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.

A Writer Reads

I love to read. As a writer, reading is enjoyable and educational. Here are three books I’m in the midst of reading. I may provide an update once I’ve finished them.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield: In the first few pages, Pressfield offers valuable advice:

“The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.”

“develop empathy”

“switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.”

       I have just finished chapter 61, in which he explores the distinctly “American” story principles of Hollywood movies. Pressfield also talks about making a living. This book is a worthwhile read for anyone serious about building a career through artistic expression.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert’s perspective on creativity won’t appeal to a lot of folks. I find it refreshing. I just finished the chapter on permission, in which Gilbert explores the paradox of art as “absolutely meaningless” and “deeply meaningful.” Her basic premise (so far) is to lighten up and play. Works for me.

The Bones of Paris: I love mysteries. Laurie R. King’s lush narrative set in 1929 Paris seemed promising when I thumbed through the book. Private investigator Harris Stuyvesant is looking for a missing woman. So far the book is big on atmosphere and low on dramatic tension. Also, I really don’t care about any of the characters. Having stalled at chapter 17, the book has become an assignment: What techniques does King use to draw in the reader? When does atmospheric charm get in the way of the story? As a writer, I want to understand why I find such a well-written book so dull.

By switching between the perspectives of a writer and a reader, I can discover what works and what doesn’t, while indulging in one of my primary pleasures, reading.

What are you reading?

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?

The First of May

There is something about the first of May that makes me think I should do something significant. This particular sentiment immediately makes me feel like crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or binging on Netflix. Or spending the day reading a crime novel. Now sleep is significant, especially for someone who rarely sleeps enough hours to feel rested. Reading is a good activity, often educational and entertaining. I have on my night table Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows. It’s tempting to spend the entire morning reading it. Though I’ve tried, I can’t come up with an upside to binge watching Netflix, so I accept that activity as a blatant waste of time.

Wondering what I would do with my day set into motion thoughts about this blog post, which led to thinking about writing prompts. Why? Because as a writer I am always looking for places to land, emerge from, move away from, grab onto. How about you?

Writing prompts are not intended to produce “something significant” so much as to get you to write. Anything. Instead of actual prompts, I came up with categories. Here are four:

  • First thought: What is the first thing that you thought when you woke up?
  • First sound: What is the first thing you heard when you woke up?
  • First sight: ditto
  • An item across the room

It is difficult to really know the first thought you had when you woke up because it is difficult to know when you slipped from a dream state to being fully awake. In all likelihood you will filter out thoughts, sounds, and sights and choose what you believe constitutes “firsts.” That is perfectly acceptable.

I spent time debating with myself about which sound came first: the air vent clicking on in the bathroom or the patter of rain on the window (eventually, I chose the air vent). The first sight was the red bench next to my bed, whether it was or not. The item across the room? The window through which I saw gray trees backed by cloudy brightness. I have told you about my first thoughts, though I cannot determine which came to me when I was fully awake. I chose doing something significant today as the first thought. The fact that today is the first of May is coincidental. What has become clear is the desire to shift away from procrastination, which these meanderings represent, and get some writing done. Now I have four phrases from which a story, a poem, a scene might emerge:

  • Do something significant
  • The air vent clicking on in the bathroom
  • The red bench next to my bed
  • The window through which I see gray trees backed by cloudy brightness

I’m looking forward to seeing where these lead.