Not Sure How to Revise? Baffled by Artist Statements? Make Sure Your Writing is Asking Juicy Questions
What are the questions your work is trying to answer?
All writers and artists have subjects and themes they explore over and over in their work. For the nature sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy (whose work I love), one theme he explores is the ephemeral, so he explores dissolution and time in a variety of mediums—building ice sculptures to watch them melt at dawn, braiding sticks into a dam to watch them flow downriver. In this way, he discovers more about the parameters of his materials, and his inquiries.
For me, some of the themes I’m interested in are memory, the body, absence, and identity. (Let’s just call them what they are, ok? Slight obsessions!) I explore my obsessions in different ways, from different angles, and in different combinations in my writing.
I’m often drawn to certain topics because they let me explore these themes in a new or different way. For example, I’m always curious about phantom limbs—they’re the perfect confluence of my interests in the body, absence, and identity. So, writing a poem in the voice of someone grappling with a phantom limb lets me explore these issues deeper, in a new way—expanding my understanding, like holding an object up to the light and turning it in all directions.
What are the ideas or topics that you return to over and over in your writing?
My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea what your obsessions are, and what questions your work is trying to answer, but you might not articulated them before. Give it a try…it will help you shape and focus your work, and make you feel more like an intentional, serious writer.
Your short story or novel—what is it about? Notice I didn’t ask for a summary of the plot. What are the bigger questions you’re exploring through your storytelling?
Most of us know Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, The Lottery. What were the bigger questions she was exploring in that story? Some stuff she was exploring: how people don’t question traditions or the larger group, what conformity does to the individual, what is the role of violence in society.
What issues are you grappling with in your fiction? What are your characters dealing with? By digging deep into the larger issues you’re exploring in your work, you will naturally stretch your thinking, and in doing so, complicate and strengthen your work, and deepen its impact.
For a poet, focusing your poems on a couple of themes is a great way to build a cohesive collection—whether a full-length book or a smaller chapbook. Once you know what your themes are, then you can see how poems that might seem unrelated (a poem about a phantom limb, an elegy for my mother, a poem about the gaps between music notes) can fit well in one poetry collection, talking to each other about those subjects in different ways.
This ability to look objectively at your work is important for all writers, no matter what genre. Being able to discuss your work and its themes, and why they intrigue you, is a key element of an Artist Statement. Most applications—to attend a graduate program or writing residency, or to win a grant—will ask you to write a brief Artist’s Statement.
New writers often get the Artist Statement all wrong—they think it’s a resume, or a biography with flowery language. (No!) One thing that separates a serious writer from a beginner is their ability to talk about their work, to articulate their themes, explain their creative process, and to connect their creative inquiry to larger issues. Panelists are looking for this level of professionalism in an application.
Most of life’s questions don’t have easy answers--what does it mean to be a true friend? how does systemic racism take hold of a young girl and her doll?—but they make great stories. These questions inspired E.B. White and Toni Morrison to pull us into their creative inquiries as they wrote to better understand Charlotte and Pecola, and discovered some answers (which probably led to more questions) along the way.
Waiting to find the answer before you start to write?
You can hear how wonky that plan is. Many writers think they have to have it all figured out—the last line of the poem, the emotional nooks and crannies of every chapter—before they’ll begin. (I am not saying don’t outline your novel!) But trust me, it is during the act of writing in which you figure stuff out. So, don’t wait until you’ve forgiven your mother to write that memoir—instead, write about your mother from every angle, write about your relationship, describe memories and conversations, write about that unforgivable thing. And in the process of writing about all of that, you will discover the answers to the how and why of forgiveness.
Not sure how your questions connect to become a bigger inquiry? Ask the work itself.
I often tell my students and private clients to interview their poem, or piece of prose. Open your journal and write down these questions--What are you trying to tell me? What do you need me to do next?--and let the writing answer. When the writing is done with its answer, ask it the other question. Over and over, back and forth, digging deeper until you get to something surprising, or have a new insight to guide your revision.
