Part I was the response to the literal question. When we make a living writing and editing, we have to put an objective, concrete value on our words in order to survive and thrive. But that should be just a necessary evil. Today, we will visit the figurative or philosophical aspect of the query. So, business aside, what about the value of words gauged by other means? Do they have a measurable effect on us and our quality of life just as a paycheck related to these words might?
Words themselves are priceless and enduring. The carefully chosen ones produce life-changing insight, poetry, beauty, and enlightenment. The wrong ones may cause personal harm and wreak havoc on our souls, create unnecessary confusion, or set off a chain of miscommunication and permanent damage. So, there is power in how we use our language, but so many people don’t consider this. Nor do they consider that learning how to structure our verbal interactions is of vital importance.
College students taking required composition classes most often treat their writing assignments as a burden and as something to be gotten past. They don’t realize the power they have when they wield their language artfully and strategically. There is grace in touching someone with words of significance. This is part of the overall struggle we in the humanities have when fighting to maintain respect and funding for Liberal Studies.
The “value” in communicating clearly is immeasurable. If you are still stuck on the financial side of “value,” then understand that poorly written missives don’t even get you onto the ladder of success, much less up any rungs. You’d better hope you are so brilliant otherwise and that you will be in so much demand that you can afford a personal assistant to mask your failings in this arena.
The real value, I think, is in what your words will do for others as well as for yourself.
Begin Again is the title of a movie that my husband turned me on to. The main character, a producer in the music business has many reversals in his life like a failed marriage and stagnating career. As the movie evolves, we see him pushing forward and drawing from his past success to bolster his future. There is reinvention regeneration of spirit. He begins again and againIt was a good flick. So, what’s this got to do with writing or even yoga? Begin and Again. In both your writing ambitions and your yoga practice, each day is a beginning.
Aristotle stated that ” . . . the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.” Basically, the best most focused start is the most promising for desired outcomes. If something goes awry, look to the pattern of events that led up to the road block. How did you begin? How did you set up or clear your space? Maybe you did not have everything you needed, including the focus, so your pages are not so inspired or your poses were a struggle to maintain. We all have to begin each day when we wake up up even if the projects or poses are part of an ongoing ambition or enjoyable habit.
The “again” part is a bit more complicated. Each day can be an “again” in a positive light or an “again” as in “ugh.” Returning and beginning again can be synonymous but quite a big difference also. In writing, the starting over can be so frustrating. You may have scrapped something that was not working out and are feeling zapped of the will to try again. But, like the character in the movie, if you love what you do and want to stay in the business/genre that you chose, you’ll unload or shelve what you have to and bulldoze past any naysayers to see your vision become a reality.
My yoga practice and my riding both create a focus for me that I don’t find coming from anything else. For both of these my beginning has to include being fully present or there is no flow or forward movement literally or figuratively. My poses are stiffer. If the horse lacks clear communication and relies on himself to decide how to respond to my aids, any effort is lost energy and potential. It only makes sense that if I sit down to write, I need to have a plan. Even a plan to free write so that I can let the words come out. I can edit and adjust later but I need to begin, and begin with purpose.
Thus we begin again and again. But and it needs to be in the spirit of learning and endeavor, not frustration. So beginings are new, they are do overs ,they are retracing of steps ,they are clean slates. They are framed by your past behavior and generate results based on your focus or lack thereof. There are “agains” in everything so let the again be a revisiing of an effort you’d like to see more sucess from. Don’t let it become a state of repetition and stagnation.
I think of my friend Malynda who used to go up to people and say, in her Texas drawl, “What’s yer story?” Really, this would be her greeting. Those are the first words she ever spoke to me and I was dumbfounded at first. But her face was inquisitive and she really wanted an answer. I observed her do this many times over the years and she nearly always ended up getting the “story.” Sometimes the tale was of the present. Other times it was a yarn about how the person came to be standing there answering. But we all answered because someone was present, interested, and ready to listen.
I recalled her bold and genuine query the other day as I thought about writing in general and memoir in particular. Really, what is your story? What makes you “you” at this moment and how did you get to this place where we are interacting? What brought you to this screen? This blog? Why are you asking yourself to offer a real part of yourself to strangers? Why am I? Come to think of it, memoir is not the only writing form that suits this question.
