Creativity Corner: What I’m learning about writing

I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, but I’ve rarely written for myself. I’m writing something for myself now, though, and I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m learning about writing.

I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for something I might write. I’ve actually written bits of it, but it never went anywhere because I lacked a few things:

  1. a deadline—I was just kicking these ideas around figuring that one day they’d gel. But “one day” is not a deadline, so I spent far more time not writing this material than I did writing it.
  2. belief—in myself, in the project. I fell into the Willits—”Will it mean anything to anyone, will anyone care?” The one Willit I did not entertain was “Will it sell?” because I knew I was only writing a first draft (when I was writing at all, that is) and first drafts are just for getting the material out of your head and into your computer.
  3. support—yes, I read a couple of pieces to a few people; they liked it. But I needed someone or a group of someones who could keep me accountable and nudge me forward.

I remembered the old saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And I realized that despite all my decades of writing for other people, I had no idea what I was doing in this new format. Well, I had some ideas. But not enough to shore up my belief in myself—I just needed someone more experienced to tell me I was on the right track. And support—yeah, that one made me laugh because I tell my writers all the time that sharing their work with other writers is the only way to get better, whether it’s with a writers’ group or a coach.

A coach. I needed a writing coach. And as if by magic an email floated into my in-box: my friend Nadia, a very fine writer, inviting people to join her private Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction class.

I committed to bringing new material to each class, even though I knew I’d probably only get a chance to share it every other week. I had a deadline.

Sharing did indeed help shore up my belief—in myself, in the material I was working on. The women in my class seemed eager to hear what I’d brought each week. We did a group reading in front of a small audience—the strangers liked my work, too. I began to believe that I do have a story to tell.

And support—I did learn one or two technical things about writing a memoir, and my classmates always offered sensitive, insightful comments about the pieces I brought in. But I think the most supportive thing for me was just to sit every week in a roomful of writers (yes, this class happened in the real world. Can you imagine it?) and have them accept me as one of their own.

That’s why I called the program I offered this summer “Permission to Write”—because I realized that everyone needs it. Even me.

I’ll post every week about the things I’m learning and doing as I write the book. Subscribe to this blog to be sure to catch every post.

The Power of a Story

Just finished reading two memoirs – Piper Kerman’s account of a year in the grip of the federal prison system, Orange is the New Black, and Tori Murden McClure’s story of her two stints in solitary, as she attempted to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Contrary to what you might expect, the rower survived more dangerous encounters than the inmate, but both women endured more deprivation than most of us will ever be capable of. (Today, for example, I abandoned my office and hightailed it to the air-conditioned public library just because the temperature climbed above 90 degrees.)

Ultimately I found the “woman-against-the-elements” narrative more compelling than the “woman-loses-all-power-but-still-survives” story – but the key to both books is that the writer grew as a result of her experiences, and not in the perfunctory “I’m a better person now than I was then” manner that seems de rigeur for memoirists.

And that, I think, is the key to the power of a good story.  Whether it’s something that has actually happened to you or a story with a good moral that you’ve plucked from history or literature, it has to have some real, tangible impact on you – the speaker – if it’s going to have an impact on your audience.