Monday, June 20, 2011

Author This!

Author This!

The Art of Discovering and Trusting Your Own Voice

Diana Shellenberger

From a talk delivered at the Longmont Writers Club, June 18, 2011.

Let me briefly tell you a little about myself and my adventures in publishing. I worked as a proofreader for Stinehour Press, a fine arts press in northern Vermont, that primarily printed catalogues for East Coast museum exhibits. I worked as an editor for Greenhaven Press in San Diego, researching and choosing articles for its “Opposing Viewpoints” anthology series and writing introductions and discussion questions. I was a writer and editor for the Association of Brewers, primarily working on a national bimonthly trade magazine and also generating member newsletters and compiling compliance information pertaining to brewing and the sale of alcohol beverages. Over the last eleven years, I raised my family and worked as much as possible at freelance writing. Along the way I published articles and short stories in a variety of publications, and I also wrote two novels in the time when my kids were in school. I dutifully followed the advice of people who shared their wisdom about the publishing process. Like most authors I got more nays than yays.

When Ardelle Gifford called me last winter to invite me to speak today, one of the first things she said was, “Of course we’re all on the eternal quest to get published.”

That’s because whatever medium you choose to write in, whether you’re a poet, or an essayist or a novelist, you want to share what you write. Writers’ clubs are a great way to share your writing and give and receive affirmation and feedback. I know that several small groups meet in between Longmont Writers’ Club meetings to share and discuss their writing. But of course, there’s nothing like getting published to share your thoughts and ideas with a large audience.

I suggest taking a step away from a publishing-centered focus and direct your focus to yourself as a writer—to author this, your life, your self, alongside the writing you do. One of my literary heroes is Wallace Stegner, who said, “If you are a grower and a writer as well, your writing should get better and larger and wiser. But how you teach that, the Lord knows.”

How you teach that is what I’ve been learning for at least the last ten years, through the multiple trial-and-error process I’ve hatched. Teaching you how to do this is what I aim to do in this talk. Enlarging myself as a person is what I’ve been doing, all my life really, but intensively in the last ten years or so. The idea is that by enlarging yourself as a person you enlarge yourself as a writer. Part of that process is helping you identify how to first discover, exercise, trust and speak and write in your own voice as you prepare to publish your writing.

A couple of years ago, it came to my attention that the way I was working, as a writer and as someone seeking publishing—and they are two different things—was not serving me. For one thing I was confused about the distinction between the two. I thought I was looking to get published, when what I was really looking for was affirmation, of my writing and the things I was writing about, but also of myself as a writer and a person.

Now I’m not saying that seeking affirmation for your writing is wrong. Letting affirmation for your writing double as affirmation for yourself, however, is asking for trouble. What happens if the affirmation is a long time in coming? Does that mean that what you’re writing and the way you’re living are both wrong? I’m here to say that they’re not.

In The New Yorker’s summer 2011 fiction edition, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ ”

Lahiri is a great example of someone who toiled in obscurity for a long time before writing a book, Interpreter of Maladies,  that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Many of the ideas she included in this book were rejected numerous times by other publishers. I can only guess when I say this, because I don’t know Ms. Lahiri, but she must have kept going because she believed in what she was writing. Just as importantly, she believed in herself. Author this.

One of the things I have found most irritating about the mystery of getting published is that it makes me into the kind of person I don’t admire—an approval-seeking, dependent creature, rather than the willful, independent person Lahiri says it’s necessary to become in order to even write in the first place. This approval-seeking and dependency makes me afraid to send anything out into the world for fear some all-powerful editor or publisher will baptize it in red ink or send it back to me in pieces with “shit” angrily scrawled on each piece. This actually happened to Professor Greg Keeler, who taught poetry at Montana State University. I’m pleased to report that he survived this assault quite nicely, and has become one of Montana’s most prominent singer/songwriters, in the cowboy/poet tradition.