What path led you to fiction or fact? I think it is much more than wanting to share or explore versions of reality. I think those of us in Malynda’s presence responded rather than recoiled because she wanted our story. Her attention told us that we we might be interesting. That our general outline might be much more textured and rich once revealed and explored. What we thought we covered up or lost still showed through and is considered to be a hidden treasure by some. She was actually making us ponder our motives, incentives, and resultant existence as openly as she.
So, you may think you are fully aware of why you are a memoirist or a short story writer or a poet, etc. But if Malynda bore down on you today as you passed on the sidewalk or sat on a bench, what would your answer be? What’s YOUR story? And who will you honor with it?
Calvin’s idea is one way to address the harder aspect of writing. I think there are other possibilities. Just recently I took on some nonfiction work for an educational publishing company that I have a long-standing relationship with. These tend to be short pieces for dual-language learners or ESL students. Let’s see, the last educational text on I worked on was Skyrocket Your Grammar (under Heron Moon Press on my site’s menu). It was an incredible challenge because I had to write songs, stories, and mock interviews using only the grammar excercises each chapter focused on and the topic at hand (e.g., insects, sea creatures). I’m still rather proud of the results. I’ll be gathering some examples of the different kinds of projects to post here soon.
Over the next months, I’ll be doing more nonfiction and fiction for various grade levels. I was crazy enough to try to write a graphic novel type of layout for a biography of Florence Nightingale. I made it way more complicated than it had to be for the grade level. This was for 1st graders. So many restrictions on vocabulary and sentence complexity (actually, lack of complexity). I have to do a nonfiction piece for 5th graders this week. I’ll be doing fiction for the same grade in the graphic novel style soon. My editors may need therapy before I am done, but I’ll do my best to meet their requirements.
Basically, what drives me to to do my best for my employers, besides regular income, is that I was on the editing side of the desk for a long time. I was a project editor and was sent into spins when writers sent me useless or off target work. I had one writer tell me that she was “just a gun for hire” and that she was not really worried about perfection. She wrote for the check; she was not a writer. It showed in her submissions. She wasted my time and the company’s money. While many of us don’t worry about a corporation’s bottom line, the more money wasted the less the employees have a shot at good raises and improved working conditions. Anyway, the point is, I know how important even the shortest essay for a textbook is to the group working on it and I respect all of the people who rely on me.
What does it do for my own work? I have a clear audience in mind and challenge myself to make sure I understand their interests and needs. I have to think about how extensive my own vocabulary is or how effective I can be with less. How clear can I be without boring everyone? Let’s face it. Little kids have short attention spans. They are a tough crowd! Using an obscure synonym for happy does not impress all grown ups. So, the more I take on genres that I would not usually gravitate towards, the more I can figure out what I do best and for whom.
Who do you write best for? Why? How?
I listened, earlier, to news about youthful offenders. Missives of sadness. I read now from poems of welcome and belonging. Of comfort and sureness of purpose. Which is more likely to teach me about love and hope? About life and how events unfold and to what purpose? Both.
NPR’s story of the horror of one particular offender’s actions resounded within me. While not identical to my own encounter with another’s cruel and manipulative violation of trust, it answered my desperate question as to how one’s troubling behavior can be overlooked or ignored by others. I was reminded that it is common to find out, after the crime is committed, that the assailant had been exhibiting antisocial behavior already. That their friends and family knew the person was troubled. It’s not personal that no one let you know. It’s not a conspiracy of silence that set you up for trauma. There is basically a pattern of ignorance or passivity that many participate in expecting that “this behavior” is not a long-term problem or a sign of danger. But if you are dragged into engaging with the seemingly preventable damage, there is a relentless psychological, spiritual, and emotional nagging that adheres to you. It’s like grief after a loved one dies. No amount of comforting or advice can make you skip the stages you must go through and the time it takes to become accustomed to the loss.
I was not comforted that someone else was hurt. By no means. But I was finally brought to face the commonality of many victims’ experience. A sense of community, albeit tragic, came to me. I am not a freak, nor a failure. Just another dupe. No amount of beneficent intentions can prevent bad actions. All one can do is hope to earn the respect and love of others so that you can share all that is good. This trust creates a respite from anything too large to bear alone. There is hope that I can now help myself and others through this unexpected life lesson.
