Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Lenses for Revising

Clouds of yesteryear. Y indeed.


About a month ago, I had a brief conversation on Twitter about revision. Of all the things I’ve learned about writing, accepting the need to revise has improved my writing the most.


But it was hard to actually DO. For one thing, my background in writing and editing professionally meant that my drafts were mechanically just fine. (The sentences made sense. Paragraphs flowed.) So far, so good. But what I was writing felt unsatisfying (and wasn't getting published). So beyond editing, I didn't know what to do. 


Learning to revise took practice. As much as I enjoy revising, in the past year or so, I haven’t done much revision. Because (gestures at everything) reasons, and because I’ve been writing first drafts.


While daydreaming (succumbing to the allure of thinking about the thing I'm not working on NOW) about how I’d approach revising a finished draft of a short (or maybe long?) piece, I found myself articulating changes through three lenses: subject, ambition (form?), and execution.


Notice the question mark. The terms, and in fact the whole idea, remains a work in progress.


So, here’s what I mean. Maybe. Sorta. Note that I’m trying to use examples that apply to both fiction and nonfiction.



Subject: What are you writing about? Family, thirtysomething angst, generalized ennui, revolution?


As you revise: Try being more specific. Like “Family relationships as they fray in the face of an unrelenting illness” or “coming of age at a time when your existence is a criminal act.” Perhaps pose a question: “Should families protect their secrets in an age of home DNA swabs?” Perhaps you're excited about illness symptoms instead of whole diseases.



Ambition: What form do you envision this taking—what are you aiming for? Again, specifics might help. “Prose” may be too general: is it a column for a family newspaper or a braided essay? A historical romance just like XXX on the bestseller list? A sonnet? A thoughtful if sprawling modern family saga that takes on a classic theme? A straightforward narrative nonfiction explanation? It’s not “cheating” to think of where you might to publish it: experimental zine, mass market paperback, The New Yorker. It's not "cheating" to pick a book just like (but different from) the one you're writing.


As you revise: Is your chosen ambition (form) a good match for your subject? Perhaps it’s TOO good a match for your purposes—is it cliché, even? (Remember, you get to decide what you’re aiming for; one person’s cliché is another’s enduring truth.) Or is the mismatch its strength—in which case, try leaning into it so a reader knows you're doing this on purpose.



Execution: How well does this draft fulfill that ambition—so far? Where is it not quite what it could be? Where does it sing? (Read it aloud; it’s amazing what you can learn.)


As you revise: Think beyond the basics, beyond mastery of the tools of grammar and spelling and even the details of your subject. Are your choices consistent throughout the draft (only one Tuesday per week, Jackson always named Jackson and never Jared, third person past never present)? (Yes, you might create weeks of many Tuesdays or a Jackson who becomes a Jared, but you know what I mean.) Is it too long? Does it need research to go with personal experience? Does it need consequences instead of coincidence?



Of course, these three lenses aren’t completely separate—changing one may change others. They’re elements of a Venn Diagram, maybe. And maybe your overall writing goal is to maximize the overlap. Again: maybe?


Where you find your piece lacking can help you determine what the next step in revision is.


You might find that you’ve matched your subject well with your ambition, but your execution isn’t quite there. Dive in! Revising might look a lot like “fixing what’s there” and “moving paragraphs” instead of “starting over.”


You might find that your execution is basically okay (my problem: the sentences all make sense), but your subject is hazy. “I don’t know what this is ABOUT. I WANTED to write a sonnet about furniture-making, but I keep running into different grades of lumber that I have to define.” Again, targeting your subject might help. Or change your ambition: instead of a sonnet, write a long discursive essay. (Pull from it later for a sonnet.)


You might write a well-executed piece about a meaningful subject, and it might be published in exactly the place you aimed for. Congratulations! This process may absolutely fulfill your hopes. If it doesn’t, you could experiment next time with form: can you make it funkier? Less expected? Less (or more) “literary”? Can you write something that drips with raw feeling and comes to less tidy conclusions? A piece aiming at a Chicken Soup publication would likely appeal less to a literary journal, and vice versa.


