I’ve had the clandestine identity writer since I first scribbled in crayon on the living room wall. But there was always one small problem: talent. So the first thing I needed to do was to go out there and get me some of that God-given talent that God hadn’t given me yet. Here are the lessons I’ve learned.
Lesson One: Getting some skill
I took a noncredit course at the New School in New York City called Finding Your Voice In Non-Fiction. It seemed perfect. For 10 weeks 20 of us sat around and critiqued each other’s essays. This confirmed something I had suspected: Some people were better writers than me. I could tell. Their writing had whole sentences and nifty words. They had nice little paragraphs and compelling stories about something that really happened to them.
I learned how to identify what made their writing enticing, which made my drivel more readable. This was a challenge, of course, but there was an even bigger realization helping me: There were people who were worse than me.
After the third time I had taken the class I realized that it was a matter of trying to tap into a source inside me and write from there, speak from there, discover from there. This voice was both familiar and new, but it wasn’t mine until I wrote it down and worked with it.
The instructor focused on the fact that we had to write from this place inside of us. I was all set to take the class the fourth time when my work schedule changed. (Yes, I had a day job as a mental health professional. Hard to believe, eh?) I wasn’t free to take the class yet again. That’s when I decided to check out what the university was offering online.
The online professor was influenced only by what she read, not by my charming personality. She was able to discern when I was expressing myself using my voice, and when I wasn’t. The online course let my words, my voice, tell the tale on their own. This was a vastly different experience than having other students give you a face-to-face critique. In cyberspace what you write is who you are, and the feedback is more direct. My voice now was evidenced only in what I wrote, not in how I read or argued my point.
Lesson Two: Making a commitment and setting goals
Yeah, I know I said I wanted to be a writer ever since the Crayola incident, but I didn’t realize just how much time it was going to take. I had a fantasy: I would dictate my brilliant thoughts into a tape recorder, hire someone to type them up, and then send it off to my fictional nonfiction literary agent, who would call back at the end of the week with a six-figure contract. Naturally the publishers would try to outbid each other.
The one fly in this delusional ointment was the fact that sitting down to write something engaging was much more difficult than I could imagine. When I began the essays for my memoir it was not uncommon for me to spend more than an hour on the opening sentence, and sometimes the entire writing time on a single paragraph.
I found only one cure for this dilemma: To find my voice, I needed to spend more time writing. I began thinking about writing all the time, and started to notice that the only time I felt better was after I had written. Occasionally I binged and wrote for three or four hours. I realized my condition was critical when I began jotting down ideas on napkins. I finally admitted I had an addiction, albeit a positive one. This was a big step for me, and soon I began introducing myself to groups differently: “Hello, my name is Dan, and I’m a writer.”
I set a goal of writing 10 hours a week, but not all of that time was used to write. Some of the time went into research, some of it went into editing, but the majority went into stalling. I would sit myself down at the computer to write, then realize I did not have a cup of tea. Once that was done, the window had to be opened and the windowbox flowers watered. Checking e-mail also was required. Of course there was the microwaving of the too-cool tea, then voila! The 90-minute writing session was over.
Famed author Henry James (brother of William James, famed psychologist) said a writer should “…be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” What I became painfully aware of was how much time I time I lost getting my damn self ready. To fix this, I changed my goal to a number. I wanted to write 1,000 words a week. Somehow this transition to word count rather than hour count altered my habits significantly. I was now able to focus on word production rather than consuming hours. I was less worried about how good my writing was, and more willing to produce first and edit later.
You’ll have to find what works for you, but this did the trick for me. I still had to engage in the ritual of getting ready, but when the tea was cold I wouldn’t warm it up until I had reached the word count.
I kept setting goals that stretched my comfort zone. Eventually I went back to the New School’s master of fine arts program. These people seemed to know lots about writing, a writer’s voice, and setting goals. They did a very good job of stretching, and in some places eliminating my boundaries. In fact, when I was done, the electric fence around my comfort zone had been unplugged, and I was regularly meandering into the wilderness. They’d done their job well.
Lesson Three: A good essay isn’t written. It’s rewritten.
The next delusion was that once I thought a piece was finished it actually was so. This was very, very wrong. Once a piece was finished it meant it simply had been born. One of the essays that made its way into my memoir went through 28 revisions before publication. Nothing went from my head to the laptop to the book. Everything went through an extensive rewriting process that improved the work continuously. Some of the changes were conceptual, some were stylistic, and some were grammatical, but all moved the pieces forward in some way. Initially my problem was producing work, but eventually the issue became rewriting to make it publishable.
