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Out & About: Two Trains Running

In September’s newsletter, I told you about a project I supported as a developmental editor: Aren’t We Lucky? Stories of Resilience from the InkHouse Community. What I didn’t share is that I was fortunate enough to be invited to contribute an essay of my own to the compilation.

Now it’s a daunting task to be asked to capture the essence of resilience in a 600-word essay, but I had a secret weapon. Because I was privileged to coach each writer featured in the book, what I wrote had the benefit of being inspired by all of them, and wouldn’t have been possible without them.

What I realized, in the end, is this: Resilience is already there inside you. It is more a matter of accessing it. You can believe in other people’s resilience as a reminder to them, maybe, or a placeholder, but you can’t inject it into them any more than you can motivate their blood to pump. It is something we must find our way to ourselves.

It’s not often in the Covid era that we get a chance to read to each other, so I’m excited to share my essay in this form here.

  1. Two Trains Running


Know What Draft You’re In

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Writers Conference site.

 

Instinctively, we know that every draft is different. In the first draft, we can’t really be held responsible for the exact quality of what we produce; we just got here, ourselves. We are just trying to cover the ground. In the second draft, we might be learning the ropes a bit more. We can say what the better stuff is that we are trying to bring up another level. By the third draft, we are ready to polish, decide, and hopefully finish something.

 

On that we can likely agree. We can also likely agree that writing is more complex than 1, 2, 3. In this paragraph, for example, there are—at this moment—sentences that were written in the first, second, and third drafts of this blog coexisting next to each other. The ones in third draft form I should likely leave alone. The ones in first draft form need the most attention. Revision is about knowing what you want to work on, in part by knowing what you don’t need to work on.

Let’s say that you are writing a memoir. Your beta readers demand a new through-line, one that will really explain why you are so fucked up. No more trying to save anyone, including yourself. And you agree—but everything else is so…done. What then?

Asking for a friend. That was me, obviously, planting new seeds in a forest where the entire canopy felt taken. How to grow these seedlings up first, and then transplant from cup to pot, and finally to the memoir text itself when they were well developed enough to take care of themselves? I started by writing out the new scenes in longhand in a journal. Nothing could escape from there unless it had explicit permission, in the form of passages being photocopied and cut up, to then be typed in their own word documents.

Know what draft you’re in. That’s the simple message. And be fair to the earlier drafts. I have two children, aged 15 and 22. Just because I can’t expect the same things from my 15 year-old — like driving, or always remembering to Venmo request me for the money I owe her — doesn’t mean her essence isn’t as wonderful. Or that she won’t get there. She will, through encouragement, and patience, and time.

You can’t rush a good idea. But you can know where present material falls in your overall process. If it is first draft material, you can try it out, get the feel, make a start, and find your stride. If it is second draft material, you can take some new opportunities, go where the work needs your attention, and go further, break through. And if it is third draft material, you can come from the strength of what has worked, culminate matters, and trust yourself enough to let it go.

Because now you have the wisdom to know the difference.

You Won’t Know If You Don’t Go: “Making It” as a Writer

(This is a lightly edited version of a speech I gave at the Pennwriters Conference Luncheon several years back.) 

My first book was published by Penguin in 2013. It was nice to get that monkey off my back. I always dreamed of being a published author, from my childhood when books spoke with the clearest voices I heard anywhere. I wanted to participate with that. I was also tired of getting that question; you know the one, “Oh, so you’re a writer…are you published?”

I still have a few monkeys on my back, so don’t get too jealous. Besides, when I got published, it wasn’t like I joined some secret club. You’ve likely heard the tales: one book pays for the other six, they don’t put any money into promotion, and so forth. While I relished that seal of approval on the spine, and leaning on their expertise as mine grew, I was the one who set up all twenty spots on my book tour that first year.

On the road, I’ve had all kinds of experiences. I’ve presented to 300 people, and I’ve presented to zero people. Actually, I didn’t present that night, I packed up all of my gear, and when the lone straggler came in to ask if this was where the reading was, I smiled at her broadly: “Nope.” I’ve gotten five star reviews which said, “Thank you for existing.” And I’ve gotten one star reviews saying my writing was “as dry as sawdust.”

For the most part, it’s been great. I’ve now completed 70 tour dates throughout North America in the past three-plus years. But no matter how exciting life post-publication has been, it has never gotten better than those champion writing sessions where I was achieving the height of my flight. When someone says, “Your books are so original; I have learned more from you than anyone else” — I am happy, of course — but it is like I am hearing about a trip they’ve taken when I got left home.

Nothing will ever beat those rare nights when I knew I nailed it. When I had prepared for a writing session, and executed, while welcoming the unexpected. And then went to go smoke a cigar in the heart of Providence. I might have been thinking about the people who inspired me, but sitting there it was just me, myself, and I.

So my point is that we need to take writing and separate it from publishing. I’ve published three books on writing, but I also have an unpublished novel and an unproduced play. What writing has done for me exists outside of the experience of being published, and far exceeds it in value.

When I work with writers as an independent editor they sometimes put too much emphasis on publishing like that will determine the worth of the exercise. Other parallels could be sought here. I’ve run two marathons — should I not have done them because no one later called me to compete at the Olympic trials? (Maybe if they wanted someone who ran it in twice the time trials mark?)

There are things we do because we are called to do them, and that is what we can control. We can’t control fate. In Buddhist iconography the person is represented by a little wheel and the universe by a big wheel; when their teeth link up and they turn together, that is when you get your “15 minutes of fame” as Andy Warhol might have said… And then the big Wheel of Fortune spins on, and it may be a long time until you are linked up again.