I’m sure these lenses aren't unique to me, by the way. Shoulders of giants and all that. I hope thinking about them is useful for other peopleI know I'm thinking. And, come to think of it, I do have a large revision on my horizon. So it wasn't daydreaming after all!


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Things I’m Taking Into 2022


Lines of Light on Snow


Sublime? Ridiculous? You decide.


My plans for 2022 include


# keeping frozen diced onions on hand at all times. I’ve enjoyed this hack, which I picked up from an Instagram and YouTube influencer, all year. There’s been much less crying and far less metric tonnage of onions spoiling because I've forgotten I have them.


# listing a few fun things to do each month. I did this in December—small holiday/celebratory things I wanted to do—and it was nice to have that list to refer to. Doing difficult errands or tasks was happier when I could look forward to relaxing at home in a room lit by coloured lights and look at our evergreen swag (the getting out of which was two things).


# following my own interests for “fun” reading and better focusing my efforts for “professional” reading. I have more to say aboutreading and year-end lists, here.


# limiting and focusing my time on social media, both to spend time doing fun things (see above) and to reduce my exposure to headline news. I hope this has the side benefit of reducing my (non-clinical level but still heightened) anxiety, because apparently worrying about all the things happening in the world that are out of my control actually DOES NOT help, no matter how good I get at worrying. I’m modest about my prowess at most things, but I will say I’m a good worrier.


# playing every day. This actually came out of a twitter thread where I described my post-pandemic haircut as “Bilbo Baggins, as played by Ian Holm,” and then had a yen to re-watch The Hobbit, where I was most impressed with Martin Freeman’s capering as Bilbo headed off on an adventure. I can’t commit to a daily adventure, but I can commit to daily play. So I’m infusing a sense of play into more of the things I do.


# getting a vaccine booster, and limiting exposure. Because everyone should, because not everyone can. 

 

I hope you’ve found some ways to refocus this year—perhaps a moment or two of peace that sustains you.


Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2021: A Reading Retrospective

I seem to enjoy using the words "reflection" and "retrospective." Hmm. 


It’s apparently customary for people who write and read to reflect on their writing and reading at the end of the year. Even if, like me, you consider reading your vocation as well as work, yet somehow don’t have “reading goals.”*


My to-be-read pile: 
nothing but good times ahead



I do track what I read (because it involves writing in a notebook, as much as for any other reason, and what is not to love about writing in a notebook?) and I (separately) record thoughts as I read. I am also, on occasion, moved to share thoughts publicly, sometimes in formal reviews and sometimes on Instagram and/or Twitter in a #SundaySentence post.

 

However, I don’t have goals like “read XXX books this year” or “revisit Author Name’s work” or “read a lot of books about maps,” although I have, in various recent years, done both of those last two.

 

This past year, as in the year previous, I consciously broadened my reading horizons. I read books by people who are underrepresented in the publishing world, so a good dose of thoughtful work on systemic racism/sexism/ablism (and also joyful work by those writers). I also read books on subjects that sounded interesting: maps, nature, plus random other things (popular music, growing up in difficult circumstances). I’ve also chosen to read books released by small publishing companies.

 

From this year of reading, although I won’t share numbers or specifics, I will share these two thoughts:

 

First, I strongly suggest ignoring “best of” lists unless you or someone you know has a book on one and, then by all means, pay attention and celebrate. But also, it’s good to read more widely than someone else’s “best of” judgment.


Second, I suggest that you choose works you wouldn’t otherwise easily run into. (Remember lingering in a bookstore or browsing library shelves? May we experience those joys again.) You can still read the old faithfuls—Lord knows these days a weekend “comfort read” is a well-deserved pleasure for anyone breathing at the end of the day.


But also, consciously go beyond. Read a book in translation, a work by someone with a disability community (I’m looking forward to the novel True Biz, by Sara Nović), a book of historical fiction from a small press, an #ownvoices memoir. You won’t regret it.


However you feel about the book itself, the experience will be valuable—much more valuable than, say, whipping through ten picture books so that you’ve read a predetermined “goal” number of books by arbitrary time. That said, if you haven’t read a picture book in a while, you could! The range of people publishing, and the works they’re sharing in various formats, grows more interesting all the time.

