Monday, March 30, 2015

Hello! It's Me! Writing the Personal Essay.

A student at a writing workshop said this to me once: "I can't write about myself. I have a boring life." I spent the next half-hour trying to convince her that her life was not boring, but rich and remarkable.

"You don't have to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to have a story to tell. It doesn't have to be fantastical, it just has to be honest and allow for reflection. Find the personal uniqueness in what we all experience," I said.

So, you do that, then how do you do it in the best way possible?

The Write Life  recently posted a wonderful starting list for personal essay writing. Amy Paturel wrote the piece. It outlines good starting points for telling your story—whatever that may be. Don't vent, start strong, write tight, careful overusing those adverbs and adjectives, use dialogue, and mostly importantly "don't hold back." I call this "going deep." You can't be afraid of starching the skin a bit, even enough to draw blood. You may not want to be so "personal" in your personal essay, but be prepared if you don't. Your reader will sense that you are holding back. They will know. Instead, be brave.

Some of the most remarkable stories I have read have been personal stories, not because they are fantastical, but because they are honest.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Terrible Editor

I'm horrible.

Really. I am one of the worst line editors a writer can be. I leave out a word here and there. I spell something wrong. I miss a comma. I add a comma where it's not, needed. Then I draft and re-draft and fix and switch and move stuff around for content and meaning and all that good stuff—and I leave all the mistakes in. Not on purpose, of course. But they are there and I swear I've fixed them, checked them, read it out loud, and still there are mistakes. Sometimes really dumb ones.

I've had 75,000 word manuscripts that I have combed relentlessly and when I hand it to an editor, he/she finds 100 mistakes. 100!

Here's what I've learned from this:


I am not an English teacher. I think I know the language pretty well, but I am not one of those great New Yorker editors who can find four mistakes in a five word sentence. I envy them. I really do. But I am not them. I am not an editor.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm sloppy. (Although it may appear that way to some of my editors.) Really, honestly, I'm not. But I miss things. I just do. Many times it's no big deal because these incredible editors who have caught it all. They are invaluable. Absolutely indispensable. But sometimes I loath my mistakes in those early drafts. So much so that when I've sent out early draft manuscripts for people read for blurbs or reviews or just feedback, there's always a disclaimer: "Forgive any typos or grammatical mistakes you might find. This is only a draft." I cringe.

Still, after years of this, I am finally beginning to say, "It's okay. It's oh-kay."

Tell your story. Do your best. Check it twice, thrice, many times. Read it out loud. Then—let it go.