The single greatest lesson I’ve learned is to write what I feel inspired to write, and to accept the fact that only about one tenth of what I produce will make it into print. In some odd way this has taken the pressure off me to hit the nail on the head when I write something. Instead I can focus on trying to convey a thought or a feeling, and allow myself the luxury of rewriting it until my voice is as clear as possible.
Being a writer is like being a sculptor who creates a final product by taking just the right thing away. Much of writing is a subtractive, rather than additive, process. The essence of the expression makes it into print, just as the essence of the artist’s vision — not the entire block of stone — makes it into a sculpture.
Along with this came the inevitable work with editors. After my masterpiece was ready I brought it to someone to edit it. The first piece I got back from one of my professors looked like he had bled all over it. When I realized those red marks were where I needed to make changes I nearly had a panic attack. But the truth was when it was done it was a better piece. Much better. One of the things I have learned about rewriting and good editors is that they don’t change your voice, they make it clear and strong. To quote Elie Wiesel:
There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.
Lesson Four: Entering contests.
Once my voice took form in an essay format I began entering contests. It made me feel like a kid again. Since my memoir was about childhood, the contests were a natural ally. I started to get a few honorable mentions, then finally won the New School’s chapbook contest in nonfiction. Winning that contest was what helped me get an agent.
But I still enter contests every month. The contests give me deadlines to work toward on the pieces I am working on, and they keep me motivated. I win some, I lose most, but I’ve learned something from every one.
Lesson Five: Finding an agent
My memoir, Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir, is about how my childhood experiences influenced me as a parent as well as a psychotherapist. I sent 50 queries to agents who handled nonfiction or memoirs and got eight requests for more information. Of the eight, four said what I had wasn’t what they were looking for. Of the four, one said she liked it, but thought I would do better with another agent. Since she had written back first, I sent the manuscript off to the recommended agent with the note from the referring agent. A week later a representative from FinePrint Literary Agency called and said she wanted to represent me.
Having someone believe in your work as much (dare I say more?) than you do is a tremendous asset to a writer. When we received countless rejections she helped reinvent our approach. When it was obvious I needed to do a massive rewrite, she encouraged me. When the time came to negotiate with the publisher she earned her commission and then some. She also asked me what I’ve learned by writing the book. I answered: You are what you write. I already have plans for the bumper sticker.
Lesson Six: Landing a publisher
The only thing better than finding an agent is finding a publisher. From the gazillion and seven contests I entered, one publisher contacted me to tell me I didn’t win, but they wanted to talk to me about “possibilities.” As soon as I received the request I was briefly catatonic. It was a nice rest for half an hour, but when I came to I started feeling like a dog who’s been chasing a car that finally pulled over: Now what?
I called my agent. Here’s the conversation as I remember it.
“The entered I contested just published my phone call and wants to manuscript me about my talk.”
My agent was very sweet. She said I should go have a nice lunch with the publisher person, see what they have to say, and then let her know. She gave me some excellent pointers — use the little fork for salad, and don’t sign anything.
The lunch was everything you’d want in a fantasy meeting with a prospective publisher. She had my manuscript already proofread with notes all over it. I found my voice and the publisher found me. By the time we got to coffee she had my agent’s name and number. It was clear from our meeting that they were checking me out. Was all of my memoir true? Would I be willing to do readings? Why am I using a spoon for my salad?
Lesson Seven: The writer’s other job
At every turn I found that writing wasn’t what I thought it would be. This was particularly true once the manuscript was completed and handed over to the publisher. I thought I would take a small fraction of my advance and take a month-long vacation to Europe. While there I would gather life experiences to be used in my next memoir, and return refreshed and ready to write.
In reality, I spent half the advance on tuition for a weekend course for authors on the nuts and bolts of self-promotion. While my publisher (Graywolf Press) has been very supportive and helpful, they relied heavily on my energy, ideas, and connections for marketing. Everything from the development of a website, to making contacts for readings, to arranging workshops and fundraisers became my new responsibilities. Although I wasn’t expecting all this extra work, I readily took it on. After all, if I don’t have energy and enthusiasm for my book, I can’t expect it from others.
I won’t go into fantasies about how my voice will change if the book becomes a huge success. As far as that goes – I’ll get back to you. Or, if things go the way of my fantasies, my people will get in touch with your people.