With a piece I’m working on now, I’m trying to organize a number of different essays and poems into one hybrid memoir. My memoir is exploring girlhood, and violence (among other things). Some of the questions I’m asking my work are: How does this piece relate to my themes of girlhood and lack of safety? If it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t belong here. I have a piece about contagion in 18th century New England, and another about environmental poisoning--what are the connections there? What roles do science, and secrecy play in these subjects? Perhaps I’ve found a strong angle to follow by including this in the collection. And so the experimentation continues.
With a sense of play and curiosity, I take stabs at answering these questions by freewriting in my journal. As I explore the similarities and points of departure, new connections get made that guide me toward the next draft. Those connections can also become seams in one specific piece, as I build this patchwork of fragments into a cohesive essay.
Already know the answer before you’ve even begun?
Then don’t bother writing that thing! Seriously. Either your answer is too obvious (the birthing ground for clichés!), or your question isn’t big enough. That’s what Robert Frost was getting at when he said, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” If your writing’s question isn’t compelling to you, how will your search for the answer be interesting enough to keep you energized through a handful of drafts? How will it keep the reader’s attention?
Yes, your questions may change, or evolve. Life changes (becoming a parent, watching your parents age, losing a loved one) or engaging in social issues often prompt new questions, take our writing lives in new directions. That’s a wonderful thing.
Don’t be afraid to ask the juicy, messy questions. The point isn’t to have all the answers. The point is to ask questions that encourage you to dig deep, that scare you a little bit, that stir your curiosity, that lead your creative self from one clue to the next, enjoying the search all along the way.
We've almost made it through three weeks of Shelter-in-Place in Maryland - kids are home from school and we're learning how to manage the new world of physical distancing.
I prefer the term "physical distancing" over "social distancing" because it's more accurate, and if anything, we need to find more creative ways to "close the gap" and connect socially with others during these uncertain times. I've been making more "check in" calls to family members. What's a way you're increasing your social connections? What's something new you might try?
Another way to think about the term "social distancing" is giving people in your life more space.
Everyone is dealing with a lot - more stress, collective grief, lots of uncertainty. People deal with stuff in different ways. So, maybe you get an email from a co-worker that is extra snippy. What if you practiced some "social distancing" with them and just gave them some space with their anxiety, and cut them a bit of slack? What if you chose not to shoot off your own "reply all" and took a few breathes instead? It's rough out there, and everyone is doing the best they can. Where could you make some space, or cut someone some slack right now? (That person might be you!)
Wherever you are with this pandemic is OK.
Personally, I'm day to day, sometimes hour by hour! It's exhausting.
All the more reason to be patient with ourselves and others.
Limit your news consumption. Take time to rest and re-charge.
This pandemic has got a lot of us thinking about what it might look like on the other side of this - both the gloom and the good.
What good changes might come out of this? Better hand washing, for sure. Hopefully more companies supporting telework as an option. More creative ways to work together to solve problems. (One of my favorite Win-Win solutions is our local shelter, Shepherd's Table, is partnering with local restaurants to keep restaurants open and feed the homeless by having people donate and buy meals.)
Scaling back, sheltering in place, being forced to slow down - all this has begun to awaken something deep in us. We're seeing what really matters to us. Family. Friends. Being kind to others. Less social media, more nature. Offering help to strangers. Spending our work life doing something that matters.
What do you want the next ten years of your life to look like? How might you shift your life to be more in line with your values, your real passions? Some of you have been circling that inquiry for a while. Maybe now is a good time to begin exploring some new options.
I'm offering a deep 30% discount on 6-month coaching packages right now. If you started exploring and stretching your wings now, what might your view be by the end of September? Contact me for more details or just go ahead and schedule a complimentary conversation
I go to my weekly yoga class to get stronger, heal injuries, improve my balance, chill the F out, and get out of my head. I’ve been surprised that it’s also where I practice being kind to myself.
I’m pretty hard on myself, I know that much. But on my mat, I’m concentrating on good form or holding plank pose; I don’t have time for my mind to wander. I just count. I often fail at a pose that the rest of the room can do, but my good teacher reminds us to not go there, and I listen. I just notice my tight hips. I go gentle with my old back injury.
