The Magical Unread Session

We used to meet at Barnes and Noble when Barnes and Noble used to close at 11 p.m. Now we meet at places that close at 10, because nothing closes at 11. Most places close at 9. This means that if there are a lot of people, like tonight, or if we are all writing long and amazing things because the group is in a state of communal flow, like tonight, sometimes the last writing session ends just about the time IHOP closes. Usually when this happens, we each choose one sentence to read aloud as a token of our writing, and it is not enough, but it has to be enough anyway, and everyone hopes that this situation will not be frequently repeated.

The unread session also has the unexpected effect of letting you write something that maybe you wouldn’t have written if you were hearing the voice in your head that is the voice of yourself reading out loud to the group, which is the voice I usually hear, and the voice I am hearing right now. I don’t know if we will read this session out loud, but we might, because that’s what we did last time: stand around outside and open our laptops and read.

Is this the right thing to do? It is terrible for everyone not to read and not to hear what people wrote. It is also terrible to write something embarrassing because you found you wouldn’t have to read it, and then to read it anyway. However, it is worse to skip a few of the most embarrassing sentences and then wonder forever if someone might have read them over your shoulder and now knows not only that about you but also that you weren’t willing to read them out loud. But the thing is, I am over this. I share nearly everything, and I am not embarrassed that there are things I choose not to share. It is not necessary for me to share the depths and range of every obsession explicitly, because what matters will always come out anyway, eventually. Fiction reveals everything, whether you want it to or not. I am okay with that now. I am willing to be revealed.

I have read my dreams here for years, and they reveal everything, too. What small particulars of my life reveal is nothing compared to what is revealed by the metaphors of my dreams. On the other hand, why write an essay about this if I’m over it? So, again, you see how everything is revealed. Even if I don’t read this, it will be revealed. Even if I do read this. Even if I never write again or see anyone here again, even if I die or disappear. All moments are saved, irrevocably, into the past. Victor Frankl says this with joy. I see it with joy, too: all moments are published. You have to try your best in each moment, and it is done, it is published, whether you want it to be or not; that is the magic of the physical, the tyranny and the miracle. It forces you to commit; it forces you to be done; it forces you to publish, what you have, the best you can, right now. That is the magic of the writing group, too. But the magic of the unread session is different, and I think it is a dangerous magic. It allows us to think we can hide ourselves, it allows us to believe in being unseen. It allows us to return to our pre-writing-group concept of ourselves, the writer who can perfect something, the writer who doesn’t have to reveal everything, and this is a lie, because everything is revealed unless you quit, unless you chicken out, and even then it is still revealed, but it is changed – what is revealed is what you became but didn’t want to be. So have faith. Keep going. Eat pancakes or don’t eat pancakes. Type anything. Write anything. Stay here. Stay present. Don’t care about the future. The future will take care of itself, will be published in its own time. Focus now on this moment as it writes itself, as it publishes itself; make it the best and truest it can be, because it will last, it will be revealed, for all time.

You Can Never Say Thank You

picture of birds on a wire

The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.

So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.

But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.

So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.

Except.

Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person.  And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.

Keiko’s Gardening Tips

garden with tomatoes

How does gardening relate to writing?

I had a dream that I was in a workshop where we had to practice giving a presentation off the top of our heads. I chose gardening, even though I have not succeeded at that. Here is my presentation. I came up with the tips as I was talking.

“Have you wanted to grow a garden but you haven’t done it? Maybe you fenced off an area in your yard years ago, but that’s as far as you got? Or maybe all you have so far is the dirt that was there when you moved in? I was the same. But I’ve been watching my mom, who does have a garden. Here are three tips for how you can have one too.

1. Schedule specific times to work on it, including regular weekly hours AND a start date.

2. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out how you wanted. In fact, plant one vegetable you don’t like, on purpose, and then you will see that what comes out of your garden in any one season matters less than having a garden. (And you might be surprised – you might like that vegetable when you grow it yourself.)

3. Join a gardening group that meets regularly in order to get and give support, advice, and motivation to keep going.”

I considered and rejected: Give it enough water but not too much. Go organic. These may be important, but they are tips for people who are already gardening. My tips are for people who want to garden but aren’t yet doing it.

After I finished my presentation, I thought, “Hey, this would work for writing, too.”

Our “gardening” group meets on Tuesday nights. You are welcome to attend.

My New Writing Coach

hand receiving business card

I’m going to be my own writing coach. I will read my first draft of the story I’m working on, and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, Keiko, this is really good! Keep working on it!”

I will reply, “Really?”

“Yes!” I’ll say. I’ll be so enthusiastic I will convince myself. I will say, “Write a second draft. I want to see it.”

