This Friday I’ll be at the National Press Club talking about writing the personal essay. To prepare, I pulled a document box off my shelf that contains a bunch of notes from prior writing classes. As I sifted through my papers, I came across a book recommendation from Barbara Abercrombie. She said this book makes a great baby gift:
I hopped online and used the “look inside” feature to flip through the book (and its sister book), written by Deborah Underwood. My eyes welled up. The book holds a touching message, and it’s beautifully illustrated. I ordered it for my nephew. But you know what? I really need to order this for adults, myself included!
Where are the quiet moments in your life? In mine?
On Friday I’ll talk about the elements of an essay, finding topic ideas, and different ways to pitch editors. But I think the best advice I can give is to quiet down. Quiet is a gift. Writers especially must learn how to have daily quiet times.
Quiet can be uncomfortable.
I’ve noticed, however, that when I move beyond the uncomfortable part of quiet to the still and peaceful part, I want to stay. And I often discover that I have nothing to say — that what I was going to talk or write about was mindless chatter. So I wait in the quiet. (Sometimes I have to wait awhile.) Eventually, I might find a thought to share. If not, that’s okay. I’ll listen in silence.
In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah was lodging in a cave on a mountain, and the Lord passed by. The text says that a strong wind broke rocks into pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, “a sound of gentle blowing.” That’s where Elijah encountered the Lord.
If pigs are given space, they’ll sleep in a clean area, but if they’re confined, they’ll sleep in their poo.
“At times, humans are like a pig in poo,” my friend Lindsay mused.
“How so?” I asked.
“We feel warm and cozy in the muck. We know it would be better for us if we left the muck, cleaned up, and moved to a healthier place. But change is hard . . . and scary. It’s easy to stay stuck in the poo. We tell ourselves the same story over and over, and that sad tale becomes the narrative of our lives.”
I’ve been thinking about the pig in poo all week. What areas of my life need to be cleaned up? What mental and emotional confines have I locked myself into? What narrative have I made myself believe? Is it time to make a change? I really like the pig in poo story. So I thought I’d share it.
I was on the upper deck of the writing cabin reading/meditating lost in thought and prayer when all the sudden a bear wandered in the backyard. He was two feet away. Gorgeous cinnamon color. He walked right through the wildlife pond (which was dry because of such little rain), over the herb garden, and to solar panel that runs the outdoor water pump. He sniffed the panel for a few seconds then he disappeared into the thick oak brush and pine trees. I stayed silent and observed. It was the neatest wildlife encounter I’ve ever had. I felt completely safe on the deck (up one story) behind the railing. For a split second I thought about racing to grab my camera, but I decided to simply stay put and enjoy the sacred moment.
I’m at the cabin at work on a book and making a big push to finish the current draft. I still need your prayers. I have savored my time here before “cubical life” begins (one week from now I start a temporary gig at a magazine). Here’s what I’ve read this trip: The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins; Weekends with O’Keeffe by C.S. Merrill; Wait Until Tomorrow by Pat MacEnulty.
Anyone intrigued with O’Keeffe’s life and art should read Merrill’s book. O’Keeffe hired the author to catalog her personal library and the two women developed a friendship. And MacEnulty’s book was the best surprise. I bought it last time I was out here and tucked it away in the loft so I’d have a book ready and waiting for me . . . but I had forgotten that I had done that. So when I found it I was thrilled, and the best part is that it’s a wonderful read. It’s about a woman who becomes the caregiver for her elderly mother.
I’ll sign off with a bear hug . . .
I burst out of the prop plane and stepped onto the tarmac at the small airport in southwest Colorado. After a wet and gloomy June in D.C. (double the amount of rainfall than usual), I enjoyed a truly sunny summer solstice. Hope you did, too. The wildfires out in Colorado are bad — so while I soaked up the yellow rays I did pray for rain (with as much earnestness as I could muster). In other news…
Hot Off the Press: (1) my essay “A Climate Adjustment” is running on the back page of the June issue of Chesapeake Bay magazine (available on newsstands); and (2) my piece “5 Great Places to Paddleboard“ is in Bethesda magazine’s ultimate summer guide issue.
