Monday, January 30, 2012


 Letting myself off the hook for this blog and diving into my writing and reading with every ounce of my energy has been good for me this past two weeks.

I've read four books, finished several drafts of my essay for the semester (analyzing the way backstory can be used successfully to propel a plot rather than stall it out), and heavily revised a short story I wrote last May.

It's been emotionally and mentally exhausting though, which is something I didn't expect. By completely throwing myself in to my short story this past week - six to eight hours a day of it - I felt like I'd dived headfirst into a dark lake and lost sight and breath. I don't know if writing is like that for most writers, and when I write sporadically, juggling life along with it, I seem to bob at the surface more. But when I write, really, obsessively write, I get lost. My heart and head are somewhere else, and that place is usually not a pretty place.

When I left school two weeks ago, I'd lost a good part of my confidence in writing. I lost confidence in my ability to tell what I'd done well and what I hadn't. I'm not saying it's not okay to write stinky stuff. You should. We should all write stuff that's terrible once in a while - stretch out wings, try out new things, attempt something greater than our talents. The thing is... you have to know, when you've finished, that it stinks. And I couldn't.

One thing that's critical as a writer, at least if you want to get better, is to be able to see what you're doing wrong... and know how to fix it.

I can't say that over the last two weeks I've conquered that part. But one thing I've learned about me is that I write for a reason. I usually have something to say... a point to make, a lesson to learn. A theme. Something I want people to think about and mull over.  And that.... is no way to write a story.

A story has to be about the characters. It has to be their story, and not yours. Not even the story you want them to tell. It has to develop without a point to make, or some agenda. Not that, in the end, it can't have a point. But the writing towards that point is the death of a story. It feels heavy handed. It feels preachy. It feels like the characters are being corralled like cattle into a place they may not want to be, and along with them, the reader.

So I rewrote a story I'd written last spring, one which started as an idea rather than as a character with a problem. This time I focused on the character and not the idea.

I like the story I wrote, but I don't trust it. I don't know if it works, and  I don't trust myself to know if it's any good. Not yet.

But I figured out one thing I was doing wrong, and that's a start.


  1. I think it's a hard thing to let the characters take over, but I was talking with a good writing friend the other day and she said that she was writing and the coolest, most unexpected thing happened, and it changed her whole ending.
    THOSE are the moments in writing that I live for. I love it when the characters take over and tell me their story. IF there's some kind of theme or idea to the story, those usually come in WAY later, and help me tie in loose ends, but not always.
    Also - I don't think any of us can look at our own work objectively and know if it's good or not.
    It's why we need readers . . .

  2. I'm so glad you found your voice and confidence again.

    Seeing what we're doing wrong is very very tough. So true.


  3. Heidi,

    I am having the same problem as I have been taking writing more seriously with the New Year. My children are grown and gone so I don't have that responsibility, but I do have a lot going on in other areas with the responsibility for my dad and also the part I play in various musical organizations.

    I finished a review Saturday night that still needs about 20 revisions and was exhausted. So I did something else. I went over and played free pinball at my dad's assisted living place for a while. That always resets me. Then I did some light article writing and revision.

    I am not writing anything of the complexity that you are. I can't do novels and I am bad with short stories. My form seems to be short Garrison Keilloresque pieces. But there already is a Garrison Keillor and I don't think the world needs him and a wannabe.

    Still, I enjoy writing and I love reading the writing of others such as you and Jolene and Sheila and Nancy. I try to maintain an even strain, as Neil Armstrong once avowed as his philosophy and take time out for exercise and music and reading and naps. Yes, and dark chocolate.

    I don't wish to come across as patronizing since you obviously know what you are doing. You have beautiful gifts of intelligence and expression and the work ethic to bring them all to the dance.

    Keep on keeping on, Heidi. The world needs words such as yours to help heal itself.

  4. I know a little bit about how you feel. I went to a critique group and I thought I had written a good chapter - the best one yet and it kind of got hacked apart (they were right about everything). Then I had critique other people's work and I didn't trust myself. Do I really know what good writing and bad writing look like.

    Now I'm super confused and keep second guessing every sentence and character motivation. Yes, it's alright to stink, but to continue to stink over and over again is a little disheartening.

    Hopefully my trust in my writing will come.

  5. Patti,

    I have taught writing and have written for a long time, and I know exactly what you are talking about. I still write pieces and am not sure that they work. I have several trusted "ears" to hear them and they will tell me how and if and why or why not something works or falls flat. I listen to them, and on good days when everything is going well,I listen to myself. I can feel the sense of voice and tone practically snap into place and then it's dictation the rest of the way with cleanup to follow.

    Developing all this takes time. If I can be shamelessly mercenary, I wrote about this in my blog, Biscuit City, in a post entitled "10,000 Hours." That's the amount of time spent practicing something it takes to become an expert at it. If you'd like to look at the post, it's located at I hope you will look at it and wish you well with your writing. It takes passion and persistence to do it well, and I sense that you have both qualities. All the best!

  6. Wow! I was reading along, nodding in agreement, something to say, yes... And then! That's no way to write a story. Hey, you've got a point! I never thought of it that way but now that I think of it, that could be why some stories feel so heavy and lifeless. I do know that if we don't care about the characters the story goes pfffft so that makes sense.

    Or maybe I'm just really agreeable.

    I will say this: one of my big breakthrough moments was figuring out that what I'd written was crap. I realized I'd developed enough as a writer that I could recognize the crsp and then fix it. But I can see getting into it so deeply that you can't tell anymore, that's unnerving. How often in our lives do we get or make a chance to dive in that deep? It's got to be helpful in the long run. Keep up the good work and it's great to hear from you!

  7. Yeah, well I probably still haven't gotten over that yet. Because when a character says something I don't agree with, I say, "I don't agree with that." And then I change it. Maybe I need to take the dive. With oxygen, though. Oxygen is important.

  8. Uh-oh. I think I do that, too. Write with a subconscious point in mind, I mean. Hmmm...I need to be uber-aware of it as I'm making my way through my first rounds of editing.

    And, don't you think we all sort of know SOME of things we're doing wrong, but that this is where a fresh pair of objective eyes comes in handy? (Like a critique partner or group?)