Revising is Reading

One of the best things you can do for your writing, as most of us already know, is to read.  Not only should you read authors you already admire, it’s a good idea to read authors you’re not familiar with.  Ask friends (not the ones who read dime store novels) for recommendations, read reviews, join Goodreads….   Contrary to popular belief, “the news of …[publishing’s] demise has been greatly exaggerated.”**  Books are everywhere!

Now I’m not suggesting that you just curl up under the covers or in a sunny chair and lose yourself in a book. I’m suggesting you look critically at the way the author put words to paper to create something that resonates (or not) with you. How do the transitions work?  What about the pacing, the ratio of scene to exposition and reflection? Look at the plot, what is the inciting incident?  What does the character want?  What is in his/her way? Are the obstacles formidable?  Are the obstacles believable?

How does the book or essay or story begin?  How does it end? (My friend and writing mentor Judy Reeves has a great post on her site about Beginnings & Endings, including some of her favorites.)

I’ve been reading books, specifically memoirs, that deal with grief, looking at how other authors write about their loss.  I’ve found that it is a challenge, to write about it deeply and authentically, but without overdramatizing– like Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. I appreciated the way she ended each chapter with a reflection on the events. I marveled at Joan Didion’s prose style in The Year of Magical Thinking. I also read Megan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye which was not my favorite–her writing seemed to move away into the personal, and delve more into the research, the psychology of grief and the tone shift didn’t engage me. On a whim I picked up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,  by Nina Sankovitch. I loved the idea of reading her way through grief after she lost her sister. Sankovitch did a fantastic job of connecting the books, the story lines and characters, to her own life…  but to me, she didn’t think deeply enough on the page, about her grief, for me.

And, because my committee chair / adviser suggested I need to work on pacing, and should re-read Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life I am working on that now…. What I’ve always admired  about this memoir is Wolff’s elegant way of writing what Philip Lopate calls the “double narrative.” What the narrator thought then and what the narrator thinks now. Wolff can even do this on several levels– what he thought then, what he thought years later, and what he thinks now, a kind of triple narrative!  It’s impressive.  Now I am looking at the pacing, how he moves in and out of scenes, the ratio of scene to exposition to reflection.

You don’t necessarily need to read books that explore the same subjects you’re dealing with (though it is good to know your market, and your competition), reading critically can be a great way to stimulate your own writing.

What books do you look to for inspiration? for narrative structure? for voice?

**my twist on a quote attributed to Mark Twain

Day 16: Revising is Asking Questions

The brain loves to answer questions and figure out puzzles. I find this approach especially helpful for revision work:  ask questions of your character or of yourself.

But you have to be careful to not overwhelm your brain with really big questions, triggering the amygdala–the flight or fight fear response which when activated shuts off access to the cortex where the thinking happens. In fact, according to Dr. Robert Maurer (One Small Step Can Change Your Life, Workman Publishing, New York) writes:  “….the mere act of posing the same question on a regular basis and waiting patiently for an answer mobilizes the cortex.”

Michael Ondatje, author of The English Patient, uses small questions….”I don’t have any grand themes in my head,” he says…. he takes a few incidents–“like [a] plane crash or the idea of a patient or a nurse at night talking”–and asks himself a few very small questions such as “Who is the man in the plane? Why is he there? Why does he crash? What year is this? Of the answers he says, “Those little fragments, fragments of mosaics, they add up and you start finding out the past of these characters and trying to invent a past for these characters.” (Maurer, 46-7)

Another way to trick your brain into working FOR you and not AGAINST you is to get your brain into the transient hypofrontality mode. This state of mind is achieved when doing mundane or repetitive tasks, when your brain is in a state where it can percolate your ideas and make new connections. As a creative non fiction writer I find this especially helpful when I’m working on reflection–what did I think about that event then, and what do I think about it now…  This transient hypofrontality is a relaxed congitive state that can be achieved by doing tasks that set your mind at rest:  a long walk, doing a repetitive task like chopping vegetables or washing dishes.  Or take a bath, meditate, do yoga…  and let things come together in interesting ways.

The good new is, the frontal lobes of highly creative people are thinner than average allowing us creative types to achieve this hypofrontality state more easily according to Dr. Rex Jung, MD / PhD.  Learn more about Dr. Jung by listening to the show, “Creativity and the Brain, Making the Connection” over on KUNM.