 

I’ve found that these types of reading “goals”—the resolution to read books that challenge my expectations and complacency, that provide unexpected pleasures, that a small business believes in—have enriched my life in a way that “read all the XX nominees” or “read all the bestsellers” or “read XXX number of books” doesn’t.

 

Your mileage may vary, of course. Because it’s YOUR life that you’re seeking to enrich through reading, not someone else’s. And more power to that goal—enriching your life through learning and enjoyment is enough.

___________________ 

*“Writing goals” are something else entirely. They're harder to avoid for writers, for one thing. And although I have had a visibly productive writing year in aggregate by many measures, some days my “writing goal” was “do some.”)


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

"What Can I Give You?" at the NOWW Blog

I've been a member of the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop, a regional group providing opportunities for writers, for almost as long as I've lived here. 


Naturally, the past eighteen months have provided many opportunities and challenges, and NOWW has been proactive in moving programming online.


In the autumn of 2020, I attended a workshop with the then-eWriter-in-Residence, Susan Olding, in which she spoke of two ways to enter a work of writing: through content and through form. As we explored finding our way into a piece of writing through content, she suggested considering an object nearby.


I looked out the window and saw a wooden ladder on the porch. As one does.


From that seed, an essay grew, and when the NOWW Magazine editor asked if I had something for an upcoming issue, I made time to revise it. It appeared in February. And now it appears on their blog, and I can share it here. 






"What Can I Give You?" at the NOWW blog. 


It's about ladders, and crocheted blankets, and what our ancestors meant to leave us, and what meaning we make of what they left. And I hope you enjoy reading it. 



Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Retrospectives

It's December, which is BOTH just another month AND a month where people do "round-up" or "best of" or "lessons learned" activities. 


I also do that, in my small way, BOTH because I'm drawn to nostalgia (remember the electrifying feeling of knowing that COVID vaccination was coming??) AND because I don't like to leave all the yucky accounting-type jobs to the new year. (Though truthfully, I do procrastinate most of them as long as possible.) So here are some things. Mostly random. 


A random photo to match these random thoughts.


1. Here's something I need to revise. In July, I said I don't like oat milk. Turns out I do like it well enough when it's packaged for coffee, which is all I really use milk products for these days. So I guess that's a benefit for the planet. Can we ignore the multinational corporation doing the packaging?


2. Here's something I have known before but face again, and frankly, I've never really liked it. Making choices means saying "no" to things. Closing doors. Relinquishing things and experiences, perhaps even before they happen. 


Recently, Shuniah House Books has chosen not to participate in an indoor sale sponsored by ThunderCon, a group likely to attract more than a few folks interested in reading and buying books like The Iterations of Caroline. We have reasons, and I'm content with the decision, but it's hard not to feel a momentary pang. 


3. Here's something I recently heard myself say and went "OH." It's long; get a coffee. 


I have enjoyed using Leuchtturm notebooks for organizing and tracking my life for oh, eighteen months or so. Since this past September, I've been wondering what system to use in 2022. I had a Filofax ring system for many years and liked it fine. I've also very much enjoyed using Paperblanks notebooks in the past year for a variety of projects (you can see me rhapsodize about them on Instagram). 


And no, I don't get paid from any of those companies, because although the amount I spend on notebooks seems vast to ME, it's not even a snowflake in a storm to them. (Yes, it's snowing today. Why do you ask?)


I have long found it restful to draw lines on paper. Straight lines, curvy ones. Doodles. Representations of objects and mere ornaments. I have wondered if I'd enjoy keeping a bullet journal, but I don't like drawing THAT much. Then again, the official Bullet Journal method isn't all about the beauty; it's about doing what helps you do things that are important to you. And if having a functional way to track days is all I want, I can make that. 


My internal response was, "if you used a notebook as a bullet journal, imagine how quickly you'd go through notebooks." (Which is not necessarily true, either--some folks use only one or maybe two for the full year. Not your 80-page Hilroys, of course--the A5-sized big jobs.) 


