Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

First Draft Postpartum

an empty boat near a tiny island with crystal blue waterFinishing up a first draft? Here’s how to prep yourself for your emotional responses.

You would think that completing a first draft of your book or play or screenplay would make you feel giddy. And it might. And it should. I mean, you have likely been working on this project for months or years. You have poured out your heart and soul, struggled with the characters, scenes, dialogue, setting (etc.), and fretted over this word or that word. And finally, finally, you have a concrete stack of papers that have a beginning, middle, and end. You should want to throw a party.

But don’t be surprised if finishing up that first draft comes with a host of other emotional responses.

Let’s look at a few of the possible responses I have both witnessed and experienced within myself:

  • Unexplainable nervousness or anxiety
  • A desire to quit
  • A sense of emptiness or purposelessness
  • A wave of anger
  • An inexplicable depression

Why? Why? Why?

Many writers ask me if it is normal to have these types of reactions, then they wonder why they are experiencing them in the first place.

Normal—yes.  Why? Here are my thoughts:

Fear of Exposure

You are shifting from a very internal space, where you have existed for quite some time, to a more exposed, public space.  The thought of sharing your work might bring on unexpected fear or panic. You may be nervous about reactions you will receive.  You may wonder, is it good enough?  Did I just waste years of my life?  The imposter syndrome may even start to take over your brain.  Know that this is very normal. Try journaling all your fears to get them out of your body.  And don’t believe everything you think.

Exhaustion

Yes, you are most likely very, very tired. Take a nap.

Confusion About What Happens Next

It can be scary because in the first draft writing stage you had most, if not all, of the control.  Now you may not know what happens next, and that can be terrifying. Don’t worry; there are many Book Sherpas out there that can guide you; you are not alone.

So, what can help?

  • Allow Your Emotions

Be aware that you may tumble through a series of emotions and know that there is another, much shinier, side.  If you need to cry, do it. If you need to yell into a pillow, do it. If you just need to dance, I say dance. Get it out.

  • Pat Yourself on the Back

Force yourself to celebrate.  Don’t just pass through this marker. You did a ton of work. You deserve to sip a little champagne, do a little retail celebrating, or take that long bath you have been wanting to take. Snap a picture of yourself holding your first draft and post it on Facebook—allow your community to celebrate with you! Whatever helps you to mark the occasion, do it. (In our writing group we even came up with a first draft song to sing when members complete their first drafts).  Pat yourself on the back. It is a big deal.

  • Do No Harm

Depressive or anxiety-riddled thinking can lie to you. It may tell you that you are not good enough or worthy enough—or that you should just toss it all and start over.  Don’t believe everything you think during this period of mini-tumult. Don’t quit writing or stuff the manuscript in a drawer. The angst is temporary.

  • Get it Out of Your Hands

Give the manuscript to a beta reader, content editor, writing coach, or writing group member that you trust, then let it go for four to six weeks. Allow the reader(s) to do the read, and take your mind off it.

  • Look at Shiny Stuff or Bathe in Some Trees

Distract yourself. While your manuscript is in someone else’s hands, you may experience a loss of purpose or even more anxiety. It’s a great time to focus on your social media platform, create your website, open a twitter account, or start on a brand-new project—one that is very different from the one you have just completed. Or, better yet, get outta dodge. Go on a trip. Drive into the country. Nap, a lot. A sure-fire way to regain excitement and balance is to get out into nature for at least two days. You will see how much your myopic perspective changes by washing your brain with ocean breezes, swaying trees, and sunsets.

Congratulations! The Feisty Writer wants to celebrate along with you!  Send us your pictures of you holding your first draft to marnifreedman18@gmail.com.

Imposter Syndrome, by Danielle Baldwin

A sign that says "fraud."Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.

Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?

The Perfectionist

You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.

We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.

Superwoman/man

Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”

No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.

I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy—but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed, I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.

Rugged Individualist

You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.

I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet with all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything, but know you don’t have to go it alone.

The Expert

You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.

Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners.  But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.

All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/2695269/

Cherish Your Darlings

two hands offering a flower with a black backgroundYou’re in your writing group, about to read aloud the best thing you’ve ever written. It’s brilliant, it’s poignant, and you’re bursting to share it. You take a deep breath and begin. At the end, you look up, awaiting praise. Your friends are staring at the floor.