What I offer you today are ways to discover and appreciate some of the qualities that make you you, and find the courage to introduce them into your writing. No, to actually saturate your writing with them. And you don’t have to win the Pulitzer or any other prize to succeed at doing this. For Greg Keeler, one of his virtues is humor. He can make jokes about everything, most endearingly about himself. The first time my husband met was at an English Department picnic outside Bozeman. Don was expecting to feel out of place among a bunch of literary types. He was getting his masters in geology. Greg had made these comic books, “Poetry Man,” with himself as the subject and the target, both literally and figuratively. He invited everyone there to take one of his kids’ BB-guns and shoot at a copy of the comic book he’d nailed to a post (come on, it’s Montana), which featured a caricature of his face on the cover. This charmed Don and put him at his ease. This is what he does with his art, too.

There is an art of discovering your gifts and sounding the right tone about them. You can almost never go wrong if you share what you’ve been given. The best writers, or artists, or people, are generous. They are adept at making the ordinary into something extraordinary, through the unique way they experience the world and marry those observations to writing.

Workshop break #1: So I invite you to do just this for seven to eight minutes—write something that takes the ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary. I’ve been lucky to have had many good teachers. One of the best was Marilyn Whirry, my eleventh-grade English teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, whose timed writings were the best preparation a young writer could have. She went on to win the 2000 National Teacher of the Year Award. We’d come into class, having read The Great Gatsby,or A Farewell to Arms, and Marilyn would spring a timed writing on us. A timed writing consisted of an evocative question based on our reading and class discussions, and we had thirty minutes to organize our thoughts and write an essay. As terrifying as they were, I can think of no better preparation for thinking on your feet and expressing yourself on the fly. My adventures with timed writings surely contributed to my success at winning a couple of editorial writing contests when I was a senior in high school.

As a prompt, I’ll read a passage from Paul Harding’s book, Tinkers. See how he takes something completely ordinary, like the sky reflected over a pond as a storm blows in, and makes it into something extraordinary, even supernatural, I think. You are welcome to recall a storm you’ve seen come in. Think of something everyone has witnessed, but that only you, with your eyes and memory life experience, can describe. Just start somewhere and see where you go.

Tempest Borealis: 1. The sky turned silver. The pond turned silver from the silver sky. It looked like a pool of mercury. The wind blew and the trees showed the silver-green undersides of their leaves. The sky turned from silver to green. We went to the dock where our wooden rowboats were tied by their noses to aluminum cleats. The wood of the dock was bleached silvery white. We knelt at the edge of the dock and leaned close to the water, so that the silver sky skin disappeared and we saw twigs and weeds and minnows and blood-pumped leeches squiggling along. We could not see them, but we knew that small silver-bellied brook trout hover out of our view, several feet away, just under where the sky skin started again, beyond the ends of the boats. The trout were invisible in the water, green-backed like weeds and the green-black water grass, until they rolled over and broke the water skin to eat insects and showed their silver-green undersides. 2. Wind combed through the fir trees around the rim of the pond like a rumor, like the murmur of old men muttering about the storm behind the mountain. The storm came up from behind the mountain, shrouding the peak. Lightning crawled down the mountain and drank at the water, lapped the shallows with electric tongues, stunning bolt-eyed frogs and small trout and silver minnows. Thunder cracked like falling timber and shook the cabin as it clapped the water skin. 

Creativity Scale

Another thing to look at as you discover your particular writing voice is to assess how you’re working with talent, experience, imagination and practice. What’s really a given is that all of you here have writing talent and are hoping to maximize it. But let’s not overstate the role of talent in this undertaking. The good news is that you need talent less than the other factors—experience, imagination and practice. You can continue to progress in imagination and experience and practice. In fact these three are a never-ending font for all writers. Talent is a given. Finding the balance between them is a creative process in its own right.

My oldest son, who’s nineteen and just finished his freshman year in college, is a good example of someone with a huge amount of talent. He didn’t really speak very much until his second birthday, and then he started speaking in complete sentences. He started reading before he was three. While that was a startling and wonderful achievement, over time it was clear it was too much too soon—especially if you buy into the model that forward progress is a continuous and predictable thing. No one can ever take that achievement away from him. But eventually some of the other kids his age caught up with him and surpassed him.

It was the same the first time he stepped onto a soccer field. He clearly understood the basics of the game more than the other kids, and he continued to progress—though again, not as much as others as the years went by. He still leans on those memories of early and effortless success. He does, however, have a natural talent for learning that I would daresay most if not all of us in this room share. His growing edge is in continuing to augment his natural talent with a zeal for developing what he has.

