What the “Wr” in “Write”’ Really Means

My son is a genius at spotting patterns and systems in sports and economics, but the rules for spelling the English language just never stuck with him, although he did admit that during most of his elementary years, he didn’t try very hard, so there’s that, too.

In my efforts to find ways to help him—we homeschooled so that was my job—I read that all the words that start with “wr” have some sort of twisting action in them. There was more truth to that than I realized at the time.

Bear with me while I compile a list of “wr” words from my thesaurus (Am I the only one who prefers a thesaurus to a dictionary? But that is a different topic):

Wrangle: quarrel, scrap, brawl
Wrap: envelope, wind, bundle
Wrath: rage, ire, fury
Wreathe: circle, ring, girdle
Wreck: ruin, smash, demolish
Wrench: tweak, twist, wring
Wrest: exact, extort, squeeze
Wretched: desolate, forlorn, miserable
Wriggle: twist, wiggle, squirm
Wring: squeeze, choke, throttle
Wrinkle: crease, pucker, rumple
Wrist: you know, but it does its share of wrapping, wrenching and wringing
Writhe: twist, suffer, pain
Wrong: injure, damage, harm
 

Oh, and there’s this one, too:
Write: put down, set down, jot down, note, keep in touch, communicate, doodle, dash off, inscribe, compose, draft, pen, scrawl.

Back when I was a teacher of spelling, among other things, I didn’t understand the irony. Now that I’ve taken up writing—or, more accurately, now that it has taken up with me—I can only laugh at the breezy synonyms. Has my thesaurus failed me?

Sure, there are times when the words fall out of the air, when I’m in touch with my creativity, my muse, the flow, whatever you want to call it. I am drafting, communicating, dashing off whole sentences—paragraphs! pages!—with grace and ease.

But there are more than enough times when writing is an amalgamation of all the other “wr” words. I notice that “wrack” is not there—I am often wracked by self-doubt. There are significant moments of wretchedness and mental hand-wringing.

So maybe “write” isn’t such an outlier, after all. As a writer, I now have more appreciation for the iceberg of hidden effort that goes into a finished piece. Maybe, to reflect more accurately the realities of the work of writing, we should spell it “wrork.”

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Presence, in all of its manifestations.

Today, my husband and I went on our usual morning walk without the dog. It was so much easier.

When I sat down on the floor to put on my shoes, I didn’t have to time my reaching to tie my laces with her running circles around me—and over me. Nor did I have to endure a face wash—she does drink from the toilet—or concussive barking just inches from my ears.

I didn’t have to check for cheeky squirrels, sly UPS men, suspiciously serene Seventh-Day Adventists or earnest Boy Scouts who must surely have a ball hidden somewhere on their person before leaving the house.

I didn’t have to tell her to drop the horse turd—that one, too—and I didn’t have to call her back as she drifted aimlessly—randomly, coincidentally, who me?—towards the neighbors’ yard, the one with the chickens.

I didn’t have to tell her don’t bite my hands when we got to the logging road where she likes to open up and charge—top speed—ahead, back and then ahead again, always three passes, always shooting by within a hair’s breadth of us, and always, on the last pass, jumping up to nip at the hand that feeds you! I say to her as she looks at me with that whites-of-the-eye, mad-dog grin and hurtles on by.

We didn’t have to endure long-suffering sighs when we rinsed her feet off in a bucket before letting her back inside—feet, I will add, that needed rinsing because she willingly—joyfully—waded into a fetid swamp filled with water that was just as wet—shocking, I know—as the water in the bucket.

And I didn’t have to dodge around her while I got breakfast as she, with unerring precision, managed to place herself in exactly in the next spot where I needed to go.

It’s so much easier doing these things without her. And, as I am sure you know, it is wholly pointless. I just want her home. The vet will call later today—good news, bad news—and then we’ll know. I say that breezily, but I know you are not fooled.

My dog—all dogs, it seems to me—embody presence. They just want us around, and we just want them—please—to be there, too.

And as I struggle today to focus on a writing project that I routinely describe as biting me on the butt, I will remember that I didn’t ask for easy. I asked for presence. It is enough. It is always enough.

Blogs and Grace

Today, I want to share with you three of my favorite blogs. When I read them, I feel touched by truth, kindness, beauty and humor. Is that not grace?

Here they are:

Melodye Shore’s blog, A Joyful Noise.

The first thing you’ll notice is Melodye’s photographs. Often of birds, hummingbirds in particular. She writes with a tone of reverence and wonder. She is the epitome of a “witness.” She lets us see what she sees and invites us to make our own judgments. She is a powerful presence.