“Okay,” I’ll say. And I’ll send myself the next draft.

When I get it, I’ll call myself up right away. “Okay,” I’ll tell myself, “This is really starting to turn into something.”

“Thank you,” I’ll say. “But I don’t know where to go next. Do you think you could…?”

“Sure.” I’ll sound very encouraging. I will help myself learn to figure things out for myself. “What do you think is missing?” I’ll ask.

“Well,” I’ll say, “I think I need to know more about what the houses were like in San Francisco at the turn of the century. And how much they’re still like that today.” I’ll think for a minute. I won’t interrupt myself. “You know,” I’ll say, “I’d really like to have it set in a real house, one that’s actually there. I love it when people do that.”

“I’ve noticed that in your work, too,” I’ll say.

I will be impressed and flattered at first, but then I’ll sigh. “I never seem to manage to do the research.”

I know what it’s like to feel defeated like that. But I will have the solution. “You know,” I’ll tell myself, “research is just an excuse to read things you’re interested in.”

“I guess so.”

“Go to the library. Find some books.”

“Well…” I will hesitate. I won’t believe I deserve it.

“Go ahead. I want to see the third draft, the one with the details set.”

“All right,” I’ll say. And I’ll go to the library. I’ll write the third draft. I’ll send it to myself.

“I think you should send this to beta,” I’ll tell myself.

“I want to fix a few things still…” I’ll say.

“No, remember what Gayle said: Do beta on things that aren’t quite ready. Hey, I’m sure Ruth will love this one. And she’ll probably be able to help you even out the facts, like she did with ‘Willie Blake.’ And Anthony might know specifics of that neighborhood even, or the time period.”

“Well—”I’ll say.

“And Liza is a historian, and Betsy—”

“All right.”

“Are you typing the email?”

“Yes.”

I’ll stay on the phone with myself until I’ve sent it.

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When I get the beta comments back, I’ll go over to my house and sit with myself to go over them. Or better yet, I’ll meet myself for coffee. I’ll help myself understand what the comments mean for my story. I’ll draw out of myself what the story wants to be. I’ll help myself excavate the fossil. I’ll buy myself another latte and make sure I leave with a plan for the next draft.

When I send myself the next draft, I’ll reply, “Submit this.” When I balk, I’ll tell myself to send it to the Flash Fiction Forum ladies. “That will be less scary,” I’ll say. I’ll agree. I’ll call myself up and stay on the phone with myself while I submit it.

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I’ll go to the Forum. I’ll introduce myself to my writing friends. When it’s time for me to read, I’ll sit in the audience with my friends. When I get down off the stage, I’ll tell myself I did a great job. I’ll make sure I write down any comments the audience gives me so that I can see if they need to be incorporated, but I’ll tell myself to wait and not think about it yet. “Just enjoy the rest of the Forum,” I’ll say.

The next day, I will get together with myself and help myself do the final draft. We’ll choose the first place where I’ll submit it. I’ll stay with myself until I’ve mailed it off, and then I’ll take myself out for lunch.

Be Brave and Write

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Inspired by a quote from William Gibson: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

Many times we are our own worst enemy, too critical of our own writing abilities, thinking that people wouldn’t want to read our “ramblings.”

We must get over these thoughts and realize that we all have a story to tell, and everyone has a different story, and how fascinating can that be? So many lifestyles, religions, opinions, viewpoints. We learn from each other so much by having an open mind, listening and reading about all these views on life. Aren’t we blessed to have all these BRAVE AUTHORS that put their heart out there on paper, to teach, help, and educate us to the different lives people live. So many different stories are told, never the same, how miraculous is that?

We must never be afraid to open our hearts and minds, and write to our hearts’ content! This is our God-given right. If you love doing it, it can’t be bad. So go for it: What you write could impact the world and make it a better place for everyone.

Why Write to the End?

manuscript with "The End"

Often new members come to our writing group and ask for feedback on their as-yet-uncompleted novel. Or someone who’s been with us a while will get an idea for a story while at the group, write a few scenes of it during the writing sessions, and then ask everybody what we think. This seems perfectly reasonable on the surface, and is, I think, why many people start going to writing groups in the first place.

However, as a group we have learned that giving feedback on the actual writing is not helpful in these situations. What we invariably say to people is, “Have you gotten to The End yet? Have you finished the first draft?” And if the answer is no, then our feedback is “Keep going! Get to The End! When you get there, you’ll be able to answer your own question.”

