July 10, 2012
Yet again I’ve found inspiration through WordPress; and yet again I found it at Magnificent Nose, a blog I refer to often. This time, it was from two different writers, each authoring their own posts: Angry Writing by Sara Goas and So What by Steven E.A.
Essentially, at least in my opinion, they’re both talking about a couple of key ingredients of successful writing: Being honest about sharing your feelings and making sure that there’s a point to everything you write — whether it’s a letter, an ad, an article, a website, a screenplay, a joke, an essay, a blog or even a book. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. First person or third. An interview, a report, a white paper or speech.
Steven’s blog post made me reflect back on all the writing I’ve done — as far back as high school English classes. Writing I’ve done for myself and writing I do for clients. And here’s what I realized: For the most part, when it’s been a real struggle … when I’ve thrown out more than I’ve kept, there’s been one reason for it: There was no point to the story. As Steven’s professor said to him, I hadn’t found the “so what?”. The moral of the story. And when you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. Without it, what are you writing about in the first place?
In Steven’s case — at least in the example he gave — it was the fact that he and his sister may have been doing stupid things while passing time at the mall, but it was bringing them closer together. And suddenly, an ordinary moment, in an ordinary day became interesting — and unique. Worth writing about. And worth reading.
As I write this post, I am thinking about what the ‘so what’ is: The aha moment I got from reading Steven’s story — there’s no reason to spend your life searching for something extraordinary to write about — the ordinary becomes extraordinary when there’s an idea behind it. A reason for it.
Sara’s post, on the other hand, reminded me of an experience I had about a year ago. I’m writing a book. So is an acquaintance of mine — and one day, at lunch, she talked about her editor, and how fabulous she is. Although I didn’t think I was ready for an editor yet, she encouraged me to email this woman and tell her what stage my book was at; and ask her when might be a good time for us to possibly meet. I did that and she suggested that I send her 20 pages, my chapter-by-chapter outline and the synopsis — which I did.
My book is a story about my mother — and me. Most of it takes place during a 7-odd year period when her health started to decline (physically, not cognitively) and I had to take more and more care of her.
The editor’s response was one of the most brutal critiques I’ve ever had — and not just because of what she said. It was the anger with which she had written back to me. Essentially she told me — accused me — of not being a credible storyteller because I didn’t write about the anger I must have been feeling all the time I’d had to deal with, and take care of, my mother.
I didn’t write about it because I wasn’t angry.
She (the editor) and I exchanged a few emails where I explained how I’d felt; and during this back and forth we had, a couple of very interesting insights emerged:
- She hated her mother and was projecting how she’d have felt if she had been me
- I did uncover feelings I didn’t know I had toward a cousin who — the day after my mother’s funeral — asked me to go to the hospital where her mother was and advocate for her, like I had done for my mother. It was insensitive of her to ask me — especially as, for the last 4 years, I’d spent more time in hospitals than anywhere else, including my job. I was done in — mentally, physically and emotionally. Her timing was terrible and I was upset. And, quite frankly, I’d had to figure it out and so would she.
These feelings needed to be expressed in my book even though it made me uncomfortable. I certainly don’t want bad blood between me and my family, but if this book is going to be truthful — and resonate with people — then I have to find a way to include all the emotional stuff.
I chose not to work with that particular editor — not because she was critical, but because she couldn’t separate her feelings from mine. I didn’t trust her to edit my book without making it her book. But she did have a positive effect on my writing and for that I am grateful. The point she’d made has stuck with me, and last week I had another breakthrough:
All the time my mother’s health was getting worse, making her more frail and more needy I was the one in denial — not her. She owned it and took control each and every time, making the decisions that were necessary. I, on the other hand, always asked “Are you sure?” “I don’t think you really need a walker … or help showering, etc.” I wasn’t reacting this way because it meant more work for me. I was reacting because I was not ready to acknowledge that my mother was getting older, sicker, more frail and was, in fact, clinging to life with dental floss. I was scared.
Never angry. But scared. So now I am going back to the beginning of my book. I have added a new first chapter. And I am deciding what needs to be changed, what needs to go and what can stay. A lot of work, to be sure. But it is necessary and I am thrilled to do it. This will make for a much better book. And probably a much better ‘me’ for having examined my feelings.