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!
If you haven’t already done so, treat yourself to this gift: Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s full of wisdom and inspiration for writers and anyone living—or wanting to live—a creative life. The book champions creative living of all kinds, and is divided into six parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.
Gilbert’s writing sparkles, soothes, and is guided by great stories. Her prose resonates deeply. But one chapter in particular, “Fear in High Heels,” hit me in the gut with its clarity and truth. I shared excerpts from this chapter with my students, and as I read to them, looks of recognition and awe illuminated their faces. I found myself wanting to share Gilbert’s words with all of the brilliant women in my life. I wanted to echo her message that contrary to the subtle and insidious teachings of our culture, women don’t have to be perfect to be loved or successful or worthy of their dreams. Just being here makes us worthy.
“Perfection is unachievable,” Gilbert says, and then quotes writer Rebecca Solnit, who adds, “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because perfection is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
But Gilbert takes this thought a step further. “The Most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” A few lines later, she explains, “[People] wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.” And then she comes in for the kill: “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
I never heard this stated so boldly, yet eloquently. Gilbert yanks the covers off perfectionism, and makes me want to kick off my shoes, dance around my living room, and then head for my study to prance all over the page. She makes a case for tinkering, for not taking yourself so seriously. She speaks of creating for the sheer joy of it.
Gilbert also says that perfectionism afflicts women more than men, pointing to “every single message society has ever sent us!” Where a man might go after a job he feels 41 percent qualified for, women tend to say things like, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”
And she doesn’t stop there.
“We women,” she urges, “must break this habit in ourselves—and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfection is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart. Which is the entire point. Or should be.”
A glad and determined heart? Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert! This is the point! How many of us work joyfully with a glad and determined heart? How many of us live this way? How many of us even believe this is possible? Gilbert suggests it’s not only possible, but inevitable, when we open up to the “Big Magic” that surrounds each and every one of us!
Do yourself a favor: read this book. Nourish yourself. Live the fullest expression of your creative life—now!
And please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences regarding perfectionism. It’s up to us to lay this demon down. It’s up to us to allow ourselves to be exactly where we are, as humans, creators, and artists ready to live radiant, expressive, and imperfect (real) lives!
P.S. I just listened to Brooke Warner’s SW.com interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, which shimmers with insight, humor, wisdom, and light. I wish I could attend “Elizabeth Gilbert Live: Writing, Truth, and Community,” in Napa on November 7th, but I’ll be at my nephew’s wedding in Virginia. If you’re looking for a creative boost, a hit of inspiration, or if you think you might enjoy engaging face-to-face with a stellar writing community, it’s not too late to get tickets. If you go, I’d love to hear about it!
For the past seven years, I’ve been teaching private writing classes. Teaching is a great joy and pleasure for me—and as creative an act as writing is. I love meeting people wherever they happen to be with their writing (and their life) and helping them move forward. While I sometimes say and do routine things while traversing this path, teaching is a journey that feels very much alive and present-moment oriented. Like my writing, I carry with me into teaching the full scope and range of my life experiences. I never know what ideas will present themselves as I listen to my students, and I am often surprised and delighted.
I’ve just begun teaching my fall classes. I love new beginnings. On the first afternoon or evening of a new session, I ask my students these questions: What do you hope to get out of this class? Why are you taking the class? What are your writing intentions? If this class were successful beyond your wildest dreams, what would that look like? I encourage them to envision and express this scenario in as much detail as possible. I want my students to reach far and wide so they’ll have a vision to stretch into. But at the same time, I try to keep them grounded in what matters most: the work, and our relationship to it, to others, and to ourselves.
I encourage my students to explore their vision and intentions. Vision and intentions are like maps—if you have an idea of the destination you’d like to visit you’re more likely to arrive there. But it’s bigger and more important than that because having a clear vision and intentions is a way to make an explicit request of the Universe. Sometimes we receive things we don’t ask for, but our chances of getting what we want improve considerably once we know what we want.
Most writing students want a safe and supportive environment that offers both structure and freedom. They want to connect deeply with themselves, with source energy, with their inspiration. They want to publish and grow their platforms while writing authentic, well-crafted chapters, blog posts, essays, and more. Other students may be writing primarily as a vehicle for personal transformation and growth. Some are answering the call to write for the first time. Others are accomplished screenwriters, technical writers, artists, and dreamers wanting to fly in another direction.
Last week as my students shared their visions and intentions, I suggested they solidify and celebrate their intentions by performing a symbolic ritual. This ritual was passed on to me by Emmanuel Faccio, M.D., a medical doctor and modern-day Shaman committed to helping people understand how the mind, body, and spirit work together to effect total health and well-being. I met him while vacationing last summer in Montauk, New York. He suggested I perform a ritual as an act of healing, which didn’t have to do with my writing, per se, but certainly applies. As I listened to my students speak, I realized how relevant and helpful this ritual would be for their writing.
