An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Weekly Writing Exercises (Page 1 of 3)

A Writer’s Polar Vortex

medium_3020250442Here is one of the secret ironies of being a published author:  As you move toward launching a book, your writing life is decimated.  Those quiet, searching hours of half-starts and rambling experiments, those blessed days of research and play and discovery, those driving weeks of inspiration—as well as months of paralyzing self-doubt that this mess of words you’re accumulating will ever amount to anything—are replaced with two-hour conversations with your copyeditor about the proper formatting of ellipses and coaching sessions on how to use Pinterest to market your new book and the seemingly exciting but actually grueling work of setting up readings.

I could whine about all this, but instead I want to make a point:  It’s hard to stay balanced—it’s hard to keep writing—when you’re also publishing.  Launching a book is its own creative endeavor, as I’ve explored in earlier posts, but it is not writing.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in writing classes who don’t really want to write, they just want to be published.  I understand this; having a book in the world communicates something essential about yourself and gives that self credibility and influence.  I like creating something beautiful of my questions, memories, and imaginings and then getting a chance to be in thoughtful conversation with readers.  I really like being published.  I, too, want to be an author who participates in our culture with my work.

But what makes me a writer is not any of these recognizable successes.  What makes me a writer is that I like writing.  And right now, being an author is getting in the way of being a writer.

My attempts to stay balanced include a daily dose of journaling, and maintaining (barely—this is 11 days late!) my two blogs.  I read a bit of theology each week, which is my way of fueling my creative life.  And I hold onto the hope—I try to have faith—that my beautiful, uncomfortable, language-saturated time will return.  It will.  The writing life has its seasons.  For me now, the author side of my world is turned toward the sun and the writer side is enduring a polar vortex.  But the world is still spinning.

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Pigeon Holes: How Labels Hurt Writers and Writing

This Christmas my mother gave me a fantastic, hilarious collection of poems called God Got a Dog.  In one, God goes to beauty school, falls in love with nails, and opens a manicure parlor.  The poems are deceptively simple.  Theologically, they’re out in left field, playing with our notions of holiness and embodiment and images of divinity.  They are smart, adult explorations of how God works in the world.  I adore them.

The publishers list God Got a Dog as a children’s book.  Why?  There’s no way even a precocious five-year-old would enjoy these poems.  But they were written by Cynthia Rylant, a Newbery Award winning author, and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a beloved children’s book illustrator.  Rylant and Frazee have loyal followings among those who read kids’ books, so I imagine their publicist wanting to reach that loyal following.  And so my mother had to go to the picture book section of the book store to find this slender book of theology.

I’m thinking about how books get pigeon-holed because my first novel is flying down the chute toward publication, and I’m increasingly uncomfortable with assumptions the industry makes about it.  I’m having bad flashbacks of high school, how my good grades led the boys to assume I was undateable, the gym teachers to assume I couldn’t catch a ball, the academic teachers to assume I’d be well-behaved, and the girls to assume I was a snob.  Years afterward I ran into a boy from my class and had a nice conversation.  Later, his mother told me how surprised he was.  “Elizabeth’s really nice,” he’d told her.  “She’s pretty.”  The mother said she was glad he finally saw this.  Me, too, but couldn’t he have noticed when it mattered?!

I’ve always had ambitions to be a literary writer.  So when over thirty of my favorite publishers of literary fiction rejected my novel, I felt grave disappointment.  I’d failed.  The literary establishment did not endorse my book.  Then a commercial publisher took it and gave me an identity crisis.  Maybe I’m not meant for the upper echelons of literature.  Maybe I’m a writer of popular fiction.  Maybe ordinary people might enjoy reading my book.

The jury’s still out on that one.  In the meantime, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole stratification of literature is an adult version of teenage cliques.  Publishers and book sellers sort books into categories and then their authors form a sense of identity in response.  Personally I’m grateful when someone like Cynthia Rylant breaks out of the box the publishing industry has placed her in.  She’s a multifaceted person of varying interests unafraid to reveal her many selves on the page.  I like imagining her sitting back, following her interests wherever they lead, and honoring them despite the expectations of her frustrated agent (a book of theological poems will not sell like a children’s story) and her baffled editor.