There are quite a few variations on this advice. For example,

Writer: I’ve just realized I need Character X to be an insurance salesman instead of a knight, and the book needs to start off in Palm Springs two years earlier!
Group: Write yourself a note to that effect, pretend you already made all those changes and they are wonderful, and KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Do you think I should structure this story as a series of flashbacks, or would it make more sense to do it in chronological order?

Group: Finish the story however you can. When you reach The End, then you’ll be able to figure out what story you’re actually telling and whether it will work better told in flashbacks or chronologically. Don’t waste time deciding that now. Just KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

Or

Writer: Should I use first or third person? Past or present tense? I keep switching as I write.

Group: Use whatever gets the story out. Switch all you want – that’s easy to fix later. Anything that helps you get the story out is the right thing for that moment. KEEP GOING! Get to The End!

We’ve been together for quite a while (I started running the group in 2004, and some of our members have been with us since then), but we didn’t name our group for over seven years. Why did it take so long? I don’t know.  Maybe it had something to do with wanting the name to reflect our identity as a group. Why did we choose the name Write to the End? That’s easy:  It’s the advice we most often give each other. As soon as we thought of that name, we knew it was a good one for our group. And we’re also experiencing an unexpected benefit: It’s very satisfying and motivating for the name of our group to be a sort of rallying cry. When one of us is getting bogged down in a story, another of us can say, “It’s going to be okay. Just write to the end!” I think it has already made our group stronger and is probably helping our members with their writing projects.

Of course “Write to the End” has other meanings too, which as writers we appreciate and use. But its most useful meaning is to always prefer finishing what you start over worrying about what you’ve written, which I would encourage you to apply to your own writing. Remember, don’t fix it—finish it! Write to The End!

Script Frenzy: Coming Your Way in April

If you like to set big writing goals and then dive in, you might want to check out the Script Frenzy event that runs April 1-30. Script Frenzy is an annual event sponsored by the nonprofit organization the Office of Letters and Light to encourage creative writing.

The goal is to write 100 pages of a screenplay, stage play, graphic novel, or TV script, all within that 30-day time period. If you reach your goal, you get a certificate. You can write a screenplay yourself, or team up with a partner and work on it together. Anyone can participate. There’s even a Script Frenzy Young Writers Program for kids who are 12 or younger, with classroom resources for teachers.

The Script Frenzy website has forums and resources for writers, like links that you can use to see sample scripts. There are also some regional events where you can meet with other writers if you want some company or encouragement. Note that this is a writing event, and the focus is writing, not on how to publish your work.

Thousands of people participate in Script Frenzy each year. There’s no charge, but since it is run by a nonprofit organization, they happily accept donations.

A Writing Group Poem

Hi everyone,
Here’s a little poem I wrote during Tuesday night’s writing group:

There’s a writing group I’ve come to know,
That meets on Tuesday night.
They get together and form a group,
They sit down and they write.

Fables, fiction, memories,
And stories all are told.
Such a range of story characters,
Tall, short, young, and old.

They say that writing is good for you,
It releases an inner thought.
It unleashes the imagination,
And allows dreams to be sought.

Transferring what’s in your mind,
To put it down in words.
Bringing thoughts to life,
It’s not far-fetched or absurd.
So, if it’s Tuesday night,
And you need something to do.
Just come on down to Mission City cafe,
We’ll save a seat for you.

-Janina

Give the Gift of Unconditional Love: Write

I’m a visual artist as well as a writer, and I opened up 1984 the other day, with the intention of looking for details for a painting I want to do. I meant only to skim a few paragraphs, get an idea of what London is supposed to look like, and then get back to planning the painting. But I couldn’t keep my focus on the research. Without realizing I was doing it, I started to read. Because 1984 is just that beautiful, that compelling, that – home? Is that what it feels like: coming home? I’m generally a nervous and lonely person, always second-guessing the loving intentions of friends and even family, always trying to hide my true self because I’m sure I will be rejected. But reading 1984, I become unselfconscious. Reading 1984, I am completely myself, and I have no thought that I might not be accepted that way.  For me, the experience of reading 1984 is an experience of being loved unconditionally.

And you know what? Once upon a time, 1984 didn’t exist. Once upon a time, George Orwell wrote and struggled and edited and wrote and threw away whole paragraphs and rewrote and gave up and kept going anyway, in order to create that book.  In order to create a text that gives me the experience of unconditional love.  Maybe you hate 1984, but I’ll bet you’ve read something that gave you that experience, too. And maybe, if you don’t quit, if you work hard to master your craft and give your stories form and get them into the world, something you write will give someone else that experience.

As humans we always seem to expect something in return: maybe we can’t truly love another person unconditionally. But our stories can. So keep going. I’m cheering for you.

-Keiko