Go Deep or Go Home


One writes out of only one thing – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. ~ James Baldwin

Because I read a lot of memoirs, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. In the hands of a skillful writer like Baldwin, the personal experience the author conveys has to be squeezed dry for every ounce of meaning, otherwise it’s nothing but litany of events, good or bad. The memoirist or personal essayist simply must mine those experiences for the way they’ve impacted his life and his being, otherwise they are meaningless to the reader.

Does it matter if your father favored you over all your siblings, bought you everything you wanted while the others went without, praised your every accomplishment while criticizing them mercilessly? It only matters if that experience changed you or molded you into the person you are today. And how about your siblings? To what extent did your father’s favoritism change them or your relationship to them?

Describing all the ways your father treated you better than the rest of the children in the family doesn’t matter if you can’t give the reader a reason to care. And they will only care if they can relate your experience – and what you’ve learned from it – to their own life. To do that, you have  reflect  honestly and thoughtfully on these experiences. You have to go deep into your emotional memory, not just your incidental memory.

Memoir writing has gotten something of  a bad rap recently. Most likely that’s because memoirs often focus on negative circumstances in the writers life. Abuse, addiction, lost love, physical or mental impairments  – these undoubtedly have a profound effect on a human life, and thus become the subject of many books. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that “The current memoir craze has fostered the belief that confession is therapeutic, that therapy is redemptive and that redemption equals art, and it has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.”

I’m a fan of memoir, and I believe in it’s power, but I agree with Kakutani on this point: It’s worthless to expose your life experiences on the page without first examining them in your heart to determine how they might be meaningful to others. Of course that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Examining all those experiences in the light of day, doing the soul searching it takes to make sense of them?

But nobody said this writing thing would be easy.

Go deep.

Or go home.

Free Writing

Leave a comment

Most of the time we take this writing gig for granted.

We can pick up a pencil, sit down at our computers, and write whatever our little hearts desire.

Maybe it’s poetry that inspires thoughtful reflection. Or fiction that takes readers deep into a story and away from their own worries and cares for a while. Perhaps it’s prose that incites action or changes thinking.

Words are powerful tools, and yet we give them away so freely, especially now when we can toss words onto the internet and send them speeding around the world in a manner of seconds.

Of course it hasn’t always been that way, not even here in America where we celebrate free speech and a free press, both hard won by the men who framed our most famous piece of writing, The Declaration of Independence.  Imagine the hours of thought and feather pen scratching that went into that document before it was presented to the world.

Now, 236 years later, we enjoy the fruit of their labor – the ability to write and read freely, without fear of  legal recrimination. What a mighty opportunity that is, to share the written word with others.

Celebrate your freedom to write this Wednesday.

Use  your words thoughtfully, carefully, and then proudly set them free.


Write On Wednesday:


The personal essayist takes a topic – virtually any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all of the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write. Dinty Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I’m a huge fan of the personal essay.

Love to read them. Love to write them.

Like a good short story, they examine ideas and experiences in a unique way, condensing them into one scrumptious bite like a finely detailed miniature portrait.

Though I’m no artist, it seems to me that the painter and the  personal essayist have much in common. As Moore says, they take an topic (or an object) and “hold it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective…in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant.”

My favorite personal essays – those that take slices of ordinary life and experience and reflect them back through the writers particular lens – offer that fresh perspective on universal situations which make them significant. Anna Quindlan, Joyce Maynard, Anne Lamott…some of writer’s I’ve counted on over the years to do that for me.

And of course, Nora Ephron (who died last night) with her wry wit and slightly edgy humor, could make me laugh out loud about things as mundane as reading glasses and double chins.

But in today’s information soaked world, does it matter what one solitary essayist has to say about life in general?

I think it does.

A well crafted personal essay opens a window into the mind of another human being, encouraging a deeper personal connection than a 140-character Tweet or three sentence Facebook status. Those are the kinds of connections that make us more empathetic people and draw us closer together in our human experience.

That always matters.

A Penny for Your Thoughts


One of my very worst writing habits is failure to think.

An idea pops into my head and I sit down at the keyboard and start writing, letting the words take me where they will.

Sometimes I sit at the blank screen and start typing something, anything, again letting the words take me down one path after another until I stumble upon a makeshift destination.

While I believe there are times this kind of writing is valuable, I also believe I rely on it too much, that I write too casually without taking the time to think through my ideas or turn them carefully around in my mind as I would an interesting rock or seashell found on the beach.

I believe real writers must think as much as they write – maybe more. Louise Penny, one of my favorite mystery writers, keeps a lovely blog where she talks about the intersection of daily life and writing. The other day, she wrote these words:

Wrote more than 2,000 words today, but not happy. I think it’s close, but slightly off. Perhaps just too much detail….need to streamline it. But I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think, and came to the conclusion that it needs tightening, sharpening, and I need to really pin down what I want this section to say and do. The purpose.