I’ve noticed that early success is often unsustainable. This is where experience comes in. Experience is what comes at us, and what we retain. We can seek out experience and allow experience. Along the way we’ll develop powers of observation so that we’ll always be ready to squeeze the most from any experience we have. Many writers have produced widely-read books that are directly based on their experiences. I am especially fond of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a chronicle of the author’s drive with his dog as a companion around the country. Steinbeck was a great creative artist who knew how to make sense of his own personal experiences. He allowed his experiences to inform his art, proving what I believe to be true—experience is also the raw material of imagination. Your experiences can feed into your writing, either very directly or more subtly. The examples I’ve already used, Steinbeck’s Travels and Harding’s Tinkers, are a good example of the direct and subtle effects experience can have on writing.

Practice is the worker bee arena. This is perhaps the area that Americans feel most comfortable in. It’s concrete. You can work with it every day and measure your progress in pages or insights. Writing in my journal every day is the backbone of my writing practice. I love to work. I am good at work. I can work until the cows come home. Work is my heritage. It’s play that’s hard for me.

And imagination is ultimately play. Imagination is more a process of allowing than working toward a goal. Imagination is following a train of thought, rather than being someone who creates a train of thought. When I say I “play” games, ultimately there’s so much strategy that I’m working more than I’m playing. Playing is letting go of expectation. It isn’t goal-oriented. It’s pure fun, pure pleasure, pure delight. Think of kids playing hackey-sack for hours. The only goal is keeping the sack in play. However you did that was up to every individual in the circle. Going to the beach is pure play for me. I can walk along the shore for hours digging for sand crabs and hunting for seashells. The beach is a place where I can let go. Of course there is no beach in Colorado. That’s where imagination comes in. In my imagination I can be on that beach in southern California.

Jen Knox, an author and writing coach, writes on her blog, called Literary Exhibitionism, “Artists don’t wait for approval, and they don’t wait for anyone else to tell them that they’re good. But they do have to wait until they think work is ready. They are true to the voice (that elusive thing!), and they make that voice as strong as possible through hard work and constant reevaluation.”

Yes! I mostly agree with Jen. I’ve touched on how waiting for approval/permission is deadly to the process of discerning your voice. Hard work? Yup, but up to a point.

Here’s why I’m a little skeptical of the hard work thing. In the same interview I quoted earlier, Wallace Stegner was asked about his recommendations for a working regimen or routine.  “Different kinds of writers devise different strategies. (So far, so good.) My own experience is primarily that of the novelist, and a novel is a long, long agony. (Mine, too. But does it have to be?) When Bill Styron described it as like setting out to walk from Vladiovostok to Spain on your knees, he was not just making a phrase.”This

Jinkies. I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering when it gets fun. That’s what I’m looking for, as much as getting published, is very joy of creation, not just the labor. I’d lost that joy.

During these past couple of years, I’ve recalibrated my relationship to my writing life and work. I’ve had to figure out how to become a person who writes, without being a person who gets published. I want to share with you eight things I’ve discovered:

  1. Do other things.
  2. Write every day.
  3. Figure out what kind of writer you are.
  4. Accept that criticism is coming your way, but don’t accept all criticism.
  5. Make hypersensitivity your friend.
  6. Learn the difference between observation and judgment.
  7. Care for yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
  8. Educate yourself about the craft of writing.
  9. Be content to make a contribution, not write the end-all, be-all on the subject.

Do other things.

If you’re suffering through an especially bad bout of writer’s block, do other things. In the past two years I’ve done other things, while still writing almost every day, but without putting the same pressure on myself to submit to the submission/waiting/rejection/acceptance cycle. I got a paid job at Cheese Importers, one of Longmont’s best attractions.

I highly recommend volunteering time to serve others. Writing in its purest form is service, whether it’s imparting information, delighting someone, sharing a grand vision or influencing public opinion. The experiences you have while working and volunteering can easily become great fodder for your writing. In my case, it eased the uselessness and purposelessness that can lead to depression. It also musters courage and faith to do other things when the writing and the publishing aren’t heading in the direction you’d hoped for.

