Please Finish Your Story

painting of a girl writing with a quill pen

Detail of George Goodwin Kilburne’s 1875 painting Writing a Letter Home. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Remember that story you started last week? (Or maybe it was last month, or a few years ago.) We want to hear the rest of it. In fact, we would like to purchase a publication that contains it and read it in print. But you haven’t finished it, have you?

That’s okay, I understand. I haven’t finished a whole bunch of my stories either. And it’s not that I want to force you to finish a story you don’t want, a story that’s not for you. Or even a story that was for you at one time but is now so far in the past that you couldn’t write it anymore even if you wanted to. But the ones that are still “on” for you, please finish those. Because this is what it’s like for us, your readers:

The Readers’ Experience:

We hear the first part of a story, the part you wrote in 20 minutes while sitting around a table with us. We get excited about it. We get interested in the characters. We want to see what will happen to them. We want to know why certain details of the story are the way they are, because they seem mysterious. We want to keep reading. If the text you just read out loud were printed in a book, we would keep reading past our bedtime in order to find out these things.

Then at the next writing session, or the next week, or the next time we see you, or even just randomly as we go about our days, we are hoping to hear the next part of the story. I know that stories don’t always come out linearly; I know you can’t promise the next installment as though this were a serial on TV. But we want it. The brain science people would say our biology expects it. This is the point of view of the external reader: we want to see what happens next. But as a writer, you also have to take into account the internal reader: yourself and your own interest in a story.

Don’t Finish a Story You Don’t Care About

Remember my story “The Death of the Station Wagon”? People asked me to write more; they wondered what happened next. But I’m not going to try to find out what happens next, because I think that story is either complete or failed. If I ever work on that story again, I might add a second thread to try to make the events more meaningful, but the sequence of events is already complete: after the station wagon dies, the story is over. So if you wanted to hear what happens next, I’m sorry. Nothing happens next. The universe ceases to exist, and all the white mice get their necks broken.

I’m not asking you to keep going on a story you know has no future, one you’re not interested in, one you think is done. Don’t let anyone else tell you to do that either, no matter how interested they are in the story. They can write their own story.

Say no to narratives you don’t care about.

Finish the Ones You Care About

So I’m done with “The Death of the Station Wagon.” But there are others, like “Dazzlewelts,” that I still feel the pull of sometimes. I know there are people who wish I would finish that one, and I am one of them, because I want to see how it turns out. You have stories like that too. Please finish them. I want to read them. I bet you do, too.

We Welcome All Writing

image of the Lagoon Nebula

New stars are being created in the Lagoon Nebula. Detail from a photo by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe. Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.

Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.

I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.

Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.

And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.

When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.

This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.

How to Believe in Yourself

Sun streak illuminating the sea from above; San Francisco dark in foregroundI got a fortune cookie last time that said “Believe in yourself and others will too.” That’s probably true, but it’s not very helpful as advice. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you start? People who already believe in themselves will say, “Just do it. Just believe in yourself.” But this is the same as saying “I don’t know.”

Here’s how to believe in yourself, which is backwards from the fortune cookie: Hang around with people who believe in you, and eventually you will believe in yourself. This is the reason you need a writing group.

And not just any writing group. You need a group like Write to the End: one that’s full of people who believe in you. (You need this even if you already believe in yourself, because we all need to believe in ourselves more than we do.) This is possible within many different writing group structures, but I think it’s easier to find in a structure like ours, one that’s focused on writing together and sharing our work with each other, rather than on critique.

If you want to start you own group, I’d recommend using a writing structure rather than a critique structure. I know people who swear by their critique group, and I’m sure those groups are filled with people who believe in each other. But a new critique group can’t get off the ground unless the members already believe sufficiently in themselves. Most critique groups I have experienced did not have that minimum, and they either self-destructed in an implosion of shame, or they churned members forever and ruined people’s pieces at every meeting.

In our group, we write together, share what we write, and encourage each other to keep going. This is a long process, but it helps people come to believe in themselves.

I wish I could instantaneously take away Casy’s trepidation, because that would turn her into a sun. What can do it? I know of nothing fast. At the group, we are participating in the slow process of transforming ourselves into suns. Every Tuesday, people take my writing seriously. Every Tuesday, people I admire and respect act like it’s normal to write, and act like it matters that I write, and act like what I write matters.

When my arms were injured, Betsy typed up the first draft of my story “Chen.” Sometimes I still boggle over that: Why? Why would anyone possibly do that? (Though I’d do it for any of us, and I bet you would, too.) Also, she sent me an email to say she’s glad I’m planning to publish flash fiction. The logic is inescapable: she believes in me. Other group members do other actions that have the same inescapable conclusion: they believe in me. And it’s working: It is forcing me to believe in myself.

We do this for each other. It peels away the scale, bit by bit. And writing does, too, but we’ll talk about that another time.

I believe in you. Keep going.

This is the process of turning into a sun.

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.

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.

#

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.

#

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.

Thank You for Not Smoking

20131108-103421.jpg

The other day I happened to overhear a conversation between two people who are not in our writing group, but who are also involved in making cultural products. They spent probably 90% of the conversation in status maneuvers* that involved saying how terrible the market for their work was, how hard it was for them to produce, how badly their current project was going.

I often overhear conversations like this, and they drag me down. It’s like being in a room full of cigarette smoke. Do you remember when people used to smoke inside restaurants? It may have been annoying, but it was normal. But now that I almost never experience cigarette smoke, even if I’m standing outside and somebody starts to smoke, I immediately try to get away.

At our group people sometimes talk about having a hard time on their projects, but always in the context of how they are trying to advance, or as part of asking for help or encouraging others. I never hear people trying to raise their status by saying how much they are struggling or by insulting their own work.

When I overheard that smoky conversation, I realized yet again how very lucky I am to be part of a group that creates a place of fresh air.

* Footnote: You must read Impro by Keith Johnstone (to understand his concept of status, and because it will change the way you write and live). Call your local bookstore and order it right now.

 

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!