“I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think…” Good writing needs that mulling over time, both before and after the words appear on the page. Time to consider what’s about to be said or to reconsider what has been set down in black and white.

Brenda Ueland also touches on this idea, a concept she calls “moodling” and defines as “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” This is how we open the door for our imagination, allow ideas to wander in and make themselves comfortable.

The pace of modern life doesn’t always allow for the kind of deep thoughtfulness I’ve decided is so important to a writer. Blogging and Facebooking and Twittering encourage us to throw ideas out there willy-nilly, to say whatever pops into our head at a given moment. After all, there is always the opportunity to post something else tomorrow, or even in 15 minutes if you so choose. Our attention is fragmented by cell phones and texts and e-mails, like noisy toddlers clamoring to be noticed.

It’s hard to silence that noise and focus on a single strand of thoughts pertaining to your work in progress.

But I believe it’s imperative to do so.

And if you can, those thoughts will be worth much more than a penny.

How about you? Do you think as much as you write? How do you invite deep thoughtfulness into your writing life?

The 5 W’s of Writing


My  one and only journalism class stressed the importance of those vital 5 W’s, the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of every good story.

I downloaded Jeff Goins new ebook, You Are A Writer, and reading it made me consider those same “w’s” in terms my identity as a writerly type person. Goins exhorts us to stop beating around the bush of our identity as writers. Part of being able to declare ourselves as a “writer, hear me roar!” involves developing a persona, or a concept of writerly self.

Seems like the answers to the 5 w’s could be an important part of that process.

Ponder these, my writer friends. And if you are so inclined, share your thoughts in the comments, or on your blog.

WHO: How do you identify yourself as a writer? Is it something you do for self-fulfillment, do you have a message to impart, do you write to make a living and is that different from other writing you do?

WHAT: What’s your line? What subjects or themes do you return to again and again? What do you want to explore and impart to others in your writing?

WHERE: Nuts and bolts, here. Do you write at home, in an office cubicle, the library or neighborhood coffee shop? or all of the above!

WHEN: More nuts and bolts. Do you write on a regular schedule? Do you find it necessary or important to sit down at the same time every day? Or does your life dictate that you write whenever and wherever you can find the time and inspiration?

WHY: The real knitty gritty question. Why write? The answer comes from the “who” you are as a writer, but also asks you to consider the importance of the written word in our world today and for the world tomorrow.



Leave a comment

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or like books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rainer Maria Rilke

 For several years now, I’ve made a practice of sitting down to write each morning. I do this shortly after I wake up -before my walk and after my coffee-while the impressions of sleep still swirl in my subconscious mind. This morning writing is not for public consumption, will not appear in essays, or on any of the blogs, or even on Facebook or Twitter. These words are just for me, and they come from a place so deep inside that I couldn’t consciously find my way there.

More times than I can count, I have learned something new about myself during this writing time. There is some connection between my spirit and the pen, some alchemy that occurs when my hand starts moving across the page which causes truths to rise up from the hidden levels of my soul and appear in front of me on the page. It connects me with the deeper questions about what is “unsolved in my heart” and allows me the patience to observe them from different angles.

I come to this writing time with great anticipation, because it’s the one time of day I can sit with my own thoughts, the time of day I allow myself to dig deeply for thoughts and ideas and feelings. The paper and pen become my tools for excavation, sweeping across my mind for hidden nuggets of gold.

There is so little time for stillness in the everyday world. We itch to fill every second with stimulation or productivity, and modern technology certainly gives us ever opportunity to do just that.

Whether it’s the actual writing itself, or just the 30 minutes of quiet, I rely on that sacred time to help me unearth my most important feelings and thoughts, and bring them with all honesty to the page.

How about you? What does writing bring to light for you? How do you excavate your deepest thoughts and feelings from the safety of their burial place?

Practice Time

Leave a comment

My best friend Lisa and I started taking piano lessons when we were about six years old.  We had the same teacher, and were quite competitive (well, at least she  was).  I recall Lisa was never able to come out and play between 6:00 and 6:30 because it was her set time to practice piano.  There was a wind up kitchen timer always sitting on top of her piano, and her mother would set the timer for 30 minutes, during which Lisa was to practice her Hanon and scales, do the workbook exercises we were set each week, and then practice her pieces.

I have to confess, my practice techniqe was much more haphazard.  I would sit down for 15 or 20 minutes in the morning before school, and usually play for a while as a way of relaxing after I came home.  I often did the workbook pages in the car on the way to my lesson.  As for Hanon and scales – well, let’s just say I didn’t get many gold stars on those pages in my lesson book.  My parents never forced me to practice, or chided me if I didn’t.  I loved playing, and since I seemed to be at the piano for a good portion of every day, they were never too careful about exactly what I was doing.