My yoga mat is where I don’t compare myself to others—despite the fact that there are some pretty pretzels in the room. This is progress, people! I compare myself to others all the time—it’s a bad habit and a source of much of my suffering—but not in yoga class.
I see them—the other writers—on Facebook and in press releases, cashing in their prize money, smiling at their huge mailing lists and Twitter crowds. I know they’re rising at 6am and writing effortlessly until they go do their perfect lives. They rough me up, these writers in my head.
What pulled me back from the doom today was remembering who I was on the mat this morning. That Me-Not-Comparing...she’s just doing her thing despite Miss Rubber Band in front of me, or the elegant older woman in the corner. Me-Not-Comparing sees them but doesn’t get hooked. I don’t know why, I don’t try to figure it out. But they land as possibilities for me, guideposts not measuring sticks.
On the yoga mat, I get a glimpse of a different part of myself. She’s not tangled up in striving and comparison—she’s got some space, a thin teal rectangle, to practice a different way to be.
What if I greeted the blank page like my yoga mat? A place to practice, paying attention only to what I’m doing at the moment, stretching and curious, doing just a short regular routine, focused and forgiving?
I’m gonna see how this goes.
What could your blank page become? An early spring plot to your Gardener Self? A new city to your Traveler Self?
Spring thaw has arrived, and the potholes are sprouting on my street. There’s a big one two houses down from mine, but I know to go around it. Enough coming and going, and avoiding the pothole becomes a habit. Navigating the creative process can work that way, too.
Writing is loaded with potholes! I don’t know any writer who loves to sit down and write. So having a plan can really help. But most potholes are internal barriers: our doubts, our fears, and the nasty way we talk to ourselves sometimes.
Here’s a plan to troubleshoot the trouble ahead on the creative path:
Potholes cause us to slow down and be aware of where we drive. Potholes in the creative process cause us to pause and pay attention, to slow down and describe something better, to chew on an idea, to assess where we’re at and what we need to proceed. Maybe we need to learn some craft, like how to write better dialogue. Or maybe we need to just be patient and wait. There is no magic pill, there is only doing the work.
Trust the process. Frustration is actually part of the creative process. This is really good news! Often, when we’re up against a wall, we give up. Instead, we need to lean in, and stay with the frustration: get curious about it, see what alternatives might be around. On the other side of frustration is a breakthrough.
What are the main barriers that are going to get in your way? These can be bad habits: “I avoid my writing desk with little emergencies that come up, or with social media.”
Or these potholes can me that internal, mean voice that you wouldn’t use on any other person or animal: “I avoid the blank page because I worry that I’m just not that creative.”
Stay with that mean voice a bit, and see what’s underneath: “I avoid the blank page because I don’t know where to start…and that is really stressful and makes me feel stupid.” Feeling stupid is a big pothole.
Now that you know where your personal potholes are, prepare for them. Create some clear ground rules that you can follow when things get tough. For example:
“I’ll write first thing in the morning, so my day doesn’t get away from me.”
“I get distracted by social media, so I’ll take it off my laptop now.”
“I use my phone as a timer, so I’ll put it on the other side of the room so I can’t get sucked in.”
“When I start to feel anxious in front of the blank page, I’ll do 3 minutes of deep breathing or Warrior Pose.”
“When I notice that I’m stressed about not knowing what to do with my revision, I’ll talk to myself like I would talk to a friend who was freaking out. I’ll say in a kind voice: Not knowing is OK. Brainstorm and explore. Have fun! That’s why you do this. You don’t have to have it all figured out. Just begin writing.”
Being proactive can ease anxiety. Having a simple plan makes it easier when you need it—and you’ve already made a promise to yourself for what to do with that pothole up ahead on the road.
It’s very hard to “just do it.” Willpower is overrated and ‘lacking it’ can easily send us down a rough spiral and become another way to beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself, and stop trying to do it all alone. Athletes reach their goals by having a coach help them work out, practice drills, and eat right. (What, you think athletes don’t want to stay in bed 10 more minutes or eat that cake?!)
