Girl in the Snapshot

Looking at old photographs is not something I do much. I live here, after all, in the present tense. Last week, however, I got a jolt. A friend sent me a few old photographs. I wasn’t expecting them. In fact, I didn’t even know these pictures existed until the moment they popped up in a text message—pictures of pictures. 

SNAPSHOTS

She had come across them in a photo album. They came from the time before smart phones, back when taking a picture was an intentional act. You had to have a camera. With film in it. You had to get the film processed. You had to store the pictures, in this case in an album. You had to value them if you were going to hang on to them. She valued these snapshots.

THE OFFICE

One was taken at work. She and I were part of a larger group who were friends because we spent so many long hours together at work. There are ten of us in the picture, all laughing. I wonder about the joke. What is it we find funny as we pose in a conference room of the law firm where we worked? Papers strewn about on the table in the foreground; we must’ve been taking a break in the day, maybe lunch. Someone had a camera. 

WHO’S THAT GIRL?

I recognized others before I recognized myself. In fact, I wondered at first why I wasn’t there. Then I saw someone I couldn’t place; the girl in the middle, in the front, smiling big and laughing. Me! I was shocked. When that snapshot was taken, I was around 25 or 27 years old. Over thirty years ago. 

1988, that’s my guess. Give or take a year or two. Chicago. Married. I look so happy. I don’t remember being quite that happy. I don’t remember feeling so sure of myself, confident like the girl in the picture. Proof that what’s outside is no reflection of the turmoil and doubt surely swallowing her up on the inside. But why? Why such doubt and insecurity? Look at the girl. She sits surrounded by people who like her, care about her. She is dressed in her designer office attire with her hair combed straight and long. Her eyes shine. She is pretty. Why would such a woman be so lacking in self-esteem? Looking back, it makes no sense. 

THAT GIRL NEEDS SOME ADVICE

I would like to talk to that girl, tell her some things.  First of all, I keep referring to her as “girl” when, in fact, she is a woman. 

Stop fighting independence, I would like to tell her, stop wanting to be taken care of and embrace your autonomy. Pragmatism now will lead to time and space for self-expression later. Be kind to yourself and believe in yourself, your dreams. Stop fretting and live your best life. Don’t believe the myth, I’d tell her, the white-picket-fence is not for you and that’s okay! Create the life that works for you. And above all, stop compromising! 

If only I could give her a hug, talk to her and prevent the pain and poor choices that were to come. 

To all young women I say, please be kind to yourselves, listen to your heart, have the confidence to live your dream.

Reading About Writing

On becoming a writer, the one best piece of advice is to read. Read everything. Read all the time. Read what you love and emulate author’s whose work you admire. Separate from that is reading about writing which also helps. It’s helped me anyway. I have shelves of books on writing. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

 Bibliography: Writing Books

Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.

Cameron shares her writing tools. This book is a guide to developing a daily writing practice.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, New World Library, 1949.

“The hero’s journey” can serve as a stepping off place for story-telling. It’s a hefty read but useful for writers of fiction.

Conner, Janet, Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within, Conari Press, 2008.

This is about living your fullest life as much as it is about writing. I came across this one during a particularly vulnerable time in my life. If you are unaccustomed to journal writing, this might be a good place to start.

Darwin, Emma, Writing Historical Fiction, Teach Yourself, 2016.

This one includes exercises on plot development, research, and aspects that are unique to the genre of historical fiction.

Dillard, Annie, Living By Fiction, Harper & Row, 1982.

While this book is less about writing and more about reading, it’s a classic for any writer of fiction.

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage Books, 1984.

It is quite a feat to get through this one, but it is filled with treasures and insight that every writer needs.

Goldberg, Natalie, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Free Press, 2007.

Half of the front cover is missing from my copy; a literate dog tried to eat it. These writing prompts and exercises  inspire going deep in memoir writing.

Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Shambala, 1986.

An absolute classic. If you don’t already have this book in your collection, I have to question your “writerliness.” Doesn’t everyone own this book?

Hurwitz, Diana, Story Building Blocks: Craft Your Story Using Four Layers of Conflict, Hurwitz Publishing, 2011.

If you are looking for a basic template to outline a novel, this is your book.

Karr, Mary, The Art of Memoir, Harper, 2015.

It’s Mary Karr, what else needs to be said? Seriously, with this book she will help you write the scary stuff.

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner, 2000.

Another “must-have” for any writer. Get it. Read it. Mark it up.

Lamott, Anne, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anchor Books,1994.

I have so many pages tabbed in my copy! Again, just read it.

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Here is another book with exercises to help you with your writing practice. Use your current project as you complete these exercises and you might have a good beginning.

Pressfield, Steven, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002.

I really like this one. It’s a small quick read that builds confidence, guides you toward feeling “professional” and tells you to “slay the dragon.”

Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer: A guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Harper, NY, 2006.

Here is my newest discovery and I am excited about it. I have just started reading it.

Wittig Albert, Ph.D., Susan, Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1996.

Explore your personal narrative, discover the truth of your life and share it with the world. Susan Wittig Albert is a huge proponent of women writers. She is encouraging and a role-model.