Day 9: Retyping your Revision

When my adviser suggested I retype, as in start a whole new Word document, and actually re TYPE all the words I’d just written, all the PAGES– 196 of them–I thought for sure he was crazy.

“Troglodyte,” I muttered under my breath. Clearly he didn’t understand the power of computers; he would have probably suggested I use an actual TYPEWRITER if he knew I owned one.  I mean the beauty of word processing is that it offers tools every writer loves:  the File–Save As,   the Copy/Paste, the  Cut/Paste, the Search-and-Replace, Spell Check,  not to mention the Undo!

And then something happened.  I got stuck. I didn’t know what to work on next, where to begin…  and so in frustration, and rather than stare at the computer screen for hours, toggling between the chapter called “Big Messy Chapter 4”, Facebook, and email, I decided to give it a try, the re-typing thing.  Maybe I would feel like I was doing something other than stare. Maybe some sort of muscle memory of writing would take over and I could just write again.

I stacked my earlier drafts on my desk (not the one pictured above), created a new Word document, titled it “Starting from Scratch,” and began typing.  From the very beginning.  As I typed I looked at the comments from my professor and my colleagues. When I saw a section wasn’t working, I didn’t re-type it.  When the comments were something like “say more” or “not clear” or “and what do you think of that NOW” I would try to answer those comments as I retyped.  Sometimes a re-typed sentence would become a paragraph of NEW writing.   Sentences that needed restructuring got restructured.  Paragraphs that were not in the right place, were typed into the proper section.  And the best part, the person typing the new draft, was the person who had learned from the earlier draft, who had a different take on it, who was wiser than the person on the page.  In this way I deepened the reflection, and looked for smarter, more creative ways to say something.

I can’t tell you how it irks me that this is one more thing my adviser was right about, but now I swear by this method.  I use it for almost every revision.  And I’ve thought a lot, and for me there are a couple of reasons why this works.

First, if you’re as obsessive about polishing prose as I am, each time you “touch” a sentence you look at it for improvements. You change a word, you move a phrase, you make it better.  And by re-typing an entire poem/essay/short story/ book you take the opportunity to examine every single sentence at the letter-by-letter level.

And most importantly:  we’ve all heard some version of the advice, “you have to be willing to kill your darlings,” a quote attributed to everyone from William Faulkner, some dude named Sir Arther Quiller-Couch, and more recently Stephen King.  But the truth is:  it is painful to “kill your darlings,” to hit the delete key and disappear those perfectly forms bits of prose that either leapt from the tips of our fingers fully fledged, or were toiled over for days, weeks maybe, years even. It’s like ripping a little piece of your heart out.

BUT…  if you re-TYPE, you don’t have to Select/Delete. You don’t have to CUT those words out….  you just don’t bring those words into the new document.

So set aside your doubts and give it a try then let me know how it works for you.

Day 2: Writing is Revising

I’m in the final stretch–completing my MFA in creative writing, with an emphasis in creative non-fiction.  That means I have to complete a book-length project, turn it into a committee of advisers (by the end of March) that I have selected, and defend it in a public meeting (on April 13). I don’t want to go into details on what THAT means to me, suffice it to say it sounds like a special kind of hell.

When I entered the MFA program at the University of New Mexico I had 180 plus pages of a manuscript, Reconstructing my Mother.  I thought I was ahead of the game: I knew what I was writing about, and I knew the story. I’d  lived the story.  I thought I’d take some classes, write a couple more chapters, clean up the ones I’d already written and I’d be done.


I had a lot of revising to do.

I used to think that revising meant line editing:  changing a word here and there, re-arranging sentences, correcting typos…  That kind of revising had worked well for me in the past when I wrote press releases and marketing content.  It still works well for me in those arenas.  But in writing creatively, there’s a lot going on with the story under the surface, and sometimes to get at what that story is entails more than just polishing the prose.