So why should you go it alone? Doesn’t your book and your writing deserve the best chance at seeing the light and reaching its readers? It totally does.
If you live in the DC area, please join my Writing for Procrastinators class that starts March 14. You’ll learn some brain science, get great tips, learn some skills to stay in action, and remind yourself you’re not alone. Just start.
I also work one-on-one with writers who want to get started, or keep going, or finally finish. Invest in your work, and yourself, and stop daydreaming. The world really wants to read that thing you’ve been working on. Just start.
Slow and steady wins the race (hooray for bunnies!)
Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to start that memoir, finish that novel, or revise those poems? How’s that going? Sorry. Don’t freak out. You’re not alone! The statistics are pretty grizzly so I’ll spare you dear people the live links. But here’s the sexy good news: you can write more often in 2019. It’s easier than you think.
(Goodness at the get-go: This process also works for reviving any kind of creative practice: painting, composing, jewelry making, blogging, etc.)
How to write more in 2019?
1. Find a spot.
Find a place where you can sit quietly. Find a time when you won’t be distracted. Stephen King wrote his first novels on a board across his knees stuffed in between the wall and the washing machine. I’m sure you’ve got a nicer place than that.
2. Make some room.
For some of you this means make some room on your desk. For most of you, this means make some head room. Turn off (silence, not vibrate!) all the bells and whistles on your gadgets and gizmos. This is a crucial step. There’s a ton of research about the distracting bummer of technology and myth of multitasking. If you use your phone as a timer, put it across the room from you.
3. Clear some space.
Take 30 seconds to relax and greet the Imagination. Take a couple of deep breaths! Take another 30 seconds to remember why you like to write, or re-connect to why you dig the current project you’re working on.
4. Keep it short.
All you’ve got to do is sit down for just 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Seriously, that’s all I tell my clients to do to begin to build a lasting routine. In fact, starting off small has a much stronger success rate for the long haul. Do you have time to do 15 minutes, 3 times a week? Of course you do.
5. Keep your butt in the chair.
Set a timer for 15 minutes. It’s OK if you spent your 15 minutes brainstorming transitions, revising, or writing about how you don’t know what to write about. Notice what distracts you (10 to 1 this will be a voice in your head), and return to the page. Keep your butt in the chair. When the timer ends, you’re done!
6. Cheer yourself on.
Did you do your 15 minutes this morning? Whoo-hoo! That’s 15 minutes more than you did yesterday. Or, that’s 400 words more on your novel to revise later. I put a big bright “15!” on my calendar when I finish my writing time. When I see those “15s” marching across my week toward my larger goal, it encourages me to continue.
FAQ: Can I write longer if the juices are flowing?
Of course, you can! But only if you have the time and you’re into it. The main goal is to build a muscle for sitting at your desk in short chunks, 3 times a week—and to associate writing with juiciness not agony (see #3). You don’t get extra points for going longer. Plus, ending in the middle of a sentence or an interesting idea will inspire you to return to your desk tomorrow!
Try 15 minutes/3 times a week for one week and see how it goes. Then start with a clean slate (very important!) and do it again the next week.
Let me know how it goes!
PS—Taking a class is a great structure to keep yourself writing. I’m teaching some poetry classes this month on revision and form, and spots are starting to fill for my Women's Writing Retreat in June.
I like the change of year - the chance to assess what we've accomplished and create a new intention is a powerful way to actively build the life we want. Otherwise, it's so easy to just have the days pile up....
I have a tradition that I do the first weeks of January that's fun and insightful. I tend to focus my questions on The Writing Life, but you can focus on whatever area of life you want (family, retirement, career, etc.). If you try it yourself, I'd love to hear how it goes!
1. First, I close out the previous year - with a generous eye! - and note some achievements, like: I ran my first women's writing retreat. My poetry manuscript won a national book prize and is getting published. I started volunteering. What would your accomplishments be this year?
