It’s 4:56 a.m., and I have just dropped off my daughter at work. I pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit down in front of my laptop, and open my working revision of my latest novel, Fossil Five.
Seven days to go, I think. Seven days until I release my story to 15 readers around the world to read and review. It will be the first time I have allowed anybody to read the manuscript, and the moment of truth is suddenly inevitable.
Is it any good? Does it connect with a diverse group of readers? Or was it all a waste of time? An illusion of grandeur that I really had something important to say, when in fact I said nothing at all?
The questions flow through my mind constantly. I know it’s fear talking, this little, bothersome voice in the back of my mind doing its best to plant seeds of doubt, and that knowledge alone diminishes its grip on me. Still, I cannot silence it entirely, and the whispers of negativity continue as I work through the early morning hours, writing segues and deleting derailments as I tighten up this story that has consumed me for nearly 5 years.
By July 23, I will know. The feedback will trickle in between July 1st and the 23rd, and then I’ll analyze each review to see where the strengths and weaknesses line up. Sending it out to 15 independent readers and receiving 15 independent responses will tell me most everything I need to know. The question will no longer be, “Is this good enough?” Fifteen unique readers will confirm this question.
Or they will respond with a declarative, “No.”
Yes, the wait will be interminable.
But this is all my doing (or undoing). I write because I love to spin a good story, to share an idea, to entertain my readers and maybe make a little difference along the way for the better.
And we’ll find out on July 23 if, indeed, I have come close to doing that in Fossil Five.
For now, I keep working through my revisions. My list of needs is down to 8, and most of them are quick fixes. Then, it all comes down to the final read-through, making sure dates, settings, and characters are all consistent, and are all contributing in a fluid, entertaining way to a realistic beginning, middle, and end to the story.
I’ve waited a long time for this, and my readers have been ever-faithful. I just hope I don’t disappoint them with Fossil Five. I hope they enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
I’m not much on labels, but in 1981, Betsy Flowers published an article in Language Arts that talked about the four different kinds of writers. Without going into too much detail, here they are:
Madman: Unleashed, uninhibited writing that’s a free-flow from brain and heart to parchment.
Architect: Planned structures of the story, plotting out the beginning, middle, and end with precision and perfection.
Carpenter: focused writing with an understanding of the bigger game plan. This writer likes to get to work and get the work done.
Judge: Critical, judgmental, stickler for details. This writer can’t sleep at night without making firm decisions about semi-colons and Oxford commas.
In most of my larger writing projects, such as Fossil Five, I’ve been the avid architect to a fault. When I get into the actual writing, though, the madman takes over and tries to push the Carpenter to the margins, giving him little to no respect in the process of writing.
Frustrating, to say the least.
This has, very unfortunately, created a 100,000-plus word document that is nowhere near finished, with scraps of solid writing that is woefully disjointed from the rest of the story line. For months, I have been trying to sew it all together like some kind of Frankenstein story, but to no avail.
That’s because it’s impossible to sew up the works of a madman and stick to the carefully constructed plan of an architect. For more times than I care to count, I have jumped eagerly into the story, determined to finish it and get it ready for publication, only to hit the brick wall of this impossible scenario and walk away screaming, pulling my hair out, and moving on to…nothing.
A few months ago, I decided to take a slightly different approach, and stick with the core manuscript and just work from chapter to chapter, adjusting the story as I went along. But even that didn’t work out, because I still felt too glued to the original architectural plan that, on paper, seems perfectly logical.
Frustration emerges, and I shut down once again.
I will never finish this book, I thought.
Fast forward to this weekend, where I started re-reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Great book. I recommend it highly. As I’m reading the story, I’m thinking the whole time that his planning must have been crazy tight to make this work. That led me to pull his memoir, On Writing, from the shelves and give it another read, too.
Instead of gaining great wisdom from one of my writing idols, I wanted to throw the how-to book across the room and burn my own manuscript-in-progress. I don’t think I ever felt more like a failure up until that moment.
I found my fellow creative Jodi Cleghorn on line and shared my thoughts with her. As always, she offered sage advice from halfway around the world in her Australian home.
First, she reminded me that the present is the perfect time, always, to write. And what we create in the present is exactly the way the story is meant to me.
Great advice. I absolutely swallow this medicine full-spoon.
Second, she offered me a plan that seems so simple, yet so brilliant. Stuff your pack and fill your water bottle and go on a 5-day writing hike with just the manuscript. Then, on days 6 and 7, break out the maps, check your course, and plan the next 5 (loosely).
