Advising New Writers Lovingly

Today I received an email from a freshly graduated student about a blog he’d been writing for the past two years that he wants to get published as a book. It was about being an only child—a topic I recommended he consider transforming into a memoir after he turned in a wonderful English 101 essay about growing up alone. Ever since, he said, he’d been writing. He included a link to the blog, clearly hoping—despite assurances to the contrary—that I would read it and somehow singlehandedly applaud it onto bookstore shelves.

This is the first of several such emails that I’ll likely receive this summer, in addition to similar requests I get from faraway former students, colleagues, and even total strangers during the school year. Would be writers email me. They show up in my office door, boxed manuscript in hand. They bribe me with lunch. But something about graduating—commencing Real Life, I guess—translates especially as the supreme opportunity to magically turn what have thus far only been vague dreams—of writing their memoir, of publishing a collection of devotions, of becoming a children’s author—into reality.

For me, though, summer is my big work-time as a writer. As soon as I get my grades in, I’m frantically writing away toward midsummer deadlines. In a little over a week, my college daughters will be coming home, and I’m embarrassed to say—though I love them both dreadfully and have been missing them ever since they returned to school after Christmas break—I’m dreading their return. The summer seems, for me, already used up, with all the things I need to get done during it, and I resent everything—even things I love best, like daughters and gardening—that takes me away from the computer.

So, I’m faced, as most writers are, with a difficult task I’ll probably never get exactly right: How to convey the reality of my summer (indeed, of my life as a writer)—that I have neither the time to read a single post, not to mention four years’ worth of blogging or a manuscript two reams thick, nor the power to circumvent for them or myself the arduous tasks of revising to make a book readable and securing an agent to get the thing sold—while simultaneously heartening and supporting those who, inspired by my own modest successes as a writer, want to follow in my footsteps?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke models my ideal response in his Letters to a Young Poet. I would like to embody his kind voice and take time away from my own writing to compose letter upon letter of encouragement and advice to those who approach me for writerly advice. But Rilke was writing back before the internet made it possible for would be writers to readily locate and assault him with salvos of manuscripts and queries. And Rilke didn’t seem to have to do any other work in his life besides write poems. And poets write, after all, poems. Short pieces—shorter, quite often, than a single blog post.

I was also much impressed when, after a reading from her memoir, Ellen Gilchrist took on question after question from the would be memoirists in her audience, somehow validating every asker as a writer and spurring each one to keep at it, keep writing, keep sending things out, keep doing—or start doing—the hard, often fruitless but always rewarding work of getting one’s thoughts and stories onto the page and into others’ hands.

My advice, finally, is canned, as were perhaps Gilchrist’s comments at readings and maybe even Rilke’s advice—which was, after all, published in book-form for every wannabe poet to read. I have an email in which I detail the steps I myself took in seeking publication for the first time, and I send it out, slightly personalized, to each asker. I have a spoken version for office door and phone conversations. It’s easier to be kind and encouraging, I find, when I plan it out.

“No breakfast?”

Now, if I could just figure out a loving way to tell Lulu and Charlotte I’m too busy to make them the fantasy breakfast they’ve been dreaming of all semester…

What do you tell aspiring writers who come across your path or your email in box?

Keeping the Ideas Coming

The writing life is a sedentary one, requiring hour upon hour of sitting in front of a computer screen—not good for the eyes or the metabolism or that almost forgotten New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds. Desk-bound inactivity is also not good, I’ve lately read, for the brain—particularly those portions of the brain that support a capacity of supreme importance to the writer: creativity. To keep the brain in good shape and new ideas flowing in, say scientists who study creativity, you need to change things up a bit. Do something active. Think about something else.

The solution for me is running. I run twenty-one miles a week on the back roads around my house. Because of my work schedule, I run in seven to ten mile chunks, which is a bit hard for a nonathletic person like me, so I’ve come up with various strategies to take my mind off of what I’m doing. In addition to thinking about my current writing dilemmas and planning new books, I count the different kinds of birds or flowers or grasses or trees. I carry binoculars for locating birds and have trained myself to recognize their voices and habits. I phone distant family members and friends whom I rarely get around to talking to otherwise. I pray.

