Writing as . . . Composting?

Colorful tulips blooming in a field.

I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day. 

Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.

Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life

Initially, I sighed with irritation. 

Then I giggled, amused.

But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it. 

Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects. 

For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal. 

I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page. 

While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.

I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.

Image by 1195798 from Pixabay

Writing Books

A drawing of a soup pot with pictures of books coming out of itMy husband, Mark, and I are writing books—he’s writing one and I’m writing two. So, our home has become a book-production factory.

By factory, I mean sweat shop.

Mark’s book is called “Serious About Retiring.” It’s a guidebook for people who are close to retiring or have just retired.

I’m juggling two books. One is a whimsical picture book about marriage—”Grow Old with Me.” The other book is a quasi-memoir about my late brother who was a war correspondent in the early years of America’s Vietnam War. I’m writing it in “collaboration” with him—so this book gives the term “ghost written” a whole new meaning.

You might think that writing is all about creativity and inspiration, that beautiful words flow off the pen (or word processor), and that when you reach 200 pages, you send it to the presses and you have a book. I wish it were so. Writing a book is hard labor.

Mark and I have been working on all three books for a very, very long time—I started the book on my brother almost three decades ago! All three books have gone through scores of incarnations.

It’s all about revising…and revising…and revising.

What if you were making a pot of soup the way you write a book? Let’s say you start out making chicken soup. You put in chicken, water, an assortment of vegetables, and various spices. But then you think—no, this isn’t quite right. So you take out the chicken and you lift out some of the vegetables. Instead, you put in potatoes and other vegetables. Then you think—no, this isn’t right, so you move those vegetables out and maybe put in some beef…

Finally you taste the soup and you say—this isn’t chicken soup, this is butternut squash soup. Should I add some chicken?

Of course, when you’re making soup, you can’t really take out and swap ingredients. But when you’re word processing a book, you can take stuff out and add stuff and do this over and over. Forever.

What this means is—when I write one book, I’m really writing 100 books.

The next time you’re reading a book, you might wonder—what happened to the 99 books that dropped out along the way?

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A photo of author, Lucy Rose FischerLucy Rose Fischer is an author and artist living in Minnesota.  Her most recent book is a whimsical picture book, I’m New at Being Old, which received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Gold Award.

 

Photos courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer

Ten Tips for Grooming Drafts, Straight from the Horse’s . . . Hoof

The author poses with a horse on a cold February morning
Smitty, the horse, posing with Lisa, the author, on a chilly February morning.

Why do I do this to myself? I wonder as my alarm jolts me awake on a dark Sunday in February. Its glow seems spitefully cheery combined with its announcement of the temperature for my horseback riding lesson: -14 degrees. Ugh.

Flannel pajamas, a quilt my great-aunt sewed, and a cat’s soft bulk plead with me to stay. But I love to ride, so I roll from my cocoon and don layers.

Once at the barn, I’m glad I ventured out, not only because I’m assigned to ride a favorite horse I haven’t been on for a long time, but also because grooming him sparks insights about grooming my writing.

During the previous two years, I’ve ridden Penny, a horse who spends her winter free-time in a stall because she stirs up trouble when allowed to roam the paddock (the fenced holding area). Preparing an indoor horse for riding is easy: brush her coat, pick her hooves, cinch her saddle, buckle her bridle. No muss, no fuss.

Smitty, the gangly, dark brown gelding I’d ride that February morning, spends his winter free-time in the paddock. A laid back personality makes him easy to catch, but an outdoor life makes him difficult to groom. As soon as he crosses the barn’s threshold, a dull thud replaces the hollow tock his metal shoes usually make on concrete. A look at his feet confirms my suspicion: Ice balls have formed in his hooves’ recessed center, so his shoes float above the ground.

I slide the blanket from Smitty’s body and grab a nail puller (a flat metal bar bent at one end). He lifts a foot, and I cradle his hoof in one hand while I use the puller as a chisel with the other. It’s tough going; the tool glances off the ice instead of carving into it. Just as my back begins to ache and my wrist to throb, an ice chunk falls away. And so do the blinders I’ve been wearing when I revise my writing.

Smitty’s hooves remind me that if I allow grooming—whether horse or draft—to become a series of unaltered steps, I lose touch with its purpose. And process without purpose turns futile.

Grooming must be shaped by context, such as weather for horse, audience and intended effect for writing. Here are ten tips Smitty revealed for warming up to revision:

  1. Start slow. Grooming’s first step is the toughest. I chisel away but make little progress. Then, suddenly, a piece falls. That’s all I need to build momentum. The chunk’s absence reveals weaknesses in what remains, so I attack each spot in succession.
  2. Don’t rush. It’s obvious, but when eager to submit my writing for publication, I forget. Forcing grooming’s pace is as fruitless as it is unwise. Hoof-picks dig mud, grass, oats, and manure from recesses, but they aren’t designed to break ice. Similarly, digging into paragraphs before chiseling big ideas into shape leads to wasted effort.
  3. Rest. I don’t have to clear the whole mess on the first attempt. I merely have to chip away enough frozen muck that the hoof or draft rests on solid footing. Once Smitty can stand flat, he’s safe. Body heat will melt the rest, making it easier to pick. Time away from a draft thaws problems that seem intractable, too.
  4. Let nature share the workload. Allowing Smitty’s bodyweight to warm his hooves offers an opportunity to luxuriate in brushing. Instead of going through the motions, I take my time and stay present, which calms Smitty. I’m surprised how often a solution arises when I let a draft’s trouble spots stew as I work on something else.
  5. Switch it up. Not much gets under Smitty’s skin, but other horses (ahem, Penny) don’t like being brushed. If I start with picking her hooves instead of brushing her coat, I give our relationship a better chance of starting off on the right foot. Switching up where I start revising a draft highlights thematic strands I can braid into something special.
  6. Follow the text’s lead. I’m present enough while brushing to address what Smitty’s coat shows me it needs. A curry comb’s zig-zagged metal teeth cull debris that causes saddle sores and inhibits new hair growth. Reverse outlining is the comb’s textual equivalent. I isolate each paragraph’s main idea and decide whether it benefits the whole, detangling knotted logic.
  7. Apply pressure. A stiff-bristled brush lifts to the surface what the curry comb has loosened. It also distributes oil that nourishes Smitty’s coat, but only if I push hard. When revising, I press myself to answer, “Do I really need this?”
  8. Let it go. A soft-bristle brush provides a gentler way to “kill my darlings.” Dust flies from Smitty’s coat with each stroke. Sometimes the grit makes my eyes water, but the effect is worth the discomfort: Smitty’s hair gleams. My draft, too, shines once stripped clean.
  9. Go back to the beginning. With Smitty’s hide ready for saddling, I return to his hooves—those key points on which he stands. A few swipes with the pick is all it takes. Skipping this step would compromise Smitty’s health. Just as hoof problems left untended can escalate to life-threatening crises, proofreading errors left uncorrected can escalate to career-threatening rejections.
  10. Enjoy the ride. The most important lesson Smitty teaches and re-teaches me is to value process as much as product. In both riding and writing, I used rush preparation to get to the best part: stepping into the arena. Over time, however, I’ve seen how crucial grooming is to success. Now, I look forward to grooming’s meditative nature.

When I finish grooming Smitty, I look him in the eye and see my reflection anew. When I apply to revision what he teaches me, my writing gallops toward unexplored territory.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Whalen

 

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