Julie Christine Johnson’s blog

Julie’s photos of sunrise, sunset and seascape, are as evocative as her writing. She shares her thoughts about her journey as a writer and so much more with humility and so much generosity. She is one of those people who can transport you, happily, to her world.

Samantha Irby’s blog, Bitches Gotta Eat

Samantha’s writing is fierce, funny, wise and TRUE. I can say no more. Just: yes, read it.

Echoes

What do you think?

First, a poem, “Gone From My Sight,” written by my father’s great-grandfather, Henry Van Dyke. The name was familiar to me, but I hadn’t read any of his work. It came to my attention now because of my father’s recent death.

Below it is a poem, “Penelope,” written by my daughter when she was fourteen. We were studying poetry, and she was at a loss for an idea to write about. We had just read Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” so I suggested that she write a poem in response to that, from Penelope’s point of view. Read what she wrote (it was partially excerpted in my essay, “Letting Go: In Her Words” published last month in Hippocampus Magazine.

Tell me if you don’t see the one in the other.

 

Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

 

Penelope

Perhaps you think I have waited, for you
In a cushioned chair, my feet propped
On an embroidered footstool.
Nay, I have had naught
But clever foes’ daggers at my back
Who design to sever my resolve: to stand fast
Beside the windblown crags, for you.
The salted sea has been changeless for me
Day after day, while you
Have drunken to battle-lust and glory
On the windy plains of a distant land.
Now you say you are but a name,
A blade lacking burnishing.
I have stood fast, for your name, Ulysses,
I, your aged wife, have stood beside
This grey shore, with only a name
For twenty years.

In your westward glancing heart I glimpse
That heart which hath moved heaven and earth:
Keen swords, flashing fire, falling stars
Beyond your drenched mast—
I knew you then, I know you now.
The yearning gust that blew you in
Will blow you out again.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail,
So go;
And if you seek beyond the arch
Of your desires, you will
Forever sail for me
Along the froth-edged waves
Of the sunset sea.

Story Makers Podcast: A Writer’s Salon in Your Living Room

cover170x170My conversation with Elizabeth Stark and Angie Powers of Book Writing World, in which we discuss the writing process, memoir, and my first book, Parenting in the Here and Now (which had just been released in the UK at the time of the recording and is available now in the US). Elizabeth teaches in-person and online writing classes that are worth their weight in gold, not just for the craft lessons but because she creates such a welcoming and affirming community. Her Story Makers Podcast is just another way of opening doors for writers. As a new writer, I needed to hear, over and over and over, from other writers. Still do. There are 8 other conversations available. I’ve listened to them all. Don’t miss them. It’s like having a writer’s salon right in your own living room.

 

Lessons from Dogs: Disappointment and Faith

I spend a lot of my time in my chair at my desk, and my dog spends a lot of time watching me in my chair at my desk. And every time I get up, she leaps up, ready—more than ready.

IMG_0440

“Sorry, pup,” I say. “Just getting a glass of water.”

Or, “Sorry, little D, just getting a snack.”

Or, “Sorry, sweet girl, just going to the bathroom.”

That one is always cause for barking, turning circles and then—oops, sitting at attention, her whole body vibrating with excitement and good-dog-ness, because she knows that if I were to go out on a W-A-L-K, I would pee first and then I would ask her to sit—good-dog—and stay before I opened the door.

But most of the time it is: “Sorry, goofball, just peeing.”

And sometimes it is worse: “Sorry, little one, time for your heartworm pill—or time to clip your nails, or, or, or.”

And I go back to my desk and she goes back to lying at my feet—she’s there now, dozing and twitching.

There’s another email in my inbox—a response from a journal where I have submitted an essay or from a writer’s residency where I have submitted an application or from an agent to whom I have sent a query letter—and I wait a moment before I open it, because there’s still room for hope: are we going to walk together?

I huff a sigh out—another rejection—and my dog looks up, her own dream interrupted.

Sorry, dear writer, they say, not this time, not this place, not this piece.

I mark “no” on my little spreadsheet where I keep a record of my submissions and make a note of where to send to next.

And then I say, “C’mon, Katonah. Let’s go for a walk.”

Because she always says “yes,” and she will wait, with utter faith and love, until I say “yes,” too.

The One Thing You Need to Do Before Your Book Goes to Press

New Hampshire Writer’s Week is winding down. At the second-to-last panel last night at Nashua’s Barnes & Noble, we were all in agreement that the one thing you need to do between getting your book contract (or settling on a system for self-publishing) and going to print is to make and implement a marketing plan.

As always, the panelists were generous. Amy Ray shared an outline of the promotion plan from her book proposal. Helen DePrima told stories about her odyssey, Terri Bruce reminded us that marketing is all about building authentic relationships, and E.C. Ambrose offered a mini-tutorial on the 1-2 sentence logline, that hook that we all need to nail down, write down, rehearse and memorize so that we are ready with an interesting and pithy answer to that question: “So, what’s your book about?”

