Archive | Writing and Rewriting

Empathy, Not Experience

“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” — Nikki Giovanni

I agree with Nikki Giovanni, and also with Anne Rice, who said this: “The idea that we should limit ourselves to our experience in writing is ludicrous and absurd.”

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What I’m Doing

I’m writing a novel. Actually, I finished writing this novel quite some time ago. Now I’m revising. The work of revising seems to take everything out of me, which is why I seldom show up on this blog. Between writing and revising, thinking about the revision, tossing scenes I used to like, writing new scenes, more revision and research—I’ve hardly anything left over. It seems easier to post the words of other writers. So I turned to my treasured copy of Sophy Burnham’s For Writers Only and thought it was pretty funny that this is where the book fell open:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — W. Somerset Maugham

Thank you, Mister Maugham.

W. Somerset Maugham

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Soul Sense: A Writer’s Guiding Light

yellow rosesNear the end of last year, I spent some time reading my 2014 journal, flagging those entries that were a record of break-through and “ah-ha” moments. One of those moments came on a December evening when I sat with my guitar and started singing — playing songs I had learned and songs I had written.

I took a work-in-process binder from the shelf and came to a song that I wrote many years ago, titled “Easy.” I had been happy with the song as written until I took a songwriting class. My teacher had worked with many pros and helped produce a few hits. Per his analysis of structure that makes a song commercially viable, I rewrote the first two stanzas — the lead-in — to see if I could make my song conform to that structure. Now, as I tried to sing “Easy” in its revised form, it wasn’t easy at all; I was struggling with it. Even the chords, which I hadn’t changed, felt wrong.

I stopped playing, closed my eyes, and went back in time to the moment that had inspired the song: I was standing at the window of my house in Petaluma, California, looking out at the river in the distance. My lover was traveling and I was alone. I remembered the time of day and the feeling that had enveloped me as the sun went down. I began again, this time singing the original lyric:

There are yellow roses on the table,
A soft sunset glow all through the house
You are far away, and I am missing you,
Oh how did I come to love you so.

There it was. The song flowed, my voice found the melody, and I was telling a story about the ache of being in love. The words and music fit together as they had when I first wrote the song. I realized that the original “Easy” made song-sense because it made soul-sense.

I’m one of those people who agrees with the maxim that writing is rewriting. But in this instance, in rewriting the lyrics, I had lost the integrity of the song. Like any other work, songs can be improved. But sometimes–once in a great while–you get it right the first time.

We live in a time of instant communication, epitomized by texting, which chops up our words and turns them into strange new acronyms. Fast and instant do have their place. But when we set out to write, whatever the form or genre, we need whole words and language with all its richness and myriad nuances. We also need to use craft and skill, honing the words until they capture the essential idea and feeling that first sparked the writing.

My “ah-ha” moment that December evening was the insight that beneath the craft we bring to our writing is the soul-sense at the center of the work, an indefinable “something” that we need to stay attuned to; if we lose touch with it, we lose what is true in the work. No one can determine what that “something” is except you. Experience may refine your instincts, a teacher might hinder or help, but only you can know if and when your piece has soul-sense; it is the light that will guide you through to that place where you know the work is done.

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