If you’re a writer, your goal might be to finish writing a book. Or start one. Or publish a book you’ve written. Or perhaps you’ve done that and your goal is to promote it. Maybe your goal is to sell out your print run or win a contest. Whatever your goal, you may think that reaching it will make you happy. But more often than not, as soon as we reach one goal, we create a new one. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se—many of us get a lot done this way—but when we believe that our contentment or joy is somewhere “out there” attached to a goal we have to strive, fight, or suffer in some way to achieve, we live in a perpetual state of wanting, and, in the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, we “can’t get no satisfaction.”
Michael Neill, an internationally renowned success coach and author, asks his clients to state their goal and then add the words, “as part of my wonderful life.” So, for example, if your goal is to sell out your print run, you’d say “My goal is to sell out my print run as part of my wonderful life.” This is different from the belief—which may or may not be conscious--When I sell out my print run my life will be wonderful. It may be. But it may not be, especially if you’ve been deferring your happiness or feelings of self-worth and putting conditions on your joy. I’ll be happy when—fill in the blank. This is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Contentment and satisfaction take place in the here and now.
Over the past few years, family illnesses and deaths have challenged me like never before. While I might have referred to earlier times of my life as “wonderful,” that’s not the first word that comes to mind now. Words like hard, heartbreaking, and at times gut-wrenching feel more accurate. Still, I’m discovering that even when the shit hits the fan--especially when the shit hits the fan—there’s still love, beauty, inspiration, and plenty to learn. I’ve been practicing slowing down. I agree with Michael Neill, who says that urgency is insecurity, not wisdom. I’ve also been attempting to surrender my illusions of control and practice acceptance of what is. And I’ve been trying to trust and love more and fear less. It’s a practice. Some days are better than others.
But I’m more likely to experience my life as wonderful—even with “shit” flying in my face—if I have the thought in my head that it can be and often is and keep asking myself questions like, Where’s the beauty here? How can I love more? How can I be of service? This is where shifts in perspective occur; a life can go from wanting to wonderful even when there’s no change in outer circumstances. This is fertile ground.
Our lives matter more than our work. It’s not that your writing isn’t important, but we write within the context of our lives. So honor yourself and your life as the exquisite creative process it is and soak up inspiration wherever you can find it. Look for it in places you might not expect to find it, like in the struggles of others, or in your own aching heart. Be with your challenges. Respect them. And go ahead and set goals—as part of your wonderful life!
Can you see the wonder-fullness of your life even when part of you thinks it sucks? What have life’s biggest challenges taught you? Can you move forward in the direction of your goal while perceiving your life as wonderful? If not, what needs to change right now for you to step into your wonderful life? Please share. I’d love to hear from you.
A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.
But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.
The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.
I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.
Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?
Spring is in the air and I’m a clutter-busting goddess, brilliant at cleaning out my closet and dresser drawers. When I add something new to my wardrobe, I get rid of something old. Marie Kondo would marvel at my ability to clear space, not only in the bedroom, but in the kitchen and living areas as well. Simplicity, clarity, serenity—and inspiration—I want them all!
I am much more reticent, however, when it comes to throwing away paper, especially old calendars, diaries, journals, letters, cards, memorabilia, photographs, and newspaper clippings.
I’m in charge of our family archives, which I keep in cabinets in my garage. These files are brimming with stories, mine as well as my ancestors’, going back a hundred years. I’ve got my share of yellowed papers and crumbling newspaper articles. I’ve got eighty-four love letters written between my maternal grandparents, photos of my mom crowned Mrs. Long Island 1965, at New York’s World Fair, wedding and death certificates, expired passports, daguerreotype photographs, and much, much more. My collection might smell musty and appear to others to be junk, but I wouldn’t—and can’t—part with any of it.
A critical part of my archives consists of my own calendars and journals. I’ve been keeping calendars since1973. I was thirteen that year, and intent on keeping track of my world. I started with a small, hallmark monthly pocket calendar I carried in my purse. I wrote things like, “choir rehearsal,” “dance concert,” “sleepover Jenny’s,” “Shop with Grandma Mimi,” and “break up with Eddie,” which I wrote one evening after I’d done it. I wrote in pencil so that when plans changed, I could easily erase my entry, and so that each small box that represented my day contained an accurate record of what I’d done. As I grew older, my calendars changed. They expanded into weekly calendars, and then shrank down to wall calendars, displaying dancers from Alvin Alley and Pilobolus, as well as prints by Ansel Adams, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe. They expanded again into weekly calendars with inspirational quotes, and eventually made their way onto my computer. The size or form of the calendar didn’t matter. One thing stayed the same: my calendars were mini, at-a-glance journals of my life.
I began journal writing in 1979, on the brink of adulthood. My early journals are filled with flowery language, way too many adjectives and adverbs, and the voice of an insecure though earnest young woman trying to impress. I cringe when I read those diaries today. Even so, my heart is filled with love for that girl, and profound gratitude for the gift she left me in the form of her writing. She left me my life—as it was—as I could never have remembered it. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “God is in the details,” and these old relics are holy, insomuch as they capture the details of seminal times and places in my life.
My calendars and journals have been invaluable tools to me in the writing of my memoir. They’ve helped me keep track of time; my calendars tell me when important incidents occurred and my journals provide details about what went on, who said what, and how I felt.
I’ve had this urge to scribble for as long as I can remember. My grandmother carried a bulging, rubber-banded notebook in her purse. She referred to it as her brains. “Wait,” she’d say digging into her huge pocketbook, “I need to consult my brains.” I may have written in my journal in order to prove something—getting something “in writing” meant it was official or legitimate. It meant you had proof. For years, I needed validation of all kinds. I also needed a way to figure things out. A place where I could hear myself think, where I could listen, where my thoughts mattered. I needed to meet, discover, and know myself. This is how and why journal writing took root in my life. It became an intellectual and spiritual practice—and has kept me honest as a writer.
There have been many difficult weeks when I couldn’t work on my memoir, when I’d scribble in my journal instead, only to discover months later that what I’d written in my journal belonged in my memoir, though I couldn’t see it at the time. I never understood when I was writing in my journal and judging it as crap how important those entries would become later on. I wrote because I had to. Writing was, and still is, my way of processing life, my way of understanding who I am and why I’m here.
If you’re reading this and thinking it’s a shame you haven’t been keeping your calendars and journals, fret not. It’s never too late to begin these practices, both of which support creative writing.
It’s also not too late to cultivate your own archives. Organize primary source materials. Create a filing system that works. Know what you’ve got in your collection, and know how to easily find it.
And if you have been doing this for decades, like me, or whether you’re interested in getting started, tell me about it. Do you have archives? How are they organized? How do you use primary source materials with your writing? Please share your practices and wisdom!