The Essential Rewrite

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We all have a story.

Yours might be of loss, confusion, or upending heartbreak, a crisis that brought you to your knees. Maybe you lost your child, or your marriage fell apart. Maybe you’re a survivor of the most brutal abuse.

Whatever your story is, it continues to have you in its grip. It’s the one you may have been writing for decades.

Part of the privilege of being a writer is the exquisite urge to excavate our experiences, to knit the disparate fragments together in a tapestry that results in something redemptive and beautiful.

We strive to make meaning of grief, transgressions, confusion, disappointment. We wrangle order out of the messiness of our childhoods, reconcile all the ways our parents in covert or overt ways abandoned and engulfed us.

This is the writer’s impulse – to probe significant events that demand to be looked at over and over, ever more deeply, from many different angles.

It doesn’t matter if we’re writing fiction or memoir. Ultimately, through the writing – and the re-writing in particular – we are all trying to move towards self knowledge and wisdom, some radical self acceptance, a place of salvation and healing. To arrive at some sublime truth that is wholly, inviolably our own.

But here’s where some of us go wrong.

We write only about what happened.

We write from a place of rage or grief.

And while we may be justified in having those feelings, it makes for a story that readers don’t care about. Because nobody is interested in reading about some disempowered person. Maybe your Dad left you when your were five. Yes, you should be angry. But that anger is not empowering you in the least, even though it may be potent start up fuel for your story.

Anger, grief, even love on its own has a numbing effect on your reader.

That doesn’t mean you should let whoever wronged you off the hook. It’s not about forgiveness so much as trying to understand what happened. And then finding your own culpability in what happened to you.

This is challenging, gut wrenching work. It’s why writing our story is so challenging. It’s easy to point the finger at the person who hurt us and say, “Look what you did!”

It’s harder, and ultimately more enriching to explore what part we played in that story. To plumb the depths of that pain and examine the crazy and self destructive ways we reacted to whatever happened.

Voice emerges from penetrating attention to what it all meant.

We can dwell all we want on how someone betrayed us. But the more painful thing to come to terms with is how we betrayed ourselves in the process.

That’s why it’s always more comfortable to blame the other for the demise of a romantic relationship. And while your partner might have behaved horrifically – she cheated on you, let’s say, or left you to marry someone else six months after you sold all your possessions and moved from Canada to Kansas to live with her – the onus is still on you.

To write the most fascinating story, you need to discover how you co-created the dynamic, the covert ways you played out your childhood story and cast that person in the co-starring role. It’s the reckoning of how you reacted to what was done to you, or even how you unconsciously courted those events to happen in the first place. It’s the actions you took to rise from the ruins of that experience.

Here’s where your story gets really compelling.

Because until you look at how you participated in what happened to you, or how you self-sabotaged as a result of what some one else did, nobody is going to give a damn.

Because you are still denying your story. You’re giving someone else carte blanche to write the story for you.

As Brene Brown says, “When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”

It’s not about what happened. Better questions to ask of your story are “What have I learned about myself through this heart wrenching experience? How did I grow?”

You won’t discover any of this until you’re deep in the throes of revisiting your material over and over. This is the pain and the pleasure, the surprising reward of rewriting.

We rewrite because we didn’t have the courage to face it the first time.

Your story matters because by writing and rewriting it, by turning it this way and that, by going to the heart center of that pain, you come out on the other side with wisdom, open heartedness, and compassion. Compassion for the people that hurt you to the core – for surely, they’re hurting, too – and most important, compassion for yourself. When you radically accept yourself, you’re free from the shackles of that limited story. You get to write a different story from a place of empowerment.

As Vienna Pharaon says…

“There are going to be some tragic parts to your story. Some details that just don’t shine on their own. But what there will always be is an opportunity to grow from them. To rise up. To rise to the occasion. To write the story of “this is what tried to keep me from stepping into my greatest self, and this is how I told it to ‘sit down.’”

This is where your story gets irresistible to your reader.

This is what elevates your story to a work of art.

Writing For Emotional Impact

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We want our reader to feel our character’s joy, pain and everything in between.

But one of the surest ways to sever the reader’s emotional connection is to be overly direct about how a character feels.

How many times have you read something like this?

Susan screamed with terror.

His heart palpitated as he climbed the attic stairs.

My heart plummeted with grief.

Flannery O’Connor once said that as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We have to provide it with a body; we have to create a world with weight and extension.

In other words, before an emotion can take on imaginative weight and substance, it must be embodied in the world of the real. A world the reader can see, hear, smell, touch, taste and inhabit.