Book of the Month: I am still on an Elisabeth Elliot kick. Since she published over 20 books, I’ll probably be on this kick for awhile. A few days ago, I started A Lamp Unto My Feet, an out-of-print book about her personal reflections while reading Scripture. As trivial and foolish as it sounds, I can get quite discouraged that Ron and I still cannot seem to work out our “geography issue.” This precious book has helped me navigate that problem. Sunlight, after all, is only physical. The true Light is spiritual.
Wishing you an enlightened summer!
I love to read journals by other writers. Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, Laurel Lee, Phyllis Theroux, and Martha Manning are a few published ones I can think of off the top of my head. I also like books written as journals, and I came across such a book the other day. It opens in the year 1831 with these words:
How dreadfully old I am getting! Sixteen! Well, I don’t see as I can help it. There it is in the big Bible in Father’s own hand: “Katherine, born Jan. 15, 1815.” I meant to get up early this morning, but it looked dismally cold out of doors and felt delightfully warm in bed. So I covered myself up and made ever so many good resolutions. I determined in the first place to begin this journal. To be sure, I have begun half a dozen and got tired of them after a while. Not tired of writing them, but disgusted of what I had to say of myself. But this time I mean to go on, in spite of everything. It will do me good to read it over and see what a creature I am.
Love that. I have kept a notebook (or journal) on and off for years. It can be hard to face myself on the page. Yet if I don’t face hard truths, how will I change those parts of me?
In the February 2013 issue of O Magazine, Sarah Beauchamp wrote an article on the 5 Moment Memoir. Write down 5 moments of your day. They can be one sentence each. A fragment of a sentence. I’ve discovered this method clicks with me. I write my 5 Moment Memoir most nights before bed.
Do you keep a notebook? What is your method? Do you have any favorite books written in the form of a journal?
“If the writers of the world took chairs in an orchestra pit, each would hold the instrument that he plays best. There are first- and second-string fiction writers; biographers are at the oboe; historians play the cello; poets are the flutists. Somewhere in the symphony are those who love a journal.”
—Laurel Lee, Signs of Spring
I hit a wall.
I’m hard at work on a book, and the other day I told Ron: “I might have just wasted the last three years of my life.”
At times it feels like I’ll never reach the end.
My writing instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, has advice for such times. Her new book, Kicking in the Wall (a supplement to A Year of Writing Dangerously), says to “keep your pen moving” and provides 365 days’ worth of one-line prompts and exercises to “help you get into your stories.”
Another dear mentor (albeit one I’ve never met) wrote over 20 books. She started publishing in the days before blogs, so she’d snail mail a paper newsletter to her subscribers. In those newsletters she asked for prayers. Once she said: “Pray, too, for help as I try to write the book. If I try to do it alone, I shall most certainly fail. It is divine help . . . that I need.”
She admitted she had no special claim to anybody’s prayers, but that we all need others to pray for us.
So dear readers and writers, pray for me as I write this book. That the words on the page are words I ought to write. And if my words are in error, that God directs me. And I will pray that God gives you the endurance to run whatever race is set before you (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Okay, time to kick in that wall.
Let’s begin on our knees.
Awful title, but wonderful book. It’s about a girl living in South America who was abducted and then abandoned in a forest. She learned to survive by imitating the actions of capuchin monkeys (she ate what they ate, climbed the same trees, etc.). The ghostwriter did an amazing job–such vivid imagery of life in the jungle from the perspective of a five-year-old girl.
Here’s the opening: “There was something about pea pods that mesmerized me. I didn’t know why, but there was something magical about the way the bloated pods burst so cleanly in my hand when I squeezed them. So the corner of the allotment where the peas grew was special, and I would spend hours there, engrossed in my own little world.”