On especially long runs, though, even these distractions get boring, so this winter I started playing a sick, depressing game of building alphabets from the roadside trash.

I made up rules for myself. I had to follow the alphabet’s order. I had to actually see a letter—not guess or surmise it from the visible part of the trash—for it to count. No slowing or stopping to look more closely. No stopping to turn a piece of trash over to see the other side. No touching at all! I had to read on the fly.

It was, as I say, a sick, sad game. So much trash. I fantasized about returning after my run with a box of trash bags and picking it all up but never found time.

Then spring came, burying the trash in weeds. That made the game harder and longer. I was on J one day—Js and Vs were always the hardest letters to find—and had been jogging along for miles without seeing even the Juicy Fruit wrapper I’d seen the last time I’d run there. Up ahead, a square of paper stuck up like a tombstone out of the freshly graded borrow ditch. On it was one word: TIME.

It occurred to me that it would be much more fun to collect whole words than single letters, so I wrote down TIME in my little bird notebook and jogged on. Soon I had grand, subway, rub, natural, ice, aqua, buried, cable, light, wet, ones, bud, sonic, key, stone, mountain, and dew and decided to make a poem.

It has always bothered me how advertising and brand names undo words. Light doesn’t mean light. Mountain has no real connection to a mountain nor dew to actual dew. My poem, I decided, would reclaim these words’ real meaning. I would redeem the trash words.

My rules were few. What linguists call structure-class words (pronouns, helping verbs, articles, conjunctions, etc.) and inflections (verb forms, plural forms, etc.) were allowed. So was divvying a word into its parts: keystone offered key and stone. Homophones—such as bush from Busch—were off limits. Once my poem got going, though, I threw out all my rules and just concentrated on making the poem work as a poem, importing non-trash words as I saw fit.

Writing that first poem made me cry. Don’t know why, exactly, except that it felt holy. I decided, in any case, to collect trash words and make poems routinely when I ran. I even started a blog of the poems that have resulted. I find the project profoundly satisfying, from collecting words to redeeming them as poems to posting them for others to read.

I don’t have much of a message here, except this: Get serious—and creative—about your creativity. Every moment, every event, all the minutiae of your life, even the worst things—even running!—can be re-purposed for something good.

In what ways will you choose to redeem your creativity this week?

Confessions of a Rhetorical Rapist

Before I ever published anything, I wrote mostly for myself. As an outlet for new discoveries about God or myself or the world. Or a place to struggle through matters of faith or relationships or parenting and work through past traumas. Sometimes, I wrote to vent.

I wrote in short, lots of things I was unlikely to say openly. Not secrets, exactly, but still things that might upset people if they knew. My mother’s brain tumor back when I was a teenager and my parents’ subsequent divorce and the lingering dysfunctions it caused in my family, for example. Or my early marriage struggles with my mother-in-law.

Writing was a way to move troubling matters out of the part of my brain that wakes in the night and worries into a more neutral medium where I could store them, reconsider them, ponder them in my heart.

In any case, when I assembled my first batch of writings for publication, I found I had a job before me: to somehow unsay things that might upset the people I wrote about.

From my publisher’s perspective, it was a legal matter. Although libel—misrepresenting the truth with malicious intent—is hard to prove, invasion of privacy is not. And I was amazed to discover how often I invaded others’ privacy in the stories that make up my memoirs. A friend’s cancer journey mentioned in one of my essays, for example, and a funny conversation about faith I had with a blind man I met on a bus became privacy right minefields.

