An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: The Writing Process (Page 1 of 2)

Silence: A Writer’s Source

Recently I attended a secular conversation at which the word “Source” was batted around the way religious folks use the word “God.”  I find “Source” a helpful term, although perhaps not big enough to encompass my sense of divine presence.  But it got me thinking:  What’s a writer’s source?  What grounds us and inspires us?  From where do we draw our creative energy?

Of course there’s no single answer to this question, but among the many answers is silence.  “Silence is where we locate our voice,” Terry Tempest Williams said in an interview with Lorraine Berry.  “In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.”

Writing is essentially a contemplative practice.  The writer must settle down and listen through the emptiness of the blank page and the echoing mind to the small stirrings of the heart.  I’ve always loved Anne Frank’s bald statement of longing:  “I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”  The impulse to write is a manifestation of our human desire to bring the silent, inner movement of the heart out into the world.

Writers’ relationship with silence is key.  Silence makes us squirm, it leads us to despair, it can overwhelm us, and yet every worthwhile word ever written emerges from it.  Silence is the source of creation, and more—it’s also the source of human transformation.  Mark Rothko commented that artists search “for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow.”  Isn’t that what happens when we write?  We encounter a tiny pocket of internal quiet, root a tiny part of ourselves in it, and grow from there alongside the emergent words and ideas.

Barbara Brown Taylor, a pastor and seminary professor, wrote to her fellow clergy-people:

“If we simply dip our cups into the noisy torrent of the world and serve it up with a little theological parsley on top, people will learn to look elsewhere for food.  At the very least, we owe them words we have dug up with our own hands, words we have brought back from our own encounter with the silence.  Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent.”

I believe all writers have this same mandate.  Our parsley of choice might be humor or cynicism or environmentalism or cuss words, but regardless, it won’t satisfy.  Language and stories and reflections that nourish readers come from a bigger source, one we barely recognize and can’t begin to understand but know, intimately, every time we sit in silence, pen in hand.

Giving Your Story a Plot

I can’t tell you how often I read early drafts of memoirs that are thorough, lively recordings of events, great for preserving family history but absolutely unsatisfying as memoirs.  First this happened, and then this, and then this… Even when the events are shocking, amazing, horrific, terrifying, or otherwise scintillating, the drafts read like flat historical records.

Some authors stop there.  Their purpose is creating a record of events, or simply getting down the story satisfies their needs.

But a record of events is not a memoir, and I’ve just discovered a new way to explain why.  I’m reading Janet Burroway’s master-text, Writing Fiction:  A Guide to Narrative Craft, awed by how smart and practical her advice is and by the ludicrous fact that this book is no longer in print.  Burroway’s exploration of the difference between story and plot is an excellent guide for writers needing to make the leap from a record of events to a memoir.

First, some definitions from E.M. Forster:  A story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.”  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. … If it is in a story we say, ‘and then?’  If it is in a plot we ask, ‘why?’”

Burroway goes on to show how the “causal relation between what happens first and what happens next” helps a writer create a plot—that is, explore the “why”.  Forster’s first example (“The king died, and then the queen died”) is a record of events.  But when he gives the queen’s death in relationship to the king’s death we now have causality, emotional connection and disconnection:  plot.  “When ‘nothing happens’ in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relation between what happens first and what happens next.  When something does ‘happen,’ it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character’s life, an effect of the events that have gone before.”  Characters are changed by events.  A story works when events change people and the reader knows why.

Isn’t this the great joy of writing memoir?  We know what happened but we don’t necessarily know why.  For this reason, a complete record of events is a great start.  You’ve written out all your scenes.  They’re in chronological order.  You know what material you’ve got to work with.  Then you can return to that draft and interrogate it.  What changed?  Why?  How?  When?  What’s the cause?  What’s the effect?  Who was I before / during / after this event?  What was my relationship to these events?  What is it today?

I often talk about this as reflective work, plumbing the inner emotional or spiritual story, but Burroway has helped me understand that the link between inner and outer story actually is the plot.  In memoir, plot traces change in the main character.  This is as good a guide for revision as any I’ve found.

The Journey from Self-Conscious to Aware

The other evening I taught a lesson at the Loft that was meant to help beginning memoirists distinguish between the character and the narrator in their stories.  We create personas for ourselves on the page; the main character in every memoir is the younger self who experiences and is changed by events; we can also portray ourselves as a narrator looking back on these events.  For writers who assume the “I” on the page is also the living, breathing self, the lesson was tough.  Brows furrowed, baffled questions were asked, small groups struggled to figure out which “I” was which, and despair settled everywhere.

