This essay was originally published in the January 31st edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.
In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released in cinemas. If you’ve forgotten the movie’s premise, here’s a recap. Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburg weatherman played by Bill Murray, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—home of the famous Punxsutawney Phil. The next day he finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same miserable day over and over. And, because it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues.
I enjoyed Murray’s irreverence and the director’s use of the radio to cue the time loop. But what I remember most about the movie is that while each day was a repeat of the one before, we as viewers perceived them differently based on the details.
In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir Sue Silverman writes, “you’ve all heard the cliché ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ but it’s also true—maybe more true—that one word is worth a thousand pictures if it’s the right word.” She says we need to tell it slant—as in not just rendering what happened, but flavoring what happened by choosing precise sensory details that create the right emotional tone.
Silverman’s book is full of helpful exercises, such as writing about a first (as in the first day of school, a date, a love, or house) and slanting the details to reveal how you feel, or writing a physical description of yourself that reveals the inner you.
My favorite exercise on telling it slant comes from Dinty Moore’s book The Story Cure. He suggests writers choose a house they once lived in and describe it from the perspective of a character who’s just returned from war. Once you’re done, describe the same house from the perspective of a character who’s just fallen in love. Read both pieces and pay attention to how the light, color, and sounds differ? Which items are emphasized? Which ones are ignored?
You can modify this exercise by writing or revising scenes while listening to music. Many writers find lyric-free movie soundtracks work best. If you’re not sure where to find them, try iTunes or Spotify. Just for fun, take a scene you’ve written, (perhaps about one of Silverman’s firsts) and re-write it while listening to the soundtracks for Manchester by the Sea, Star Wars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When you finish, examine the details in your drafts. How did the music influence your writing? Which soundtrack seemed like the right fit?
If you’re not sure what soundtracks might work best, consider the following suggestions:
When it comes to telling it slant, experimentation is key. Rarely do writers find a detail worth a thousand pictures on their first try. Often, our work looks like the movie Groundhog Day—drafts of the same day written again and again. Rather than thinking of these drafts as failures, see them as opportunities—each version a tuning fork you’ll ring to your scene’s perfect tone.
In my high school biology class we sliced off transparent films of onion skin with our fingernails then slipped them under wet-mount slides in order study plant cells. My onion was red. I dyed it with a single drop of methylene blue so the nuclei would be visible. As kids around me chomped gum and slipped notes to each other, I pressed my forehead to the eyepiece, certain I was about to witness a miracle. With a few adjustments to the focus, the plant’s cells appeared. Rows of nuclei stared back at me. It was like looking into the onion’s soul.
Sometime editing feels like working under a microscope. We lean into the page, hoping our intense study will reveal the story’s genetic code. Strings of words are analyzed, sentences built then tossed out. It’s easy to believe that composing beautiful sentences is the pinnacle of editorial work, but the very first thing you need to do is determine what your story is about.
Staring at the page won’t help you figure that out.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of advice regarding how to develop psychic distance, the perspective needed to make good writing great. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Print out the pages and spread them on the floor. Cut up your paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces. Find a reader. Hire an editor. I have used all of these techniques to improve my own work.
At the 2016 creative writing conference, Kristin Kovacic, co-editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, offered three questions writers can use to develop distance from their work. Here is her incredibly helpful list.
1. How many things is this piece about? At this stage you want to think about multiplicity. If you’re writing a piece about a young woman who owns a dog in a small town, your piece may be about dogs, women, and small town life. If you expand from character and place to feelings you may find that the piece is about security, shame, or vulnerability. Maybe it’s about innocence. If you drill into the category dog, you may find that it’s about mutts, or fleas, or purebreds. It could be about a fur. Think broadly and cast a wide net.
2. Are there connections between things on your list? Look for points of intersection. Perhaps you notice that the dog helps the young woman hide her vulnerability. Maybe the dog represents the love she’s always wanted. Maybe the dog is a mutt in a neighborhood full of purebreds Like the family, he never feels accepted. See how many connections you can create. Make it a game. Novel connections boost your creativity.
3. Who does the narrator represent? We all have identities we represent in some way—woman, journalist, mother, etc. Make these lists all the time. See which group needs to be represented by this piece of writing.
Once you’ve answered these questions, see which connections seem most relevant. Figure out who the narrator represents and build your structure based on the realizations you’ve established. Examine what you’ve introduced in the beginning of the piece and see if you’ve wrapped it up in the end. As Kristin said during the conference, “a good piece resolves its central tension. It doesn’t simply end.”