“I didn’t totally understand that part,” one says. “I think you can tighten this,” says another. That one lady with the great insights who always gets your work says, “I liked it overall, but I think you can cut the part where …” and then she describes your moment of greatest brilliance. As something to discard.

We all know about darlings. They’re the parts you think are amazing that everyone else knows are anything but. We all know what you do with darlings. You kill them.

That’s right, of course. There’s no part of your book so good it should stay if it isn’t serving the whole. And, let’s be honest, often those “brilliant” bits are self-indulgent, over-written messes. (Though I once read advice that defined a “darling” as any passage the author especially liked. It went on to say that the first step in editing was to delete whichever parts you were most fond of. For the love of Bob and all that is holy, don’t do that.)

But—and here’s the controversial part—I think believing your readers over your instincts is wrong.

Oh, definitely get a writing group you can trust. When they say, “it’s not working,” believe them. Instincts aren’t born, they’re tempered with time. Fail often, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work. You’ll carry your writing group in your head and fix mistakes before your group even sees them. This is how you hone your instincts.

Once you’ve developed good instincts, you’ll still need that group. Sometimes you need a sanity check. Or you need somebody else’s take on an issue. Sometimes you’ve just got to hear how prose lands. You never stop needing that in some form or other.

But when your group says something doesn’t work, your next step is not dry your tears and rush off to delete it. (Or even relocate it to a clippings file, though Melissa Bloom has a great post on how to do that when the time comes.) The next step is to look at the work as a whole. Ask yourself, does this passage serve the larger purpose? Does it make the book better?

Often, it won’t. Your reader says, “That moment doesn’t work,” and you agree. Or you do some arguing and bargaining and painful soul-searching and eventually agree. It’s the wrong beat, or it’s too flowery, or it reiterates something your readers knew already. That’s when you kill it. (Or, you know. Clippings file.)

Sometimes, though, all your instincts insist the moment is vital to the story. It’s not just (allegedly) beautifully written, you need it to convey your meaning. Your readers tell you to cut it, and you can’t. You have no idea how you know, but you know it’s important.

So don’t kill it. Dig deeper. Why do your instincts and your readers disagree?

Maybe you introduced the moment poorly. Or you didn’t flesh it out enough. Maybe it’s something so obvious to you-you’re still finding the words for it. Sometimes the hardest ideas to explain are the true ones.

You may dig way, way down just to discover your readers were right. You have blindspots, and I guarantee you others see them more clearly than you do. When your readers say, “This part doesn’t work,” believe them.

But when your instincts say, “This part is vital,” believe them too. Because sometimes, against all precedent and logic and the feedback of your time-tested writing group, your instincts will insist a moment is right.

Good. Go clean the damned thing up until your readers say so too.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/p-ppCccUZiU

Rant by Nancy Villalobos, Feisty Writer Guest Blogger

side view of a human skullWhat were you feeling?

What was your emotional response to that?

Show more of your emotion.

The other writers in my Read and Critique group pounded away on this theme after I read from my memoir the latest revision of an experience that occurred more than fifty years ago. When I was in Lima, Peru as a 20-year-old international student, I’d gotten locked in the cathedral that holds Pizarro’s tomb. I thought that was a pretty interesting vignette, even mildly humorous.

I had written it exactly as it happened. I described the day, the surroundings, the interior of the church. I described the way I’d taken a long time to find the tomb and what it looked like and then the realization I was locked in. I finished up with my escape at the hands of a disgruntled priest with a bit of translated dialogue. I even closed the piece (really a chapter) with a foreshadowing of the obstacle that had arisen in the rest of my life, the subject of the next chapter. I’d done a defensible job of relating the events of the day. I didn’t know what else to say without making something up. I hadn’t felt like crying or laughing or screaming. I’d just wanted out of the church so I could get to my class on time.

My friends avoided my gaze, unhappy at not being able to applaud my efforts.

“But what were you feeling?”

Enthusiasm drained out of my pores and pooled around my unemotional feet.

Digging deep into my memory after I got home, I kept coming up empty. They expected me to feel something, but what?

The more I thought about it, the only emotional response I felt was anger at the beloved members of my group. Why did they keep harping on this? It happened in 1965, and I really couldn’t remember feeling anything.