If you’ve got a hobby, do that. Cooking is one of my hobbies. When I’m feeling stuck in my writing, there’s nothing like making a couple of loaves of breads to regain my sense that yes, I can make something. The batter starts out as yeast, sugar and water, all bubbly potential, but it won’t really be anything until after I’ve added all the ingredients and kneaded it and set it to rise. It’s a nice metaphor for the writing process. There’s a time there where you’re not sure anything will come together, but if you give it enough skill and time, it does become something.

My friend Mike Starling, who worked with me at the association, is now working for a publisher in Chicago editing a magazine that serves the paint industry. When Mike took the job eleven years ago, he found himself writing, editing and photographing. He took that as a challenge. Now he sends me the most beautiful photographs of things that catch his eye, and he also made a book of photographs he took during a trip to Holland.

Mike also has been a member of a band since he was in college. By the time he hit 40, he realized the whole rock star thing wasn’t going to happen, but he loved music and still wanted to make it and share it. Along the way he met people who were managing to make a living in music, while not hitting it rich and famous ala Richards and Jagger. Mike writes and performs his music and sells CDs on his website.My pointing telling you all this is that creative people find ways to be creative.

Write every day

What works for me, and has worked for thousands of writers and other artists, is to write what TheArtist’s Way author Julia Cameron recommends—three pages every morning. She’s gone around the world teaching people to reclaim their creativity and use it to benefit others as well as themselves. I’m not talking three outlined, organized and purposeful pages, but first-thing-in-the-morning pages that are a way to begin your day with committing words to the page, even if—especially if—they’re petty, nagging, whining words. Sometimes once you get these unflattering words out of the way, good stuff comes out. Get a cup of coffee and sit in your favorite writing perch with your 8 x 10 notebook, and get to it. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years. I’ve kept a daily journal since my mom gave me one for my birthday when I was eight. The morning pages are like cleaning the pipes. First you flush out the junk, then the pure water can flow through again. It has made me a more fluent thinker, speaker and writer, all with an investment of 30 to 35 minutes a day. Try it. I also recommend getting a copy of The Artist’s Way and doing some of the exercises Cameron has invented.

Cameron shows how to use the morning pages as a resource, by going back through them every few weeks and picking out the gems that will be in there. Everything, even morning pages, can be redeemed. I got the idea for my second novel from my morning pages. I wrote about a dream I’d had, and the dream was so evocative it became the beginning of a book.

She also talks about the virtues of doing other creative things like making soup, painting a room in your house, listening to a beautiful piece of music (Mozart’s “Requiem” often does the trick for me), arranging some flowers. Anything, really to keep creativity flowing. Eventually it will flow from your fingertips into your keyboard, or onto the pages of your notebook, whichever method you use to compose your writing.

An aside: I discovered that I write better when I write longhand. For years I wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter, remember those? When those went extinct, I composed on a computer. I wrote most of my articles and my entire first novel that way. For my second novel I accidentally stumbled on how much better my writing came out in first draft form. I would take my youngest son to cross country practice at Sandstone Ranch. I don’t own a laptop, so I’d take a notebook. I figured the best that would happen was that I’d write down ideas. To my surprise, I wrote the beginning of the novel in longhand, using the computer to transcribe and to edit. I believe using the computer as a composition tool was psyching me out and blocking me.

Figure out what kind of writer you are.

One of my favorite stories is from Caitlin Flanagan, an acclaimed essayist for the Atlantic, has called herself “a failed novelist.”  She had the idea that she needed to explore her imagination more, and the novel was just the thing. The only problem was, she couldn’t do it without it coming out in a way she could never be proud of. So she’s gone on to write controversial magazine essays, primarily about what she believes is the proper role of mothers. I frequently disagree with her, and frankly she exasperates me, but there’s no denying she makes provocative arguments and turns a great phrase.

Do you know where your true power as a writer is expressed? I have some talent as a fiction writer—Jen Knox and others who have read work comment on my ability with dialogue. Jen went so far to suggest I explore screenwriting, an idea I immediately scoffed at. It’s hard enough to get my fiction published. Now you want me to up the ante and go into an even more competitive field? I don’t think I have the strength for that. I figure dialogue comes naturally to me because I grew up yakking with my two sisters and other chatty female family members and friends.