As I’ve worked through this program and seen other writers develop their stories, essays and poems in workshop, I’ve discovered a few things about revising that I now apply (sometimes painfully) to my own work.  I’ve seen fellow writers submit the messiest drafts I’ve ever seen: disjointed story lines, essays that go off on tangents, poems that wander in the ether.  And I’ve seen those same writers cut whole scenes, add new scenes, focus the theme, and follow the tangent to another story altogether, creating something beautiful.  I’ve seen them revise those messy drafts, and sometimes even polished drafts into something entirely different than what they started with, sometimes only a whisper of the original piece remains.

Over the course of the month, for Fridays with Jenn, I’ll share with you some  of the insights on revising that I’ve learned, because writing is revising.

Revising is Re-VISIONING the work.

I started out writing my memoir, Reconstructing My Mother thinking it was about, well, my mother, who died when I was 13. That I, as the main character, was on a journey to discover who she was “as a person” not just as my mommy.

Then, I began volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center as a bereavement group facilitator.  During the training I learned about grief, and more specifically about grief responses in children.  Then I took a course from Professor/ Writer Daniel Mueller on Trauma in Literature and we read the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman.  I became enamored with the idea of grief as trauma.

Herman writes:  “Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are rendered in the form of vivid sensations and images” (Herman 38). And so, healing occurs in rendering the trauma into a cohesive narrative, into a story. THIS is how I would tell my story, I thought to myself.  And I even got all artsy about it. I was going to start with a poem I’d written to reflect the imagistic nature of traumatic memory, and through the course of the book the images would take form.  The structure of the narrative would actually mimic the healing journey.  (Even now that idea sounds appealing.)

During this past year of “dissertation hours” over and over again as I submitted pages to my committee chair, Professor/Writer Greg Martin, he would ask for the same thing over and over:  “What was it like in your house after your mom died?”

And I would say, “It sucked,” and leave it at that. I did not want to write about that time. I didn’t want to go there emotionally. Besides, it was so long ago–what did it matter? I thought.  I appeased him sprinkling in details here and there, a scene here and there….  I would weave these stories from the past, these interludes, into the overarching arc of the story:  the story of the hero (me) who goes on a journey to reconstruct her mother.

Then I wrote an essay about volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center.  “That is the narrator who needs to tell this story,” Greg said, a  comment I had to put on the back burner for a while until I figured out what he meant.

I struggled to figure out what went where, which pieces matched. At one point I even cut up pages and sections and laid them in piles all over the floor of my writing cave.  As I tried to wrestle all my scenes and scribbles into one giant thing, I realized that only way to see what I still needed to write, was to tell the story from beginning to end.  I would see what was missing, and what fit together with what.

And lo and behold, the voice, the person that began re-writing was the same narrator who volunteered at the Grief Center.  That narrator had a different perspective on things.  That narrator was a bit wiser than the girl who came into the MFA program clutching her 180 pages.  I saw the pieces in a new way.  And oh, yeah.  I was missing this big chunk of writing about the time right after my mom died.

Most of the writing from those initial 180 pages is now unrecognizable.  I’ve gutted those long passages of what I call “logistics” writing, the “I stood up, took seven steps to the table, set my cup down, then I sat down and …”  kind of writing.  I’ve worked on getting to the action sooner, and reflecting more deeply.  I’m a better writer now, I hope.

And the writer, the person I am today has a better understanding of how losing my mother has affected me.

And now the book, Reconstructing My Mother, is as much about me reconstructing myself as it is about my mother.  And for now, it’s not in some artsy fartsy form–it follows a basic, linear timeline.  Which for now, for THIS draft, works.

My advice to you:  don’t be so rigid in the way you think your poem, your essay, your short story is going to be told.  Be willing to explore all the possibilities.  You may end up writing a story different than what you thought you would write and you may learn something about yourself.  And even if you end up telling the story as you had originally imagined it, my bet is that it’s better rendered than had you not gone off on the journey of re-VISIONING the work.

Are We There Yet?

Wow. A month of committed writing.  In that time the trees have started to turn green, my allergies have kicked in full force, and I feel like I made significant progress in this thing called writing life.

I think I’m supposed to say something really significant on this last day of March, but for me, it is not the last day of my Writer’s March…   it is the beginning, at least the beginning of a new chapter (I think it’s called April).

What I’ve learned (or was reminded of) this month:

1. Five hours a day, every day is too much!  Perhaps this will change if I have more “business” of writing to take care of, but the actual writing, the getting inside my head, digging around in there for treasures to put down on the page…  can’t do it consistently for five hours a day.