What did they want me to feel? Joy? No. An intense spiritual awakening? No. Fear? Nope. Panic? Not really. Despair? Seriously? Anger? Not then.

My list of emotions I hadn’t felt grew. I began an imaginary conversation with that group of very stubborn people who only wanted to make me a better writer but who refused to accept that what I had felt at the time of the event was NOTHING. Why was that so hard to get?

Listen, I would say to them, the only thing I wanted on that day in Lima was to find the tomb of Pizarro. I wanted to see if that skeleton was really there and I wanted to see what it looked like. Period.

And right then my imaginary conversation petered out.

Because…I had really WANTED to find that tomb. It was almost like a quest—Harrison Ford in his battered hat. So, I must have felt ANTICIPATION. And I knew the skeleton was in that church, so I must have felt the EXCITEMENT about seeing it, and I must have had the EXPECTATION of fulfilling my quest. And because I’d never seen a relic, I must have been filled with CURIOSITY. And when I finally found the tomb, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, I must have felt at least mild DISAPPOINTMENT. And when I realized that I’d been locked in, I must have felt FRUSTRATION and CONCERN ABOUT BEING LATE. At the very end, I must have felt CHAGRIN at not having paid attention to my surroundings after the doors were locked. And then I remembered walking out of the church feeling pretty STUPID.

Damn! This was working.

I peeped at my pages again. Yes, I could add an adjective here, another line of dialogue there, a tighter or looser description, move this phrase to the end of the sentence, add a final paragraph with a takeaway—something the reader could relate to. And, in the end, a tiny little phrase rang like a timid bell in the recesses of my writer’s brain: I’d been telling about my experience, but when I’d been able to resuscitate my emotional state, I was able to show.

Sometimes it takes an emotional response to critique to elicit the emotional response to an event.

 

Headshot of authorABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-476740

 

5 Places to Find Your Tribe

A black and white photo of many frogs with red eyes

  1. Writing Groups. I’ve been in a few groups, and let me tell you, they are wonderful. The sense of community is almost always immediate, and I guarantee that if you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with your work, someone else is too. I also like these groups because I get to see people develop and grow, which is fun and inspiring. Writing groups can also help improve your craft, which is never a bad thing. They support me when I need encouragement, and they call me on my bullshit.
  1. Reading Groups. It’s amazing to talk to people who love literature. Because they don’t just sorta kinda like this stuff. They loooove it. They breathe it in, over and over again until it feels like part of their soul, and they can’t help but talk about it. And that kind of enthusiasm and love is contagious. It reminds me of why I write, and how people communicate, and how sublime and transcendent writing can really be.
  1. Meetup Groups. I recommend hanging out with non-writers who are interested in something you’re interested in. I got interested in gardening a few years back, and so I went to a Meetup Group interested in permaculture (look it up, it’s pretty fascinating stuff), where I learned to air-layer a tree (similar to a graft). It was amazing and new, and I came away inspired by how many possibilities exist in the world around me. I also made some great friends and now have a yard that shows the effort of learning. Like writing a book, but it’s a yard. And the truth is, learning never hurts your writing. Never. Plus, you’re less of a moron every time you learn something, and there are definitely too many morons in the world today. **Cough**Trump**Cough**
  1. Conventions. I’ve been to things like Comic-Con and Wondercon and other random stuff. I’ve been to writing conferences, film conferences, and so on. Yes, they can be pricey, so I use them as rewards or vacations. And the people I’ve met at these things are really wonderful people. They’ve spent the money, made the commitment, and they’re in it with both feet. These are the kinds of people I want to be around. I don’t want to be around half-hearted hipsters who like things ironically and feign disinterest because they might be seen as uncool. And those people wouldn’t be caught dead at a convention.
  1. Fairs/Events. Book-signings, film festivals, art fairs, museum events, and so on are great places. Not only do you have the interaction with vendors, but also with other fans. They’re kind of like conventions in that regard. It’s also great for people watching, which is one of my favorite past times, and I remember it for when I need to write characters. Creepy as it sounds, observing people and remembering what they do is how writers find authenticity without having to write about their spouses or family (which always gets you into trouble).

