Monday, September 2, 2013


In the Authentic Writing workshops we always remind people and ourselves to “stick to the writing” when responding to something someone has just written. When hearing a personal story written candidly, spontaneously, with no attempts at camouflage, it can be very easy to respond with something along the lines of “oh, you poor dear,” or “how brave you were.” 

No writer wants to hear that. That’s not why we write. Comments like that do not support the writing. They detract from it. They counteract it in the disguise of empathy.

It’s a hard line to define sometimes, but a real danger zone when it comes to writing and reading memoir. 

I just this morning finished re-reading Ingrid’s Betancourt’s outstanding memoir, Even Silence Has An End. I’m not the crying type, but I had tears in my eyes in the closing pages. This is eloquent writing. Yes, I loved the adventure of the story and the rainforest environment, but it is Betancourt’s obvious integrity-filled effort to write down her inner experiences, self-examinations and observations of those tortuous years, and how carefully she describes those moments when freedom finally arrives that make this book stand high above the sea of standard memoir.

The writing is so intelligent and vulnerable. You can tell she is not seeking more than to tell her truth and she’s smart and capable and can do it artfully in words. 

After turning the last page and taking a moment, I went to see what the reviewers had said. I started to read one that sounded in tune with my own sentiments. The reviewer wrote several paragraphs about how moving the book was etc., and then the reviewer’s voice changed direction, criticizing Betancourt for making money on the book and for charging high fees to speak, telling us that no one in Colombia can stand her. 

What has that got to do with anything? 

I am not at all convinced that Ingrid and I would fall in love should we ever sit down for a cup of tea together. I can imagine she might be very hard to get close to. She’s a tough cookie and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. (I’d like to see her and this reviewer in the ring together -- ha! I know where I’d put my money.)

But that has nothing to do with the masterful work Ingrid has done creating this memoir. 

So, yes, I loathe it when people think they are reviewing a memoir and really what they are reviewing are the decisions made in the narrative, the life choices willingly exposed.

Recently I heard Aaron Sorkin (the creator of West Wing and Newsroom) say that he doesn’t think anyone’s life could survive public scrutiny. I love that. I agree.

I guess that’s why many people are afraid to write probing memoir. They know the piranhas are out there. Piranhas don’t scare me though. And they certainly do not scare Ingrid Betancourt. That’s one reason why her book is so good. 

Friday, August 23, 2013


I go for walks. I get up early. I read books. These are solitary things. Like writing is a solitary thing. 

When I was a kid I read a lot. In my house everyone did. It was a survival technique. We all went off and read alone somewhere. It was how you got away from everyone else. So, for better or worse, I am well read and I yearned early on to become a grown-up who could write a good book. 

That yearning was a solitary thing, growing like a sapling in the soil of other solitary things – the walking, the getting up early. These things are all part of my quiet inner self. They go together: the writing, the reading, the being alone and quiet.

The rest of my life is as noisy as anyone else’s. 

I was on my standard 20-minute get-out-of-the-office afternoon walk yesterday and I was thinking about a writing competition I might do and of Twitter friends and of a press release I should do about my book – I am one of the legions of writers now tasked with getting the word out about our work. 

Writing has become a double-job: you write and you sell. 

When I was a teenager and doing my yearning I didn’t imagine the second part, the selling part. Other people did that. But they don’t do it anymore. They have abdicated. 

And it’s okay – in many ways I enjoy the online life, the finding of people across the globe who respond in similar ways to the same 140 characters that I do and so on.

But yesterday I did wonder. How will this affect my writing, our writing? I am writing this blog post, yes, because these are my thoughts and I want to write them down, but also because blogs exist as a way of letting the world know who you are and what you are up to. I am writing this post as a way of filling out my online identity.

What would I be writing if I were still in solitary mode, if I were allowed to stay in that state of mind that thrives on walks and silence and other books? What would any of us be writing? 

I thought these things with a sense of loss yesterday.

And then acceptance. This is the world in which I write. In twenty years it may well be different again and that too will affect the way I and we write. And I may find myself looking back on these years with some kind of nostalgia. 

Outside my window it is just beginning to get light. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I finished a book-length manuscript 18 months ago. Then I spent a year re-reading it and fixing little things here and there. Not a full solid year, but it took me a year of finding hidden margins of time to re-read the book. When I got to the end of that second read I thought, “Okay, the end isn’t good enough and I have to fix that bit in the middle, make it better.”

A couple more months went by before I could sit down and do this. I’d been looking forward to it. But within about 10 minutes, I thought, “You know, I could fiddle with this forever. This book is done.” Within 24 hours I had found someone to read it through and clean up any typo’s. I’m waiting for her to finish, have figured out who I’m going to ask to design the book and how I want the cover, and I’ve come to love what I had been thinking of as only a working title. 

When I told the woman who will be proofing the manuscript -- a good friend and a fine poet -- that I’d only read through the manuscript once, she more or less gasped. (I don’t know if people actually “gasp,” but she expressed shock). She’d just been telling me of the manual she’d been reading about how to write fiction and how she’s on the fifth read of her own novel. 

Re-reading and re-writing is unquestioned wisdom when it comes to writing. It’s deemed part of the chore of it all – that and sitting alone for hours and hours and hours.

During the summer I was talking with a writer who has been on one book project for a few years. I told him I was just completing my book, that I expected to be done in the fall, that I had a little re-writing to do. “Right,” he said. “And you’ll probably still be at it 3 years from now!” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I disagree. I disagree with just about everything I read (or, actually don’t read) on how to write. I don’t want anyone – and I mean ANYone – telling me how to write. And I’m not telling you anything here. I’m writing down my experience and I am encouraging you to have some faith in your own experience as a writer and follow the uncharted course it prescribes.