I was hooked. Maybe because I love to split pea pods, too.
This book was written by our teaching pastor in Israel.
Prayers that read like poems.
I’m reading them slowly, one a day. Prayer is hard (at least, it is for me). It’s especially hard to move away from rattling off a list of things I want. It’s hard to have faith that prayer accomplishes much. It hard to keep still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).
A few months ago I tried to talk one of the pastors at our church into letting me run a donation-based book table or lending library, but the idea got swept away in the midst of other stuff…I need to circle back. This is so going to be a selection when the book table is a go.
What have you read lately? Anything good?
“I had no idea how much I love limestone,” I said to Ron over and over as we walked around Israel.
“Me, too,” he said.
“I love its look, its texture, and its smell,” I said.
The sandstone color lit up the land.
As we toured the country there were certain places I thought I’d feel indifferent about, but it turned out I absolutely loved. Qumran was one of those places. It’s where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Toward the end of the second century B.C. and during the first century A.D., the Essenes, a Jewish sect, lived and studied at the site. In addition to composing non-biblical writings (prayers, commentaries, and hymns), the Essene scribes copied down Hebrew Scripture in a special room called the Scriptorium. The scribes were so accurate and precise—down to every last jot and tittle—that a single mistake meant the page/scroll was discarded and the scribe started his work over. In 1947, Bedouin shepherds discovered seven of the ancient scrolls. Archaeologists then excavated the area and found thousands of manuscript fragments. The scrolls had been so well preserved because the Essenes hid them inside pottery jars before they placed the jars in arid limestone caves (the “library”). The Dead Sea Scrolls include portions or complete copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. It was so neat to see a handful of the scrolls on display—they’re the oldest known copies of biblical texts.
It’s hard to believe we’ve been back home for three weeks now. In much of the time since, I’ve been squirreled away at the Colorado cabin, writing, writing, writing. I now call my writing area the Scriptorium. The word means “place of writing.”
It’s that time again. My updated guide to Personal Essay Markets is online over at mediabistro. Thank you to all the wonderful editors who gave me the inside scoop on topics, length, pay, submission etiquette, and advice on how to break in. And to the many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many writers who pointed me in the direction of new markets to include in the guide—thank you! I’m so grateful.
Want to break into personal essay writing? I love the way A River Runs Through It demonstrates the writing process. In the movie, Norman is home-schooled by his father, the Reverend Maclean. When Norman hands his father an essay, the Reverend hands it back and instructs, “Half as long.” When Norman turns in the revision, the Reverend says, “Again. Half as long.” When Norman turns in the third draft, the Reverend says, “Good. Now throw it away.”
Let me suggest a slightly different order. Pick a target market and read at least a half dozen examples. Write the first draft. Don’t revise. Just get the words on the page. Done? Throw that away. Pull up a new Word doc and rewrite your essay. You can revise the second draft. Show it to a few people (other writers) and give it a hard self-edit based on their feedback. Resist the urge to send it off. File it away instead. After a week or two, reread it with fresh eyes and give it a good polish. Now you can submit.
All writers deal with rejection. Don’t be discouraged. Take my latest essay as an example. As many of you know, I struggled with our move to the D.C. area. My piece is about how paddleboarding helped me connect to the region. My early draft didn’t have enough substance. It was rejected. I reworked it. It was rejected again. I reworked it again. It found the right home. Yours will, too.
“Whenever I kvetched about being stuck or about having nothing original to say, [my editor] would reassure me with the words, ‘You’re sitting on your brains. Go take a walk.’ So I walked, and it helped.”
-Anita Diamant, Pitching My Tent
If you could once make up your mind in the fear of
God never to undertake more work of any sort than
you can carry on calmly, quietly, without hurry or flurry,
and the instant you feel yourself growing nervous
and like one out of breath, would stop and take breath,
you would find this simple common-sense rule doing for you
what no prayers or tears could ever accomplish.