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/1422219/

Writing Full Time—Living the Dream? By Danielle Baldwin, the Newest Feisty Writer

A Smith-Corona typewriter

When I was six, I spent every Sunday morning sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. She would hover over the New York Times crossword puzzle, pencil poised as the smoke from her Kent Kings pulled lazily into the air. Some days I’d help, pushing my cereal bowl to the side to man the thesaurus and dictionary to help her look up words. Other mornings, I would pound away on her portable blue Smith Corona typewriter, crafting a story about flying giraffes or kung fu fighting squirrels.  I knew from those early years, swimming around in the words, splashing them onto the page, that I wanted to be a writer.

It was a dream I pursued through high school and college, one fiction or poetry workshop after the next. But when graduation came, so did a flood of fear; that I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t make a living doing what I loved. So instead of pursuing a career in writing, I got a “real job.”

I never left writing completely. I would steal loving glances at it on weekends, working on my manuscript, a short story, or even flash fiction. We’d meet in coffee shops, lock ourselves away in my home office. I’d attend writing retreats and conferences so we could spend more time together. I dreamed of being a writer full time.

So, at the end of last year, when my boss told me that my position was being eliminated, I was more ecstatic than sad. I could spend every waking moment working on my manuscript. This was my chance to become the writer that I’d always wanted to be!

The first few days after the holidays as a “full-time writer” went well. I was focused, energetic and eager to get to the page every morning. But as the days passed, my resolve wavered. Some days I would sit down at my desk, and it was just like days of old—I felt inspired, creative, the words flowed. Other days, I felt like taking a jackhammer to my keyboard.

While I made progress on the manuscript, I was surprised at how hard it was to stay focused.  I found every excuse I could not to sit down and write—laundry or dishes, an errand to be run, a phone call to make. One day, my procrastination efforts were so extreme that I chose to steam clean my furniture instead of sitting down at my computer.  Before losing my job, I could always fall back on a long list of excuses as to why the writing “couldn’t” get done, most of which involved a lack of time or brain capacity to do it. But now? There were no more excuses, and yet, there were some days that I had nothing on the page.

I learned some valuable lessons. Creative work, or really any type of work that happens outside of a traditional corporate environment feels different. The pace of my days changed from having every minute accounted for in meetings or deadlines to relatively open and unscheduled. To feel like I was still accomplishing something, it was important for me to build in some structure: writing dates with friends, accountability partners to keep me on track, and joining a professionally led read and critique group where I have pages due every other week.

I learned to have more patience with myself. There are times to work through your writing, to keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on your keyboard, and there are times to step away. I had to listen to my inner writing guide and learn which was which—to balance my need for a break, knowing I would come back with fresh eyes, with the guilt of walking away from my project.

And this new life still has stress, but it’s a different type of stress that comes from starting a new type of career, building a business around writing, and failing at things so that I can learn and grow. It has taken more time to adjust than I had thought and I still have my days of fear and doubt, just as I did when I was twenty-two, but overall as I sit at the kitchen table every morning with my laptop and my coffee, I’m incredibly grateful.

The Author, a lovely brunette, smiling

After spending twenty years in the corporate world, Danielle is transitioning into a more creative life, which alternately exhilarates and terrifies her. She spends her days working within the San Diego writing community and is honored to be the president of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association. Danielle received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and is currently working on her revisions to her memoir and blogging at her site at daniellebbaldwin.

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com and Danielle Baldwin

A Puzzling Note on Revising — By Nancy Villalobos, Guest Blogger for The Feisty Writer

a bunch of puzzle piecesJamie and Pablo are bent low over a round table in my Transitional Kindergarten class. The pieces of a complicated cardboard puzzle are spread all over the table. They’ve finished the border (because that is my Number One Rule for puzzles) and have progressed to most of the center and large chunks of the corners. Only a few spaces remain in the sky. Working quietly, the boys check their pieces for shape and color, rotating them in the air, trying to find a matching empty space inside the border.

But then the boys come upon a tricky one. They take turns pushing and pounding until the recalcitrant bit has been mashed into a spot. Their quick satisfied grins dissolve into confused and disappointed frowns as they stare at the result.

Straightening up and getting a longer view, they expel a simultaneous sigh. With the perspective of distance, they see how their triumphantly hammered-in piece does not really fit the picture. The color and the shape are close, but not quite. There’s a better place, one where that piece will fit perfectly, exactly completing the scene. With determined fingers, they pry it out and look again at the panorama on the table.

