Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Who sees your work in progress? (01/15/11)



Featured writer: Susan Bono



Contributors this month:
Bree LeMaire
Becky Povich
Catherine Crawford
Claudia Larson
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Joan Zerrien
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders


Labor of Love

by Susan Bono

I can't say I've made a career out of critique groups, but it's a big part of what I do. Writers meet with me in groups of six and, at regularly scheduled intervals, present drafts of their work for feedback. We all proceed carefully and respectfully to offer thorough and useful criticism. At the end of each session, two writers leave with six detailed reviews of their drafts. The ones who learn to stick it out thrive, and I see how their writing benefits from opening themselves up to others' opinions.

You can't imagine how it pains me to confess that I have a hard time with this kind of approach to my own work. I'm not so stuck on myself to think I don't need help. In fact, it's the opposite. When I offer my work for critique, everyone's ideas sound better than anything I could ever actually implement, and so reasonable, even the contradictory ones. If I get input from more than three or four reviewers, my brain goes into overload and I lose my way in my own story. I can't tell you how many stacks of marked up multiple copies of essays are moldering in my file cabinets, waiting for me to get a grip.

Timing is also critical. I hate being one of those writers who has to grope her way through her stories, but I usually have to work a draft in isolation until I tap myself out, or else risk draining the juice by sharing it too soon. When I get to the point where I've tried everything I can think of, I still have to decide if I want to take the chance of getting lost in the feedback loop or just call the damned thing finished before I lose my nerve.

When I wisely choose to submit my work to trusted readers the way the writers I admire most do, I've learned that, for me, a carefully chosen writing partner, preferably someone whose writing I love and who has previously done me the honor of letting me edit him or her, is my best bet. I get an extra set of eyes, an honest opinion, and a hand to hold as I go into revision. It's closer to the relationship I try to foster with writers whose work appears in the print version of Tiny Lights—a laboring writer and her birth coach, both doing everything they can to get a story into the world.


Susan Bono is working on her nerve in Petaluma, CA.

Who Sees Your Work In Progress?

  by Bree LeMaire

There's only one person who sees my work in progress and that is me.

I read this finished essay to my writing group and they said, "We see your work in progress. You aren't telling the truth." So, I have to clarify about what is in progress and what is completed. All my work is continually in progress until published, and even then I want to tweak words after the fact. I'll work on something until I reach a wall and then it goes to my husband and/or the writing group. Steven Elliot says writers should show their work to anyone that wants to read it. The problem is that not all are dying to read my work; honestly those readers have dwindled down to a precious few.

Blessings upon my writing group.

Pieces I might see as complete, most times are not finally ready for submission. I'll have the perfect piece but my writing group will find holes staring through my precious prose. It's resembles the figure/ground conundrum in that I can only see the ground while everyone else talks of the imposing figure. It is the forest and the trees all over again.

I'm writing a first person story about a nurse who works nights in a Rehab unit. Week after week comes the request to hear more from the main character, her voice. I'm content to have the main character off stuffing charts, counting medications, making rounds or conversing with patients and completing mundane tasks. The challenge of bringing more of my main character to the page eludes me.

Of course all this has nothing to do with my training as a nurse with a second degree in experimental psychology. I've been educated to describe, describe, describe but never contaminate the data. A wound that resembles a Martha Washington geranium in color and size has no place in a medical chart. All my scientific skills are now sent to the recycling bin while I try to bring my character with her heart into the mix, whatever that is.

Bree LeMaire is working on her second mystery, “Murder in the Rehab Unit.” Writing was slow due to the holiday’s traffic but now is picking up. The murder victim is fashioned after an old boss who prided himself on being a bitch so she hasn't lost interest in the project..


Good Enough

  by Becky Povich

I don't show my work in progress to anyone until I've written something that I feel is better than okay. Better than average. Better than pretty good.

I don't show it to my husband until I feel it's almost ready to read at my critique group, because he's a darn good critic himself. I print out my essay and hand it to him, asking for his thoughts and advice. Sometimes I take it, sometimes I don't.

If I'm particularly happy with something, I e-mail it to a couple of trusted writer friends. I can count on them to be honest and not just give me a "Wow! That's fabulous!" kind of reply.
I think about all the suggestions, decide which ones I agree with, and throw out the rest.
After all…it is MY story!

While Becky wrote this particular Searchlights & Signal Flares, she was thinking about her next cup of coffee, which was her reward to herself for getting this written and sent in time. Thank goodness she only had to walk downstairs to her kitchen, since it was 9 degrees outside, and a foot of snow on the ground. Becky loves the snow, but mostly by looking at it from inside a warm home…or coffee house. You can reach her at Writergal53@aol.com
or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com


Ride with the Valkyries

  by Catherine Crawford

Alone at my desk, I'm fighting for patience with writing that won't gel. Winter Solstice is officially past, but the gloom outside mirrors my mood. I stare at my work like someone else wrote it. It stares back. It's a good thing I have workshop tonight. I feel like Hannibal pushing elephants over the Alps.

