental actions that I had initiated. My insight became sharper when I let the story percolate in my head rather than rushing to rewrite. Reflection and patience, albeit over seven years, finally enabled me to be truthful to what happened in the tenth-floor clinic.

In retrospect, I see that having a preconceived notion of what I wanted to write had caused me to miss what was behind the real story. My belief about the stories from the tenth-floor clinic stemmed from what I remembered—my truth at that moment. The passage of time has a way of rearranging recollections. It was only after examining my place in my memoir that I uncovered what the story was really about, even if I had already lived it.

The book took as long as it needed to take to be done.

BE GOOD TO YOUR READER

jumpy things

I took Stein with me to Monkey Joe’s and settled into a black leather vibrating chair in an area devoted to parents, grandparents and other responsible adults while the men’s semi-finals at Wimbledon played on one TV screen and some guys tossed a basketball on the other. My three grandsons scampered towards the inflated jumpy things and I focused on Stein.

Stein on Writing is another book I go to for a creative transfusion or craft update. I wouldn’t have known about Sol Stein if Marilyn, my writing friend, hadn’t warned me one day to be good to my reader. Keeping the reader curious, aroused, entertained, satisfied is the goal of good writing. Hmm, sounds like good advice for lovers as well. But hey we’re talking about writing here—as does Stein, including both fiction and non-fiction. His book is not about writing theory but “usable solutions—how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” I can vouch that he delivers on those promises.

I was getting Stein’s take on editing, which is what I’m doing now with my own book when I’m not at Monkey Joe’s. In spite of the din around me, I devoured both chapters on revisions of fiction and non-fiction plus reread several of my favorite sections of Stein on Writing before I led three sweaty boys out of Monkey Joe’s.

Some advice on editing from Stein:

  • Is the opening scene sufficiently visual to be seen by the reader and provoke curiosity?
  • Do summarized areas lose the reader’s attention? If so, convert summarized material to scenes or shorten.
  • Is there occasional tension or suspenseful interest created by withholding information or asking a question?
  • Eliminate most adverbs and adjectives.
  • Cut clichés.
  • Replace or cut similes and metaphors that don’t work.
  • Vary the length of sentences.
  • Make every word count.
  • Fix major problems before beginning a front to back, page-by-page revision. (worth reading this section of his book for an explanation)

What else would you add to the list?