We’re hardwired to respond emotionally to the world via our senses.

This is just as true for the world you create on the page. When you appeal to your reader’s senses, you blast through his intellect to his most primitive emotions.

The Biology of Emotion

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean says the human brain “amounts to three interconnected biological computers”, each with its own “special intelligence” and neural machinery. For now, we’re just going to focus on two of those: the outer brain known as the neocortex, and the deeper layer, the limbic system, which resides in the spinal cord.

The neocortex allows us to reason, to contemplate, to reach intellectual insights and process abstractions. To this brain words like fear and love mean something. But while the neocortex can understand the concept of fear or love, it cannot feel it. This top layer is not capable of producing a physical response, a gut reaction.

It’s the limbic system, the most ancient layer of our brain, that generates “strong or particularly vivid emotions.” This brain takes in information through the five senses, then produces a wide variety of sense responses within the body. It’s capable of feeling anger, fear, desire, love, exhilaration, awe, grief and a host of other subtle emotions.

When a reader feels heartbreak for your character, or anger at another, when she dreads what might happen in the near empty parking lot of the mall at night, it’s a limbic response. It’s irrational. Instinctual. Physical.

Surely this is what Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said:

“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

Bring your characters’ emotions out of the analytical, away from the general, beyond the abstract.

Slip inside your characters’ consciousness and render a world for them to inhabit. A world full of textures, colors, odors, sights, sounds.

Take a look at this excerpt from Elizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again. In this passage, Mose is grieving his young daughter’s tragic death.

The baby had wandered out of the house. Look: a beautiful shimmering heart in the backyard, glittering romance to a baby girl. There were always little wavelets in our pool, the water holding coins of light between its fingers. The baby doesn’t know the difference between water and light, unless it’s on her skin: one is cold, and the other warm, but how can you tell if you don’t touch? So she tries to touch. She is a magpie; she steals all the shiny things in the house and hides them in her bed, butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes. She walks to the edge of the pool. She doesn’t look around. She doesn’t know this is forbidden. She leans over the water, and now the flash is beyond her reach, so she leans farther, and she is so small there is no splash, and she is so round that she floats, and she is so surprised that she does nothing, nothing at all, and when her mother finds her — only minutes later, says the doctor — she is still floating, little jellyfish, greedy little jellyfish, her hands empty and her face, when they turn her over, disappointed.

Let’s unwrap this passage to see what it can teach us.

1. Resist Telling Us How Your Character Feels.

Saying Mose is sad or grief stricken tells us virtually nothing about how he feels. And it short-circuits our natural urge to fill in the unsaid. The author never directly states how Mose feels. Instead she creates concrete images which our limbic brain translates into an alchemy of emotions. We don’t need to be told Mose’s heart is breaking. Ours is breaking. And that’s all that matters.

2. Avoid Emotional Cliches.

McCracken doesn’t give Mose rivulets of tears, a sinking heart or guttural cries. We expect him to weep, to feel agonizing loss. Which renders it unnecessary on the page.

Instead she juxtaposes the tragic circumstances with images of dappling light. She also spares us the potentially melodramatic moment of the little girl’s death by having Mose imagine the event through the little girl’s perspective. It’s a tender moment full of glitter and baby girl romance. It’s not grim or dark, something we might expect.

So when writing your own emotional moments, rather than use a gray rainy day to convey sadness, or a sunny day full of birdsong to mirror happiness, try flipping it around. How might a grieving father interpret birds?

3. Think Large. Write Small.

Mose’s grief is embodied in the small details. Not large dramatic displays of emotion. What raises this passage to an emotional pitch is the attention given to small specific details – butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes, all the particular objects his little girl stole and stashed in her bed. Notice how emotionally restrained this passage is. It’s the details that give us access to Mose’s interior. It’s what brings us beyond the facts and surface events directly into the world of emotion.

4. Recreate Your Character’s Experience.

One of the things that’s so striking about this passage is the sudden switch to present tense as Mose imagines the unimaginable. The sentence rhythm also modulates between short and long sentences. The last sentence in particular is breathless and urgent. This all correlates to the shock and trauma, a masterful way of showing, not telling.

The takeaway here: filter emotion through your characters’ consciousness. Recreate their experience and you’ll draw the reader directly into that experience.

When we draw the reader into the experience, we create more intimacy between reader and story. We don’t just convey the emotion, which is a great feat in itself, we instantly transfer that emotion to the reader. Hopefully with a little spine tingle thrown in.