I wrote with a woman the other day for the first time. She’s a successful professional woman who has done a lot of legal writing. She came to me because she wanted to write something more personal. We sat down and had a writing session together. “Wow,” she said afterwards, her eyes shining. “I have never ever written like that before.” She’d written something beautiful, something completely her own, a memory from forty years before, every sentence of it providing more detail so I could see the environment that she was seeing in her mind’s eye. And the next day we spoke of it again. “It was wonderful writing with you,” she said. “It demystified writing!” 

Yes! Take out the mystique that implies only some people have the key to the land of golden treasure – all these endless tracts on how to write, how to “create characters” – they do only harm, no good at all. 

Not that writing is not mysterious. It is. And not that continuing to write doesn’t make you a better writer, that there is always more territory to discover. There is. And not that there isn’t joy and creativity in some re-writing. 

But I have the feeling that if it weren’t for computers writing wouldn’t have become the land of endless rewrites. Think of all those writers who did it by hand or on a typewriter… 

Back to my manuscript. For the last two weeks I have been worried and thinking about it. Maybe I was too rash. I’m usually too rash. Maybe I should do what everyone else does, re-read that sucker, tweak every sentence, make it better.

But my other half won out. No reader is going to notice the changes I will make. If they don’t like the book the way it is now they are not going to eat it up because I’ve made some of the sentences more pleasing. And I believe in what comes out onto the page the first time – I don’t want to lose that. Maybe it’s no good. But no matter how long you work on these things that’s a chance you have to take. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012


My parents liked to read. There were tall, filled bookshelves in the living room. I got deeply involved with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then horse books. In boarding school bliss was weekend afternoons when every girl lay silently on her single bed, reading and eating candy freshly purchased from the tiny candy shop improvised by Sister Anthony on a card table.

By the time I was in my teens I had found home in books -- grown-up ones now, ones often purloined from the shelves in the living room. I read novels. I read fiction. That's where the art was then. And I promised myself that if I did anything with my life, I was going to find a way to become one of those magic people who could write fiction and create worlds that were more real to me than the ones presented anywhere else.

Forty years later, I don't read fiction anymore. At least, not contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was The God of Small Things back in the mid-nineties. And that was a helluva book to end on. I read it twice.

But I can't bear current fiction now. We have memoir now. We have broken through that barrier and someone can tell their story now directly and fully without the clothing of fiction.

When George Eliot was writing, or Jean Rhys, or Virginia -- the language of memoir that we have now did not exist. People had to put their memoir into fiction. And when you read good fiction from back then -- something I still do -- you can hear the writer's thinking bleeding through the story. I still read old fiction with enthusiasm. And I've been wondering why I like fiction in old books, but have no interest when it comes to the new fiction.

I pick up a new novel now, open it, and as soon as I read the first sentence -- about someone who does not exist -- I lose interest. There is nothing at stake.

I want the writer to be willing to show themselves as blatantly as possible on the page. I look hard for good contemporary memoir. When I am lucky and I come across it then I hardly put the book down until I am finished. I can't. The pleasure is too great.

But good memoir is hard to come by, and to fill the gap I have been returning to fiction from the 1940s and further back into the 19th century. I would still rather read a good current memoir. But these old books keep me going. I am grateful for them, rich and deep, the soil I came from.

Monday, September 5, 2011


So far, here in November 2011, I have named five books as my favorite memoirs of the year. Two were published this year and two published in other years.

TWIN by Allen Shawn
TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III

THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME by Janice Galloway
GONVILLE by Peter Birkenhead


Read and enjoy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


It's a strange feeling to write like this. Like I am writing badly on purpose. Because I do not want to write “well.” If I write “well” I will miss something, I will not discover the part of me that I don't know. And so I on purpose ignore, refute the part of my brain that knows how to do it, the part I would use if I were trying to get a writing job or impress someone. I don't want to write with that part of myself. I want to write without protection.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Perfection Is Not

If you ask me, perfection and art don't go together. Maybe they do for some people, but the quest for perfection – i.e. compulsion – is an art killer. A writing killer. 

So many writers I have known (including myself at times) can't sit down to write because of the fear of not doing it well enough. It might disguise itself as “I have no time,” but I think if you look more closely fear of not writing well enough might be the actual reason. 

And if they do get as far as chair, paper, pen then whatever words make it through are erased or torn up. It happened just yesterday in the workshop. A young woman, after reading one of the most powerful paragraphs I had ever heard, announced that it was the only part of what she had written that morning that she had allowed to survive. The rest she had erased. 

Destroying your writing is a form of suicide. Not writing at all is a sort of pre-emptive suicide. It's not easy to insist on life, on writing. 

I resist my own impulse to self-destroy by publishing online as soon as I write. I like this art form of writing and publishing instantly. It came to me of its own accord. I didn't copy it from anyone. It works for me. I write this way. In the beginning I wanted to be Virginia Woolf, at my desk every morning – it has morphed into this: writing mostly in the Authentic Writing workshops, writing in pen because the subsequent typing is a chance to make a few light changes. And then posting it. There's no time to destroy.

I've got a good sharp brain. I could criticize my writing. I'd make a great English professor if I wanted to go in that direction. But I do not. 

So I encourage all art-writers – people who write to discover something about themselves, to walk on new turf, people whose life goal is not to just mimic what others have done and been praised for – I encourage you to stop thinking. Thinking and writing do not go together.