Brilliant. By this time, I’ve thrown the spoon over my shoulder and am now taking full swigs from the medicine jar.
So today, I did just that. I let go of the maps, the outlines, the plans, and I listened to the whispers of what I’ve written on the pages, and what still needs to be written between them.
What I realized in re-reading both works by King and listening to my fellow creative Cleghorn is this:
Somewhere in the middle, between the madman and the architect, the carpenter has to be given the chance to modify the plans. Both the madman and the architect need to take a break, release the creativity to the hammer-hitting writer, and trust the process.
Yes, trust the process within the process.
The result? After writing, revising, and reconstructing for nearly 7 hours today, I now see new possibilities in the major structure of the story. It’s simpler, but deeper; more chronological, but suspenseful. It’s like nothing I ever imagined for this story, and yet it does not alter the major plan for the full story.
Jodi is exactly right. Today’s story is perfect, because it took everything I’ve done in the past few years to get to this point today to let go. To let the story and its structure emerge from the wild writings of the madman and the over-structured planning of the architect.
So tomorrow the boots go back on, I sling the backpack over my shoulder, and I fill my water bottle for another day of writing.
I’ve been writing a long time, and when I go back and read my earliest works written in the 1980s, I see a lot of experimentation and non-conformity while still sticking to the basics of story structure: a defined beginning, middle, and end falling neatly within the boundaries of the standard plot sequence.
Although I have never strayed fully from the unconventional (and those who have read Cold Rock understand what I mean), I have tried, unsuccessfully, to play on both sides of the fence, breaking into traditional markets with rather unconventional works. I have had little patience for the game, and I have made the decision to stick with self-publishing. It gives me unlimited creative license to publish my works while still reaching my core group of readers. If more comes of it through word-of-mouth because my readers like what I am doing, then more power to the self-publishing approach.
I am no stranger to Vogler’s work, and I have been using the 12-stage journey he outlined years ago in many of my works.
Yorke challenges such structures and ultimately asks two vital questions:
Most analysts of story, such as Vogler, posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?
Not one of them asks: Why?
And herein lies the main question. There is no doubt that the story analysts are correct; they have identified what works with readers and viewers for centuries, and they have offered reliable story structures for creatives to use in the most predictably formulaic style that meets with success nearly every time. Ask them why and most writers and directors will say it has something to do with what we’ve been experiencing all of our lives; it’s what we are used to. It’s built into our DNA.
Probably one of the most indefensible but satisfying answers ever spewed, and the meta-conscious generations of the 21st century aren’t going to buy it for much longer.
I’ve had the extraordinarily good fortune of working with two writers living in Australia who are not afraid to take risks, to bend the boundaries of those conventional structures, and explore the connections with readers in very unconventional ways. It has made me a stronger writer, and it has given me greater confidence to develop my writing through my own eyes, and not necessarily through the more narrow confines of what traditional publishers are looking for.
Yorke is absolutely right. Creatives — writers, artists, musicians, producers — need to understand why that connection exists with their audiences so they can abandon the more formulaic structures of story and still connect as strongly — maybe more powerfully than ever — with their readers and viewers.
What This Means For Creatives
We, as creatives, need to continue to boldly experiment with form, crafting unconventional ways to reach our audience that don’t necessarily follow a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in the middle of the twentieth century.
In other words, we can’t let numbers dictate our craft of story, and just continue to crank out the formulaic pieces that publishers want that are going to sell the highest number of copies and pull in the highest number of dollars.
I believe and know that this is continuing to happen all too often. My hope is that, with the explosive opportunities offered in self-publishing, creatives of all kinds will begin to take greater leaps of faith in experimenting with their structure and approach to storytelling.
Give yourself the freedom and the license to create, to experiment, to discover uninhibitedly the storyteller within you that, in your own unique way, still connects and resonates deeply with your audience.
I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking and thinking and thinking about what to write about. Even though I keep a little Piccadilly notebook with me at all times, capturing little snippets of life that I find interesting, I don’t do enough with them.
In those moments, I am happy that I jotted them down. Good to make that thought concrete, I think to myself. And it is good. I believe there’s a lot of life that passes us by that is fascinating, especially the small things that we see between the bigger events.