“This piece was in the box, right?”

“So it belongs somewhere in this puzzle.”

“Let’s put it over here, so we don’t lose it, and keep working.”

“Okay.” There is a pause. “Why is it so hard?”

Other children come around and offer to help. A group forms, and the children work together. The puzzle advances. With a glance at the clock (the classroom deadline enforcer), I come over and guide them to finish before the bell rings.

Jamie and Pablo are five-year-olds and not (yet) writers, but if you are a writer in the throes of revising a completed manuscript, you can feel their pain. Likewise, you can appreciate the advice and encouragement of fellow scribblers and the firm guiding hand of a writing coach.

I’ve been doing this revising for a while now. Thank goodness for my writing groups. Thank goodness for Marni Freedman, my guru

It’s still not clear to me the difference between ‘rewriting’ and ‘revising,’ but at this point, it’s all the same ball of wax for me. I take the chapters from the latest draft and consider every scene, every point of the narrative arc, each word of dialogue. And often I see where I have hammered something into the wrong place. It’s the right color, just the wrong shape. Like Jamie and Pablo, I pry it out and put it aside until my search for the perfect spot is rewarded.

But sometimes, unlike the boys, I lose pieces—whole chapters and long paragraphs. That’s when I look under the box, sift through collections of nearly discarded hard copies, rifle the dusty filing cabinets of my mind. And sometimes, I find a treasure there—a missing piece the exact shape and color of the hole in my manuscript. Then the puzzle of my writing begins to fall into place. Enough of my discouragement evaporates that I can sit down again and pound out that latest revision, because now I can see clearly where it’s going, and I think maybe I can do this, after all.

In the classroom, I always knew I could learn as much from the children as I could teach them. I just didn’t expect such a valuable lesson in revising, perspective, and perseverance to come from two five-year-olds who don’t know how to read.

 

Headshot of author

ABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

 

Puzzle Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Showing Up Is Half the Battle: Ways to Utilize Your Writing Critique Group

a cement hand supporting a tree branchIn a previous post, I explained why you should have a writing critique group, where to find people who resonate with you, and even how to get started. At the time, my critique group had been going strong for about a year, each of us submitting chapters weekly and spending Sunday mornings analyzing them page-by-page. But this year the worst happened—we all got busy.

That’s not to say we stopped writing. But for different reasons, each of us hit a rut in our communal writing groove. My first partner realized he could finish his first draft sooner if he wrote stream of conscious, without fixing the pages for us to read. My other partner started a new project, which meant going back to the outlining and brainstorming phase for quite a while. And as for me, I resisted at first. I kept submitting until I reached a chapter that required me to do some research for world-building. For several Sundays, I showed up to our chat discouraged that I hadn’t made any page-count progress. But when I shared what I had discovered, it led to a productive conversation about what could happen next in my story.

It was then I realized we were onto something. Maybe critiquing didn’t necessarily mean analyzing paragraphs of writing. Maybe our group was more than that—a writer’s support system ready for whatever hurdles stood in the way of completing our projects.

Since then, my critique group has become a check-in space—a weekly powwow where the goal is to discuss where we are, both in writing and in life. And though our conversations involve fewer grammar lessons and technical insights than last year, we have each expanded our writing strategies and techniques. And most importantly, no matter how many words we actually write, we feel like we’re making progress.

So next time you’re pressed for time and can’t meet your critique group’s submission deadline, keep in mind that you have other avenues of discussion. Here are some ideas of what to talk about when you don’t have pages to show:

  • Where your story’s headed next
  • A scene or chapter’s purpose
  • Who your characters are, delving into their wants and fears, and how they play into the larger framework of your story
  • World-building ideas, your latest research, or potential interview subjects to aid in research
  • Brainstorming how to get out of a plot hole
  • Your writing goals and how to hit your next deadline
  • Strategies for finding more time in the week to write
  • A vent session about how busy you are and why you haven’t typed a single word in the past week

As you can see, potential topics are plentiful!

While it may sound silly or even seem like a waste of time to use your critique group in this way, it ensures your writing routine stays consistent. And with consistency comes growth—improving not just what’s already on the page, but also how it gets there.  