I’ve observed this happen whenever I teach some element of craft.  Say I reflect on the value of using sensory details; suddenly my students are overly conscious about not using sensory details and assume they’ve failed, or their writing grows ridiculously burdened with sensory details and does fail.  Or say I distinguish between prose that shows and prose that tells; suddenly my students’ acute desire to write scenes gives them writer’s block.

Craft instruction seems to set my students’ writing back a step.  Before the lesson the other evening, students were easily zooming in on the character and zooming back to reflect as a narrator.  Afterward they could barely function.

The funny thing is that most of us intuit what makes a good story and most of us come by strong story-telling skills naturally, effortlessly.  Learning the craft of writing is really a process of growing aware about these natural elements so we can make intentional decisions about them.  At first our stories control us.  As we learn to write and as we take a piece through revision, making deliberate choices about language and perspective and structure and theme, we gain control over our stories.  We author stories; we become authors.

The trouble is that the road to awareness passes through crippling self-consciousness. Take heart!  This too shall pass.  With practice, self-consciousness recedes into informed consciousness.  The more you attend to elements of craft in your writing, the easier it is to return to that natural state—only smarter, and with more power behind your pen.  Stick with writing and your awareness becomes your greatest asset.

What’s At Stake?

Perhaps the most important question for every creative writer to ask—and definitely the hardest question to answer—is “What’s at stake for me?”  For writing to work well, the writer must care deeply.

On the surface this question seems simplistic; our care is instinctive, compelling, and unspoken.  In practice, the journey through revision is an excavation of the author’s stake, digging below external reasons (“I want to help others; I want to be published”), below the outer story (“I want to explore this memory, character, or idea”), to some subconscious, undercurrent of longing.  Our stake is always found in our emotional relationship to the subject matter.  Without some connection to our content, we might convey the content to a reader but we’ve no reason to explore it.  And passionate exploration is what makes writing great.

What’s in question?  What are you risking?  What of your heart have you invested?  A writer’s stake in a project is a fiery furnace that fuels the steam engine and makes it move.  When I ask writers, “What’s at stake?” they frequently have no idea.  The writing process is their heartfelt search for that single burning coal.  Sometimes writers have an answer that changes with time and revision, a sign that their work is gaining dimension.  Sometimes writers continue to learn about their stake long after the project is done.  Only when writers have a definitive, unchanging answer do I grow concerned for their work.

I believe every project is an attempt to give words to an inarticulate relationship between the author’s heart and his or her subject matter.  Our struggles naming this relationship are understandable:  It changes by virtue of being written.      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

From Rilke, With Love

Whenever I get swept up in the competitive, audience-seeking dimension of the writing life, I turn to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as an antidote.  Rilke returns me to my essential, life-giving reasons for writing.

What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.

Art-making both awakens and fulfills basic spiritual needs, Rilke says, and that this role is ultimately sufficient.

A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.

Out of the cacophony of writing advice out there, Rilke stands alone in emphasizing love as the central creative force in our work.  We must love our doubt, love our solitude, love the questions, love our subject, and make love our subject.  Even suffering in the creative process is worthy of love:

Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?

To Rilke the soul of a creative project is tender, solitary, and full of potential.  Only those readers who treat it with love are worth listening to.

Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.  Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.

At the heart of Rilke’s letters is unabashed faith in the writer’s inner world.  Who else treats that silent life with such respect?

I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.

Who among us doesn’t benefit from this reminder?  We each have within us a potent, generative life-force that feeds our creative work, and attending this is the foundation of all art-making.  That said, I’ll sign off to enter that lovely private sphere.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Are you writing?

During a moment of discouragement this morning—others writers have better focus than me, more time to read great literature, no three-year-old pulling love and attention away from the page—I flashed back to college, to what I now realize is a seminal moment in my development as a writer.  The world looked bleak (Was it my miserable relationship with my boyfriend?  The overwhelming stress of senior year?  The overcooked green beans in the cafeteria?); I complained about everying in great detail to my friend Heather, a brilliant mathematician.  She finally interrupted me.  “Elizabeth, are you writing?”

No, I wasn’t.

I knew immediately Heather saw an equation I hadn’t:  Elizabeth minus writing equals misery.  Solitude, a pen and paper were key to my mental health.  From that moment forth writing has been an essential activity, saving me thousands in therapy bills.  (Thank you, Heather.)  Not that writing solves all my problems, but it does return me to a place where I can hear what I’m thinking and feeling and thus address my problems sanely.  It takes the scattered pieces inside me and binds them up.