But where I believe I’m strongest is in the personal essay. Talking about my experiences, much like I’m doing today, and making sense of them, comes the most naturally to me. So I’m going with that. I’m exploring this on my blog, The Low Three Figures. In it I take on issues of value and worth based on current events and stuff that happens in my life.

Ask yourself a few questions. Of your work, what has gotten the most response? When I say response, I mean both affirming and challenging. Whatever responses you’re getting are a guide to how your writing is being received, whether or not it resonates with others.

How much moral support do you need? Do you prefer to meet with other writers to share work? Or do you toil privately? Do you alternate between the two extremes? What do you do when it’s not going so well? I find myself alternating between all of these things.

Figuring out what kind of writer you are is critical to discovering your true voice, the one that comes out naturally. I remember one of the first times that happened as an adult. I was in a magazine writing class where we were required to write three articles over the course of the semester, along with doing market research and writing cover letters to actual publications. I had written an article on Lyndon La Rouche—remember him? the tax-evading perennial presidential candidate? One of my classmates observed in the critique of my article that she could hear my voice—sarcastic and conversational. That meant I’d done my job. In that piece I had managed to break down the barrier between my speaking and thinking voice and my writing voice. I would encourage you to look for the same markers in your own writing. The more you bring yourself into your writing, the better it will be. Not your idealized self, but you as you are. I’m not so sure I want to own the sarcastic part of my voice, but it’s there, and it works, because it’s me.

 Accept that criticism is coming your way, but don’t accept all criticism.

In fact subjecting yourself to criticism is the only way you’re ever going to improve as a writer, especially if you aspire to publish. Anyone who reads your work and doesn’t get what you’re saying is going to have a similar experience to someone who doesn’t know you. Take what they say to heart, and see how you respond in your writing.

In the vein of doing other things, this summer I’m doing a 12-week yoga teacher training. I’ve been a student of yoga for 11 years, so going into it I thought, I already know so much about yoga, this is going to be a cake walk. Uh, wrong. So wrong. I’m getting my butt kicked, physically and spiritually. I told one of my teachers that I thought I was signing up to teach people the postures, when it’s dawning on me that I signed up for a crash course in enlightenment! It’s humbling to make the transition from being a student to being a teacher, who must know in intimate detail all her imbalances, and how to addrerss them. In a very real way, I’m re-learning how to walk and to stand, at the age of 49. Every time I go to class I am required to teach the postures and accept what the yogis there call a “star and a wish.” I won’t go into specifics, other than to say that unlike a lot of areas in life, there’s nothing left unsaid. It may be kindly and helpfully delivered, but it humbles. It reshapes. And that’s inherently painful. It’s also been helpful and transformational. This is the kind of criticism that is really needed, even if we manage to skirt it in most other areas of our lives. I’m editing my life history as surely as I’ve edited my writing.

Let me talk about the “good” kind of criticism first. Recognizing that all growth is painful, even when it’s leading to somewhere better than we currently find ourselves. My collaboration with Jen Knox is a good example of good criticism. Jen is am award-winning novelist and essayist who is graduate of the Bennington College Writer’s Workshop. We met online when I submitted a story to I received the nicest rejection notice I’ve ever gotten from her. She told me what she liked about the story and what she thought needed improvement, with actual concrete suggestions. She also affirmed my ability as a storyteller, and ended by offering her services as a workshop leader. I workshopped another story with her, going four rounds over the same story, with really vigorous and specific editing. I recommend working with Jen or any of the other outstanding writers and editors on Our Stories. It might strike some of you as unconventional, but it’s the way a lot of writing collaboration is being done now.

Funny aside: the story Jen and I workshopped has never been published, while the one she and Our Stories passed on got published in Paradigm Journal. I still believe in the story she and I workshopped.

When I was a kid, I took losing any game, whether it was Parcheesi or soccer, as a referendum on my worthiness as a person. Eventually I outgrew this, at least as far as board games and sports goes. I was on a volleyball team that went 0-17 one season, and though I admit that was frustrating, I never stopped wanting to play. But I’ve kept some of the same behaviors, of taking every rejection as a referendum on my worth. I recommend using rejection as a learning experience. I won a contest writing about just that.

