Big thanks to Laura Gaskill of Lolalina for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Read more about her dreamy web site at the end of this post.
My biggest project right now is the latest draft of my memoir about surviving a nearly deadly depression with the help of my parents and a very sensitive and special dog. This thing has been a long time coming. First I wrote the story as a novel in 2004. Then I went to graduate school in fiction writing at VCFA and started writing lots of short stories, trying to get the knack for writing, revising, and critique. I graduated with an MFA in 2006, soon had very young kids (a newborn and 3-year-old) and spent much of the next few years trying to just keep my wits about me and leave the house without forgetting to wear pants.
Around 2008 I began writing the story as a memoir, because fictionalizing it felt like I was shying away from the fact that I actually participated in all this awful, scary, terrible stuff. The fact that it all really happened, and that I survived, seems important. Maybe someone will read it some day and think, if she survived, maybe I can too.
So I have been writing the memoir on-and-off for six years. Two years ago I finished the first draft. Since then a handful of very kind folks (you know who you are–love you guys) have read it and given me great feedback, and I’ve been busy revising and changing and rewriting. I’ve probably written 1000 pages, but I’ve only kept about 200. I think the beast is just about ready for the world to see. Soon, if all goes as planned, I’ll send out my first pages to a few agents. This story is so ridiculously important to me that I want it to be my very best work before it goes anywhere. (Of course if any agents or publishers out there are reading this and want to see it now, I won’t argue!)
I’m also writing a few personal essays here and there, like The Raven and The Crane. I love the short form because I find it easier to let the metaphors really shine and pull a smaller story together. I just sent a new essay called Nine to a contest and also to one of my all time favorite magazines. The chances of it landing a home in either publication are small to none (odds are about 1 in 100 of acceptance on a good day), but I still love knowing my writing is somewhere out there in the world.
I also write (with an actual pen and paper!) with a kickass bevy of beautiful women every Friday morning. We meet for Laurie Wagner’s Wild Writing at 27 Powers. This class is my church. Seriously, if you’re looking to free yourself as a writer and feel connected on this journey we’re all stumbling through, join one of these classes. I should start collecting royalties for all the happy people I’ve sent Laurie’s way.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t know, I guess I write about all the ugly stuff. I write about the really terrible mistakes I’ve made. I write about the time I was so depressed I couldn’t walk. So maybe what makes me different is that I don’t ever want to censor myself. I’ve spent too much of my life feeling like I had to hide or make things look good just because. Those days are long, long gone. If it’s not sincere, it’s not moving to me. If it’s not flat-out honest, it doesn’t grab me. Which is why I worship writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed and Mary Karr and Sue Silverman. They put it all out there, and as a result we feel more inclined to let our beautiful, ugly freak flag fly.
I also write a lot about the natural world. Since I was a small child, I have felt wildly connected to nature. It’s almost like a prehistoric knowledge center in my brain never got turned off and I still feel as if I can hear from trees and talk to birds. And in my experience, they all talk back in their own subtle and lovely way. I’ve done a lot of research and worked with wise elders who have taught me that the last 100-200 years has erased a lot of important and healing knowledge about how we live with the earth. Ours is really one of the first eras of human history that hasn’t seen the natural world as our teacher, our leader, our biggest responsibility. We’re too blinded searching for gold and oil to remember that every indigenous culture lived deeply connected to the natural world. So I write about living in a semi-urban area and still seeing the magic of nature on a daily basis. As I write these words, a small Golden Crowned Kinglet is sitting on a branch outside my dining room window looking at me. Now he’s flying into the window, flapping his wings wildly then stopping, clutching the windowpane. His dark eye is intense and I swear he’s staring at me telling me to keep writing. See? If you pay attention, you’ll see it. I don’t know what you’ll see, but you’ll know it when it shows up.
Why do I write what I do?
Because it’s the only thing I am sure of. I’ve known since I was nine-years-old that I wanted to be a writer, and that I wanted to write with uncensored honesty. I haven’t always been encouraged along the way (how are you going to make a living just writing? you can’t say that!), and that’s been a blessing, honestly. Because this kind of devotion can withstand anything. Even if I never ever have another word published, I’d still write every day. When I don’t write, I am miserable. Miserable! Writing frees me. I don’t know why it is imperative for me, for my brain, for my soul, to write every day, but it is. I have boxes and boxes of journals.
My most important work is stored in two antique suitcases that sit in my living room. Most people think I’m just trying to be all hipster-decorative when they see those 1950 Samsonites. What they don’t know is that if god forbid there is ever a fire, my plan is to grab them and run.
How does my writing process work?
It works around the two beautiful little beings I am raising (now ages 7 and 10). I am learning how to write when they’re home, but mostly I need them out of the house. So I write when they’re at school. I write every day from about 9-noon, sometimes longer. I sit at my dining room table with a cup of coffee and silence. I write on my laptop and I watch the birds on the tree outside the window as I think of the next line.
Every once in a while I go on solo writing retreats and sit in a hotel room and write for 24-48 hours. Those writing weekends are my absolute favorite. I come home feeling like I’ve been charged with enough bright light to power the whole neighborhood.
When it comes to the revision process, I almost always send my work out to one or two of my grad school friends who are ten times more brilliant, eloquent and masterful than me. They read it, make comments and suggestions, and send it back to me. I thank them profusely and return the favor when they are looking for another set of eyes. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without these two lovely beings, both of whom have been wildly successful in their writing and teaching careers.
Then, when I feel like a piece is ready, I send it out. But honestly I’ve probably only sent out about 2% of the reams of writing I’ve done. I like it that way. Much of the writing is terrible, but even terrible writing is great practice at an art that I deeply love.
Maybe some day I’ll make it big. Maybe not. I am lucky because I can write for the art of it, for the joy of it, not hoping for profit. I will admit that part of me, way deep down, hopes that this kind of devotion will lead to something great. Maybe that will be a well-received memoir. Or maybe it’ll be my daughters growing up and cracking open those dusty suitcases to discover a treasure created solely for them. Either of those outcomes will have made me a success.
Keep your eyes peeled for a Writing Tour blog post from Jaime Borschuk! We met at Esalen while studying with Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. Dreamy, right? Here’s her bio:
Jaime lives in San Francisco and has no degree in writing. Her essays have been published in the zine We’ll Never Have Paris, and on her blog Dreaming Tracks. Keep an eye on dreamingtracks.com for her forthcoming post!
Let me know if you’d like me to tag you in this writing process blog tour. I’d love to hear from you! E-mail me at juliehillbarton at mac dot com.
Thanks for reading and Write On.
More about Laura, my beautiful writer friend and writing process blog tour tagger from Lolalina.com:
My name is Laura Gaskill. I live in a little yellow house in Providence, Rhode Island, with my hubby, son, cat, and four hens. I’m a Houzz contributor, freelance writer, and lover of all things warm, cozy, and creative. I started blogging in 2009 pre-baby, pre-house, pre-chickens, and pre-writing career because I wanted to explore my own creative side, and become a part of the creative online community I noticed just beginning to flourish. At the time, I was a teacher, craving a shift towards a more passionate, creative life … now I am living it. And I can say honestly that blogging has been an essential part of my journey. My aim now, as then, is to create a cozy, creative, positive corner of the internet, and to connect with and inspire others who wish for the same thing.