2. I’m okay with number 1.   You see the old Jennifer would have allowed one day’s failure to slow her down. She would have gone back in to her head thinking, mostly beating herself up, and not writing.  And even though the five-hour-a-day-goal includes actual writing, staring at the computer screen, journaling, staring out the office window, and reading as long as it’s in service of the writing, the new Jennifer can say What the heck was I thinking? She can re-assess and re-envision the goal and make it not only attainable, but sustainable.

3. I can accomplish a goal even if I don’t do it in as big a way as I had envisioned (like in five hour a day increments)….  in other words, I finished the second draft of my comps!  I took the thin 11 page initial draft, and exceeded my advisors mandate to make it 22 pages, instead growing it to 25 pages. Hah!  as my friend Nari pointed out (via Facebook) “That’s about the longest piece of writing (aside from the book-length memoir as a whole) I’ve heard of you doing, Jenn. You deserve an apple.”

4. Albuquerque New Mexico is the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. Just last week I went to a poetry open mic event called Fixed and Free (it takes place on the fourth Thursday of every month over at The Source).  There I met a woman (Teresa)  who when asked how her writing was going said, “Great! I’ve written 23 poems this month. I’m doing this Writers March thing.”

I said, “I”m ‘Thursdays with Jenn!'”  I couldn’t wait to tell Sam that Teresa was finding success in this group process and couldn’t wait to get home to write another poem.

5. It takes a village…  to do just about anything.  Really, we can’t and shouldn’t expect to do things on our own. It is in allowing other people in to support us that we can accomplish great things.

And so I leave you with this last thought inspired by this card from my Attitude Is Everything deck…

On the flip side it says:

“I Identify the people who pull me up and show them an attitude of gratitude”

I am grateful for so many people, but I’ll keep this to the people who have been supportive of my writing life:

My sister.  She loves to tell people I’m a writer. Admittedly sometimes that feels good, and sometimes that feels intimidating, but it’s nice to know she believes in me. Makes it just a bit easier to believe in myself.

My dissertation advisor/ writing mentor Greg Martin.  Even if he doesn’t end up being a character in my memoir, he will always be a super important part of my development as a writer–maybe even as a human being.  Writing, after all is just about life and while I’ve learned about story structure and having obstacles that are formidable, I’ve also learned to take a closer, more honest look at myself…  of course this wouldn’t apply if I’d only gone the fiction route…

Sam Tetangco…  what can I say.  It’s not just this blog, it’s the friendship and the times spent writing together.  I’m inspired by your dedication, and your positive attitude, and your wisdom.

Randi Beck…  again… more than the blog, the daily compost, I’m inspired by your talent and your enthusiasm!

Cynthia Patton.  We met in 2005 at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.  We’ve kept in touch, supporting each other through our memoir writing, and a lot of messy “life” stuff.  You joined the Writers March and although you did not comment on my posts, I could count on you to read them and respond privately, offering support and suggestions…  YOU my friend are a much better writer than you think you are.

Merimee Moffitt, my co-host for DimeStories and my entree into the world of poetry (it’s a scary place!).  Anyway, I am grateful to you for your support, and if I’m stuck here in Albuquerque I am glad you are here to be my friend.

Sorry, I’m gonna lump the rest of you together:  My San Diego writing pals:  Judy Reeves, Amy Wallen, Jill Badonsky and last but not least Karin Zirk.  I’m still not where I am, but I wouldn’t have gotten here without you.

My MFA program colleagues:  Cassie Lopez,  Tanaya Winder, Elizabeth Tannen, Suzanne Richardson, Nari Kirk, Melanie Unruh…  Here I am… I couldn’t have survived it without you.  (and the rest of my colleagues in the program who’ve read and critiqued my work, making me a much better writer and reader).

So how did the Writers’ March work for YOU? and who are you grateful for?

How much is too much writing?

I think for me,  a day of rest may not be a bad idea.  Of course rest would include laundry, cleaning the house, etc.  (and the requisite America’s Next Top Model Marathon).  I had high hopes at the beginning of this month with my FIVE HOURS A DAY goal… it’s not that I’m giving up…   far from it!  So far this month I’ve added 35 pages to my dissertation (that’s over 11,000 words people!), drafted three poems, read two books I needed to read, hung out with my cousin in Portland and saw Nari Kirk get married (wearing the most fabulous shoes I’ve ever seen).

