nine questions about writing for the rare readers who wonder

March 12, 2015

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I fully realize that reflections on the writing process can be fascinating reading for writers–and dull as tax documents for non-writers. I also realize that over the years I’ve acquired a readership made up largely of homeschoolers, and that I’m not necessarily writing much about homeschooling here these days.

Which is to say that the post that follows will interest maybe 4% of you, if I’m lucky. Still I came across these questions posed by Kristen of Little Lodestar by way of Nina Badzin’s blog back in December, and they’ve been simmering in my mind ever since. Also, my longtime writing group has fallen away, and I’m feeling a bit ravenous for conversation on writing. So I’ve gone ahead and answered Kristen’s questions, in a post for the 4%, knowing that the rest of you can politely click away, and I won’t even notice that you’ve left.

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet? My husband reads most of my blog posts and even comments occasionally, and I love him for that. I often ask him to read my columns or essays before I send them off. I appreciate his feedback on those, but also recognize that he struggles a bit to give me that feedback. He isn’t a writer and I’ve learned not to expect from him the nuanced sort of feedback that I get from fellow writers. You could say that he gives me layman’s feedback, my layman. He’s a musician on the side, and in the same way, while I can offer basic feedback on his music, I don’t know how to comment on whether a bass line works, or whether his guitar solo melts my face. I’m limited to lame responses like That one is catchy! (Although I do have opinions on lyrics.) We can only give what we have to give.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it? I have a small handful of friends and family members who read my stuff. Occasionally I’ll link blog posts or online writing via my Facebook page–if I think it might interest a wider audience–and I get feedback from more of my people, which is nice. I can count on one hand the real-life friends and family who read my blog regularly and comment on it–and I’d love to use that hand to give those friends a good slappy high-five, grateful as I am for them. I don’t expect friends and family members to read my stuff, especially since much of it has been related to homeschooling, and many of those folks aren’t homeschoolers. Still, my writing self is such a vital part of me, and sometimes it’s a little disheartening to realize that many of my friends and acquaintances don’t know that part. It makes me value the ones who do all the more.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go? I never let any writing go–I’m a packrat when it comes to digital files. (They’re small.) When I’ve run out of markets for a piece of work I stop sending it out, but I keep it. Maybe a new writing forum will come along that will be a good fit, or maybe I’ll harvest parts of the piece for something new. I’ve actually done that several times. Or maybe I’ll just keep it to remember the person I was when I wrote it. I have two essays that I’m especially fond of that have been repeatedly rejected–one about a family trip to Spain, and one on Mr. T’s early fascination with sticks. I’m thinking that bits of them might end up in a memoir on homeschooling. Or maybe I’ll stick them up here one day.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else? See previous response. I don’t recall ever writing anything for a singular, specific forum, unless I knew publication was a sure thing. I’m boringly practical.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer? I’m a devoted fan of the essay, although most people to whom I mention this seem confused about what exactly an essay isI’ve had a year of excellent essayists! I search out inspiring essays like a junkie, in a variety of formats. I read the essays posted on the fantastic Full Grown People religiously every Tuesday and Thursday morning. A few favorites: “Persuasion” by Nicole Walker,  “Comma Momma” by Kristin Kovacik, “Into the Woods” by Rebecca Stetson Werner. Anthologies? Yes! I’ve read chunks of Best American Essays for years, but have a juvenile tendency to read only the contributions written in styles that I like. A recently-enjoyed anthology is The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family and How We Learned to EatI’m one of the rare folks (the same 4% reading this now?) who actually purchase essay collections. I scarfed down Meghan Daum’s new collection, The Unspeakable. I also love literary memoirs, recently Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?  Both. In unison. The two converse in my head constantly (which might explain my tendencies toward distractedness.)

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so under appreciated? She isn’t under-appreciated, but Catherine Newman‘s parenting writing deserves to be loved by the masses. She’s hilarious, heartbreaking and most definitely completely brilliant. Try this, for a sample. She slays me.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?  I love Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell for its embrace of old-fashioned, essayistic reflection, for its questioning of the trend towards show, don’t tell in writing. I’ve also enjoyed Kate Hopper’s Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, particularly for the fantastic writing samples from mother writers she’s assembled. (And while it isn’t a craft book, Kate led me to this collection of archived presentations from the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, which she speaks at each year. Gems and more gems! Listen and learn!) And, oh! Mary Karr has a guide to memoir coming out this September! Waiting for that one.

9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax? Not yet. But I do have a goal of becoming braver and more honest in my writing, so maybe I’ll get there some day. That might be a good thing.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Molly March 12, 2015 at 10:51 am

“Still, my writing self is such a vital part of me, and sometimes it’s a little disheartening to realize that many of my friends and acquaintances don’t know that part.” So true! My writing self is like my secret identity.