Sitting at a table with a group of high school friends, listening to one tell a fascinating story of saving her small business, I glance across the crab cakes and buttered vegetables to see another friend pick up her napkin, dab the corner of her eye, and try to push a smile to support the success of her friend. Try to fit in. Try to not let the world see that she is elsewhere, caught in her own memory. I meant to mention something to her after the dinner, but by then she was — or seemed — totally fine. She moved on, and so did I.
Later, I remember and I jot these observations down in my little notebook, then go about my busy life. Months later I page through the old notes, and there it is:
Kelly’s tear when Tracy was sharing her business story. What memory composed that tear?
My notebook is filled with notes like this one, and many of them are left unexplored. While that little journal is capturing the immediate observations, I just don’t do enough to follow through with the deeper stories, whether they might be real or eventually fictional, as “Gretchie’s Gift” turned out to be.
There’s a reason for that. Simply put, I need to think less and share more.
I’ve always enjoyed coming here to the Baltimore Writer and sharing my ideas and observations with you, but I just haven’t done it enough this year.
In fact, when I take a quick glance at the stats, I’m pretty ashamed of what I see. The last five years have been ridiculously light, posting 40 or fewer pieces each year, with just 11 posted thus far in 2016:
Now, these stats don’t mean that I haven’t been writing. When it comes to constructed fiction for the purpose of publishing with a larger audience (beyond this blog) in the 11 years since I started blogging regularly, I’ve written nearly 500,000 words. And my larger daybooks are filled with hundreds of thousands of more raw words that have never been shared with others.
But what I am sharing with all of you here at the Baltimore Writer… That needs to improve — not because I don’t think that I am writing enough. It’s because I don’t think I am sharing and publishing enough. What good are the thoughts if they never reach the hearts and the minds of my readers, both today and tomorrow?
That’s why I created the Baltimore Writer. I wanted to reach all of you more with my daily thoughts, even the mundane ones, about what life is like through these eyes. It would be easy for me to make this a goal for 2017, but I don’t want to wait until the new year begins to do that.
So, it is my intent to resume publishing posts here as daily as possible about writing, about living here in Baltimore, about being a dad, about being spiritual, about being a human being just trying to manage a complicated life that needs to be simplified.
I expect the entries will be a little less polished, but you will hear a genuine voice, uncensored, about life as observed through these eyes. What my readers wish to do with it… well, that is up to you. My hope is that it will leave you thinking a little about what you are observing (and maybe eventually writing and sharing). But even that’s pushing it. In truth, I am just throwing these thoughts into the Universe; may they be used as necessary, now and tomorrow.
I appreciate that so many of my friends do this via social media platforms. Those posts, stories, and pictures capture what I believe is becoming a more genuine reflection of their lives. I’m seeing less of the cherry-picked moments of joy and perfection and more of the authentic experiences, both good and challenging.
That’s all I want to do here: give you the good and the challenging, and more often.
I look forward to sharing them with you in the days, months, and — God willing — years to come.
—- You can read more on my professional site, The LifeStory Lighthouse, where you can also download my latest collection of Christmas stories, essays, and reflections (featuring “Gretchie’s Gifts).
Many years ago, Sharon Miller, National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant and nationally recognized author and educator in the teaching of writing, asked me to offer my thoughts on the power of revision in the genre of creative nonfiction and how, when we write with intent in the revision process and understand who our audience is, we can produce high-quality writing products that are both effective and accessible to our readers.
Recently, Sharon revisited my theories on revision and applied them to fiction writing. I am happy to say that, in her analysis, they still stand. You can read her complete discussion HERE.
I am humbled by Sharon’s discussion of my writing theories (especially regarding revision and the reader-writer connection) in both genres of creative nonfiction and fiction. Since she published my original assertions nearly 15 years ago, I have refined my theories on revision, with a focus on the writer’s intent once the decision is made to take a piece of writing to publication.
As shown in the updated graphic below, the writer “revises with intent,” keeping the intended audience in mind to ensure the reader’s accessibility to the content. But to best understand the role revision plays in writing, the writer also needs to understand what happens before the stage of revision even begins.
In the early stages of drafting, the writer must provide herself with the opportunity to write uninhibitedly, to play with ideas and explore without judgment or even consideration of the potential audience. It is here that she allows her Voice, through her raw thoughts and ideas, to resonate as only she can do.
In this early drafting stage, the entire focus should be to understand exactly what the writer wants to say, and why.
The “how” all of this is done is the focus in the revision stage. This is the point when the writer understands — and agrees upon — the establishment of a working relationship with the reader. It is here that the journey begins to “let go” of a reasonable amount of the raw writing while still maintaining the essence of her voice in a polished work that keeps the writing, the message, and the connection with the reader authentic.
