The Non-Writing Process
So everybody talks about the writing process, I wanna talk about the not-writing process. And I've said already, I think a lot of people write way too soon before they know what they have to say. So I'm just going to say again, think first, and if you go home today and you don't start typing write away, good on you. Think for a while. You've probably written a whole lot of things. Don't go back to your old stuff and say I'm gonna fix that word here, and fix that word there. Do the really bold thing which is start something new but not right away. Just start thinking about something new and oh, I'm gonna say something, I'm actually gonna go ahead to a slide and then come back. I'm gonna go to trusting the gut because I'm gonna say throw stuff out! Throw out your work, be bold about this. You know gardeners do it all the time. Rip out plants that are actually alive but they really, you know, they're just not the right plant in that spot in the garden, and they know that they've grown one...
plant, they can grow another. I'm not gonna continue that metaphor actually (audience laughs) but I'm just gonna say, one of the hardest things that I do when I teach a workshop, people you know, send off these lovingly crafted stories to me, and I do warn them a little bit and the people who are in this room, and there are a few who've you know, worked with me before know this already that very often what I say is throw it out, start again. It doesn't mean that that was a waste of your time for having written it. Everything single thing that you did in that piece, every single mistake you made, wrong turn you may have taken, will help you with the next thing you write, but trust your gut, read your work, not thinking oh there's some really good adjectives in here and I love that image there, and it was so hard to write, and I get so little time, be bold and say to yourself if I've written those good phrases, I'll write more good phrases. Give yourself the gift of the blank page, the fresh start, and this doesn't apply to everybody, and it may not apply to you and you'll know if it doesn't, but trust your gut. If you don't love your work, if you, you know, a very good test is you know when somebody says to me oh I've had this novel that I've been working on for 20 years or I have this memoir that I put away five years ago, but I'm taking it out again now. Really? Was there something really good that you put away five years ago and you're only just taking out now? If there's an excellent chocolate cake in my fridge, am I gonna leave it five years? (audience laughs) No, I am not. Trust your gut. You know when you're doing something good and incidentally I'm not telling you to do anything that I haven't done myself. I have thrown away and still do as recently as a few months ago, hundreds of pages. They weren't badly written, they just weren't good enough for you. Honestly, for you. I want everything I do to be the very best I can do and if it isn't, if it's less than my best, why should I bother you with reading it at all? Sometimes (laughs), this hasn't happened for a while but on occasion, I've fallen asleep at my laptop. Bad sign! (audience laughs joyfully) If I'm falling asleep writing my own work, I certainly am not going to foist it on you. So trust your gut. I guess I'm gonna go back here cause I wanna talk about loneliness now. You know (chuckles), as you can see, I'm a little overexcited today cause I don't usually get to be with this many people for this long. It is probably the thing that I have the hardest time about in the line of work that I'm in. I'm an extroverted person, I really enjoy being out in the world, but a writer has to spend a lot of time by herself, and there's just no getting around that. And if you can't deal with that, then know it and go off and party. I deal with it by writing fast so (laughs joyfully) I get to finish the book sooner, and I do, I write books pretty fast, so I can go back out into the world for a while and I can put on high heels, and you know go to a bookstore or come to Creative Live. But accept the loneliness and then one of the ways that you can deal with it it is that while you're writing, you're gonna have to be by yourself, but at the end of the day, have some ears and eyes on your work that you trust, and who this is not is your best friend, or your husband, or your wife, or your mother. It is not somebody who loves you. It is somebody who is probably writing himself or herself, and prepared to give you a hard time, and tell you the hard truth. You're laughing Barbara, you have a good person like that, somebody really mean?
Yeah, that's who it should be, and I've heard of writing groups that sound really nurturing and supportive, where everybody sits around and says keep up the good work, and oh I wanna hear more of that, and that will make you feel really good but it is not going to make you grow as a writer. It's everything that I do believe we should do as parents. You know good job! Good job! But for writers, you need actually to have a tough, critical eye on your work, and one of the things that actually I always say, sometimes people wanna work with me as a teacher individually, you know have a session with me looking at their work, and I say you're missing a really important part of the process which is the collective gut of the other writers in the workshop, because when people tune into their real instincts, not what they think they should like, you know they think oh that sounded really impressive, there were a lot of metaphors in that one, I guess it's really, you know, good writing. But when they actually tune into when they're interested, you know how we perk up when you know Barbara says she's a sex counselor to people who have no arms and no legs, you know, we're interested! You know we know when there's something that we wanna hear more about. We know that I don't need to go through all the stories that we've heard in this room. We've heard, we've had powerful, wonderful stories, and everybody would be able to name the moments today when their hair stood up on the back of their neck, or they could feel something in their throat. Find those people. Find those people to read and speak to your work honestly. I have to talk about this one. I wish I didn't. I wish we could just carry on writing our stories and sharing our stories, but people do and I do understand it, want to publish their stories. They want their stories... Or some people do, some people don't. I'm actually always really happy when somebody comes to a workshop of mine and says actually I don't really wanna publish my work that much, I just really wanna write it well. Great, but I, who am I to talk? I've been a lucky person who's published her work since I was 14 years old, I don't even save copies anymore, it's not a big thrill to me but I do understand. I will tell you that it has not been the thing that has given me the ultimate fulfillment in my life. Numbers of sales, you know the couple of times I've had a bestseller. Those weren't the moments. They were the moments that you know, paid my kids college tuition some semesters, but they weren't the moments that actually gave me the greatest fulfillment in my life. The greatest fulfillment in my life came when I got letter from you know, a kid in Iowa who read my book The Cloud Chamber. I'm sure none of you in this room has even read this book cause only about 40 people did, (audience chuckles) but he was one and he said you know what, I was a kid like that kid in that book, that (inaudible). And that kid still sends me letters, he just rereads that book. Those are the things actually. It's not big sales, it's not book deals, it's not bestseller list, it's feeling that I've told a story well and that I'm proud of it. But having said that, I feel a responsibility to give you my two cents worth about the world of publishing. I'm not gonna talk about how to get an agent, or how to get, how to write a query letter. The best way you can publish your work is to do good work, and there are publications out there, Poets and Writers Magazine is one of them publishers - that's actually the one that I like the best - that have all kinds of listed agents, don't ever pay anybody to read your manuscript, I don't believe in that speed-dating in agent stuff. My big worry about submitting work, certainly submitting work prematurely, is that it's gonna take you away from the work, and that if it doesn't go well, it's gonna stop you from the work. You're gonna be fixated and obsessed with the mailbox and are you getting the response, and you're much more likely to get the response that you want if you work a lot harder on the writing first. And you will know when the writing is ready. It's very tempting to type up the letter, put the envelope in the mail. It's much harder work to just polish the writing and not even polishing, not just like clean it up a little bit, but do the really hard work on the writing. But when you are ready to publish your work, you believe you've done the best you can, and other people who have put their eyes on your work say the same, go to a magazine like publishers (stutters), like Poets and Writers, read the list of agents, look at the acknowledgements in books that you like, see what agents writers thank in those acknowledgements, and if it's a writer that does work that feels like your kind of work, write a letter to that agent and say that, and sometimes you'd be surprised. They'll write back and say okay, I wanna read your work.