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Enlivenment Along the Way

White Jasmine Blossoms in San Diego
White Jasmine Blossoms in My Yard

When the jasmine plant comes into bloom, first two or three tiny petals open, whispering the hint of what is to come.  Soon another and another burst forth.  Others die off, but the tempo increases until enough have bloomed that a symphony of scent reaches its climax.

Sometimes, whole climbing arms die off, leaving the plant looking a bit withered and worn, but a little water and warmth revitalize it.

Before long, the tempo increases and the plant comes back again into full bloom, delighting me with its sweet, faintly musky, sensuous and intoxicating scent.

It is a delicate scent, however, that dissipates quickly in the night breeze. Hopefully the trace left lingering invites me to seek more—to stop and sit awhile in the bounty, like a child with a pole at a great fishing hole, enjoying one of life’s prolific, if fleeting, offerings.

Enlivenment is like the night blooming jasmine.

When I became an empty nester, it was as if one entire arm of my inner jasmine bush withered and died. Being a mom lit me up. Sure, cooking and cleaning, dealing with tantrums and making sure they did their homework exhausted me, but I relished it. Every day offered a whiff of something precious—a moment to notice, a memory to cherish. When the kids were little we’d dive into spontaneous crafts together, make homemade pasta noodles, and grow vegetable soup. We’d read books, play games and laugh—a lot—well, almost as much as we cried, anyway, but even that was enlivening.  

When the kids grew older we went on adventures: hiking and backpacking, rock hounding, swimming with dolphins . . .

For me, motherhood was naturally enlivening. Sure, there was a subtle underlying goal to help the kids grow confident enough to fly on their own from the nest, but it was never a goal I focused on. Never a goal I worried about. I didn’t set out with the intention to reach that goal as efficiently and quickly as possible. No. I caught the sweet scent of life in each moment on the breeze and happily lingered, like the child with a fishing pole, abuzz with contentment.

Of course, the kids did grow up and fly from the nest I built, and I—withered  jasmine vine that I’d become—had to regroup. I had to find new enlivenment.

I set out with gusto.  But without the kids’ blossoms lingering on the breeze enticing me to stop and play, to be content, I was left with only my adult conditioning, which seemed to alternate between running desperately toward society driven goals (make and spend lots of money) and collapsing into distraction (wine and movies.)  

I thought I was doing right for myself, actively going after my new enlivenment—a loftier title, a sexier product, a bucket load of more money, the respect of my peers. I thought when I caught that golden ring, I’d be enlivened again.  Someday.

Meanwhile more arms of my jasmine bush wilted and died.

It took a while to remember how to care for myself, how to offer my dry roots water and how to wrap myself up in my own warmth and inner encouragement.

Then the company I worked for went bankrupt and I lost my job.  All the goals I’d been reaching for disappeared.

But in their absence, I remembered: enlivenment is not something you go after—something you can grab on to. It’s more delicate than that. It’s the faint scent on a light breeze that tickles something inside and makes you smile. It’s a field of yellow flowers, a rainbow, a moment with a friend, an afternoon in bed with your beloved. Enlivenment grows by paying attention to this moment. This one.

I got out a pen and paper and started writing personal essays again, capturing moments. I took myself out of the “to do” list arena—out of the “make a deadline” or “meet a goal” mindset—and back into something that encouraged me to slow down and pay attention—to mull things gently over in my mind. To let things be.

One day a little blossom burst forth tentatively telling me I was on the right path, so I joined a writing group. It made me happy to be compelled to write regularly for no reason at all. When the juices got flowing, I found it easy to start a cooking and storytelling blog. Another blossom opened.  My world unfolded with potential writing fodder—so long as I paid attention to the nuances of each moment.  How would I capture that mood? How would I describe that setting or that moment with the hummingbird?

By and by, my jasmine bush came into full bloom again.

Enlivenment, I saw, is not something to go after with gusto, but rather something present along the way—a mindful essence, a sweetness that emanates from within. It comes forth naturally when I stop and listen, when I play—and, for me, when I write.

Maybe writing holds this potential for you too.

If you find yourself withering on the vine, try this: get out a pen and paper and write. Write what is before you right now. Write about the thoughts and feelings swirling. Write about what it feels like to be withering. Then get quiet and write about what you love, what you notice lights you up, what brings you to your knees in a simple moment of awe. Write about what enlivens you.

Photo Credit: Marijke McCandless