The Struggle That Most Writers Never Talk About

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An aspiring writer recently shared this with me:

“My story looks so alive and brilliant in my head. But as soon as I write it, the story falls flat. And then I feel like a fraud. I wonder why I continue to spend so much time at something I’m obviously so bad at.”

Ever feel that way?

You write something in a rush of inspiration. Then you read it and think,

“That’s not what I meant to say. That’s not even close to what I see in my mind.”

“This whole thing is contrived and boring.”

“My story’s no good.”

“I’m no good.”

“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”

First, let me assure you, you’re not alone.

The journey from imagination to page is inherently fraught with what Twyla Tharp calls, “divine dissatisfaction.”

In the theater of our mind, our story is a multi-dimensional, techno-color, high-def world teaming with life. But inevitably, in our early attempts to transfer that vision onto the page, that world disintegrates.

It’s where a lot of writers get lost.

Or stop writing altogether.

But the truth is, every writer worth his or her salt grapples with this very same struggle.

Listen to how Ann Patchett describes her writing process.

“This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. I reach and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”

That despair didn’t stop her from authoring 9 books, including Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, and The Magician’s Assistant.

And you know what? She wrestles with the same self doubt and frustration every time she sits down to write something new.

Every single time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor and blogger for The Atlantic, says the writing process is like trying to transfer a piece of music you hear in your head to the blank page.

And so you fail.

He believes the entire writing process is all about failure – failing over and over again.

So, what do writers like Ann Patchett and Ta-Nehisi Coates do to push through the inevitable failure of their works in progress?

How do they close the chasm between their vision and its ultimate expression?

They keep showing up to the page. They work with and through their resistance.

They continue honing their craft through deliberate, focused practice.

They revise. Over and over. Until the music on the page gets closer to the music in their head.

There’s no mystery to this.

To elevate your writing to the brilliance of your imagination, you need to develop the muscle of perseverance, to keep learning and practicing your craft.

And you need to be kinder to yourself.

Just know the struggle to go from imagination to page is universal. It isn’t proof of your failure. It’s leading you to your next breakthrough.

6 Ways to Write Better (that have nothing to do with writing)

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When it comes to unleashing our best, most potent writing, it’s not only about the hours we have, it’s the quality of mind and body we bring to those hours. There’s the skill of writing and then there’s our physiological, mental and emotional state. Ultimately, you can’t separate them.

Here are some ways to improve your writing that have nothing to do with writing.

1. Commit to Joy

At some point on our road to adulthood, we buy into this idea that fun and pleasure is frivolous, non-productive, even fiscally irresponsible. Too often we don’t give ourselves permission to do things for the sheer joy of doing them.

But in my experience, joy is not a mere luxury. It’s non-negotiable. Because when we’re aligned with what truly delights us, we’re in flow — that blissful feeling when time is irrelevant, when we lose ourselves and simultaneously connect on the deepest level to who we are. Even small things that align us with our pleasure centers have been scientifically proven to be vital, not only to our happiness but to our emotional and physical survival.

Joy fuels our creative momentum. Infuses us with energy. Boosts our immunity.

Robert Holden, author of Shift Happens, believes when it comes to our quest for success, we have it all backwards. We often rely on external achievements to create our happiness. The finished novel. The publishing contract. We long for hitting those apexes of success so we can finally say we’ve arrived. But he believes that if we commit to our happiness, we will increase our chances for success.

The myth of the tortured artist is just that. A myth. Studies on the link between mood and creativity show that people are most creative when they’re happy and positive. Depression and bipolar disorders decrease creativity.

So, what lights you up? Long chats with friends? Argentine tango dancing? Playing piano? Travel? Long distance running? Eating fresh, luscious food? Art projects with your kids? More intimacy with your spouse? Would leaving your spouse make space for more happiness in your life?

Make a list right now.

I guarantee that if you make joy one of the top priorities in your life, you’ll write better.

2. Eat Well

One of the best consistent actions I know of to support my writing is to nourish my body with nutrient dense, whole food. That means eliminating or, at the very least, minimizing processed food in all its forms.

Our creative output is only as good as our input. The wrong foods cause stress in the body and stress in the mind, which leads to creative depletion.

High quality, nutrient dense, whole food help us vibrate at a higher frequency. It regulates mood and stabilizes our blood sugar throughout the day. It keeps us optimistic. And insanely productive.