It turns out I am dateable, I can’t catch a ball but am a decent swimmer, there are times when I behave miserably, and I’m only snobby about cheeses.  And I’m not as smart as everyone thought; I just got good grades.  In this strange in-between place before my book comes out, I’m working on accepting the writer I am, regardless of how others categorize me—regardless of how I’d like to categorize myself.  I have a feeling I’ll be a better writer for it.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

The Next Big Thing

A heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth Fletcher for inviting me to participate in The Next Big Thing, an internet-age ponzi scheme to connect writers to one another.  Creative projects incubate in privacy for SO LONG; it’s a relief to get a public glimpse of a work-in-progress—almost a confirmation that it exists.

I imagine all the contributors to The Next Big Thing are like chickens sitting on enormous eggs.  Squawk!  I’ll send you to two other Next Big Thing blogs as soon as I hear back from the writers.  Meanwhile, here’s what’s growing in my egg:

  • What is your working title of your project?

Hannah, Delivered.  Although I’m also considering The Faith of Midwives.

  • Where did the idea come from for the project?

My sister is a homebirth midwife living in Taos, NM.  She and her midwife colleagues tell the most hair-raising, awe-inspiring stories about delivering babies.  Whenever I’d hear them go on about natural birth, and especially about the state of maternal care in the United States, I would think:  There’s a basic, sacred power within women’s bodies that  our culture’s reliance on medicine is erasing.  One of my sister’s mentors once said, “If we really loved women, we’d trust their bodies.”  It seemed to me that childbirth is the final frontier for feminism—that a deep faith in women’s bodies would radically overhaul maternal care but also women’s spirituality.  I wanted to explore all this in fiction.

So I asked myself, what would it take for a woman who’s not very body-aware (not unlike me!) to move into the radical trust of women’s bodies that I’ve seen in homebirth midwives?  I created Hannah to help me find out.

  • What genre does your book/project fall under?


  • What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

How does Hannah Larson, a conventional young woman with a strong need for stability, wind up in jail for delivering a baby?  Hannah, Delivered tells the story of how inexplicable passion, buried strength, and the mysterious drama of Hannah’s own birth conspire to deliver her from fear into a rich and risk-filled life.

  • Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency?

After almost five years of working with my agent, Kelly Sonnack, we sold Hannah to Koehler Books.  It will come out next June.

  • How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That was twelve years ago!  I don’t remember.  I can say with some confidence, though:  A long time.

  • What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Chris Bohjalian’s novel, Midwives, hit the market just as I was conceiving of this book.  His story is about a midwife who winds up at a treacherous birth in the middle of an ice storm and decides to cut a C-section with a butcher knife to save the baby.  All the midwives I know hated it.  They said a midwife would never make that choice.  I deliberately chose not to read his book until I had a complete draft of Hannah; I didn’t want my work to be a reaction to Bohjalian’s.  Once I did read it, I had to agree with my midwife acquaintances.  I didn’t like how he sensationalized homebirth, played into every stereotype about midwives, and did nothing to illuminate the dynamics of fear in our culture around birth.

I really hope my book does justice to women’s strengths.

I feel abashed to say this, but in writing Hannah I was striving to write a novel like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—a reflective, deeply personal story of spiritual transformation.  Very few contemporary novels trace this kind of journey.  Which is why I think of Hannah as a fictionalized spiritual memoir.  It shares more in common with books like Virgin Time or Eat, Pray, Love or The Spiral Staircase than with most novels.

  • What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Exterminating Angel Magazine just posted their new online issue with a chapter from Hannah in it.  It drops you into the middle of the book, once Hannah has begun her own practice in central Minnesota.  In this chapter she meets Melinda, a fiercely stubborn organic farmer who becomes her client.  The political climate around homebirth is heating up; a midwife was just arrested, and Hannah is beginning to appreciate how precarious her work is.  The environment around birth pushes Hannah to take risks she’d never otherwise imagine herself taking, and so she has to find sources of strength far greater than she’d ever imagined in response.

