It was 1985, I was in a poetry group, and I also was planning to attend a writer's workshop out of state. My husband said, "If you really wanted to write, you would write, and you don't need to spend time with other people to do it."
But I knew the poetry group members did help me write better poems and that helped me get a few poems published.
Still, some of the poetry group members who had been to (ta-dah!) the Breadloaf Writers Conference insisted that I wasn't a serious writer if I didn't get up at four or five every morning and write for one or two hours like William Stafford. Well, I had two children, I was teaching college English with papers to grade, and except for a few spurts, i just couldn't make myself do it.
Recently, I read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones (a book lots of people have known about for a long time). She began by describing the importance of one's habitual writing place and of writing every day. But she went on to tell of writing with a friend who is a writer in order to be motivated and be inspired. It can be at a coffee house or at each other's homes.
Now, by a sequence of fortunate events, I've had the privilege of spending eight days at the home of a long-time friend while we both wrote, shared our writing with each other, and made a few suggestions to each other.
First, this helped me write because I was highly motivated to make progress on the memoir I'm writing before I even got to her house.
Second, during those eight days, I added new scenes to my book and filled it out based on my friend's suggestions.
And third--guess what! Now I am getting up (not at 4 or 5 am because I'm retired and I can wait until 8 or 9) and writing for a few hours every morning. My friend and I plan to keep each other apprised of our progress.
Writing every day is optimal--very important. Writing at a library or a coffee house does, as Natalie Goldberg says, break up the monotony and keep a person writing. Writing with a friend or a writing group is a blessing. The "if you're really serious about being a writer" advice can do more harm than good.
My advice is: Keep your eyes on your goals and take advantage when good scenarios for writing present themselves.
At our Fort Valley Writers Meetup last week, we talked about voice, about how it’s a difficult concept to understand. I said the first time I really thought about it was at a writer’s conference at Indiana University in the 80s when the novelist John Calvin Batchelor, who had read a fiction manuscript I was working on at that time, told me my voice was “serious and slightly elevated.” He said there was nothing wrong with that and I shouldn’t try to be someone other than myself. That was thought-provoking, both to hear my voice described and to entertain the concept for the first time. I knew my students in English classes had individual voices—that’s how I found out when Willie or Richard or Mary Sue submitted something that was written by someone else. But I hadn’t applied the concept to my own writing before.
I’m working on a memoir now, and, for this, it seems to be even more important to recognize and be true to my own voice. I read in Writing and Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer (a very useful book!) that if we want to double check and hear what our authentic voice really sounds like, we should look for emails and posts we have written to people we feel really comfortable with, especially posts that involve humor, surprise, and discussion of what is important to us, and see how we sound there. At a family reunion last week, I was explaining this great idea to my thirty-year-old niece who writes for a living, and I discovered that, oh yes, she already was doing that—looking back in her writings to capture her own voice as she begins new creative writing projects outside of the things she writes for her job.
The process I am going through now consists of writing my story, going back and adding details and action that I’d been in too much of a hurry to include, and then reading aloud what I have written to see if it sounds like me.
Wish me luck!
“Your work is a soporific.” [sop-o-rif-ic noun. A drug or other agent that induces sleep.]
This is the response I received when, after three years of coursework and five additional years of writing—while having two children and teaching English—I finally submitted my completed dissertation to my advisor.
My argument, research, and support all seemed to be acceptable. But it put him to sleep. So I asked another member of my committee what to do.
Dr. Marovitz—Sandy—responded by sending me a few sentences from my dissertation with penciled in corrections, and it was a revelation.
My excuse for having written this wordy, redundant piece of work is that I was immersed in and writing about Henry James, whose work I loved, and Henry James’ style was complex and, perhaps, wordy. He often wrote sentences longer than a page. I had studied Cicero in high school, too, and learned grammar from Latin.
In his corrections, Dr. Marovitz essentially eliminated redundancy and achieved conciseness through sentence-combining.
We hadn’t begun teaching sentence-combining as a strategy, yet I still was embarrassed to think I had been teaching English composition for eleven years and did not realize that my own style required correcting.
I’ve been conscious of the sin of wordiness ever since that day in 1980. Lately, my son Aaron has been correcting my English when he feels I have been guilty of vague pronoun reference. This may be a result of too much conciseness or just carelessness.
Many more times in life since 1980, I have been exposed—to myself, at least—for not knowing something I could have been expected to know. The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know.
Here are a few sentences my advisor would have considered to be a soporific, along with ways of fixing them:
“I have reviewed and relived in my mind junctures or turning points that occurred during my childhood years that had a significant bearing on my way of looking at life and the world today. In doing so, I have realized that it has not always been a person or a place, but more often it has been various events I interacted with or seen in nature, behaving as sensory filters, that have most clarified and informed my concept of reality.”
The original, from the Prologue of Growing up Floridian by Michael Arthur Taylor:
“As I mentally relived childhood junctures that influenced my world view, I realized that, rather than a person or a place, interactions in nature were sensory filters that most clarified my concept of reality.”
For some purposes, an even more concise version could be used, such as, “The times in my childhood that influenced my world view and my concept of reality involved interactions in nature rather than people or places.”
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.