2. I also note some challenges with the previous year, too, like: I haven't yet found a new writing project to really sink my teeth into. I didn't engage in as much activism as I wish I had. Where have you not made as much headway as you would have liked last year?
3. Next, I turn to the new year. I often do a tarot reading, and I also like to journal for a bit. You can ask yourself: What 2-3 things do I want to focus on in the coming year? Try to make them concrete and achievable but also inspiring to you. For me, I've often talked about writing a regular blog/newsletter thingy (this email is a sort of practice run....) and see where it goes. What's something you want to finally do in coming year?
4. To call in the New Year, I also create a collage. (I love collaging because you don't have to be a good at drawing or sketching to do it. I just use images from whatever magazines I have in the house, and glue them onto a regular piece of copy paper.) Collaging is a fun way to create a visual reminder for myself. I like to gather images that reflect the energy or events that I hope to manifest in the coming year, and I put the collage above my writing desk so I can see it often. I just make a collage with images, but a lot of people like to also cut out words, too. If you were to make a collage for 2019, what images/words might you include?
5. Next, I like to "interview" the collage. I write my answers on the back of the collage, so it's handy. Here are some questions to consider:
I hope that the coming year is the year when you commit to pursue your (big and small) dreams, too. And guess what? Following your dreams is good for you! Read about it in the NY Times.
Some years are years of planting, and some years are years of harvesting...which type of year was this past year? What type will your next year be?
Mother’s Day is a complicated day for stepmoms. We sometimes feel like an imposter on such a fraught, Hallmark day—yet we often do the bulk of the heavy lifting in the household to raise our husband’s children. We are mothers in a very real sense, so when our love for our stepchildren is dismissed or downplayed, we feel ignored on Mother’s Day. Anyway, it’s a hard day.
I went on a civil war walking tour of Washington, DC this week, and I’ve been thinking about President Lincoln a lot. He is one of the few famous people I know who was raised mostly by a stepmother. Sarah Bush Johnston raised Abe since he was 10 years old. Sarah was there to tend and repair him and the family after his mother’s death, and she raised Abe for a long time. She parented him through his formative years. Lincoln talked openly talk about his stepmom, and he did so with love and appreciation. She was pivotal to who he became as an adult, and he knew it. He was a good boy.
I see my mother’s influence on me quite often—since she passed away, it’s a way to keep her with me and to recognize her impact. Many things I do, and say, come directly from my mom—even the way I walk. During the DC walking tour (conveniently wedged between Mother’s Day and Stepmother’s Day) I found myself searching for Sarah’s influence on Abe. What of herself and her role as stepmom did President Lincoln carry into the role he played in our country and in his service to the union?
I know Sarah was creative and tenacious—as a stepmom, she built a home in a widower’s house. She raised another woman’s children and gracefully balanced her own needs to feel wanted and loved with children recovering from a profound loss. As a stepmom, she took on a new family because it was the right thing to do and because she loved her husband. She struggled to manage her feelings of doubt, failure, and not belonging in her own home. Did Sarah’s inventiveness and self-management have an impact on Abe? He successful managed this country through a civil war. He is the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
I know Sarah worked to keep her marriage safe—as a stepmom, she had to deal with a handful of unique stressors as well as the backlash of raising young children who missed their mother and loved her, too—they had little emotional skills to keep tidy such a divided allegiance. She probably found herself an unconscious, or conscious, target at times, and she surfed waves of self-doubt. Did Sarah’s generosity and grace impact Abe? He had a lovely dry wit and used it to dismantle his opponents. He put aside party politics and took a stand for the fate of the entire nation.
He wasn’t perfect, but this essay isn’t about perfection—just the opposite. Stepmoms are dominated, and often undone, but their own unrealistic standards. And we’re usually judged by an even higher standard than those for bio-moms, if you can imagine. (Believe it.) We endure rude treatment, mean jokes, and tedious cluelessness on way too many of our days.
If you know a stepmom, lucky you! You can acknowledge her on Mother’s Day, or Stepmother’s Day (the Sunday following Mother’s Day), or both. Not sure what day she prefers to celebrate? Ask her.