When to Stop Revising

My mother’s greatest fear for me as a writer is that I’ll never stop revising.  When beginning writers learn about revision they always ask, “How do you know when to stop?”  My mother, and possibly these students, view revision as a path to perfection—which we know is endless and packed with illusions.  I prefer thinking about revision as child-rearing.  Even if your twenty-something isn’t fully mature, he’s able to interact in the world on his own.  Let him go.

That said, most writers (myself included) have a tendency to think their work is done prematurely.  My agent worked with me for two years to get my novel in shape.  My first publisher asked that I rewrite my memoir with two timeframes rather than three; this took me a full year.  So how do we know when to revise and when we’re done?  Here are the questions I recommend asking in response to a revision suggestion or idea:

  • Does it offer you the chance to learn something about your subject?  Will you grow by continuing to revise?
  • Does it offer you the chance to learn about craft?
  • Will the change help bring about wholeness in the manuscript?
  • Will the change help your story land more solidly on the truth?
  • If you’re resisting the suggestion, is it because the change feels wrong for the project?  Or because it would require too much effort?

When a work is complete, it feels balanced.  It has great integrity.  Responses from readers you respect (writing coaches, writing groups, agents, editors) no longer resonate with your inner tuning fork; suggestions tend to contradict one another or be petty.  Or you receive unanimous affirmation that your work is done.  Usually at the end of a project, an author longs to cut the umbilical cord and move his or her creative energy elsewhere.  It’s time for the piece to live its own life separate from the author.  But remember that finding a publisher may or may not be a sign of completion; books that desperately need development get published daily, and remarkable books are rejected all the time.  Once again we must trust the story, and the whisperings of our own heart.

Better the Devil You Know: An Exercise

In a minute you’ll read a writing exercise you’ll hate.  Your hackles will rise and a bitter taste will fill your mouth.  Every bone in your body will resist it.  Here’s my challenge:  Do it anyway.

A first draft is a beautiful thing.  Drafts are well worth growing attached to; they have raw energy, bursts of bright prose, moments of surprise and delight, and a ton of effort poured into their pages.  A draft bears witness to our creativity:  First there was nothing, and now there’s something.  How thrilling!

First drafts done well, however, are also flawed.  The language is too loose, we’ve explored only one of a dozen approaches to our subject, we haven’t yet landed on what the piece is really about.  Anne Lamott advises us to write a shitty first draft, but most of us have no other option.

The tragedy is that most writers stop here, the relief of getting that draft down is so huge.  Our work languishes half-formed between the pages of a notebook or hidden in a computer file.  To give our writing life, it needs revision.

I’ve come to think of writers’ relationship with first drafts as “better the devil you know”—in other words, we’re familiar with the monster of our first draft and we’re terrified of the one lurking around the corner.  Our attachment mires us.  Suddenly the great adventure of writing ends.  Revision scares us because it’s a whole new challenge, and now that we’ve taken one risk with our first draft we prefer to stay put.

Which brings me to today’s exercise—an invitation to meet the monster.  Choose a short draft you’re curious about.  Don’t read it.  Sit down with a blank page and write this piece as though for the first time, without ever looking at your draft.  When new material emerges, let it.  If your prose is terrible, keep going.  What Anne Lamott forgot to mention is that the second draft is often shittier.

A rough draft hacks a path through the dark woods; revision invites us to branch out, to explore the woods, so we can guide our reader with knowledge and confidence.  Simply generating fresh material is one manner of exploring.  Carol Bly wrote that the primary question of this “long middle stage” of writing is “What else do I have to say about this subject?”  This exercise unlocks us from our first attempt at our subject and unleashes fresh thoughts.  So what if the result is abysmal?  If only one brilliant sentence and one a-ha moment appear in this draft, then your next draft will have two brilliant sentences and two a-ha moments, and you’re on the path to fine writing. 

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Mark Doty, in a class on writing memoir, said that three forces are at play in any personal narrative:  the spoken, the unspoken, and the unspeakable.  The dynamic between these triune forces is what gives a story life.

As I understand it, the spoken force consists of the words on the page—that is, the story as we’ve consciously told it.

