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After Our Hiatus: Chapter 9–From “Private I” to Public Eye

July 27, 2015

writing quotes cardWhile writing is often describe as a lonely pursuit, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the next step we’re talking about offer the opportunity to take ourselves and our writing seriously.  Realistically, we all have different goals. Some of us are eager to publish what we right, while others may still be working up the nerve to share their writing with one person or a small circle of trusted readers.

Letting someone else read what you write can be scary. I try to respect that fear when I teach composition classes, but I know that consciousness of a potential reader, a real audience, can help to focus and shape our writing.

I liked what McClanahan says on page 189: “[T]he journey from I to we . . . is more than just a grammatical journey; it’s also a journey from specific to general, from personal to universal, and from private experience to shareable idea.”

Part I: Your best first reader–you!

Even if you think you’re reader to share your work, you owe it to yourself and your eventual readers to take the time to edit, revise, and proofread.  She refers to drafts she calls “messays.”  In early stages of writing, you have to relax and let your ideas flow without your inner English teacher making you aim for clean copy, for perfection.  In her wonderful book on writing, Anne Lamott has a chapter she calls “Shitty First Drafts,” which makes the same point.

You can’t begin to polish a draft that’s only in her head as an idea. Since you control when your writing “goes public,” you can ease up on yourself in the early stages.

But don’t skip the re-visioning.

It’s important to let your writing “cool off” a little first, though.  Right after you write something, you either think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done–or the worst.  Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Then read your writing out loud.  I liked the suggestion of taping your reading. If you have someone you trust at the early stages, have that person read it back to you. Places someone else stumbles or emphasizes words differently from what you imagined might need a closer look.

Make sure everything belongs.  Sometimes you’ll have something clever that creeps in, but it doesn’t actually belong in this particular piece of writing.  If it’s good, save it for later. Computers allow you to move things around, to save different versions of your draft.  Some writers need to move things physically though. I remember seeing Eudora Welty’s drafts when I toured her home.  She had literally cut them apart and pinned them back together.  Dori Sanders uses slips of paper she moves around on the floor.

What kind of drafter are you?  What works best for your revision process?

Know your strengths, but know your weaknesses too.  You don’t have to memorize all the grammar and punctuation rules, but you’d better keep a good handbook nearby for reference. Readers become impatient with sloppiness. Editors just stop reading. (Sometimes English teachers do too!) If you lack confidence in your grammar or spelling, by all means find someone who can look over your writing for those kinds of matters. Be sure the person you ask is really willing to do this for you. Find some way to trade favors.

Part II:  Writing Groups

I’ve been engaged in all kinds of writing groups, from informal peer readers in a class to fellow fiction writers and poets who get together to critique and to challenge one another.

If you’ve been in a group, what helped most? Least?

What kind of group do you envision that would help you most?

At what point in your writing do you want feedback?

Look over the suggestions on 186-7. Which strike a chord?  The best suggestion for me was not to explain your work as you share it.  If it needs explanation, what would a reader do in your absence?

I find that I work best with a group that has general common goals, but diverse style and focus.  That’s why I have one group for my fiction and other prose and another for my poetry. Some members are more willing to play “bad cop” and others are encouragers, pointing out what works well.  I need both.

III. Writers Should Be Readers.

Certainly, you’ve heard famous authors who say they don’t read while working on a novel, but reading writers you admire–especially when you read through a writer’s eyes–can help you develop your own standards and expectations.

Take some time this week to re-read books, stories, or articles that you remember liking.  This time, try to decide just what it was about this work that left a lasting impression. What was done well?  Some things I notice:

(1. Strong sensory imagery–specific nouns, detail.

(2. Fresh figurative language. Two authors come to mind.  When I first read Barbara Kingsolver, I found her writing so pleasurable, and so I slowed down as I read Animal Dreams. What I discovered was the clever way she used metaphors and similes. They worked without screaming at me, “Hey!  I’m a clever simile.”  Likewise, John Irving’s wonderful book A Prayer for Owen Meany had some of the most artful literary devices. For example, Irving used automobile expressions to describe the high school aged daughter of the local car dealer.