Admittedly the Portland / Nari wedding thing  didn’t really get me anywhere near my 5 hours per day goal of writing, but it was good for my soul.  So I’m quite happy with the time I spent there.  Instead, I will keep re-thinking this writing goal thing and how to make it work for me.

The reality is that I’m using this March as a springboard for a writing life, not just as way to get a ton of work done this March.

What? you’re getting your MFA! you may be saying.  Didn’t you already commit to a writing life?

Um. sort of.  You see I always had this plan, that I would go back to my job full-time after the MFA.  Kinda pick up my life where I left it…  but like my granddad used to say about the stock market, “It fluctuates!”  In other words, things change.  You can read about it over on my personal blog, but the bottom line is, I no longer have a job to go back to. So, I need to make this writing thing work in some way, make this commitment, and completely follow through with the change I initiated when I decided to come to graduate school.

My first post here was about not beating yourmyself up.  It’s okay to make adjustments, re-vision your goal.  Rather than give up, give your goal a tweak!

So now that we’re in the homestretch of this Writers’ March, I think I’ll add that for me the goals need to be not only attainable, but sustainable.  Maybe once I have a job 5 hours of writing a day is going to be too much (unless I give up completely watching reality t.v. re-runs) but I’ll have to reassess when I get there.

And so I will sign off and leave you with today’s Attitude is Everything Card:

Take a Minute….

On my desk I keep a deck of cards.  Not your ordinary deck, but rather “Attitude is Everything” cards. **  Each card has a motivational message about being positive on the front and a kind of mantra on the back.  Sounds hokey, I know, but if you’re like me, it’s super easy to be negative. I don’t know why that is, but it is true for me.  Keeping a positive attitude is a conscious effort. I’m not always successful, but I keep trying.

Hopefully I’m getting better at it.

What does this have to do with writing? I can hear you saying as you scratch your head.

The more I write, the more I find that writing is actually a metaphor for life… or maybe Life is a metaphor for writing. I’m not sure.  Anyway, last week I met with my dissertation advisor.  I told him about our Writers March group, and no big surprise, he approves whole heartedly.  I told him my goal was to write five hours a day…   he was suitably impressed, then asked, practical man that he is, “So what happens if you don’t do five hours a day?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I do better the next day.”

As the words came out of my mouth it was almost as if someone else was talking.  That statement represents a big change for me.  Part of that not beating myself up stuff I wrote about at the beginning of the month.

And so, as I head off to Portland to witness the nuptials of my friend, and recent MFA grad Nari–  and visit my cousin Katie Spain (the fabulously talented artist), I suspect the five hours a day won’t be happening.  I am taking my computer, I am taking two books and I do plan on writing.  But I’m also planning on taking the advice (with a little writerly license) on today’s Attitude is Everything card:

Take a minute to think about all the positive things in your life.

Mantra:  I count my blessings and name them one by one. I am grateful for what I have [written] and hopeful for what I do not have [but will write over the weekend].

So I hope you’ll take a minute at this midpoint of the month and look at what you’ve accomplished so far.  No matter what, give yourself a pat on the back, take yourself out for an ice cream cone and celebrate!


**looks like the cards are no longer available…  what  a pity

Your (computer) Writing Life

On Saturday I woke up with huge knot in my neck.  I don’t know if I slept funny, or what, but I was stiff.  And I had a full day, no time for massages at fancy day spas…  in fact I would have to wait until Sunday, during my trip to Sunflower Market for grocery shopping before I could do anything about it. You see, there is a Chair Massage -er at Sunflower.   For a dollar a minute, you can jump in the chair and get a quick fix.

I opted for 15 minutes, and asked Sherry to just work on my neck.

“Can you feel that knot?” I asked.

“Oh. yeah.  And this muscle here, ” she said, fingering my Sternocleidomastoid muscles (at least I think that’s what she said).  “I should be able to grab this, and it’s really tight.”

The she started on my shoulders.

“Do you work on the computer a lot?” she asked.