And I talked about fear.

I am not an expert on marketing and promotion. I am still on that learning curve, even with one book out (Parenting in the Here and Now), another ready to send out and a third on the way.

But I know a lot– a LOT–about fear.

And I told the audience that I naively thought that once I had my contract, once I had made it past the gatekeepers, once I had been chosen, I would be done with fear.

Yes.

Indeed.

In my earlier panel discussion about finishing a first draft, I spoke about the inner critic, who tells us that our writing is no good, often before the words are even on the page. I know the inner critic. I can recognize it in all of its multiple disguises.

Or I thought I could.

But after I had been through the pre-publication editing process on my first book with the most kind and helpful of editors, I was overcome by what I later learned is called “imposter syndrome,” in which you can’t believe that your name is worthy of being attached to your thoughts and words. I wrote a despairing email to her, confessing that I was an utter fraud and that there was still time to put a stop to the whole thing. It wasn’t too late.

I am sure that my editor must have rolled her eyes when she received the email: “Oh, these writers…” But she responded to me with as much kindness and grace as she had to my manuscript and told me that all writers feel this way at some point, that she and the publisher (Floris Books) believed in me and my book, and now would I please take another read through because it was time to proof it for the last time.

I didn’t tell the audience this story to scare them off. On the contrary, I told it to them so they wouldn’t be scared off. So they would recognize fear when it crept up on them from behind or hit them squarely in the face.

So they would understand that fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic AND the imposter syndrome) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes. You aren’t worthy.”

But fear means: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.”

I cannot say it enough or hear it enough, so I’ll repeat it again, for your sake and for mine:

This is important. You are the one. You are worthy.

Have courage.

 

A Typewriter in Every Classroom?

It is Writer’s Week here in New Hampshire, and The New Hampshire Writer’s Project has organized a week-long series of events around the state to help aspiring writers on their journey to the page and beyond. On Tuesday, I presented my answer to that night’s question: What is the one thing you need to know to finish a first draft?

My answer: curiosity.

There were four other speakers: Steve Carter, Richard Adams Carey, Rob Greene and Jim Kelly. They all were the embodiment of warmth, generosity and humor. In the end, we all said the same thing– with our own flavor.

But I want to tell you about Rob Greene because he is doing something extraordinary.

He began his presentation by placing a manual typewriter on the lectern. CTcuJDyWIAEMa1s

Then he pecked away on the keys, saying, “It was a dark and stormy night…” He slapped the return lever to bring the carriage back and continued, “A shot rang out…,” and we all laughed. It was so cliche, so old-school.

His answer to the question of the night: everyone needs a manual typewriter. And he  cataloged its advantages: no internet connection/distraction; too much difficulty changing things, so it is easier to just keep going and not worry over mistakes; a concrete record of progress: that growing pile of pages; accountability: if he tells his wife that he is working on his novel, she can tell by the sound whether he is, in fact, working.

His was a wonderful example of a writer setting himself up for success.

But he said something else that struck me. He is also a high school teacher, and he owns 45 manual typewriters– he scavenges and repairs them– and he brings them into his classroom. He described a class in which the students were all writing– typing. And he likened it to music. Can’t you just imagine it?

And he mentioned that the manual typewriter was a real help for his students who have ADHD: the tactile experience enables them– some, for the first time– to focus more on their writing.

It takes energy to press those keys– to keep pressing them. There is a satisfying “clack” each time. I know because my father is a writer, and when I was little, I could hear him typing out his his manuscripts and articles, really hitting those keys hard to get through two sheets of onion skin paper with a piece of carbon paper in between. (He has since moved on to using a laptop. I don’t know if he still uses only his two forefingers to type).

Rob’s method is a revolution: an intermediate step– and perhaps a very crucial one– between writing by hand and using a computer.

Writing is an act of will as well as an act of thought and imagination. And our will develops first, when we are children, through our bodies, through our physical experience of the world. A healthy will is essential because it is through our will that we manifest our thoughts and feelings into deeds.

I have written on Krista Tippett’s On Being Blog about how we can organize our home life to support the healthy development of will in our children by including them in real work and real play. We nourish the will by doing. Not by talking, not by explaining. Not by thinking. By doing things that our children can imitate. By doing things that are worthy of imitation.

In schools these days, the use of computers is creeping (and I use the word with its malevolent connotation intentionally) into lower and lower grades. Some schools are not  teaching cursive writing anymore in lieu of using a computer. This is a problem. Handwriting is an act of will– it is coordination between the head and the hand. The importance and benefits of the very physicality of the act is not to be overlooked. The quick jump to computers takes out the physical aspect so quickly. Too quickly.