The unspoken force is made up of those emotions and ideas that lurk just beneath the surface of the story; we must “read between the lines” to find what is unspoken.  The author is conscious of this material, but for whatever reason has chosen not to name it.  The “unspoken” is always accessible to the reader who is willing to work.

In the “unspeakable” realm we find all that material for which we don’t have language.  Sometimes material is unspeakable because no language exists to describe it.  The natural world has a silent, pulsing life that words invariably misrepresent.  The territory of the spirit, of profound emotion, of enormous mystery, of birth and death and love and complicated relationships and profound horror—these are ultimately indescribable.  While we can attempt to represent this realm with words, and can do so with elegance and art, we inevitably fail.  Language can point us toward the unspeakable but never map it.

The unspeakable also contains material from the author’s unconscious.  Our shadows, our hidden truths, our real brilliance all reside beyond our reach.  The unconscious realm is always evident in creative work, no matter how hard we try to mask or deny it.  Every conscious act carries its subconscious counterpart.  And so behind the words we’ve chosen for the page and behind the words we’ve deliberately not written is a hidden story of motivation, ache, and mystery.

Doty presented these forces as a dynamic triangle, each point communicating with the others, resonating, hiding and revealing.

The more I’ve lived with this image, the more helpful it’s become for revision.  Our work in revision is to grow increasingly aware of our material and to be quite deliberate about what appears on the page, what is left unsaid, and what hides below the surface.  In a first draft, we know absolutely nothing about the unspeakable realm.  As we pay attention to what has emerged and as we read between the lines, hints of the unspeakable bubble up.  The unspeakable is not static.  It’s a well, and we can draw from it to add texture and depth to our work.

As an example, consider a time when a group of people have read your work.  They observe a theme emerging in your story that you hadn’t intended, but that excites and scares you.  This theme feels true.  Or perhaps they ask you to write a scene that’s largely missing from the draft.  When you begin composing this scene, you realize it absolutely belongs; it’s crucial to your piece’s heartbeat.  In both cases, you are mining the unspeakable realm, pulling material out into the realms of the spoken and unspoken.

Readers know when writers have done this work.  Unconscious motivations and manipulations are no longer evident.  I believe that the more material you pull forward, the more truly mysterious is the material left behind.  A lovely tension emerges, then, between the crafted work toward which you have increasing awareness and authorship, and the depth of the unspeakable lurking under the spoken and unspoken.  The best literature uses language and gaps within language as a container to hold this great mystery of being human.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

What’s at Stake?

Whenever I begin to work with a writer on his or her project, I always ask two questions.  The first is “Why are you writing this?”  The answers I get are often similar—“Because I learned things from my experience I want to share with others”; “Because it’s good therapy”; “Because the world needs to hear this story;” “Because I feel compelled.” With any one piece of writing there exist a dozen motivations for writing, and I want to hear the surface explanation—the story the writer tells him- or herself when facing the blank page.

But this first response, while honest and important, is never deep enough to sustain someone through the long effort of writing.  Nor is it particularly helpful.  As a writing coach, I look for the reasons behind the stated reason, the emerging inner story, because that’s where passion and fear and drive reside.  I look for motivation powerful enough for the long haul and rich enough to make the effort worthwhile.  So the second question I ask is “What’s at stake for you?”  I want to know what the author is seeking in the material, where his or her heart is on the line, and what depends on this story’s unfolding.  In other words, I’m less interested in the author’s relationship to the product or the product’s relationship to the audience than the author’s relationship to the subject matter and level of engagement in the process.

Answers to the “What’s at stake?” question are far more interesting.  “I can’t stop grieving my mother’s death, and I hope writing will help me.”  “I’m curious about how interdependent people are and want to learn how communities work.”  “My life feels so fragmented.  Is it possible to find unity in all my memories?”  When we explore our personal stake in our material, we fuel the engine that will pull us through the writing journey and our reader through the reading journey.  We turn our face away from the audience and look directly and the stuff of our story, where we can engage it in intimate conversation.  An author’s personal stake in a story determines the story’s honesty, be it told in fiction or nonfiction.  There’s a direct link between why we write and what we write.