(3. Indirect characterization. Whether describing real or fictional characters, use subtlety. Don’t give it all at once. This lets the reader assemble your details the way she might put together a jigsaw puzzle.

IV. When to let it go…

One of my favorite poems to teach was Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book.” You may know the background. Her well-meaning family had her poems published without her knowledge, thinking she’d be pleased, but since she hadn’t sufficiently revised, she felt just like a mother whose child left the house unkempt.

The idea of the two imaginary readers (McClanahan’s Susanna and Gritz) appealed to me. You probably have your own version. I know my bad cop and good cop. Several, in fact! If you can look at your own writing through different sets of eyes, you can have a better version when you do decide to share with real readers.

Take something you’ve written this summer and ask

(1. What is this about? What universal idea is communicated in your specific telling?

(2. Have you put the writing together in the best order?  One of my poetry group members has a knack for suggestion me to move lines around.  She’s almost always right. See what happens when you switch your beginning to the end, for example.

(3 Do you move smoothly between ideas, paragraphs, or other elements?

(4. What could be misunderstood?

(5. What needs to be added?

(6. Left out?

(7. Could anybody else have written this?  This is something I always wanted my seniors to ask themselves when they wrote personal essays for college or scholarship applications.

What questions do you think we should add?

I’m going to work on some of the stories from my week at music camp to share this week. What are you writing?


4 Comments leave one →
  1. sandyyoung75 permalink
    July 30, 2015 3:10 am

    I do wish we could use italics in our pieces! Please don’t think that I don’t know where to use them.

    To publish or not to publish? . . . and an obvious answer

    “While writing is often described as a lonely pursuit, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the next step we’re talking about offers the opportunity to take ourselves and our writing seriously. Realistically, we all have different goals. Some of us are eager to publish what we write, while others may still be working up the nerve to share their writing with one person or a small circle of trusted readers.”
    Nancy Posey

    How I wish that I had been a child who scribbled poems and short stories in spiral notebooks to be saved for loving later! But I wasn’t that kind of child, and I never wrote anything for pleasure until about 30 years ago, and I never saved anything that I wrote until after Jay died in 1992.

    I guess you’d have to say that since I’ve begun writing pieces besides the much-maligned five-paragraph essay and research papers, I’ve always wanted others to read what I write. In the early days of enjoying writing, I began writing along with my students, and I loved having them read what I wrote. When I had them write their autobiographies, I wrote mine; when they worked on and completed the Dreaded Anthology (my wonderful very long, very much detailed assignment), I wrote mine right along with them, unbeknownst to them, and printed copies for each student. I took great delight in having them read both my autobiography and anthologies, titled Potpourri I, II, and III. When they wrote their Alphabet Journals, I wrote mine and shared with them. So you see, I like for people to read my writing efforts.

    I accidentally had two articles published. The reason I say “accidentally” is that I didn’t pursue publishing, but I surely did jump at the chance to have “Keeping Jay’s Light Shining” published in We Need Not Walk Alone, the publication of Compassionate Friends and “Teacher Voices, Student Voices: an EJ Reader Responds” in the English Journal. After these pieces were published, I couldn’t wait to toot my own horn, so I must like being a published author.

    Right now I’m almost working on a book, a book about Jay. I say “almost” because I haven’t really begun work in earnest. Very soon after he died, I began to write about him, I can only hope that I have saved everything. I’ve always thought that the book would be just a compilation of the pieces that I’ve completed, but now I’m thinking that there’s too much repetition and that I’ll have to do lots of whittling before I can include them. No problem there. Just a lot of work, but that’s OK.

    Because many of the pieces that I want to include have already been “published” on Facebook on either Jay’s birthday (February 10) or the anniversary of his death (July 2), lots of the people that I’d like to read my book have already read parts of it. Maybe they won’t have good memories, and everything will sound new. I doubt that very seriously.