Twenty-two years and three published books later, I sometimes forget this basic function of writing:  To return me to myself.  The distractions are different today; parenthood, sure, but also competition in the literary world, the terrible demands of social media, a career built on creative work that nonetheless seems feeble and unsteady.  Were Heather to ask me her question now I would answer, blithely, yes, and my answer would be a tiny bit dishonest.  I’m not always faithful to that fundamental function of writing.  I sometimes forget to write to become more myself.  And when that happens, I lose my moorings.

I believe—in fact, I know—that writing to become more me is the groundwork of every successful piece I’ve put into the world.  When I write to put my internal pieces together, I’m also rearranging external pieces and creating a whole beyond myself.  This isn’t a distraction from my literary ambitions but rather the essential first step.  It’s also the second and fifth and final steps, only it gets harder and harder to remember.

But now I can conjure up Heather.  She’ll squint her eyes at me and demand daily, “Are you writing?”


I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising:  Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language.  This is a great policy—in the abstract.  If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing is it.  And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.

But in reality writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the start.  On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next.  While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it as it poses far too many opportunities for a new writer to get stuck.  Most of us grow attached to sentences we’ve polished and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded.  It’s hard to fundamentally restructure an entire book or to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write when all the sentences are beautiful.

On the other extreme are blessedly sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten their prose.  I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead.  Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can arrive later.  When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s easier to play with the large elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…

Most writers fall between these two extremes.  We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices.  Luckily, language is quirky; just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can also unlock material.  An accurate description can reveal to the writer a character’s nature or the truth about a memory.  Precision in word choice can expose new ideas worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.

We don’t always know which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing.  Only much later will we discover which passages are germane—which is why it’s always wise to keep a repository for cut passages.  Generally, though, staying alert to our motives keeps us on track.  Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content?  If so, our work with language reveals the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on.  Is our struggle with language about presenting material to the reader?  If so, consider tackling this work later.  Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.

Playing with Revision

The more I revise and the more I help new writers learn to revise, the more I’m convinced that good revision, like any good writing, is essentially play.   Robin Marantz Henig’s recent article in the New York Times , “Taking Play Seriously,” looks at recent scientific studies that ask, What is play’s role in the evolution of species?   Of course there are many theories, but here is one from Patrick Bateson, a biologist at Cambridge University:   “Play is the best way to reach certain goals.   Through play, an individual avoids…the lure of ‘false endpoints.’ Players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.”

First drafts are first, good-enough solutions.   We adults are particularly prone to false endpoints because we like results and we like efficiency.   With writing, often that first draft satisfies whatever longings drove us to write in the first place.   But first drafts offer only one perspective, and quality writing, like quality thinking, requires multiple perspectives.   The rich layers of meaning in our favorite books were achieved over time, by authors noodling away at an idea rather than accepting its first manifestation.   As Carol Bly asks, “What more do I have to say here?”   I like asking, What other shape could this thought or story take?

Many writers complain that their second draft is far worse than the first.   Of course it is!   Second drafts lack that initial inspiration and drive.   Play with your subject; can you see it in an entirely new light?   Start over from scratch.   Keep noodling. Don’t allow the success of one draft to interfere with the possibility of a better one.

Revision, like any kind of problem-solving, becomes more difficult the more seriously we take our work.   As soon as concern for our end product appears, our process is crippled.   However, if play is our process, even very serious material can be great fun.   Why?   Because we’re still learning, discovering, and growing as we write.   Play on, writers!

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Process & Product

I’m a tender-hearted gardener.  When last year’s cherry tomatoes reseed themselves, I don’t have the heart to pull them out.  And so I end up with an abundance of late-ripening cherry tomatoes.  What to do?  Make tomato sauce.  But cherry tomatoes are a hassle to peal, even after blanching, so I choose the lazy route, slice them with skins on and throw them in the pot.  The resulting tomato sauce is tasty, but a bit watery and swimming with skins.

The process by which we create something helps shape the final product.  Our exuberance, laziness, playfulness, discipline, patience, bull-headedness, kindness, skill, and all the other qualities we bring to the writing process play a part in the text we finally create.  Just as my choice to give the cherry tomatoes room in the garden rather than planting good saucing Romas contributes to the quality of my spaghetti sauce, each choice we make in the course of writing contributes to the reader’s experience.  Even those choices we reverse, I would argue, build up like layers of paint to affect the final, aesthetic read.