When my editor at Skinner House asked if I would write a guide to writing spiritual memoir, I initially said no.  I’d taught spiritual memoir writing for years; I had oodles of lecture notes, writing exercises, and literary examples stored on my computer; I knew the subject and could easily have compiled my thoughts into a book.  But the project seemed boring.  Who would want to spend a year putting together already thought-out thoughts?  There was nothing for me to discover.  I had no stake in the project.  Eventually a question emerged:  How is writing a spiritual practice?  While Writing the Sacred Journey doesn’t address this question until the final chapter, I pondered it with every page.  The exploration helped motivate me.

As I work on longer projects, I ask myself the “What’s at stake?” question repeatedly.  My answers change with each draft—they grow cleaner and more pointed—and they help guide my revision.  Yesterday, after working on my novel for five years, after finding an agent to represent it, and after receiving my first round of rejections from editors, I asked yet again what my personal stake is in this story.  And I came up with an entirely new and surprising answer.  The new insight helps me clarify the novel’s focus, even though my character’s circumstances are entirely different from my own.  I now know a bit better what problem I’m trying to solve through writing, and this guides my revision.

Any story we put our heart into will kick up layers of memory and emotion.  Revising becomes this lovely, on-going dialogue between the story’s life and our own.  Pretty amazing!

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Generating in Revision

Carol Bly wrote that the essential question we must ask during what she calls “the long middle stage” of writing is, “What more do I have to say about this topic?”  Certainly this is a good question to ask early on, when we’ve completed a draft and are unsure where to go next.  Usually we’re inclined to begin tweaking the words on the page as we head into revision, but I’d like to suggest instead that the first stages of revision more often than not involve generation.

First, it’s good to generate journal entries.

  • Why am I writing this?  What’s in it (in the writing process and in the subject matter, NOT in the outcome) for me?
  • How do I feel about my draft?  What are my places of discomfort?  What am I attached to and why?
  • What might this draft be asking of me?  What might it want to become?

Second, it’s very likely that we need to generate more material.  Here are some common places where material is missing:

  • Have I written a scene that helps my reader understand what’s at stake for me as the narrator or for my main character?
  • Have I written a scene that illustrates the expectations and/or desires of the narrator or main character at the beginning?
  • Have I written a scene that illustrates the consequences of the story on the narrator or main character?
  • Identify places in your prose where you tell rather than show.  Are there details or scenes that might do this work more effectively for the reader?
  • Identify turning points in your story.  Have you done these moments justice by developing these scenes fully?
  • What moments are the emotional roots of your story?  Have you given the reader the history necessary to make sense of the characters?
  • What scenes are you perhaps avoiding because they demand difficult emotional work?

Even writers whose first drafts are thicker than phonebooks can benefit from this second-stage generating.  Notice how these questions focus on filling in gaps and identifying what’s most at stake—tasks that are difficult in a first draft.  Many writers get nervous about the scattered nature of this kind of generating.  New scenes don’t fit within the sequential, connected first draft; they upset the applecart.  But this is exactly what we’re after in revision.  We want to drive wedges of fresh insight into the old prose to break it up, forcing us to see it anew.

Philip Lopate describes the personal essayist as attempting “to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.”  This is also a good description of the revision process.  Coming at our story from only one angle makes for a one-dimensional story.  But if we come at it again and again, fleshing out memories, complicating characters, questioning motives, and layering awareness upon fresh awareness, our story grows multifaceted and gripping.   The time for trimming can always wait.

Essentially, generating in response to a first draft is an act of listening.  We’re listening to what thus far is unsaid, pulling the “unspoken” out into the realm of the “spoken” so we can work with it and craft it.  This listening is deeper and wider than first-draft listening.  We’re listening in the cracks; we’re listening underneath the printed page.  This is both a skill and an ongoing practice, with consequences, I would argue, in other arenas of our life.      –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

The Revision Journal

The handiest revision tool I know is an empty notebook.  Even the presence of that notebook, silent and full of potential in my desk drawer, influences my writing.  Why?  Because those empty pages, which I’m saving for the purpose of “seeing my subject anew,” exert the same creative potential as the empty pages of my initial draft.  I have this much space (one hundred college ruled pages) to explore my project, adding nuance and insight and depth.  And all that space is removed from the rough draft, which usually resides in a computer file—that is, it’s a space apart from my actual composition where I can be brutally honest and unbelievably sloppy.  The revision notebook is my happy companion.