    I’m even wondering if anyone will want to read my book. In studying Write Your Heart Out, I found Rebecca McClanahan’s list of questions that authors can ask about their books as they’re writing. Some of these questions are helping me to decide whether or not anyone will read my book:
    • Could only I have written this? Yes, because it will be about Jay, my son, and includes my thoughts about him. Frank could write it, but his book would be from a dad’s perspective, and my book will be from a mother’s.
    • Have I been honest? This is difficult because of the temptation to write only about good memories. I’m trying to include all sorts of memories.
    • Why was it important for me to write this? Probably the most important thing for a parent of a deceased child is to preserve memories. That’s all we have left. We don’t want to forget, and, for me, if I don’t write, I might forget.
    • Why would anyone want to read this? In writing the book, I want not only to preserve Jay’s life and my memories, but I want to give encouragement to bereaved parents, encouragement that can get them through those very hard times after a child dies.

    I’ll definitely want people to read my book, and I’ll be asking other writers to read even while I’m writing because I’ll need suggestions to keep me on track and of course to catch my careless errors and errors that I’ll make just because I’ve forgotten some grammar rules.

    But how I’ll publish is another thing. Should I send my manuscript to publishers or should I self publish? Probably the latter because I really don’t have the self-confidence that it takes to think that a publisher would take my work and run with it. After I publish, probably with lots of aesthetic help from Wendy and Todd, I’ll be so bold as to approach bookstores in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and maybe other places in New Mexico . . . maybe even in Pensacola . . . to ask about book signings.

    How’s that for pie in the sky ideas about a book that doesn’t even have a finished Introduction? As the old song goes, “I can dream, can’t I?” If I ever want to publish this book about my boy, I’d best get on with writing and revising, and I have a lot of both ahead of me. Maybe someday you’ll read My Mom’s Always Hot! – a Mother’s Memories of Her Boy.

  2. Kathy permalink
    August 1, 2015 1:52 pm

    I don’t envision my writing anything for publication. I mostly like to journal for “therapy” and also write autobiographical pieces to pass on to my son and his descendents. That sounds egotistical, but I so wish my parents had written down facts, details, and stories about their ancestors and their childhoods. I would love to read those. Mom’s memories are fleeting and I think she tires of me pressing her for details. I’m going to keep working on it though.

    Sandy, I think your book about Jay will be a great read for a lot of people, and especially parents whether they have lost a child or not. My relationships with people who have experienced the death of a child always enhances my connection with Will.

    • sandyyoung75 permalink
      August 1, 2015 2:55 pm

      As you probably know from what I’ve written, I wrote my autobiography as my students wrote theirs. My book was titled “Grammy, Then and Now.” It was for Corey. Since there’s only one copy, I have it, but every once in a while, I see her reading parts of it. It was never published for anyone but my family. I just printed it and took it to Office Depot to have it bound. If you do something like that, though, be sure to make several copies and to save it where you’ll always be able to get to it. I can’t find it on my computer, so I’m afraid it’s on a floppy disc, and who can do anything with those these days?

      I admire you for journaling. I just can’t get myself disciplined enough to do that. Do you write in a journal or keep one on your computer? If you use your computer, I suggest checking out Penzu ( It’s free (or you can get the pro version for a price — not much — to be able to do more things). You can even sign up to have your journal released to someone if and when you die (not trying to be morbid!). I think Nancy has signed up. I have all sorts of things saved on my PenzuPro account, most of which isn’t private. It’s just a good place to save.

      Thanks for the encouragement on my Jay Book. We’re leaving for WA State on Wednesday, and I plan to work on it A LOT while we’re traveling. Look for an invitation to follow us on Facebook!

  3. August 2, 2015 10:09 am

    Kathy, I think writing your own life is one of the most important projects you can undertake. Sometimes we spend lots of time pursuing our ancestors’ history but fail to record the story we know best. While I am interested in publishing some of what I write, I know that I write for “therapy” too.

    I’m hitting the road this morning for a few days, but I’ve brought the keyboard to my iPad (since I hate to fly with my big old computer bag.) I’m going to catch up on some reading and posting!)

    I did get Monday morning’s post loaded and ready to go.

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