Some of these are classics, some newer. All have proved useful to me and I refer to them often. As I’ve been wandering through this stack, I realize that I should revisit some of these. In fact, I look forward to reading them again and finding treasures that I missed before.

My Writing Practice

Over the course of my life and especially the last nine months I have a established a practice of writing that works for me. It is multi-faceted, layered and requires some planning and organization on my part. Using multiple resources, I am able to grow my craft and learn new skills to make my talent work for me. Any form of creativity requires talent and drive, but more importantly, learned skills and collaboration. 

Finding a writing community can be difficult, especially if, like me, you don’t live in a city. Fortunate for writers like myself and thanks to the pandemic, we’ve got Zoom.

STORY CIRCLE NETWORK

Some years ago I became a member of The Story Circle Network. SCN provides an on-line writing community for women and it is wonderful. Three days a week, members of my WIP (Work In Progress) group check in with one another to share goals, share our current reads and brag about our writing accomplishments. It is a way to hold yourself accountable and to know you are not alone. SCN puts out a newsletter and provides enriching workshops that cover a variety of genres and writing skills. I serve as a reviewer for SCN’s book review web page and I am a juror for SCN’s annual Sarton Awards. SCN continues to help me grow as a writer.

WRITER’S LEAGUE OF TEXAS

Although I have been a member for several years, I have yet to take full advantage of my WLT membership. WLT offers so much regarding editing and publishing your work. As of now, I have attended some of the workshops. Every WLT workshop I have attended have been well worth the time and money. I always come away with new skills to add to my craft.

LET’S WRITE CLUB

A month or two ago, Amy Isaman, author and writing coach, started a virtual group with the goal of “let’s write the damn book!” Not only is it an honor to be a founding member, but it is also quite helpful. Amy has scheduled several writing sessions a week when we meet via Zoom and write for a two hour stretch. We all work on our own WIP’s, hold each other accountable and support one another. Amy also provides excellent workshops and Q&A sessions. The concept might sound a little strange. We are all working from our own homes around the country and we are writing. You might wonder why we can’t just write on our own. Well, we can. But coming together provides a sense of community, we get to share ideas and it’s less lonely. 

WORKSHOPS

Not only have I attended writing workshops offered by Story Circle Network, Writer’s League of Texas and Amy Isaman, but I am currently taking a five week course from The Attic Institute of Portland and have registered for another. 

There are millions of workshops out there and I recommend doing some research before committing to any one. Don’t waste your time or your money. Evaluate your needs and look for good reviews. Research the instructor. You don’t have to have an MFA to be an excellent writer. Finding a community of writers and good workshops are super helpful though. Again, talent and drive can only take you so far. Writing is a craft requiring learned skills and a community of collaborators. Writing is communication; it is useless to write into a void. 

JOURNALING, MORNING PAGES AND PRACTICE

For several decades I gave up on journaling; I am not sure why. When the pandemic started and we went on lockdown, I began to journal again. I wanted to make sure to have a personal account of all the incredible things that were (are) happening in these unprecedented times. I am so glad to be back in the habit again. It helps my overall writing.

 I have also started the habit of Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” Every morning instead of scrolling through the news and social media feeds, I pick up my “Morning Pages” notebook and write stream-of-consciousness three pages in long-hand. A lot of junk comes out of that, but there is good stuff too. 

Besides journaling and morning pages, I practice. That is, I play with words, sentence structure and experiment with writing styles and cadence.

MY BLOG

Another form of practice is this blog. I am committed to posting something new each week. Since January I have missed two weeks: the week of my daughter’s wedding and the week of an impromptu family reunion. Some weeks I have to force myself to “throw” something out there, anything. Other weeks are more successful. Ironically, the posts I put less effort in are often the ones that get the most feedback. Go figure. The reasons for having a blog are as follows: it serves as a platform to share my random thoughts; the feedback feeds my writing by building my confidence as a writer; it serves as practice; it reminds me that people actually read what I write which makes me work harder at writing better and makes me careful about what I say and how I say it. 

WRITING ABOUT WRITING

 Writing about writing as I am doing now, provides me with the metacognitive insight to better understand my own relationship to the craft of writing. I am also sharing my experiences with others and maybe helping other writers in their own writing journeys. 

READING ABOUT WRITING

There are a lot of crappy books on writing, find the good ones. In a future blog post I will share an annotated bibliography of some of my favorites.

READING

Reading is the single best way to become a better writer. Read everything. Read all the time. 

PLANNER/WEEKLY ASSIGNMENTS

Every Sunday I make a list of things to accomplish and add it to my weekly planner. I follow this list and my calendar religiously. If it’s on the list, it gets done. This serves as a guide and gives me a sense of accomplishment. 

POETRY

Every time I sit down to write, I start by reading a poem or two. This has been my habit the whole of my writing life. Poetry influences my prose writing and I believe poetry is reflected in my writing and makes it better. 

This is how I scaffold my own writing practice. It is a combination of all of the above and it works for me. Find what works for you and dedicate yourself to it. And create!

Story Circle Network https://www.storycircle.org/

Writer’s League of Texas https://writersleague.org/

Let’s Write the Book Club https://amyisaman.com/letswrite/

Attic Institute http://atticinstitute.com/