Here’s how it works: Write your intention and vision down on a piece of parchment paper (symbolic of ancient contracts). Say whatever feels important. Be creative. Try adding a few “I am” statements, such as:
I’d love to hear from other writing teachers inspired to share unorthodox or surprising teaching moments, or lessons they’ve learned through teaching. Please share your stories! I’d also like to hear from anyone for whom this ritual resonates!
Let’s face it: the writing life can be difficult. We procrastinate, bargain with the universe, write hundreds of pages no one will read. We judge, discipline, chide, and berate ourselves, and others. We make unfair comparisons, inflate and deflate our work, our efforts. Our egos loom large like monsters, or cower in corners. We recoil from shadows, fight our own wisdom, attempt to flee our pain, but cannot escape ourselves, our lives—alas, our material. And this is the fun part! Add to this wondrous, yet at times daunting, creative process the business of writing and the slippery slope upon which conventional publishing resides. We attend conferences, make pitches, and reach out to agents and editors. Platform-building has become the buzzword every author feels they’re not doing well enough at. We perch ourselves upon social media towers from which we blog, tweet, chat, and update our “status.” It’s exhausting and overwhelming—and it’s also an honor, a privilege, a blessing, and a gift! You don’t get to do this work—play this game—if you’re sick or struggling with life’s basics.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know the past three years have been personally challenging. We’ve had five family deaths. I was executor of a contentious family estate. During this time I developed, and holistically healed, an anxiety disorder. I’ve radically downsized my professional efforts in order to deal with these personal challenges. John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” has crossed my mind many times.
But contrary to how things appear, life is still sweet. I’m learning how to slow down at a very deep and nourishing level. I am discovering what it takes to make peace with what life brings, even when it’s not what I wanted or expected. I’m realizing the importance of honoring life, going with its flow, and cultivating an open, patient, and loving heart.
When I was a child my family used to visit Mitzi and Sherwood, an elderly couple who lived at the beach on New York’s Fire Island. Mitzi was a painter and Sherwood was a sculptor and jewelry-maker. Their house had high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and art crammed into every nook and cranny. They were an eccentric, white-haired couple who lived and breathed art.
In Sherwood’s studio, one piece of equipment captivated me: a stone tumbler. We’d collect stones on the beach and put them into his tumbler. After days, and sometimes weeks, of being tossed about, these rough stones would emerge from the tumbler as semi-precious, polished stones ready to be made into jewelry. The transformation was amazing.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like those stones. What if life is the tumbler creating the friction needed to transform me into a human version of those polished stones? Some might think it’s a cliché to say our challenges are opportunities in disguise, but I disagree. Although my writing career hasn’t been going like gangbusters these three years, the lessons I’m learning will illuminate my writing—and my life—for years to come. Nietzsche said it best: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
It’s always a matter of keeping things in perspective. When your writing life starts to lag, or feel difficult, discouraging, or frustrating, count your blessings. Appreciate your health, as well as the freedom you have to engage in this noble work.
I’d love to hear from those of you who have soldiered on in the face of personal challenges, and what you’ve learned along the way. Please share your wisdom and your light!
Earlier this summer I made my annual trip to Claremont, CA, to teach my Write Where You Are Workshop at Camp Scripps, a four-day summer camp run by and for alumnae of Scripps College. I handed out three pages of prompts, lines gleaned from Nancy Levin’s poetry collection, Writing For My Life. A volunteer read them aloud and people circled the prompts they felt a visceral response to. Some of the most popular were:
We scribbled, nonstop, for thirty minutes. When the timer went off, one woman clutched her notebook to her chest and said, “I am going to hide this—or better yet--destroy it!”
Knowing that sometimes the most reluctant participants share the brightest gems, I turned to her and said, “If I had to bet, I’d say you’ve written something very much worth sharing. Would you like to read it?”
She turned red. “I didn’t know we were going to have to read what we wrote.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, “but in my experience, the more we don’t want to share what we’ve written, the more liberating the process can be. Bearing witness to our life experiences is a profound, sacred, and healing act.”
The woman read what she’d written and it was great. She had no idea anyone would care about her marriage, health, and finances. But her writing was closely observed, loaded with details, and her voice was magnanimous and wise. The fact that she had no clue she’d written something wonderful, along with her reluctance to share and her desire to destroy what she’d written, provided valuable lessons.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of the improper behavior, incompetence, etc. of oneself or another.” For writers, telling the truth can feel like improper behavior. Many of us were raised jumping through hoops trying to please others. As smart, sensitive children we knew what to say to satisfy those around us, even if that meant betraying ourselves. As mature women engaged in the act of truth-telling it can feel like we’re breaking rules. It goes against our “good-girl” conditioning, and this creates feelings of shame, which makes it hard to write the truth.