Once you know what your piece is about, you figure out what structure best serves it. Then you can begin the microscopic work of line editing and fact checking. Stare at the page as often as you like. You will have seen the story’s soul.
Despite Saturday’s sweltering temperatures, The Trust Guy was on the downtown mall. Pedestrians meandering between shops and restaurants changed their pace as they neared his sign which read “I’ll Trust You. Will You Trust Me?” Some arced away, shuffling their feet across the brick walkway while shaking their heads. Others took a few steps closer and stared at the blindfolded man who waited to be hugged. A few reached out their arms then stepped shyly away.
Rain or shine, David Reid comes to the downtown mall for two hours each week to offer hugs free of charge. A member of a local mindfulness organization, Reid does this to promote compassion. He’s a balding guy with gray curls and a wrinkle-free forehead who is unafraid to be completely vulnerable in front of a crowd.
For the past three weeks I’ve been asking my Writing from Your Bones students to be that vulnerable, except the crowd they’re confronting is mostly in their heads—the judge, the procrastinator, the cynic. They’ve come to the page on a regular basis despite busy schedules and minds that throw them curve balls when the work feels too honest.
In class, I promote the power of allowing yourself to write junk. I’ve advised them to write in clichés. Scratch down something and plan to throw it out. Intentionally write their worst stuff. In other words, have a little fun. The first time I said this jaws dropped. One woman scratched her temple. Another wrote down the words then let the pen hover over them like she planned to cross them out.
“Trust me,” I said, “it works.”
My class reminds me of the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mind, especially in the middle stage of a project. When I expect brilliance instead of accepting my mediocrity (a la Cheryl Strayed), my pen falters. Even though I’ve been writing for a while, there’s more crap to wade through, or what Anne Lamott calls shitty first drafts. It’s possible that all I need to do right now is turn my shitty shitty first drafts into less shitty second ones while I continue to integrate the lessons of this project and find the deeper meaning in my work. I’m also generating new material—tangents, side projects, and pieces I need to write in order to get to the ones that belong in the book. For me, new work is like the blindfolded man on the mall. It helps me stay open.
Watching The Trust Guy was like participating in a social experiment. Many people paused and read his sign. Some pressed fingers into the divot between their lip and nose or grabbed their chins, perhaps confronting both their need to trust and the difficulty of doing so in a world as confused and crazy as our own.
The writing process is fraught with just as much doubt. It’s so much easier to check my phone, plan to scrub the shower grout, or consider Portland, Oregon’s weather. Digging deep into my thoughts requires me to put on the blindfold, open my arms, and wait without judgement, welcoming anything that comes to me as if it’s what I’ve been waiting for.
What if it is?
As the sun boiled up a sweaty sheen on my upper lip, I decided to be the arms The Trust Guy was waiting for. I walked up to Dave and said, “I’m going to trust you,” then I hugged him. I thanked him for helping me develop greater self-awareness and explore the challenging parts of myself. As a thank you, he hugged me a little tighter. The experience was delightful.
Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips.
In 2014, I attended a book talk with Dr. Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder and the author of The Gifts of Adversity. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked him what he felt was the most important aspect of writing a book. His answer: You have to have something you really want to say because writing a book takes a lot time. It’s easy to get sidetracked.
As I’m working on the second draft of my memoir I’m internalizing this wisdom. I consider revision to be the Act Two of the writing process—you know, the part with all of the obstacles. There’s the flagging motivation, the boy am I sick of this feeling that sometimes tickles the back of my throat, the pressures on my time. When writing the first draft, everything felt like new territory. My only goal was to write towards an ending. Now I’m embroiled in research, staring at the page more often that I’d like to admit, and digging deeper both into the text and inside myself.
It’s hard work.
But this isn’t my first book-length project. Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips. Intentions, particularly those unrelated to accolades or commercial success, give your work the meaning necessary to sustain you. When I encourage someone to set an intention, I always use the invitations I’ve learned in my years of yoga practice: make it personal and for the greater good. When starting my memoir, my intention was for the work to heal some of places inside of me that hurt the most. During my years of therapy training, and my personal healing journey, I’ve found that there’s only one way to heal those places—you have to walk through the pain, not around it.