I told her about my writing life, and the five hours a day I’ve committed to…  She told me she could tell, that the muscles at the back of my neck and shoulders were more stretched out (from hunching over a keyboard), and that the ones on the front were tighter.

“You need to stretch!” she said.

Before you start stretching, do a little warmup!

“I do, I take yoga,” I answered, feeling rather smug and proud of myself– I’d been going almost every day for a week now!

“You still need to stretch.  Set a timer for every hour and take a stretch break.”

And so, I  share with you, some neck exercises, and some neck stretches, and a downloadable 1-page hand-out (.pdf) on what to do during a Stretch Break for computer users….

Print it out, and post it by your desk !

So what about that yoga?

Yoga is good for stretching, but it’s also been good for a lot of other things for me and my writing so far this month.  First, it gets me out of the house and adds a little structure to my day, which I find I need.

Second, it’s exercise.  Good for getting the blood moving around the body, and building some strength.  Walking is another good exercise, but with the yoga there are opportunities for building upper body strength, not to mention the core muscles.

Third, I swear, the yoga instructor always says something that sparks an idea or plants a seed of an idea that I can use in my writing, or reminders to be kind to myself (to be in the moment, find the joy in the small things, try).  In fact, this poem I just wrote, called Intervals was inspired by the line “it is in the space between breaths that change occurs.”

Finally, I’m meeting some nice people.  Maybe we’re not becoming best friends through yoga (yet), but it’s nice to see familiar faces, have people say Hi! when you walk in…  and sometimes I even carpool with my friend Amanda, so it’s been nice to have some time to chat with her face to face and not just interacting on Facebook.

And I will finish up this post with these reminders:

  • Stretch!
  • Be Kind to Yourself
  • Take breaks from the computer
  • Write on!!

PS:  if anyone in Albuquerque wants to join me–  I’ve been going to the Tues/Thurs noon time $5 yoga classes at Bhava Yoga (on Central at Walter).

Don’t Beat Yourself UP

I think I’m writing this more for myself than for any of you…  but goals are hard for me. Hard to maintain.  Part of the problem, I think, is that I have to learn to re-define what a goal is.

A GOAL is something we strive towards; it is not a mandate.  A goal should be measured not by completion, but by milestones…  in other words, say you have a goal of, I dunno, writing FIVE HOURS A DAY (what was I thinking??).  And you only write for 3 hours on Day Two.  Maybe three and a half if you count the time spent staring at the computer. What do you do?  My gut response is to let that tape play in my head. The one that says:

“you suck! Day two and you’ve already failed…

YOU are a failure!

You suck!  Really.  A writer?

I think not. “

Looks pretty ridiculous doesn’t it.  I mean three hours is a lot of time writing.  I added almost a thousand words to what I was working on, a piece titled “Seriously Messy Chapter Four” from my dissertation, Reconstructing My Mother.  AND I managed to WRITE an email I’d been putting off, another email to the English Department announcing an upcoming event.  I went to Yoga—for the third day in a row! And I ate a healthy lunch.  I also WROTE a post on my personal blog, and two lines of poetry for an in progress poem called Intervals.  AND I WROTE a post on the UNM Creative Writing Blog, and started WRITING an email newsletter for Duke City DimeStories.

So really all in all a good writing day.

But what does this tell me?

First, maybe I need to “revision” my goal.  I want to be successful, so I’m going to count blogging as writing.  All writing is good, right?  (well maybe not Facebook status updates, but lots of other kinds of writing can count in my new vision of the goal)

Second, I may want to revise my goal. Maybe five hours is too ambitious (I’ll hold off on that decision and see how the rest of the week goes).

What I’m NOT going to do is beat myself up and call myself a failure. Because

“There’s two kinds of people in this world, there’s winners and there’s losers. Okay, you know what the difference is?  Winners don’t give up.” (Richard, from Little Miss Sunshine)

–Jennifer Simpson


PS:  I just wrote for another half hour!  I think I made my five hours after all!

A Writer's Book of Days by Judy ReevesPS 2:  if you need a little inspiration for today, I share today’s prompt from Judy Reeve’s A Writers Book of Days (note I have the previous edition which may be different from this edition, but really valuable none-the-less)

You see a shooting star….