Writers of academic and creative writing often procrastinate and wait until the final hours of their deadline to create a piece of writing that they deem suitable to submit so they can say proudly, “I made my deadline,” as if that were the only goal. Editors (and professors) in both genres are increasingly frustrated that writers often misunderstand the more important aspect of the deadline: to present a polished product that is authentic and that deeply connects with the intended reader. This aspect of writing is often sacrificed because of this misunderstanding.
Writers of academic papers, creative nonfiction, and fiction all need to embrace the importance of this stage of revision and understand the oft-ugly and unrewarding ownership that falls on them to manage. Revision is the darkest part of the writer’s journey, but it is the only path that leads to polished writing that is accessible to the reader long after the writer has moved on to other works.
On June 16, when I cut ties with social media to focus entirely on finishing my book, Fossil Five, I made a big deal about descending into darkness (you can read about it HERE). After all, I selected a 105-day period that ran from a new moon to a total lunar eclipse. You can’t get much darker than that, I thought.
Until I heard from a college friend, who reached out to me the other day, disconsolate as she struggled with her own darkness in the early stages of divorce.
“There is no light,” she wrote. “Everywhere I turn, there is this blackness, this abyss, and it all looks the same. I have no idea where to go or what to do, because no direction is providing any hope.”
Our periods of darkness are relative, and her darkness is genuine and even terrifying. Even with the great differences between her involuntary darkness and my decision to “go dark” for 105 days, there are some similarities that emerge.
When I took that big jump off the cliff (and into my own creative abyss), I wanted to remove myself from the distractions. What I found is that what lurks in that darkness are all of the things that really have stopped me from writing all this time. And down here, they are just plain mean and ugly.
Now, I’m not beating myself up here. I write all the time, and more for publication than at any other time in my writing career. But there’s writing for the paper, or blogging, or journaling … and then there’s writing a 130,000-word story about five individuals who have inherited the mystery of their lives.
This story — and all by my doing — has been a bear to map, to design, to plot, to create.
Going into the abyss was necessary. I knew it then when I made the decision, and I affirm it today, 36 days into the journey.
Removing social media and other distractions, however, only showcased the deeper reasons for the challenges I’ve faced with finishing this story.
And that, Fellow Creatives and Faithful Readers, is why this is the hardest — and best, I hope — story I have ever written.
So what’s in the dark lurking with these words about these five wandering characters, facing their own challenges right along with me?
Raw, primal living where I am face-to-face with the big questions challenging my Faith. Trust. Commitment.
I’m a 50-year-old husband and father of three children, ages 10 to 19. Life is busy, as it is for everyone else, and I am writing around and among my life as a husband, father, and individual. I have chosen to sacrifice none of these things as I write.
But still, I write.
In this darkness, I have explored the depths of my own faith and am more spiritually connected in a 50/50 East–West blend of Taoism and Christianity that, if it were a brew at Starbucks, the line would be out the door. My faith continues to strengthen, my confidence in who I am, my belief in the power of my spiritual core and what I am here to do, here to give, here to share.
In this darkness, I have hit some pretty low points in motivation and creativity. But in those low points, I have realized what trust is all about: trust in others, trust in a plan, trust in having patience. I have realized that the greatest Trust comes in what cannot be seen.
But still, in all that darkness, I continue to write.
And in that writing, the trust and patience have turned frustration into epiphany. I have discovered new connections, new experiences, new opportunities for Fossil Five as well as for myself. These would have never been possible without jumping off that cliff and into the abyss.
As well, in this darkness, I better understand commitment, and that going all-out for one thing (plunging into darkness to finish writing a book) doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the world stops spinning. Kids get sick, bills need to be paid, and dogs and cats still need to taken care of.
Commitment is the long walk, the big journey over hills and through valleys. It’s through rains and then droughts. It’s in the blazing, intense sun and under the ecliptic, portentous storm clouds. It’s day when it’s night, and night when it’s day. It’s the most oxymoronic experience of my life.
And still, in that darkness — thanks to commitment, I continue to write.
I guess that after you have walked a few hundred-thousand steps and you look over your shoulder, you see how far you have really come through all of it, even when life was so dark that you couldn’t see your foot as you took the next step forward.