By using manual typewriters in his classes, Rob is setting up his students for success. He has found a way to engage their will in a way that is both physical and mental, practical and creative. This is genius.

 

The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft, part 2

Here is the handout I made for my presentation last Tuesday for New Hampshire Writer’s Week. It includes a list of books that have been inspiring for me and some which have been practically useful, an interesting article about Zadie Smith and her analysis of the psychology of writers, and finally, Anne Friedman’s “Disapproval Matrix,” which is instructive for anyone, really, but writers in particular. And it is wickedly funny.

Click on this link: First Draft

 

 

The One Thing You Need to Finish a First Draft

NHww11-9 It is Writer’s Week in New Hampshire! The NH Writer’s Project is putting on a week-long series for aspiring writers, and last night, along with four other local authors, I spoke at the Pease Public Library in Plymouth about the one thing you need to finish a first draft.

The other four speakers were fantastic: hilarious and inspiring, (more about them in a following post) and the audience was warm and engaged. Jeff Deck did a great job organizing the event. And I will note, for those of you who know me and wonder if I have, finally, learned to talk without using my hands, that this photo captures the one moment when I was not gesticulating wildly. So: no. No progress on that front.

Here is a synopsis of what I had to say:

The one thing that I believe a writer needs to finish a first draft is curiosity. Curiosity is the other side of the coin opposite judgment. Curiosity holds open the door to possibility.

There are two parts to the question of the night: the finishing and the draft itself.

Finishing is all about you, the writer, and your writing process.

Your inner critic is probably one of your biggest hurdles to finishing. My inner critic begins by saying that my writing is awful and quickly moves on to saying that I am awful. From there, it seems only logical when it suggests that I stop writing– stop embarrassing us all– before I go any further with what is so obviously a disaster. There are a million variations on this theme, but one of the best antidotes for it is curiosity. Curiosity says in response, “Maybe it is awful. Maybe not. But let’s just write one more day and see what happens. Let’s just get another 250 words down and see where they take us.” And if you do that every day, you (along with your inner critic) will eventually find yourselves with a finished draft.

I know of no way to absolutely silence the inner critic, but you can learn to work despite its presence. As I say in Parenting in the Here and Now, fear (a.k.a.: the inner critic) says: “You aren’t enough. You don’t have what it takes.” What fear means is something quite different: “This is important. You are the one. Have courage.” Curiosity can go a long way toward filling in for confidence.

I love hearing other writers describing their writing processes: their habits, their schedules, their tricks. I wrote my first book in the warm room of a hockey rink and the second in our pickup in the parking lot of another hockey rink. I am working on my third at home, but if I get stuck, I may be heading out to the rink again. Some writers will say “you must:” write every day, write first thing in the morning, write only new material without looking back, etc. But most just describe how it works for them, and that is liberating because even the “musts” are all different. There are as many variations as there are writers, and it is your job to be curious about what works for you. Be inspired by how other writers do it, but don’t be bound by it.

Some writers are planners. Every plot point and scene is worked out in advance. There may be a considerable supply of post-its involved, and outlines and lists. I admire these types of writers because I am not one of them. Every other part of my life is organized and planned down to the last detail. But not my writing. Even though I am a non-fiction writer, when I sit down each day to write, I have no idea what I am going to say. Just as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, I have the seed of an idea but beyond that: nothing. Not till I get to the writing. That is how I excavate the story. Even with my parenting book, where I supposedly had expertise to share, I was still flying by the seat of my pants. I did go so far as to make a list of ten topics before I began, but I never checked the list again. I had a rough idea, and then I let the writing take me where it wanted to go.

And that is the second part: the draft. The draft comes from you, but it is not you. It is more than you. And if you leave room for curiosity as you write– regardless of how much or how little you have planned in advance– you will start to see connections and patterns that you didn’t know were there, that you couldn’t have thought of on your own, on purpose.

I have written two memoirs. Theoretically, I know the story in each because– well, duh– I lived it. The truth? No clue. I had no clue what the story was all about until I had written it.

Approaching your first draft with curiosity opens the door for discovery and inspiration and surprise. And it invites in the reader, as well, because that is why a reader picks up a book in the first place: to see what happens, to discover, to be inspired or surprised. And if you have found those things on the page, then they will, too.

Ultimately, your final draft is your gift to your readers. Your fist draft is your gift to yourself. It is all yours. You write it in utter freedom. In fact, writing a first draft may be the only thing that we adults get to do in utter freedom.

I encourage you to bring curiosity to your first draft: to see what you will bring to the draft, and also, to see what the draft will bring to you.