What goes in it?   First, I’ve taken a lesson from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and use it to vent about the writing process.  If I’m stuck, I write about being stuck.  If I’m despairing, I make note of it.  Over time, I’ve learned to recognize patterns in the emotional highs and lows of writing and find comfort in their familiarity.  For example, I often feel stymied between drafts, as though I’ll never see my way clear to a new vision for the work.  This awareness, and the fact that the stymied period always passes, has over time eased my sense of panic.  A save space to hash out my process acts as a release valve and makes me more self-aware as a writer.

Second, a notebook allows us to use our natural voice without having to be conscious of our readers.  In my experience, my clearest, freshest voice emerges when I write only for myself.  When I periodically turn to my notebook to journal about my process or subject matter, I ground myself back in that voice.  Sometimes phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs emerge that I then transfer to my draft.  More often I simply remember my voice, I shed my pretenses, and return to my writing with greater integrity.

Third, old fashioned pen and paper allow writers to play with their manuscripts in ways a computer can’t.  I use my notebook to draw mind maps, bubbles of ideas that link and digress and sprawl.  I make timelines to help me sort out chronology.  I sketch visual representations of my work’s structure so I can see its entire shape.  I color-code elements of the story—characters, themes, places—to find gaps and to create balance.  In other words, the revision notebook provides me with an entirely new method to work with my prose.

Likewise, different material emerges when we use various tools for writing.  My prose is faster, sloppier, and bolder when I compose on the computer.  When I write by hand, I pay more attention to individual words; I pause more often to think; I’m more apt to be honest, probably because I’ve journaled by hand for decades.  Having two modalities increases my chances of getting at the heart of my project.

Lest you consider me a Ludite, for every project I also keep a computer file dedicated to revision.  There I harbor the “darlings” I’m unwilling to kill—that is, when I cut passages from my draft, they move to the purgatory of my revision journal where they usually languish.  But I am comforted that they still exist, and I always read through them before moving on to another draft to determine whether my judgment was good.  This file allows me to move quickly from draft to journal when I’ve had an inspiration mid-stream but don’t want to interrupt myself.  I write a lot of lists in this journal.

The journal can act as a retreat place—a haven where we can see our work with fresh perspective and from which we can return to composing with renewed vigor.        –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Why Revise?

Lately I’ve been feeling like a revision evangelical.  The majority of my teaching time is spent converting beginning and intermediate writers into revisers—that is, into writers who labor beyond their rough drafts into more and more mature versions, taking their creative ideas through the paces of the writing process until they become polished work.  Learning to revise is a huge hurdle to overcome.  Most beginning writers never get past the generating stage because revision is too demanding.  And most writing teachers shy away from teaching the revision process, I suspect because creating writing prompts is easier than helping writers to jettison egos, generate new narrative structures, and discover unifying themes.

Why, exactly, am I hung up on revision?  I spend the vast bulk of my own writing time revising and feel revision needs corresponding air-time in the classroom.  I’ve grown weary of reading first drafts, no matter how inspired, because first drafts always fail to explore the full complexity of a subject.  Mostly, however, I’m interested in how our small, personal stories can become windows onto a universal story, the story of being human.  Rough drafts of memoirs are invariably self-centered, and rightly so—authors need space to muck around in the stuff of their lives before they can discover anything truthful or timeless.  Revision is essentially the process of digging under and around and within our stories so we can present them in the most thorough, honest light.  I want to bring people, both writers and readers, to this light.

Lest you haven’t heard enough from this bully pulpit, I’d suggest this as the main reason you should consider revising your work:  If you want the heart of your experience to connect, through language, to the heart of your readers, you must look beyond the first version of your story.  You must ‘see it again’.  Hearts are hidden deep in the body, and a first draft is always skin-deep.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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