Other factors contribute to our final product’s shape, especially the content of our story and the voice or persona we use to tell the story.  But our process—all the steps of creating literature and quirky personality who takes these steps—is the factor most often ignored, and from which we can learn the most.

For example, I worked with a skilled writer who set out to write her memoir of growing up with a father who was the only one of his vast extended family to survive the Holocaust.  His grief and depression profoundly shaped her childhood.  She was adept at writing beautiful narrative chapters about periods of her life, and amassed about 150 pages like this before realizing that she’d avoided writing about her father.  But when she tried to focus on life as his daughter, she got stuck.  “I just can’t find my groove,” she told me.  “All I’ve got are these fragments.”  I suggested she change her process.  Instead of writing long, chronological stories, simply write the fragments.  At first this felt awkward, but eventually the fragments took on a form all their own.  They now act as glimpses into a painful relationship.  Their form—fractured, brief—mirrors their content.  But the writer discovered the form by accommodating her process to the material.

What works?  What techniques squeeze the content out of you and onto the page?  When I set out to write On the Threshold, I was primarily motivated by abstract questions about spirituality—What does it mean to live a spiritually grounded life?  I sat at my desk and looked around the tiny bungalow I’d just bought.  When I’m stuck as a writer, I can usually get going again by writing about the setting.  I describe place easily and well.  So I wrote about buying that first house and what it took to make it into a home.  My house became my means to explore spiritual questions because it was a process that worked for me.

As we revise we’re always seeking some structure, some container, to hold our exploration.  But more often than not, the structure emerges through the process.  As committed writers, we must cultivate a lively, healthy means for writing because that means embeds itself in our text.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Here’s an observation to chew on:  A few times in my career as a writing instructor, I’ve coached retired therapists in writing their memoirs.  These are people who have worked with their personal stories over decades; they’ve had extensive experience in therapy and have continued to explore their stories through supervision groups and continuing education.  And yet, when they sit down to pen their life experiences, they’re shocked.  They remember details that have never before emerged.  They pair memories in surprising ways, revealing new perspectives on events.  They discover recurring themes that bring unity to their story they never knew existed.

This phenomenon is not unique to therapists.  Many authors who have done extensive therapy or told their stories multiple times in twelve-step groups make the same observation:  writing an experience down changes us in different ways than telling it aloud.


Here’s my theory.  When keep our stories to ourselves, they roil around in our being and exert tremendous control over our lives.  Events from our childhood, conscious or otherwise, dictate current behaviors.  A shameful secret held close over years can eat away at our sense of self; it can govern our choices; it can cause us to generate more shameful secrets.  Unshared, our experiences yield a terrible power.

Once we begin telling the stories of our life experiences, even with a friend, something changes.  The events that shaped us lose a bit of their control.  When a friend hears our shameful secret and laughs at how silly it is, the shame dissipates.  Or if the friend shares her shameful secret in response, we feel less lonely in our short-comings.  Sharing our stories aloud can diffuse their power.

Part of the reason therapy works is that the therapist offers him or herself as a forum for working with our memories.  The therapist hears our story, holds it, reflects on it, and helps us to see it in new ways.  In other words, a professional makes room for our story to exist outside of ourselves and helps us to work with that story.  Done well and over time, this can radically change our relationship to events from our past.

As anyone who journals knows, the blank page works similar magic.  A piece of paper can transform a memory, insubstantial and powerful, into a thing that exists outside of ourselves.  Even a first draft can diffuse that power, because the memory now has form and the writer has gained some authority over the memory.  As we take a memory through revision, however, a remarkable transformation happens.  We make a thousand miniscule choices about how to tell our story—the order, the pacing, when to reflect and when to describe the scene, which themes to pull forward and which to relinquish… We can use the same tragic childhood to wallow in self-pity or to explore the nature of suffering or to ask, “What gave me the resilience to survive?”  And as we make these choices, we become authors of our own identity.  The act of creating a story essentially becomes an act of creating ourselves.  The power exits our memories and enters our being.  We gain authority.

The page provides a container more solid than a good listening ear.  Written words stay put.  They mirror our stories back to us.  Our stories exist outside of ourselves as things, and the more we write, the more we understand exactly how malleable these things are.  This process is lonelier than therapy and by no means a substitute.  My point is that something different happens in us when we write memoir—the difference between being a self-aware person and the author of one’s life.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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