Friday, September 28, 2018

This and that: thoughts on writing, editing, and voice

The writing struggle/challenge continues.  I think the only other thing I've ever done so consistently in my life is breathing - but even then, there are moments of apnea...

People will tell you what they love about your writing. They will say they love this, but not so much that, and in a weak moment, you will take it in and continue to craft your story with the this at the front of your writing mind, until you read aloud, to a group of writers, your piece focusing on the this, and people will ask about the that. "Where is the that? I loved the that. I miss the that," they will say.

Now you're confused about whether you should write about this or that, and you try again. When you read it back to yourself, you can't find the flow - you can't find your own voice; you've let someone take it away from you.

So you begin again to write - not necessarily about this or that, but about another thing altogether, and in time you may find a different theme or a deeper part of your story emerging as you write about this, that, and the other thing, too.  When it's finished - for the time being - you throw it into a dark closet with only a pencil, an eraser, and a flashlight, and let it live there, sleep there, talk to itself there for weeks, months, maybe years, until you come back and turn on the light. Caught off guard, it blinks and tries to shield itself from the harshness of being pulled back from the quiet. Like a troubled marriage, you hear it wail, "Haven't we already been through this?  Isn't this good enough?" Then you wash its face and give it a fresh set of clothing and invite it to join you on the porch for a cup of tea, where the late morning sun comes in, mottled through the trees. When the small talk is over and you've settled in, you ask it in your gentlest voice what, if anything, has changed in all this time, holding out hope that something might have deepened.

You listen closely, wondering which of your dear children, the incubated and reborn, the new ones whom have opened their eyes for the first time in that closet, will be allowed to remain, and grow, and which of them will be crumpled and thrown into the evening fire. Even then, their sparks will rise to ignite the next thoughts, as no piece of writing is ever lost; it just lives somewhere off the page, in the space where you find your breath.


  1. Oh lord, this made me laugh out loud! After the publication of a book I coauthored with a couple of psychotherapists - it's done, it's out, it's selling - people wanted to tell me how I should have written it. I couldn't believe it. One woman said, "Well, what if someone doesn't believe that childhood experiences shape us as adults? Your book doesn't address their point of view." (That's correct. It is not a book about why we should take that perspective.) One friend told me she thought I should leave out a little allegory I used throughout, because she didn't get it. Another friend told me that allegory pulled the whole book together for her.

    Finally, I started to say "No, thanks" when people asked if I wanted their feedback. They were kind of offended. I thought, If this were a painting, would you expect me to listen to you tell me how I ought to have done it? If it were a concerto? A building?

    But writing is something that anyone can do - isn't it? You get a computer and Word and you start writing, and there you are. And you are an expert - not just on your own work, but on everyone else's, too.

    They mistake their internal experience of your work as the stuff of valid criticism. They don't know how to distinguish between the two, and they don't know how to offer either one in appropriate, respectful ways.

    I had no idea I was going to write a rant when I started this. All I wanted to do is mirror what you wrote: You are the only one who knows what your book is and is going to be. You and your book will have the kinds of quiet conversations you describe, and it will grow and you will grow. Don't let anyone tell you what it ought to be. (Until you sell it and they want to make sure it will sell. And maybe not even then.)

  2. Dear Putsie - YES YES YES. I almost didn't post this train of thought...and now I have your excellent response, which I have printed and will read whenever someone tells me my essays should be separate chapters, and the next person says my essays should not be separate chapters, and someone else says I should never begin an essay with a story about myself or my childhood because they wanted to skip ahead and find out about NOAM, and others who said PLEASE start with a story of yourself - it's person and draws us in. TY TY TY for your validations!!! Please tell me the name of your book - if you've read my blog, you know my partner is a psychotherapist, and she loves to read others' books...Again, TY!

    1. I reached out to you originally to learn more about both, but we never get around to Noam. You're quite fascinating, you know. And I can always ask him questions, ha!

  3. Thanks Deb, Karen, and Putsie! Many have had trouble posting - Deb tells me one has to go to settings and enable third party cookies. I hope that helps.

  4. Excellent words! I almost never let others edit or modify my writing; it loses that flavor of me, as though it's a solitary space I cannot and will not share. Otherwise it's a collaboration.

    I mean to check in on your blog more regularly, but life happens. Much love, and I'll send you the song soon.

  5. Hi Barb! I was in Boston recently and got to thinking about our old writing group. Glad to hear you are still at it. Look forward to reading your book. :-)