The poetry book, The House of Belonging, now that I think about it, called to me because of my need for gentleness. I have been afraid to let too much gentleness in since my hatred and loathing for another and myself was evoked many months ago. The book has been moved around as I have packed to move. I couldn’t quite part with it but I did not want it near me. It took something as objective as radio journalism to bring me back to face something that is not about being alone and isolated, but a painful part of a greater whole: humanity in all its horrible truths and insatiable lust for healing.
In one morning of routine actions (turning on the radio as I work with the horses) the message of hope I needed found its way to me. All of my prior asking did not result in satisfaction. But my continued listening did.
It is now time to contradict myself. About two months ago I offered a post titled Can You Write Fiction and Nonfiction at the Same Time? The answer for me, at the time, was No. Really, it still kind of is but I’ve revised my viewpoint. I am not fond of splitting my focus and I feel rushed or disconnected when I have to spread my attention out. It’s a wonder I do so much freelance and adjunct teaching since I seem to have created a lifestyle and financial dependence on juggling multiple and sometimes conflicting jobs at once!
This week is a case in point. I am teaching an online college-level composition course while working on a nonfiction article for a newsletter, while finalizing the contract to write 1st and 2nd grade fiction AND nonfiction for an educational publishing company based in Mexico. This is absolutely necessary if I want to maintain my lifestyle (not fancy, but fun). It is also imperative that my contacts remain current so that I don’t fall by the wayside. After all, sadly, we are all expendable in terms of employment. Often undervalued and readily replaced. Not that my employers are that callous, but I’m not the only writer in their stable and may be one of the more recent additions. Turning down work does not keep me high on anyone’s list.
So, perhaps it’s not that I can’t multitask my writing, it’s that I prefer to immerse myself in one type of writing or teaching. That is my comfort zone. Can I write for multiple purposes for a diverse audience? Apparently so! Can I do it well? It’s my reputation, so, Yes. Mediocrity is not an option. In fact, the harder the challenges, the more skilled I can become. It’s all part of the process of learning and experimenting.
Find your strengths and challenge your assumptions about your weaknesses. If you want to stick to one genre, that is great. But if you think you have to, think again. Comfort and ability are not the same.
I subscribe to Seeds 4 Life, a wonderful site on which many wise and inspired people share their words of wisdom. Ok, I did post there so I may seem to be bragging, but this is not my point or goal. The following was posted by Moshe Kessler and it is a much more accurate and helpful perspective than the traditional “Hindsight is 20/20.” I felt it was very timely since I am working so hard to move forward personally and professionally. I hope this is of assistance to you as well.
The quotation that he reflects upon is from Søren Kierkegaard: “Life Can Only Be Understood Backwards; But It Must Be Lived Forwards”
Never in history has humanity been as advanced as we are today. No matter what field you examine, incredible strides have been made. From medicine to space flight, from human rights to standard of living; we are far better off than our forbearers. Yet with all of these advances; in certain moments, we are no different from our ancestors of the distant past. When serious challenges arise; we still ask that eternal question, “why is this happening to me?”
In that stillness of time when we are hit with a traumatic event, there really are no answers. What often does occur is that as we gain some distance from it, sometimes a beam of understanding pierces through the darkness. Perhaps what we initially thought was to our detriment turned out to be to our advantage. Maybe we were forced to take a more rigorous look at the direction our life was taking and make some painful adjustments. Sometimes we were forced to admit our powerlessness and learned to practice acceptance.
As we emerge from that life changing event, we hopefully have attracted new levels of wisdom and understanding. From that point, the trajectory of our lives must be forward. It’s crucial to avoid the trap of dwelling in the past. Rather than bemoaning our “bad luck,” we can recognize that we have been given a second chance. We become gripped by a powerful drive to make every day count, and even every minute count. To do otherwise would debase the profundity of what happened to us in the first place.
Per The Seeds 4 Life: “Moshe and his beloved wife have 3 children and 7 grandchildren. He loves to meditate, journal, and do tai chi and yoga. He is also a member of a number of 12 Step Programs. He believes that insights from these programs can be of help to anyone. On a daily basis he blogs at http://www.wisdomfromtherooms.com.”