So what are we supposed to do with all that lonely empty wheel space in the meantime? Live in the Glory Days? Feel like an impostor? Worry about the future? Try to chase the market and write something that meets current popular trends?

While we are waiting for the little wheel to intersect with the big wheel, we get distracted from what is really important in our own development. Like, what is the best thing I could be writing right now? What have I learned so far about writing that can help me reach my next goal? How much time can I find to pursue my passion of writing? How can I let that passion change me? What kind of excuses do I need to find for the people in my life to explain what I am doing?

How can I commit to the lifelong process of finding myself as a writer? What trips do I need to take? What people do I need to meet? What research do I need to do? What music do I need to listen to? What kind of community do I need to join, or create?

Earlier in the cigar story I referenced those people who inspired me in my current project. Some are editors, some are beta readers. Some are just people who make sense every time they speak. I call them my team, and put their names in the Acknowledgments section of the new book. Some of them are surprised. “What am I doing here?” they ask. “It’s a long story…” I say.

Basically, you’re there because you helped me not quit. That’s the best thing you could have done for me. I once drew this Venn diagram which shows how, of the people who don’t “make it,” all of the people who quit are contained completely in there.

And now, an excerpt from one of my books. This is from the section, “Why Some People Don’t Finish.”

I think that a lot of the reasons people don’t finish is because they don’t have a structured process to know what they need to be working on, when. That’s a pretty innocent way of getting lost that hopefully this book has helped a little with.

Some people don’t finish because they can’t keep the publication wolves at bay. Daydreams about acceptance, and the converse, anxiety attacks about rejection, and not going to help you finish. Sometimes, this pressure from the outside world gets too intense, or sometimes people can’t bring themselves to put themselves out there as the author of this book. They may have what are called hidden, related commitments—something just as strong or stronger that is working against them being a successful, published author.

Whether you want to get really deep about it, or just say, “I can’t seem to find the time…” there is one thing I want to say that will seem pretty obvious. The people who quit, can’t make it. Finishing requires tenacity. Taking something all the way to the end always looks kind of insane. Of course, it won’t feel insane. It will feel indescribably satisfying.

The Thing You Think You Cannot Say: Writing a Memoir You Can Live With

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Writers Conference site.

 

Writing a memoir is like writing a detective story where you get to find out what happened—except, it’s to you. It’s a complicated challenge. In the first place, you have to find your best stories, and tell them in a way that is interesting to other people, with the proper level of detail to convince your readers these things happened, but enough emotional resonance that they step into your shoes and live your life as if it was their own.

None of that compares, however, to the skill level required to handle the times when you hurt people or when people hurt you. It’s a Catch-22. On the one hand, you’ve got to reveal your truth. We need to know it in order to understand your problems. We need it to root for you and understand your personality and your drive. On the other hand, you may still want to have Thanksgiving with these people. Or not get sued by them. Or just generally be fair about how you’ve decided to expose (parts of) your life and now you’ve made a decision for select other people that you are going to expose theirs, too.

Before you start leaving out the best parts, or disguising people’s true identity with greater or lesser success, let me suggest you just write the first draft as clearly and honestly as you can. Assemble your possible materials and try them out; get the feel of what you’re even talking about. When you do that, then one of three things might happen:

 

  1. You might find out that what you wrote is not really a big deal at all. The person or persons you are referring to review the text and barely shrug their shoulders. They might even suggest additional dialogue or plot twists that improve the overall presentation. And the extra momentum generated by their approval inspires you to new heights of connectedness and inventiveness.
  2. You might find out you don’t need it. You were all set to relate a dark and depressing scene, but it doesn’t fit the overall theme. There actually isn’t a place for it. It’s always better to find that out first. It doesn’t pay to seek out an approval from others over very sticky material that’s going to get dropped from subsequent drafts anyway.
  3. You might have to face the music. And when that time comes, you might find that even the process itself can shift your understanding. I recently sent off a section of my memoir to some good friends of mine. It was a third of a chapter, thousands of closely observed and thematically relevant words…but the moment I pushed “send,” I knew it had to come out. Even though I was present in the events I related, it just wasn’t my story to tell—and my friends confirmed that.

While I do recommend writing a first draft free of external influence, I don’t recommend skipping the stage where you show your material to the people you are writing about. Sometimes authors will just hope that a featured subject doesn’t come across their writing, or they hope they do come across it, and that way settle some scores with them in public. Neither of these options has a lot of lift to them.

Mary Karr gives this advice in her book on memoir writing, “I notify [those mentioned] way in advance, to give them a chance to shoot it down (nobody has yet). I keep pages private till the book’s done, and at the end, I send work out to folks I wrote about long before type’s set. As a side note, it’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like. Save portraits of a grandmother who pissed me off and two pedophiles, it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.”

Knowing that you are going to have to show a passage or a chapter to some other people might stop your heart at first. But that’s the same heart that has been stopped by these conflicts and hurts for years. Now, you have the process of writing on your side. Working through the introduction of your memoir to your community might actually help you find the way you want to write your book after all. I simply love the memoirist Susan Steele’s construction: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.”

This kind of last draft is you reaching out to others with fairness. It is also reaching inwards to find transcendence. It probably doesn’t require arcane Buddhist commentary to believe that our healing necessarily includes other people’s healing. When a delicate topic gets exposed and stays stuck there it doesn’t help anyone. When it goes through an arc, however, when exposure is followed by inquiry, development, and understanding—well that might create a mini-monument to how we want to live in this world.