And then I said "OH." Because I am not like one who doesn't already own a notebook or two. I even enjoy using them, instead of keeping them "for nice" or "for writing that's worthy of this nice a notebook" (If you know you know; I can't explain it). 


So, to recap: "using up notebooks" ... that's NOT a bad thing ... and I enjoy drawing lines, more or less ... and I can do whatever I want ... so I'm playing with a bullet journal in December and maybe into 2022.  


No commitments. Because if there's one thing I learned YET AGAIN in 2021, it's that however much I enjoy predictability and routines, even (or especially) in times of unpredictable global events, I can also be flexible. Sometimes. In small things. Oat milk for coffee, bullet journal things.


Happy December, however retrospective you choose to be. 

   

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Reflections on Reflecting

A few months ago, I mentioned being invited to participate in something and how rewarding it was to reflect on how my work has changed in the past few years. 


That project is now out in the world. Creative Nonfiction, the US-based magazine, asks writers on Twitter to tell a story, a "tiny truth," in a tweet with the hashtag #cnftweets. They include a few #cnftweets in print issues of their magazine and in their newsletters.


For their 76th issue (they've been at this "creative nonfiction" thing for a long time, folks), they  redesigned their magazine and did some reflection of their own on the genre as a whole. 


As part of that issue, they asked several writers who have been tweeting (often, and for a long time) with the #cnftweets hashtag to take a look back at how their work has changed over time.


You can see the entire feature here--on the free side of the issue's paywall. And because my last name starts with A, my reflection is at the top. (To see the tweets themselves, over time, you have to go to the page.)




Aside from the chance to commune with my many-years-ago self, this project was fun for other reasons. For one thing, I learned how to download all my tweets. Holy moly.


But I also appreciated being reminded of important writing lessons. Here are a few.


You don't have to write about something to write about it. I wrote the tweets from 2015 while my husband recuperated from heart surgery, a time of profound change for him (of course) but also for me and for us together. I don't talk about it directly until the third anniversary of his surgery, but it infused everything I wrote, in a way that may be visible only to me. 

It's good to have a reason for being anywhere, perhaps especially on social media. I've often threatened to quit Twitter and I've taken several breaks to preserve my mental health. However, when I choose to be there for reasons that AREN'T participating in public political discourse, I'm happier. And tweeting small observations about the world around me, as well as lifting up others' voices, is enough to keep me checking in. 

Revising is so much a part of storytelling. We were asked to choose seven or eight tweets to reflect on. I had many other tweets about my husband, birds, weather, learning and growth, etc., tweets that I remembered fondly (or frankly didn't recall at all but enjoyed seeing), but I had to choose. The largest percentage of them, obviously, didn't make that cut. Which is fine. Just something to keep in mind as I write and revise longer prose.

For decades, since working at two US national laboratories, I've "known" one thing for sure: I "don't write short." Photo captions, text for museums, pull quotes--just not the top of my skill set. But in looking back at my #cnftweets, I see that my "writing short" has improved. So: I can learn new things. And also: it can be hard to see the learning in real time--it's more evident after time has passed. 


So there you have it. It's so interesting to read the other writers' reflections and their tweets. I've "known" these people on Twitter for many years, of course, but seeing their work is more like meeting them in real life. 


I encourage you to read the online feature at Creative Nonfiction and perhaps give #cnftweets a try--they're an interesting way to challenge yourself. 

  

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Celebrations

This time of year encompasses several birthdays, including mine and my book's.


Yes, two (!!) years ago, Signature Editions released my essay collection, Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's. 


Recently, the current president of the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW), a regional writing organization, posted a review on the NOWW blog. Here's a quote:


There’s much sadness here, yet we also see humour (the many conflicting ways to make perfect devilled eggs), the defining and deepening of the author’s love for her parents, the realization of her dream to live full-time on the big lake, the kindling of an autumn romance, and the arrival of a certain understanding …  


To read the rest, go here.


Many thanks to NOWW President Clayton Bye for reading and writing this review--and to NOWW for posting it, and for all the other programming it offers to writers in the region.