The more challenging kind of criticism is what I received when I took an eight-week writer’s workshop through CU’s Continuing Ed. The workshop leader, who is a tenured professor at CU, is someone my friend Peggy had worked with for two or three sessions, and she invited me to join her. I knew I was in trouble when she told the class, “I’m not in the business of telling you how to fix your writing. I’m in the business of telling you what’s wrong with your writing, and then it’s on you to go and fix it.”

Or not. Provided your confidence as a writer isn’t completely destroyed when she gets through with your writing. I volunteered to workshop a story I’d been working on the previous summer, and she proceeded to rip it to shreds, and by example essentially invited the rest of the class to do the same. Because that’s precisely how I felt that night. I walked back to my car in a state of shock. Looking back on it, I probably shouldn’t have been driving. I didn’t sleep well that night, wondering if I’d been wasting my life believing I had any writing talent whatsoever.

I wallowed like this for exactly twelve hours, and then I got angry. I take responsibility for any emotional overreaction on my part, but I wasn’t going to accept a teacher telling me my writing is “immoral.” If criticism feels like humiliation rather than a humbling, as I’ve described my yoga teacher training, jettison it. You don’t need criticism like that, that’s designed to make you doubt whether you have anything to say as a writer.

Make hypersensitivity your friend.

This is a good segway from criticism. Putting yourself out there strongly, whether it’s in your writing or expressing your ideas and yourself in person. Those of us in this room who are frequent writers no doubt know what I’m talking about. It can be hard on the feelings to put your ideas out there and have them be summarily shredded in subsequent letters from people who disagree with you.

But if we let our sensitivity to criticism, or attention of any kind, lead us, we’ll never publish anything. Put your sensitivity in service of your writing, and all the hundreds of observations and anecdotes you will need to shape your writing. The excerpt from Tinkers I read earlier is a perfect example of an author deploying sensitive observations to a passage of writing. He saw the lake and the sky, and he felt something about what he saw, and he was able to meld his vision and his feelings into something I think is stunning.

Hypersensitivity connotes a certain openness to things others may not be as open to, and that ability in itself is a valuable thing. It makes you an extraordinary guide, a guide with insight and something unique to share. Writing makes it even more shareable. So do it. Do it with the expectation that it will help someone else to feel something they may not have been aware of before. Do it with the expectation that others won’t get it. And when people don’t get something, they either ignore it, or they ridicule it, or they disagree with it. Do it anyway. When what you write or say elicits these kinds of reactions, know you’re onto something.

Learn the difference between observation and judgment.

Observations are going to give you more room to maneuver in your writing than judgments will. I think of observations like a window closing, and judgments like a window closing. I’ve nothing against closed windows. I rather like them in winter, when the idea is to keep the cold air out. But don’t limit yourself to living in a room where the windows are always closed.

Better than opening a window, go outside. I confess this works really well for me. I go out foraging for observations. One of my favorite places to be is at Long Draw Reservoir above the Poudre Canyon. The campground is at 10,000 feet, and being there just obliterates the separation between myself and creation. I can breathe up there. I can stand still and watch the storms come in, drop what they got and hustle along someplace else.

Now what if I were to go up there looking only for moose, which are plentiful up there, though with wildlife there are never any guarantees. Birds and squirrels and storms and mountains would hold little interest for me, because all I want to see are moose. Moose, moose, moose. That’s what I’ve got on my brain. I might feel myself getting disappointed, or even angry, that I still haven’t seen a moose. I might feel that they’re hiding from me, which they are. They know that hiding from the average person is in their best interest.

This makes me think of the time Don and I were in Yellowstone Park during the 1988 fires. We had stopped by the side of the road to look at a moose grazing and her calf nursing in a meadow less than a hundred yards away. As we sat there watching, a motor home pulled up beside us. The passenger window rolled down, a telephoto lens came out, and a few moments later, a voice said, “Let’s go. I can’t get a good shot.” Lens goes in, window rolls up.

Can’t get a good shot? Hello? They were literally superimposing a frame over a spontaneous moment. I wondered if they would remember the moose, or if they needed the photograph to remember. This epitomizes the limitations of judgment.