Memoirs worth their salt traverse difficult terrain. They dig into the ugly mess of human relationships and our inner worlds. They confront the places that scare the writer most and delve into topics that are difficult to discuss—sexuality, vulnerability, our difficulties with anger or forgiveness. If I didn’t have my intention, and I didn’t know the importance of walking through the pain, I would have quit a long time ago. But I want to heal those painful broken places, so I tolerate the challenges of Act Two.
This is a one-day-at-a-time approach, because Act Two takes a while. When I heard Nick Flynn, author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, talk about the challenges of carrying a book in your head at a reading this past March, I nodded in agreement. He said that carrying a book in your head is a weighty proposition. You get irritable because you’re constantly trying to keep those pages in the correct order. You’re fighting against the wind that’s trying to knock them over. Anyone working in Act Two knows that those winds are always blowing. In other words, my crankiness over the process is completely normal.
That’s why you need to give yourself permission slips. This is an idea I borrowed from Brene Brown, the psychological researcher and author of books on leading an authentic life, including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. I’ve taken several of her courses. At the beginning of each course, she asks you to consider what you need to give yourself permission to do in order to keep going. Often these permission slips involve making time for your work, valuing your efforts, and setting appropriate boundaries with others. But sometimes it means giving yourself permission to move at a slower pace, take breaks, or practice more self care. Her courses challenge core beliefs and assumptions about vulnerability and shame—no small task. She revisits these permission slips right before her most intense lessons.
When I started my memoir, I needed to give myself permission to make time to write, to practice self-care, and to develop some affirmations that would keep me going. I needed to find a community of people working on book-length projects because there’s power in numbers, and an excellent leader who would help me traverse that difficult terrain.
I’ve got all that down pat.
The permission I need right now is to take it slow, to allow my work the time needed to marinate so I can get it right rather than get it done. The writing (and healing) process takes time. If I want to live up to my intention, I need to allow all of the parts of myself time to speak—the wounded kid, the rebellious teenager, the wise adult. They all have important things to say that will inform my final draft. In order to hear them, I have to write all those pages that are necessary to the work, but perhaps don’t belong in the book. Sometimes I need to stare at the wall. When I’m feeling weighted down by all those pages in my head, I have to give myself permission to see this time spent listening and staring as a necessary part of the process.
I’m working on second draft revisions for a memoir I’m writing. I feel like half of my life is spent exploring a specific time in my life and the other half is spent exploring how time works, as in how things should be sequenced together. There are a lot of issues I could discuss related to time: the use of the near flashback, vertical versus horizontal time, structures that create suspense. In the coming weeks, I plan to talk about all of these things. But, for today, I’ll talk about the most basic tool for managing time: the outline.
I’ll be the first to admit I hate outlines. The word conjures images of an eleventh grade research report I had to complete in the years before Google. A complete outline filled with roman numerated topics, followed by supporting lettered arguments was required before we could begin even a single sentence. I was writing about abolitionist John Brown, a man who believed armed insurrection was the key to ending slavery, and reasoned he wouldn’t do this part of the assignment. I rebelled and procrastinated. I barely got the project done.
Every time I think of outlining, I conjure those roman numerals like a too-tight wool sweater. I feel cramped and sweaty. But I know they are essential.
Plenty of highly productive writers swear by them. Author Katie Rose Guest Pryal won’t even start writing until she’s outlined her entire novel—every chapter and scene. Brett Anthony Johnston is just a meticulous, only he outlines everything in reverse.
But, outlining before you write isn’t for everyone.
I know several authors who carefully outlined everything before they wrote their first sentence only to feel like their book was missing some essential piece at the end of the first draft. It’s not that outlining as an activity was wrong, but the time for outlining was off. They didn’t give themselves room for exploration.
In his book Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach suggests that writers outline their entire books after they finish their first drafts. He believes that the self-discovery that happens during free writing is essential to finding meaning in work that may seem all summed up. You have to crack open sections that haven’t been explored. And then there’s that chapter (or two) you didn’t add to the outline because it felt too uncomfortable to write about. The entire story may hinge on what comes out of those writing sessions.
But don’t just consider the organizational process when it comes to outlining. Think about the pleasure your writing brings you. I derive a lot of pleasure from the surprises that arise in stream of consciousness writing. In fact, some of my best writing comes from those messy experimental places. Outlining early in a project would hamper my creativity. When starting a new project, I do some free writing and when something feels like an actual piece I outline it, often starting in reverse because as Brett Anthony Johnston said at the 2015 Virginia Quarterly Review Conference, “If you work backwards, you will ensure that the plot is logical and that everything must’ve happened.”