But people have a deep need to voice their truth, to see it, witness it, write and speak about it. Doing so affirms our existence. This is a major reason why we read: to see our lives mirrored back to us. It’s also the case that the personal is universal, especially when closely observed, without judgment. I remind students that just because they write something, it doesn’t mean they’re going to share it with the world. At least not right away. Years may stretch between the moment you write something and its publishing debut, especially if you’re writing a book. The point is, you get to choose what, how, and when to share with others. The main thing is to share first with yourself. Giving yourself permission to speak your truth in the privacy of your own room is a crucial first step toward creative self-expression and healing.
At a deeper level, resistance to sharing may reflect a lack of respect for yourself, or an inability to honor yourself. It’s often a clue that you’re judging yourself. We humans do all sorts of things we’re not proud of. But can we forgive ourselves? Can we accept and learn from our circumstances? Can we allow ourselves to be who, what, and where we are? Can we accept our darkness as well as our light? The ability to be honest about our less-than-glamorous selves, to expose our vulnerability and fear—and share it—is a virtue. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “Your strengths are your weaknesses, and your weaknesses are your strengths.”
In order to write, and then share, your innermost truths, you have to make peace with them. This is a life-affirming process, which involves laying down your shame. If you can set it aside, if you can accept your life the way it is, with humility, curiosity, and wonder, you’ll experience deep radiance, which will warm you from the inside out. You will also become a beacon for others yearning to do the same.
We are imperfect creatures, perfect in our imperfection, but most important, we are here to learn. When you turn toward what you perceive as your weaknesses you exhibit great strength. This is where your creative power lies. This is your treasure, your gift, and your truth.
I’d love to hear about your relationship with shame and how it’s impacted your writing life. Also, please share how you unlock your truth. Or challenges you’ve faced (and perhaps overcome) while doing so!
How do you protect yourself when writing about difficult times? How do you make sure you don’t relive painful experiences while writing them? How do you keep your heart open without getting sucked into negative energy or destructive old patterns? Which painful memories do you revisit, and to what extent? And how much should be included in your memoir? These questions came up for me recently while working on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness. Here are eight ways to make your way through painful memories while not losing yourself in the process:
In honor of Teacher’s Appreciation Week, which was May 4-8, here’s a list of qualities some of the best writing teachers share. They may not be the first thoughts that enter your mind when thinking about studying writing, but teachers with the personality traits listed below make excellent writing guides. Don’t settle for anything less. You deserve the best.
1. Student-focused. A great writing teacher is focused on her students and their needs. She puts aside her own issues and concerns to make herself present and fully available to her students. She may share stories from her own life, or even work, on occasion, but if your teacher spends half the time talking about herself or her work, she’s not serving you. It doesn’t matter what she has written, or how famous she may or may not be. The focus should be on you, the student, and your work. Don’t be fooled by a person’s literary track record. Just because a person can write, it doesn’t mean she can teach. Writing is one thing; teaching is another. They require different skills.
2. Generosity of Spirit. A great writing teacher is generous with her time, praise, and experience. She understands that there’s room at the top for everyone, and genuinely wants you to succeed. She creates a safe space in which you are free to express your innermost thoughts. She sees the best in her students, and knows that we all have sparks of genius within. She understands that the right fan can transform those sparks into a creative blaze. A great teacher can be such a fan (double meaning intended). She knows how hard to blow and is also your most enthusiastic champion. She is an expert tender of inner fires—hers as well as yours. She knows we are all vessels, and does everything in her power to help you move out of your own way so that what’s wanting to come through you can. She’s a midwife, standing by to help you birth your writing dreams. She wants the best for you and your writing, and will do everything in her power to support both.
3. Fearlessness. A great writing teacher feels fear, but doesn’t let it stop her from navigating treacherous terrain. She’s in for the long haul. She laces up her boots and guides students willing to climb steep mountains, or dive into deep, murky lakes. She’s an intrepid traveller, willing to traverse hinterlands. She does so by leading with her heart. She inspires in her students a love of adventure, a thirst for truth, and a hunger for knowledge. She understands that fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but moving forward in the face of it. She’s a paradigm-shifter, a frame-changer, a person who understands that fear is the opposite of faith. She believes in you and in your work. She believes in herself, and she believes in life. Not all the time, perhaps, but enough of the time. She’s a grab-life-by-the-balls kind of person, and believes in the power of walking with you to your edge. She has taken her share of leaps.
