Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Every essay and story must contain a why. The why is the story’s point and the reason we should care about the work. It’s often phrased as why this, or why now, or why you. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly articulate the why of your writing in the most engaging way. But have you ever thought about the why of your writing life?

Every New Year’s Day, I write about my year and examine the whys of my creative and personal life. It’s a practice I started at age eleven. For thirty-four years, I’ve never missed an entry. On this New Year’s Day, I looked at my past ten submissions and examined what I’d learned and how my writing life has evolved.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” This is largely because as writers we care about the outcome. In my teens and early twenties, I cared deeply about spinning a good yarn. Yet most of my pieces were thinly veiled short stories I used to understand my experiences. In my thirties, I wrote to hear myself think.

During the following decade, everything changed. Between 2010 – 2020, I earned a master’s degree in counseling, contracted Lyme disease, experienced the kind of existential crisis that only a prolonged, life-threatening illness can expose, and determined to redefine my career and myself.

As a part of that redefinition, I started a business, wrote two books, taught writing classes, and helped numerous writers with the stories they cherish most. For a while, my why was about helping others heal through the power of their stories. When I got sick, I used the power of story to heal myself. In wellness, I’ve combined these goals into a creative calling I’ve labeled Revising U.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing memoir, personal essays, fiction, or poetry. All writing is an attempt to understand the self, be it our shadow or our ability to transcend difficult circumstances. In creative nonfiction, we excavate real life in search of truth. In fiction, we push past the bounds of reality as a way to exemplify truth. In poetry, we use space, brevity, and precision to laser in on something essential. The question is not whether the writing affects you, but what effect you want the writing to have on you and the reader.   

My why is simple. I write to transform myself. I help other writers write, revise, and transform their stories into powerful works of art because art has the capacity to heal us. In that centered, whole place, we can create a better world.

Consider your why for a minute.

Why do you write
            even when it’s difficult?
            even when you’ve got nothing to say?
            even when you dare not express that forbidden idea or thought?

If you’re hearing crickets, use the following five questions to find your why.

  1. What do you write about? Are there specific themes that regularly emerge in your work?
  2. When do you write? Do your words flow freely from the depths of depression or during moments of joy? Is writing a way to understand your darkness or record the moments you don’t want to forget?
  3. Who do you share your writing with? Family? Friends? Literary Magazines? People on the Internet? If your answer is no one, meditate on this: If you could share your work with one person or group who would that be? Under what conditions would sharing your writing make you smile?
  4. How do you write? Do you love the feel of pen and paper or the clickety-clack of fingers on keys? Are you someone who has to speak your words?
  5. Where do you find inspiration? Do you go inwards or travel to a destination?

Once you’ve explored these questions, consider what they say about the role of creativity in your life. How does it help you make meaning from your experiences? In what ways does creativity make you a better person? Develop a clear and compelling why for 2020. Then ask yourself how you can add more of this why to your writing life. If your why doesn’t feel satisfactory, think about what you can do to build a better one.

Looking for assistance in this area? Send me an email.  

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

My grandfather was a huge fan of saying “actions speak louder than words.” He believed keen observation would prevent me from being taken advantage of. While this lesson has served me well in my personal life, it’s also wise dialogue writing advice.

Great dialogue contains two messages. The first is shared through the direct dialogue exchanged between the two characters. The second is the unspoken or hidden message revealed through characters’ body language and facial expressions. We call that unspoken message subtext. 

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, calls subtext a “form of dialogue that contributes to the dance of power.” When subtext contradicts the message in your direct dialogue it amplifies the dramatic tension between characters and heightens the scene’s stakes. To understand what this looks like, let’s check out a few examples.

There are several ways to include subtext in your writing. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is about a couple contemplating an abortion. In this section, lines of direct dialogue coupled with the girl’s silence reveal each characters’ true feelings about the choice in front of them.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.


“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”


The girl did not say anything.


“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”


“Then what will we do afterward?”


“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

Sometimes writers reveal subtext through gestures and observations as Pam Houston does in this scene from “Highwater,” an autobiographical short story from her collection Cowboys are My Weakness.

“So.” His voice made me jump. “What do you think our potential is in the long-long run?” It sounded like stocks.

“In the long-long run,” I said, “I think our potential is good.” His free hand drummed on the dashboard.

“Do you think I can satisfy you, sexually and otherwise, for a long time?”

I said, “I think you can satisfy me for a long time.” The veins around his temples looked like they would burst.

Without ever saying so, we know this man was hoping for another answer.

Sometimes subtext occurs between the story’s characters and the reader. Check out this phenomenal scene between the killer Chigurh and the owner of a convenience store from No Country for Old Men. In this scene, Chigurh is irritated by the proprietor’s “nosy” questions about what he’s been up to.  

CHIGURH
…What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

 PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered. Call it.

PROPRIETOR
Call it?

 CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

 CHIGURH
Just call it.

 PROPRIETOR
Well — we need to know what it is we’re callin’ for here.

CHIGURH
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

When watching this scene, it’s clear the proprietor is afraid of his mysterious customer, but he has no idea who Chigurh really is or the stakes he’s playing for. But the reader does.

So, what can you do to increase the subtext in your dialogue?

  • When reading, identify passages where writers have created effective subtext. Pay attention to the hidden messages and how they’re communicated to you and the other characters.
  • In your own stories, analyze passages of dialogue that feel flat. Determine the purpose of the exchange. Identify what you want to say and what you hope to convey. Sometimes it helps to do this with a writing partner or workshop group. Make sure that at least part of what you wish to convey is unspoken.
  • Look for contradictory gestures, body language, vocal tics, and observations you can use to reveal the true meaning of the conversation.

Like all skills, subtext is one that requires practice. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll write engaging scenes readers will love. 

 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.

I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?

 

Signed,

Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream

  

Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream, 

Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.

The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hellhappened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?

Sincerely,

There But Not There Too

 …..

 

Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

On New Year’s Resolutions

On New Year’s Resolutions

A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.

On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.

Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.

As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.

So, what is in my control?

The work and only the work.

I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)

But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:

  • A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
  • A schedule for completing these tasks
  • A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
  • One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
  • A self-care plan
  • A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
  • A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
  • A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
  • A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.

At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.

What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?

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