Eating well is not rocket science. Just eat real food. Vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, fish and meat. Ideally, plants make up at least 50% of your plate. Michael Pollen offers some good rules of thumb: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Or anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

3. Make sleep a priority.

Maintaining creative momentum when we’re sluggish is a steep uphill battle. And if we’re chronically sleep deprived, we raise anxiety levels and are more vulnerable to an assortment of short and long term illnesses.

Sleep makes everything better. It boosts our immune system, keeps us positive and able to take on daily stress with poise and grace.

I’ve struggled on and off with insomnia my whole life. Especially now that I’m a parent, my mind and body is often still revved up at bedtime. Unless I take proactive steps to power down, I can lay in the dark for hours with thoughts racing toward tasks yet to be done. So I have a conscious set of rituals that help me transition from a turbo-charged day to restful, restorative sleep.

Here’s what works for me:

I strive to be in bed weeknights by 10 pm. So I shut all technology off by 8 pm, or at least one hour before bed. Texting within an hour of sleep, checking email, working late on the computer, watching television within an hour of bedtime wreaks havoc on your sleep. That’s because the blue light they emit suppresses melatonin, the hormone which regulates sleep and wake cycles.

When deadlines call, and I must work late at the computer, answer emails or text on my phone, I have an app called f.lux which allows my screen color display to adapt to the time of day, making it increasingly warmer at night so that my melatonin isn’t disrupted.

Make your bedroom your sanctuary. No televisions. No clutter. The darker the better. Keep smart phones on charge in a separate room.

4. Wake Up Earlier

An hour earlier. Better yet, two.

Laura Vanderkam did a fascinating study of what the most successful people do while most of us are still sound asleep. And the consistent finding is that they do plenty. They get a jumpstart on their workout, for example, plan and prioritize their day, or spend the first hour writing their book.

For years I was a night owl, conditioned from years as a ballroom dance studio owner and late night dancer/performer. Even years after I’d retired from professional dancing, I typically stayed up until 1 am or so, sleeping until 9 or 10 am.

When I had a baby, all that changed, of course. By the time Safira was 3-years old, I knew that if I didn’t re-condition myself to wake up earlier, I wasn’t going to get any writing done. Because once she was up, all bets were off.

These days, more mornings than not, I naturally wake at 5 am, which gives me a good 2 hours to gather my thoughts, get centered and write before my phone alarm starts beeping and my kiddo starts getting ready for school. Early quiet is serene. The solitude is heavenly. And there’s less compulsion to check or answer email straight away. Those two hours are sacrosanct, where I get the most bang for my buck. It’s when I’m most alert, focused and productive.

The added boon is that the rest of my day goes much smoother. I get reams more accomplished. I’m more even tempered throughout the day. I also sleep better.

If you’re not accustomed to waking early, no need to go full tilt right away. Start out waking 15 minutes earlier at a time. Your circadian rhythm will regulate, and in due time, your body will naturally rise.

Our morning sets the tone for the entire day. What you choose to do in your first hours can make or break it.

5. Move Your Body

When we change our physiology, we change our minds. Movement gets our blood oxygenated and flowing, and loosens the neural pathways. It infuses us with endorphins and produces a healthy surge of creative energy.

Dance, go for a run, walk – anything to get the blood circulating.

Writing takes a lot of energy.

If we have sustained energy, we accomplish more in less time. And we write better.

6. Meditate

Busyness is addictive. We’re over stimulated. Anxious. Maxed out on our ever-growing to-do list.

Stress begets more stress.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of reigning in runaway thoughts so that we can bring more quality of focus to everything we do. It clears space in the mind.

Here’s the science: Meditating as little as 10 minutes a day shuts off the amygdala, the fight or flight center of our brain, which still can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger and a field mouse ripping through our pantry in the middle of the night. When the amygdala is activated, it shuts down the rest of the brain, rendering the creative hemisphere of our brain useless.

Meditation doesn’t have to involve spiritual yoga-esque visualizations of golden light traveling up and down our spine to our third eye. Or lotus flowers opening in our heart chakra (although that can be nice, too). It’s more like a mini-vacation from our mental chatter. Just pausing 10 minutes a day at your desk – connecting to your body, closing your eyes, tuning into the sounds around you, observing your breath – pays off in a calmer, steadier, more efficient, creative mind.

Quieting the mind is deceptively challenging. It does take practice. My favorite app for practicing meditation is Headspace.

Writing flourishes when we’re firing on all cylinders. It requires our full-on energy and focus.

You are your greatest creative leverage.

So practice impeccable self care.