I marvel at how far Faith, Trust, and Commitment have carried me, just as they begin to carry my friend facing divorce, and just as they might have carried you (or continue to at this moment). All because we kept moving, or kept writing. We invested Trust. We held on to our Faith. We didn’t waver in our commitment, even though we might have trudged begrudgingly up the hills and searched for a way out of the valleys.
How beautiful it all continues to be.
For my friend on the verge of divorce, I tried to offer a little life-light to let her know that she was not alone. In her own abyss, there can still be Faith, and Trust, and Commitment that will pull her through. In darkness, these three — and Love (always Love) — will get us through. I hope she reads this, and I hope she knows that others (you, and you, and I know you) have been in your own darkness. You got through, as will she.
We just need Faith, Trust, Commitment to see the first beam of light, feel the dark slip slowly out of sight, and gather strength from the Promise that awaits.
It always awaits.
The story itself of Fossil Five: I am in love with it. Every single word. I don’t regret the struggles along the way, the battles within and the challenges around me. All I need to do is keep writing, and I’ll reach my goal of finishing this beautiful, wonderful story about five people I have come to love very much.
So. It’s back to the writing. Thank you for allowing me these few moments of light to share these thoughts with you.
I look forward to the moment when I can finally share these five fine lives with all of you as well. I do believe they will change your life, as they have changed mine.
Until then, Embrace Faith. Have Trust. Be unwavering in your Commitment.
A few days ago, a close friend passed away rather suddenly. I think the shock of her death gripped many of us in those first hours, where we didn’t know exactly how to react. We searched for meaning, we tried to make sense of the fact that she was here in one moment, and gone in the next.
I posted the following on Facebook to express that yearning for understanding:
When a friend dies, you search. You look for meaning in your own life, seek out understanding in the loss, and rummage through old words shared. In that search, you find yourself laughing and crying, wishing and regretting, loving and hating. Gretchen, I have done all of these things in the past 5 hours, and none of it brings me any closer to finding illumination in a loss as great as yours. There were too many stories untold that we were to share over coffee. You, Gretchen, will always be a merchant of smiles to the masses. We love you, and we will miss you greatly.
The morning after I posted it, a person I did not know on social media commented on it and asked if, many years ago, our paths might have crossed. It turned out they did – for the entire year of third grade, where she was my teacher.
Other elementary school classmates joined in, and within moments words of grief had turned into a celebration of life and gratitude. In Gretchen’s passing, relationships were rekindled, brought together for profound, yet simple purposes: there is an appreciation of life in this moment, and wherever we go, we can discover the beauty of others that swirls around us endlessly. There is no limit in the abundance of love.
In talking with my old teacher and new friend, I found myself returning to two memories from elementary school. The first was when I was in first grade, and I had written a little tribute to Abraham Lincoln for Presidents’ Day. In that brief piece, which I read to the whole school during the afternoon announcements (talk about publishing at a young age), I remember distinctly calling Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife, his “beloved.” The principal snickered and suppressed a laugh as she held the microphone in front of me. I guess this was the first review I had ever received of my writing.
The second memory was of another teacher I had in elementary school. Jack Delaney was my sixth grade language arts teacher. He passed away 11 years later in my first year of teaching in 1988. Jack assigned us weekly writing projects, which I absolutely loved. What Jack did differently, though, was he had us go through this thing called “the writing process,” where we would draft stories, workshop them, edit them, and then share them with a larger audience.
Perhaps that was happening all throughout elementary school and I just don’t remember it. I certainly don’t remember workshopping the line about Abe’s “beloved” wife Mary.
The point is, Jack gave me a chance to breathe as a writer. He gave me the space to explore writing and take risks as that writer. Since that year, I have journaled on a near-daily basis. And in those journals, I have discovered the writer within.
We don’t all have those lucky moments where we are given, directly, the chance to discover who we are as artists. In fact, in too many instances (especially today), those opportunities no longer exist. There isn’t time in the classroom, or we are too caught up in other aspects of life to give ourselves the time to discover that writer or artist within.
But inside you, the artist resides. You have to make the time, create the space, provide yourself with the license to write for no other purpose than to discover your voice and see yourself for the artist you have always been.
Maybe you journaled a little when you were younger, and you had to pass it up for reasons that, even today, might make perfect sense. What makes greater sense, though, is reconnecting with the artist inside you, giving that artist the chance to breathe, and allowing that artist to resonate more confidently through you.
In Part 2 of my series “Answering The Call To Adventure,” I will address how you can create a vision – an authentic direction – as that writer.