Revered writers push us towards a new way of thinking, an adventure or a hobby. Some of my favorites include Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, John McPhee and Terry Storm williams. These writers are emptying themselves to connect with readers and share their insights into the human experience.
I have just read an enticing novel by Maggie O’Farrell. “Hamnet“weaves a fictional story around the elusive life of Shakespeare. The book convinced me that writers like Shakespeare are compelled to release the words that well up inside them, even at the potential cost of their livelihoods, families, their reputation or their lives.
Other writers are reasonably content to keep a daily journal, compose haikus, or create a page or sonnet when it moves them.
Most writers have other occupations, whether it’s for interest or to pay the bills. My professions have included industrial engineer, professor of computer science, assistant professor of economics and, until my retirement this year, financial planner and consultant.
In my writing, I work to reconcile these technically oriented professions with my passions for nature, justice, and environmental healing. Sometimes I feel it as a craving; other times it’s a struggle.
The most powerful writing book I have read is Anne Lamotteit is “bird by bird”, now in its 25th anniversary print. Lamott believes in the power of routine to ensure production, while allowing serendipity to guide the creative process.
Lamott responded to a question posed to her friend Amy Dickinson (Ask Amy),”[An aspiring writer] are lucky to have…lots of good ideas but that doesn’t mean they would make good books. I would create a folder of plot ideas and see if they excited me a month later. If a plot isn’t leaving me alone and the characters are compelling enough to spend a year with, I might be onto something!
Lamott’s advice is for fiction writers, but non-fiction deserves the same care. Although I enjoy reading fiction, it’s well-written non-fiction that drives me to action. Facts are precious and, while not rare, they are hard to find in a world of fiction presented as fact.
For non-fiction writers, the daily or near-daily journal is key to extracting what moves us enough to write compellingly. Later, reviewing a period in your journal will help you see where your heart is.
How can you help a friend or partner who is an aspiring writer? Lamott warns, “‘Help’ isn’t helpful — hyper-excitement and support turn the project into typing speed, instead of the daily elbow grease all writers need to write a few pages each day. …express silent support for new ideas, but no more than that. Maybe [they] follow, maybe not.
Ask Amy takes Lamott’s advice by urging writers to: “Write a really s— first draft; dungeon [your] buttocks in the chair; then go through and remove the lies, adverbs and boring parts.
I encourage my granddaughter with a stripped down version of this advice. She likes to write manuals, copy them on her mother’s printer and sell them in her garden. Nice to have good neighbors.
If you are writing for yourself or your personal circle, celebrate the completion and sharing of your work. If you’re aiming for a wider publication, don’t let rejection get in the way. My most motivating feedback came from John McPhee, who wrote me the kindest handwritten rejection note I’ve ever received.
I asked him for a quote for the book flap of Canyon Voices in 2007. He hand-wrote an encouragement-filled rejection note the sentiment of which I found included in his draft #4 on the process of writing, “No one will ever write in just the way you do… Writing is strictly about self-development.
– Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as Director of Decisive Path Paid Financial Advice in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.