Here’s how Natalie Goldberg describes the practice of writing:

This is the practice shool of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway.  You practice whether you want to or not.  You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run.  It’ll never happen, especially if you’re out of shape and avoiding it.  But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance.  You just do it.  And in the middle of the run, you love it.  When you come to the end, you never want it to stop.

That’s how writing is, too.  Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.  Through practice you actually do get better.  You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing.  It is odd that we never question the feasibilty of a footballe team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.

I have a long standing writing practice, and I admit it’s a bit like my piano practice.  I write every day, with a cheap, ball point pen, in a brightly colored spiral notebook, three pages of anything.  Sometimes it’s stream of consciousness garbage, sometimes it’s a list of everything I’m worried about, or happy about, or thinking about.  More often than not, it starts out as one thing and becomes something else – today, what began as a simple memory about a conversation I overheard as a child turned into five pages about my neighborhood.

My favorite time for writing practice is first thing in the morning, after one cup of coffee and about 15 minutes of reading.  Often, something in my reading will ignite an idea for writing -this morning, it was a passage in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs that got me started.

I don’t hold myself to any time limit (no kitchen timers for me!), but I usually find myself spending about 20 or 30 minutes on these pages.  I write loosely, and messily, on one side of the page.  This writing is for me, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s grammatically correct.  When I’m really “on,” the pen can barely keep up with my racing thoughts – sometimes, I feel as if my brain is running away with me, like flying down a steep hill on my bike.

“This writing practice is a warm-up for anything else you might want to write,” Goldberg continues.  “It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing.”  Through the daily writing, we learn to listen to our own voice and trust it, we learn to free our thoughts and then corral them into words, to improvise like a jazz musician at the keyboard, experimenting with the tools of the trade.

So this week, I’m channeling my friend Lisa’s mother – if you don’t regularly practice writing, challenge yourself to do so.  Get yourself some brightly colored spiral notebooks (they’re on sale everywhere just now!) and a package of pens.  Find a time each day when you can sit down for a few minutes and just write.  No need to pressure yourself – you’ll know when you’ve said all that need to be said.

By the way, lest you’re wondering how our musical career’s ended up – my friend Lisa stopped lessons in 10th grade, and hasn’t played since.  Me, on the other hand – well, I’ve been playing the piano regularly for the last 42 years, working as an accompanist, a solist, and just playing for the pure love of music.

How about you? Do you have a writing practice?  What’s it like?  How has it helped you become a better writer?  If you’re thinking about starting a writing practice, how do you envision it?  What would work for you?

Writer Unboxed


A colleague and I were discussing a former employee who had been hired (briefly) for a technical writing position.

“To be honest,” my co-worker said, “she simply couldn’t write her way out of a box.”

The image stuck in my mind, and I started thinking about a frustrated writer trapped inside a big brown box, scribbling furiously up and down the sides of it attempting to write their way out.

It’s easy for writers to get boxed in by fear, lack of confidence, being undisciplined. The walls of the box seem insurmountable, and we struggle valiantly to gain some kind foothold so we can work into the light of day.

Confession time.

The walls of my own box are papered with unfinished writing projects and scraps of ideas that never come to fruition.

I’m great at starting things, not so great at seeing them through to the end.

In order to persevere, I need the impetus of an outside deadline. This gives me validation to spend the amount of time and effort needed to complete the project.

Then I write, write, write, until I’m up the walls and outside of the box.

How about you? Are you writing your way out of a box, or scrabbling up the sides? What’s papering the walls of your writer’s box?

Five Essentials for the Writer’s Toolkit


I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discourages, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.  On Writing, by Stephen King


I may not be a handyman, but I know you can’t complete any kind of job around the house without the proper tools.

The same holds true for the writer. No matter how many great, creative ideas you have, you’ll never get them onto the page and in front of your reader without the right tools for the job.

Here are the essential items in my writer’s tool chest:

  1. Love of Language: Words are the building blocks for everything the writer does. The process of selecting the right ones and placing them in the proper order can be frustrating at times, but writers must be completely enamored with wordplay and willing to dig deeply into the recesses of their vocabulary for that perfect word or turn of phrase.
  2. A Sense of How Language Works: If words are the foundation of the writers craft, then grammar is the cement that holds it all together. This is the weakest spot in my personal tool kit, a place I often need to seek assistance. There’s always a copy of this book close at hand when I’m writing.
  3. A Good Library: For research, for inspiration, for general knowledge, writers must read. Having access to books of all kinds is essential.
  4. Physical Tools: Whether it’s a computer screen, an electric typewriter, or a legal pad and felt tip pen, writers must have a method of putting their words on the page. Beyond that, they must also develop a system of organization for notes and ideas. Some rely on looseleaf notebooks, index cards taped on the walls, or some of the new computer programs like Evernote and Scrivener.
  5. Faithful Readers: The writer should have at least one or two trusted readers who will support and advise her in the early stages of her work, before the words go out to the millions of people waiting eagerly to read them!

What essentials are in your writers tool kit?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: