Your Story or Your Work

If you belong to a writing group, you probably have the pleasure of others “getting” where you are coming from. This could provide supportive energy. Everyone needs folks in their lives who wish them well and understand their values and even their stories. This knowledge could also become a detriment.

What do I mean?

Let’s say you wrote a poem about swimming in Lake Morey. Your group might know that you visited that lake many times and once had an accident. With this perspective in mind, the conversation might lean more toward your history than toward the craft of your piece. For example, instead of discussing the poem’s structure, sounds, techniques, etc., the group makes such comments as:

“I remember you telling us about that.”

“Why didn’t you also include that your brother pushed you in?”

“I thought you were with friends, not relatives.”

While it is lovely that group members know you as a person, ultimately, most of your readers will not know you personally.

Each piece should stand on its own. Most importantly, the group could be most helpful if they responded to the work.

Keep writing!

Ruth Farmer
Farmer Writing and Editing
Offering coaching, editing, and writing services
Specializing in personal essays and scholarly personal narratives
rfarmer@gmavt.net
802-377-3001

Writing Tip: Reduce to Revise

Revising an essay? Try this:

Underline the most significant sentence in each paragraph, one that evokes that section’s central meaning.

Or pick the sentence that is the most striking (in terms of imagery or ideas; you decide).

In a separate document, write the chosen sentences in order, creating paragraphs as (or if) needed.

This new piece is stark, with all the frills stripped away.

Now that you have the essence of your narrative, you can re-introduce passages that are absolutely necessary. Or, maybe this version is exactly what you were getting at all along!

In a five-minute freewrite, reflect on what emerged for you as you chose the sentences or read the stripped-down version of your original piece.

This exercise can be helpful when revising fiction or poetry, as well. 

Keep writing!

Getting it Done

So on Monday, I spent the afternoon revising an essay on leadership, which is to appear in an anthology on pedagogy. The due date for the essay was … let’s just say, earlier. Much earlier.

I drafted the piece in February and spent weeks writing and rewriting, researching and rewriting, straying from the point and coming back.

I submitted the essay (late) and was asked to revise it. I left it on my desk for several days –many, many days! – thinking about how to approach this phase of revision. I re-read the essay and re-wrote it, confident that I had conveyed the points I was trying to make.

The editor asked me to revise the essay again.

When I submitted the draft on Monday, I was oh so tempted to add a plaintive note: “This is all I’ve got. If this version isn’t what you are looking for, I understand (Wah, wah, wah!). I’m sure I can get it published elsewhere” (Someone else will appreciate my writing).

I did not write the note. I discourage my students from offering such disclaimers before they read their pieces to an audience. “Let the work speak for itself,” I say.

Sometimes I follow my own advice.

Pearls and Hair

During a poetry workshop, the instructor gave the group a tip that I have always valued: Save phrases you delete in a file labeled “Pearls.” A writing workshop inevitably turns to a discussion of what to do with those precious – even brilliant – phrases that just don’t fit. Writers have fairly consistent rationales for holding onto awkward expressions:

Sentimentality (“That’s how it happened!”)
Aesthetics (“I really like the sound of that word.”)
Fear (“What would I put in its place!?”)
Emotional attachment (“I can’t imagine any other words that would work here.)

What does this have to do with hair?

I removed my dreadlocks a week or so ago. I’ve had locks for 30 years. I’ve been intending to go lock-free for at least five years. Why did I hang onto my butt-length hair when I really wanted a different look? Sentimentality, aesthetics, fear, and emotional attachment. I knew what I would do with my hair every morning. I knew how to care for it. People recognized me – and probably described me – by my locks.

pre-revision
pre-revision

Two things I knew about my dreadlocks: They were beautiful. Their length and style no longer suited me. Additionally, I believe that hair carries energy and my locks held the energy of my past. Still, I wondered: What would I look like? Would I like my new look? If I didn’t like short hair, then what? I took a deep breath and got to work. Now I have a bag filled with hair so soft I could sleep on it. I still haven’t figured out what to do with that basket of curls.

For several post-dreadlock days, my head felt buoyant as a balloon. I said

hair-in-progress
hair-in-progress

to a friend, “You don’t realize how heavy something is until you no longer have it.” She responded, “That’s true with many things in life.” She’s right, of course.

I’m making a rather obvious correlation between cutting hair and revision. As a piece progresses, I find the core of what I am thinking and how to best evoke those ideas by excising, restating, changing directions. Depositing deleted phrases into a pearl file frees me to explore, and gives me starting points for other pieces.

As I wrote an essay about leadership for an anthology on Goddard College pedagogy, I deposited into a file titled “pearls from leadership essay” quotes and viewpoints that are perceptive and thought-provoking but not pertinent. Because I am fascinated by leadership/followership dynamics, I may incorporate some of those ideas in another, more broadly conceived piece.

As I write this blog, the term “pack rat” pops into my mind. Is holding onto words and hair (and books and papers and…) a form of the hording syndrome that has haunted me all my life? Maybe. But that is a conversation for another time.

How do you handle revisions? Would the pearl technique work for you?