My editor said I had three choices: cut the offending material, get releases from the people I was writing about, or alter names and details to make them unrecognizable. For that first book I used mostly the first two strategies—reluctantly, I must admit, and complaining all the way. This is ridiculous! How can this be necessary?…

If you can figure out a way to cut out the problematic part and still get your point across, that’s probably the best solution. Also the most painful. But cutting generally improves writing. (This blog post started out 1000 words longer, and, trust me, it’s better this way.) As my husband likes to point out, no one ever leaves church saying, “Boy, that was a great sermon—just wish it had lasted half an hour longer!”

The second solution—getting releases—was the most repugnant to me. Lots of work composing release letters, getting them signed, going to the post office! (I generally avoid all work that involves a post office.) Worse: The person might, after all that work, say no. Worst of all: They’d know I had invaded their privacy. Kind of like rhetorical rape, when you think about it. And I’d know they knew. And we’d all feel bad about it.

Surprisingly enough, everyone I asked said yes, although one person wanted to remain nameless. The guy on the bus, though—whose business card I found in my bag later, which enabled me to contact him—stipulated that I had to use both his names to be sure people recognized him. People are frequently flattered to make it into someone’s book.

Nowadays, I use mostly the third solution: changing names and details. I avoid a lot of topics from the get-go that I think may upset people. But then, if I absolutely need to tell some story that has potentially sensitive material in it, I give those involved new names and professions and hometowns and often a sex change operation.

Bottom line it’s illegal—not to mention a potential violation of the Golden Rule—to play fast and loose with others’ laundry. (Was that a mixed metaphor?) But avoiding it is no big deal.

How have you had to revise your writing in order to respect others’ privacy?

A Book Proposal Doesn’t Merely Sell Your Book—It Helps You Write It!

As a professor of creative writing and the author of several memoir-based books, I’m often approached by students and even the occasional stranger embarking on memoir projects of their own. They all have the same question: How do I go about getting published?

Something about memoir—probably the fact that one’s life experiences have already happened and thus seem, in some sense, already written—often blinds would-be memoirists to the obvious answer to their own question: You start by writing a book.

Never has my visitor arrived at my door book in hand, in which case our conversation might proceed slightly differently. Only occasionally has the person written a single chapter. Some have scribbled snippets of their story into a journal or mentioned it in a writing assignment for a class. Most, though, are in what I call the dreaming phase of writing: They have a zeal to write but haven’t yet rested their fingers on the computer keys and begun to type. In a sense, they have writer’s block before they have even started writing.

And so our conversation is about the bigger, scarier questions looming beneath the publishing question, questions so terrifying that no one ever really asks them directly. How do I get my story out from inside of me and onto the page? And then, once I do, how do I keep at it over the months and maybe years it may take to get it into something finished that someone might want to publish?

The answer, for me, is the book proposal. I wrote my first one, grudgingly, when I was looking for an agent. All the websites on getting published that I consulted when I was a would-be published writer myself said that I had to have an agent before a publisher would even look at my writing, and, to get an agent, I’d have to write a book proposal.

A typical book proposal, I learned, had several essential parts. A really interesting potential title. An encapsulation your book’s idea in a single sentence. A statement, also brief, of why specific readers out there need your book. A paragraph on who you are and why you’re the best person to write your book. The results of your research into how your book is different from similar books recently published. And an outline of how your book works.

I say I wrote that first book proposal “grudgingly,” because it seemed not only unpleasant but unnecessary work. Shouldn’t the publisher be the one to figure all this stuff out? I grumbled. Oh, right. I don’t have a publisher yet.

Worse, writing a book proposal entailed a task that the dreamer I was then wants to avoid: confronting the reality that bookstores and libraries are stuffed full of books just like mine and figuring out why a publisher or a bookstore or a reader would want to add mine to the list.

However, having now written a book proposal for each of the books my agent eventually presented to potential publishers, I have come to depend on them as my primary means of transportation as a writer. They provide the spark to get me started writing, the fuel to keep me going, the map to tell where I want to go.

Nowadays, I write my book proposal before typing a single word of the book itself. Without a book proposal, my book is just a dream and my day-to-day writing just doesn’t get done. The book proposal carries me through the writing process, from dream phase to bookstore.

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