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patricia March 12, 2015 at 11:00 am

And I love the fact that our secret identities know each other. It’s probably my favorite thing about you.

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Mary Walker March 12, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Ummm, maybe it’s just me, but I’d LOVE to hear the one about your son’s fascination with sticks!! What parent can’t relate to the sometimes odd and always endearing fascinations our children show?

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patricia March 13, 2015 at 8:01 am

Good to know, Mary! Yes, I think I’ve made a parenting/homeschooling life of watching my kids fascinations! The stick attraction was such a deep one for my kid–and for some other boys too, I know–that I was propelled to try to understand it.

You’ve given me new motivation to try to do something with that piece. Thank you!

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Kate Hopper March 12, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Oh Patricia, I love this post. I love Full Grown People, too. Aren’t those essay fabulous? And of course I’m honored as heck that you’ve given me a shout out.

I can’t wait to spend time with you at the River Teeth conference at the end of May!

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patricia March 13, 2015 at 8:10 am

Well, as I keep telling you, your book is fabulous, just the thing that mothers who write/want to write ought to pick up. I’m afraid that my description didn’t convey much about the book as a whole. I’ve never had you as a teacher–except via your presentations at River Teeth!–but it’s clear to me that you’re a gifted instructor who understands how to support writers at all levels. That comes through in the book, which is why I can’t stop recommending it!

I am so excited about that River Teeth conference–I can’t tell you. Can’t wait to see you again and hear your wonderful laugh. 🙂

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Lori March 13, 2015 at 12:26 am

I am such a scaredy-cat when it comes to sharing my writing! I admire your courage, Patricia, as well as your writing! This post was an inspiration. Thank you, as always, for sharing. 🙂

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patricia March 13, 2015 at 8:16 am

Thank you, Lori! Nothing makes me happier than to hear that I’ve inspired someone.

Do you have Kate’s book? It might be just the thing to give you a bit more courage about your writing. Or more inspiration. 🙂

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dawn March 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm

just a little smile and wave *hello* from one of the faithful 4%.

i pretty much love what you write, whatever the topic. i like what i hear in my head as i read it. and because it is written, it’s there for me to hear again.

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patricia March 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm

The best compliment I can get about my writing is that it gets a reader thinking. Thank you! I’m happy to have had you reading along for such a long time, Dawn!

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Nina March 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

So glad you answered. I loved Kate Hopper’s book too. And I think it’s so cool that your husband will sometimes comment!

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patricia March 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Thanks so much for stopping by, Nina. And for sharing Kristen’s thought-provoking questions! I loved reading your responses.

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Carrie March 31, 2015 at 1:59 pm

I don’t want to answer all these questions, but I want to answer a few. No, my husband doesn’t generally read my work at all. I just don’t tend to write the sort of work he likes to read. I am a little envious sometimes of writers whose spouses are their first reader and all that, but generally, it’s not a big deal to me. He writes very dense, super-technical science-y stuff for his job, and I wouldn’t want to read that, so it wouldn’t be very fair of me to expect him to be interested in my work, I don’t think.

I have a few close friends who read my work and whose work I read in return. It’s a wonderful thing. Generally, though, the people from whom I get critiques are not close friends, and I think that’s probably for the best, because I sometimes wonder if my friends are going too easy on me to make me feel good.

My ideas come from what I read and what I experience around me.

The only thing I sort of regret publishing is an essay that revealed some very personal things about my mother. I ran it past her and she gave it her OK, but I found out later that it really bothered her that I had made those things about her public. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t hurt her like that. On the other hand, the interesting thing was that by sharing our family’s story, I found out that problems that I’d thought had set us apart and isolated us were actually quite common. Many people told me, “Your mom reminded me so much of mine.” It put my experiences in perspective and helped me move on and stop seeing my mother through a child’s eyes, but through more of an adult’s eyes. So was it a bad thing that I published it? I guess it was more mixed than all bad.

Right now the main thing that I’m reading that inspires me is really good narrative nonfiction for young people–Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb, Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma–because I want to write good narrative nonfiction for young people, and it helps to read good examples and learn from them.

Thanks for sharing a little of your writing process here, Patricia!

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patricia April 8, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Thanks so much for joining in the conversation, Carrie! (Although I apologize for taking so long to write back.) I loved hearing a little more about your process. Glad to get your narrative nonfiction for young people recommendations too! (I owe you an email, but yours was so good and meaty that I need to make a little time to respond. 🙂 It’s been a busy week.)

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Lizzie July 31, 2015 at 7:27 am

This is a great post — it makes me want to write again. Thank you!!

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patricia July 31, 2015 at 8:07 am

And I hope you do! Thank you!

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