Of course, there’s a role for judgment. That’s what ends most stories or editorials or essays. There’s a point of view taken, and offered to anyone who will read. In the process of making a story, or a poem, or an essay, it’s good to begin with a hypothesis. As you flesh it out, it’s best to stay open to seeing what you’ll see and save the winnowing process for when you’ve had your fill. I think it’s like making a movie. You get as much footage as you can in the observation phase, and then during the judgment phase you sit down in an editing room with a panel of people and decide what stays and what goes. During that process, it’s likely that your original hypothesis has changed.

Care for yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Earlier I touched on the importance of keeping a sense of uselessness and purposelessness at bay, as you wait for publication. Writing two unpublished novels during my ten years as a stay-at-home mom was a blessing for me. Equally important were keeping my body, mind and spirit ship-shape. I did that in a variety of ways. Yoga, running, hiking, skiing, walking. Yoga is the linchpin for all of it. It’s why I’ve decided to become a teacher. It takes care of everything. I have been a member of First Congregational Church in Boulder for almost 17 years. There I was invited to participate in community-building activities and opportunities for spiritual growth that continue to this day.

You may already be doing many of these things. That’s great. Continue to experiment with whatever enhances your well-being.

Educate yourself about the craft of writing.
When I feel like I’ve hit a wall with my writing, I’ve taken a class or hired a coach, with mixed success. But I can say each experience has helped me progress as a writer and as a person. I’ve been a member of the Longmont Writer’s Club and participated in a couple of critique groups. I’ve read books on the art of writing. One of my special favorites is Brenda Ueland’s book If YouWant to Write. Ms. Ueland was one of this country’s finest writing teachers, and remains so, because her book is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. It’s so conversational, so encouraging, you feel as if she’s sitting beside you and talking to your personally about your work.

But I’ve gotten the most insight into the craft of writing from reading other authors. No one can be wrong about everything, so one of the best bits of advice the CU professor gave me was to read widely. Books will inform your own work in a way almost nothing else can.

Be content to make a contribution, not write the end-all, be-all on the subject.

Writers are a hypersensitive breed. Writers are bold enough to think that what they think, imagine and experience matters to anyone else. Humility might seem incompatible with this, but I believe it’s a necessary ingredient.

The yogis speak of stretching to the edge of the postures, wherever that may be given your current awareness and flexibility of your body today. None of the yoga postures can do everything, although a few of them come pretty damned close to stretching the body, mind and spirit in every possible way. But within those limitations, there is a lot of power. The same is true about writing, and writers. Don’t be afraid of the limits of your writing, but do write to the very edges of those limitations. Write to the edges of those pages All writing is part of the grand dialogue of human thought and experience and feeling. You have as much to offer as anyone to that dialogue. So if you don’t believe me, believe William Carlos Williams, who writes about this in his poem, “The Pink Locust.”

I’m persistent as the pink locust,
once admitted
to the garden,
you will not easily get rid of it.
Tear it from the ground,
if one hair-thin rootlet
it will come again.
It is
Flattering to think of myself
So. It is also laughable.
A modest flower,
Resembling a pink sweet-pea,
You cannot help
but admire it
until its habits
become known.
Are we not most of us
Like that? It would
Too much
If the public
Pried among the minutiae
Of our private affairs.
That we have anything to hide
But could they
stand it? Of course
the world would be gratified
to find out
what fools we have made of ourselves.
The question is,
Would they
Be generous with us—
As we have been
With others? It is,
As I say,
A flower
Incredibly resilient
Under attack!
Neglect it
And it will grow into a tree.
I wish I could so think of myself
And of what
Is to become of me.
The poet himself,
What does he think of himself
Facing his world?
It will not do to say,
As he is inclined to say:
Not much. The poem
Would be in that betrayed.
He might as well answer—
“a rose is a rose
Is a rose” and let it go at that.
A rose is a rose
And the poem equals it
If it be well made.
The poet
Cannot slight himself
Without slighting
His poem—
Which would be
Life offers
No greater reward.
And so,
Like this flower,
I persist—
For what there may be in it.
I am not,
I know,
In the galaxy of poets
A rose
But who,
Among the rest,
Will deny me
My place.