4. A Fully Loaded Toolbox. A great writing teacher has a toolbox—tricks of the trade—she’s spent decades assembling. These include specific strategies, such as prompts and exercises, she uses in her classes. It also holds the teacher’s knowledge of and sensitivity to strong, creative writing. A great writing teacher is able to make solid suggestions to students for improving their work. Her tools are not one-size-fits-all. She’s adept at customizing them, as needed. She listens closely, can tell where each student is and where they want to go, and knows how to help them get there. She probes the psyche with graceful finesse, and knows what questions to ask, as well as how and when to ask them. She senses when to push her students and when to back off.
5. A Lifelong Student. The best teachers are lifelong students. They never stop studying, learning, and growing. Life is their classroom. They learn from their students, teachers, colleagues, coaches, books, families, and everything else life offers. They walk their talk. They say “yes” to themselves and their own writing dreams, which helps them feel good about themselves, so that they can be good to you!
What qualities do you appreciate in a great writing teacher? Who was your best writing teacher and why? What made that teacher great? If you’re a teacher, what qualities do you hope to share with your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
We all need a certain amount of discipline in order to get our writing done, but sometimes we cling too tightly to rigid beliefs, habits, and expectations when what’s really needed is letting go.
I experienced a bit of letting go myself last week and it really paid off. I entered my office intending to work on the last chapter of Part Two (of three) of my memoir. But when I sat down at my computer, I had a strong desire to rewrite my chapter summaries for part three instead. I’d written them over two years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then, in ways that I knew impacted my memoir. The summaries needed a complete overhaul as a result. In the past I might have forced myself to stick to my original plan to work on the chapter. My methodical self might have said something like, Don’t jump ahead. You’ll get there. Finish Part Two first.But I felt such excitement and passion to work on the summaries instead. It was as if something was tugging at me, and I couldn’t resist its pull. I had to follow. You’ll get to the chapter, an inner voice soothed and prompted. It’ll unfold easily once you’ve got Part Three straightened out.
The new summaries unfolded effortlessly. And then I experienced another pleasant surprise: I began sorting notes and journal entries, and assigning them chapters. I had documents for seven chapters open on my desktop simultaneously. I dumped material from my notes into each one. This brought each chapter into focus. Each one’s theme, and the stories I’d use to express it, became clear. Now there will be no blank page to face when I sit down to write these chapters. Working on all seven chapters at once is not something I ever planned to do, but it helped me see both the final section and the book as a whole. It also defused my fears about writing the first two chapters of the third section, which deal with difficult material. I was able to see those chapters—and by extension, those experiences—within the context of what felt like a safer whole.
It’s important to point out here that I approached this work differently than I usually do. Over the years I’ve experimented with taking breaks during my writing day. My typical MO has been to sit down, write, and the next thing I know hours have passed. On a good writing day five hours feel like five minutes. I’ve known for years that this isn’t great for my body. I’d tried setting timers, but they’d go off and I’d hit reset and keep working. I’d do this multiple times, as many as six or seven.
But I recently heard this expression: “Sitting is the new smoking.” Scientists say sitting is that bad for us! So last week, while working on my chapter summaries—and then that final chapter of Part Two—I took lots of breaks. In the past, I moaned about household chores pulling me away from my writing. But over the past year, while grappling with anxiety, I discovered that putting things in order around my house calms me. It’s something I can control. So I experimented with interspersing chores and other activities with my writing. I washed dishes, meditated, made beds, ate lunch in the yard listening to birdsong (a luxury I enjoy living in Southern California), folded laundry, and walked around the neighborhood. Rather than distracting me from my writing, these activities helped relax me, and also gave my writing some space. Ideas flowed while I was away from my desk.
I probably wouldn’t have discovered this on my own, but I’ve been taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class—MBSR—based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Practicing mindfulness creates space in my life, and also in my writing. “Give it space,” my meditation teacher, Gloria Kamler, says, giving permission for a difficult thought or emotion to arise. I’m learning to release my grasp on thoughts and feelings. As a result, I am loosening my grip on how I work, trying to detach, observe, and pay attention to the present moment. The result is that I’m experiencing greater ease in my writing and in my life, and I’m trusting more.
Still, I sometimes have strong ideas about what I think I should do and how I should do it. This can be helpful, except when it isn’t. “Stop shoulding all over yourself,” Gloria says. This is as good a lesson for writing as it is for life.
I often tell my students and clients that our main job as writers is to stand back and allow whatever needs to come through us to do so. We are vessels—the more spacious the better. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to back away from it, to give it space. This is a liberating process. And so is the knowledge that it’s not always what we do that matters so much as how we do it.
When was the last time you gave your writing a bit of space? What happened? I’d love to hear from you.