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Believing We Have a Story to Tell

Photobucket [1] Kath here. Today’s guest is Ellen Weeren. Ellen graduated from college with an English Writing degree 20 years ago and began her career as a law enforcement policy writer, newsletter editor, and conference planner. When her second child was born in 1999, she quit working and quit writing. Then, three years ago, her husband was very unexpectedly offered a job in New Delhi, India. After, Ellen says, she “literally threw up”, she moved her family across the ocean to a country she knew very little about. As part journal and part therapy session, Ellen started a blog about her family’s adventure – A Reason To Write [2] which has received international recognition as one of the best travel blogs in the blogosphere. Ellen enjoyed writing so much that she started a second blog called A Reason To Read [3] where she reviews books. Since returning to the U.S., Ellen continues to pursue writing. You can follow her on twitter at @EllenWeeren or @AReasonToWrite.

Enjoy our guest post with Ellen Weeren!

Sometimes you read a book and you just know its message will stick with you for a very long time. Usually that book’s message confirms what you already know to be true. But, particularly as writers, we tend to allow doubt to slip too easily between the hairline cracks or gaping holes in our confidence. We want to believe we have a story worth telling and that someone will care when we finally get the nerve to share it. How nice it is when a respected author graciously gives us confirmation that we should keep writing.

I recently read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont [4]. It is a wonderful book about writing and, in many ways, life. The main thread of advice she gives is to take writing and life little by little (or bird by bird), so that it’s not so overwhelming. There is no sense worrying about whether or not people will like your piece if you haven’t written it yet. So write first. The worry about misspellings and the wild popularity of your story can wait.

As she must in a book about writing, Anne delves deep into all the things we need to focus on such as character development, voice, dialogue, setting, plot, jealously of other’s success, etc. She ties all of these themes into stories from her own life and she’s pretty funny. The book quickly becomes more than an entertaining how-to. It also serves as a marvelous example of why-to.

Anne even gives us permission to write a terrible first draft. That permission, in and of itself, is priceless. (Actually, she used a much more colorful and smelly word than “terrible” but I am not sure what Writer Unboxed’s [5] policy is on profanity so I cleaned it up a tad.)  She reminds us that we cannot polish until we create.

She nudges us to remember that drafts will ultimately demand changes on their own. They can show weakness in the beginning because they are meant to be a starting point not a finish line. Anne encourages us to simply get some words down on paper. (She recommends writing at least 300 words every day.)The fine-tuning comes later. That is why pencils have erasers and computers have delete keys.

Then Anne gives us the ultimate gift. She celebrates the actual act of writing – not the hopeful end result of publication – but the joy of writing for writing’s sake. She says, “There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they’d burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure. I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it.”

Writing can feel just like that. We write a sentence or pick just the right word and we are inspired to write more. We believe we can do this writing thing and maybe even do it well.

It doesn’t take much to keep us going. But there are moments when those journalistic prompts get in our way – how, what, who, when, and, the most daunting, why. We get writers block or we get tired or we get busy with that other distraction called life and all its responsibilities. Then we feel like stepping away or stopping entirely. We get so focused on what we want the finished piece to be that we forget to just begin.

This is why every writer should consider journaling. Anne Lamont shares that she keeps index cards with her wherever she goes. She writes down ideas as she has them because she knows that she will forget her thoughts, even the most brilliant ones, if they aren’t stored somewhere permanent. If she gets stuck, she can pull them out and use them as an instant prompt. I keep a small notebook in my purse. (This article began with a line from that notebook.)

Blogs are another way to keep us writing. They create positive, tangible space to capture then share our words and ideas in their infancy. Our posts can be as simple as a response to a post on another blog or a recent news headline. Or we can pour out our hearts and share our deepest stories. We can write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or anything and everything. Some people simply use a photograph as a prompt. The beauty of a blog is that you really can’t do it wrong.

I created my blog A Reason To Write [6] when my family unexpectedly moved from the United States to Delhi, India. It started as a way to chronicle our experience in a country that is very, very different from the place we called home. I didn’t want to forget a single thing. However, the blog also gave me the opportunity to process our experience and digest it. In many ways, my writing sessions became therapeutic.

All of my posts were finished quickly. I got them written, hit publish, and moved on. If I am honest, many of them are probably terrible first drafts with lots of room for improvement.  I have quite a few followers who have nice things to say, but mostly my posts sit out in cyberspace just floating around in their very raw beginning form.

A few months ago, however, I started following Robert Lee Brewer’s blog entitled My Name Is Not Bob [7]. He has a series on his blog called the Life Changing Moments Series. Lots of successful (published) writers contribute essays focused on a moment that changed their lives. The posts are well-written and engaging and the writers are clearly very talented.

This statement appears at the end of each post, “If you think you have a great life changing moment to share (and you probably have several), click here to learn how to get the conversation started [8]. I’m sure if you think it’s important, I may too.”

Every time I saw that, those journalistic prompts came back to haunt me – how, what, who, when, and, the most daunting, why. I would think to myself, “sure I have a lot of stories to tell – life-changing stories in fact – but why would he or anyone else care?” But that last sentence kept drawing me in – “I’m sure if you think it’s important, I may too.” That sounds rather like an invitation, doesn’t it?

So I began the process of slowly building my confidence and improving my piece. I started by vetting the original essay through my two writing groups. Most people said they liked the story well enough, especially my descriptions. Then they offered some good suggestions on making it better. One woman said she just didn’t think the story was that big of a deal. Ouch. But it was her opinion and that was okay. I asked after all. I did feel better when several others went so far as to say they were moved by my words.

So began the work of shifting paragraphs, rewriting descriptions, and finding the real impact of the story. Finally, I felt it was ready and I sent it off. Robert Lee Brewer said it was “great”. And I started breathing again. In fact, today he is posting part two of the story I wrote for his blog [7], which is exciting indeed. But the real gift of the process was the actual process itself.

What started off as a journal entry became a story. It is now a story that will be shared and will hopefully have some impact on somebody somewhere. But Anne Lamont was right. I found the joy in writing the story – and truly in rewriting it. The fact that it will appear somewhere official and might be read by hundreds or thousands of people is just a bonus.

The “why” stopped haunting me and became “why not”.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  aussiegall [9]