On the road, my mood improves. I picture friends I'll soon be with and feel lucky they also love to write. They're good advisers for work in progress because most have been teachers. They know writing is slow. They also ask tough questions.

When I arrive, it's raining hard. Before I go in, I glance at the sky and think of the spirits thundering overhead. It's a good night for witches or perhaps for Valkyries soaring above the battlefields and choosing their heroes from among the dead. Usually these myths give me a rush, but tonight I feel defeated by writing, and my teeth are on edge.

As I pass around copies of my work, I look at the workshop women. There don't seem to be any Valkyries here. No streaming hair. No battle cries. We met through a creative writing teacher, and writing is the glue that holds us together. Otherwise, we're more like a herd of cats. Lots of chiefs and no Indians.

After reading my story, I'm reminded how teaching can help writers. Though all of us share a passion for words, we like the learning that comes from a clash of opinions. We've discovered stories are willful and wise. When work resists us, it helps to see writing as a friend with a different opinion.

Finally, the criticism I need to hear comes. When someone asks me "Would this thing be happier as an editorial?" I feel that plunge in the pit of my stomach. "How much of YOU do you want in there?" another asks. The writing's weakness is now obvious, of course. My story wants to tell itself, but I keep stepping between it and my reader.

Nobody tells me how to solve this problem, but the drive home is peaceful anyway. Hope returns. My story and I have been plucked off the battlefield, and we're still alive. This is my heaven—-my literary Valhalla. These women don't need to star in an opera to be my saviors. The work they do makes them Valkyries to me.


Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington.
greenwriter1960@gmail.com



Autonomy

  by Claudia Larson

As a headlamp fixes light like a third eye, writing begins. Breathing slows and deepens. Looking around, nothing comes to view, the light making no indent in the charcoal darkness. Slow breathing pulls yo-yo mind into a comfortable seat, where it waits and watches for coagulated images, for platter-servings of sharp-edged and soft-tongued emotions, for draperies and drippings of heavy, scratchy steel wool and featherlight silk.

It varies, what emerges from charcoal blankness and into a paragraph, onto a page. The mind loses its curiosity from time to time and floats into list making or erupts into quick criticism and condescension. An adjustment of the headlamp calls it back to mouthwatering watching, curiosity's bike tires re-inflated, an inner seismic graph noting the connection between inner and outer life.

Some freshly written pages enter a parlor of listening friends, other wordsmiths who respond when a sentence's centrifugal force pulls them into its orbit. A trusted editor may gently pry up a stony sentence to discover what lies beneath.

Always, the quieted mind watches every word.

Claudia Larson lives in Sebastopol, CA, where she’s experimenting with forever-lasting headlamp batteries.


Your Eyes Only

  by David S. Johnson

I used to let friends, family, and even my senior-high English teacher read my drafts. But their words of critique, though kind, stung, and their praise, though sincere, I distrusted. I don't let them read my work in progress anymore because I don't want their judging eyes on me. I don't want to think that I've disappointed them because my work is 'lackluster' or 'pedestrian,' words they would never use but I would hear in my own mind. I'm like the teenage girl with low self-esteem who is upset at the slightest comments from friends or family about my appearance, good or bad, and blow them out of proportion. For better or for worse, I let you see my work in progress because you are anonymous. You are a stranger. You are dismissible. And I can't hear you if you say I'm fat or ugly.

David Samuel Johnson drafts in Beverly, MA.

The Work in Progress Odyssey

  by Don Edgers

There are presently only two people who see my work in progress: my wife and a writer-friend.

But this isn't nearly as interesting as who saw my work in progress.

Before I joined the bailiwick of writing, I was a part-time free lance cartoonist for a couple of small circulation newspapers, and an army magazine. Some of my friends, then an editor would see the rough sketches of the work in progress.

Later, I became a filmmaker, using storyboards and scripts which were submitted to my graduate school adviser for a Master's degree thesis about film animation. While making the film my fellow film students and various professors saw the work in progress.

Eventually, I joined those of the writing persuasion by submitting articles to a local news publication. I was encouraged by the editor and a few readers so I kept on writing. It was at that time the one and only person who saw my work in progress, my wife, provided her secretarial skills and editing skills to just about everything I wrote.

I started writing grants, short stories, letters to the editor, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletters, workbooks and pamphlets. These works in progress were viewed by peers, advisers, committees and the ever-present editors of the publications.

When I sold my home in 1994 to a couple from a distant community, I hadn't a clue that the husband was a published author and retired University professor of English and journalism. In order to acquaint the buyer with his new community, I gave him articles I'd written about the history of the locale. Within days the professor called to have me meet with him about the articles.

"What do you intend to do with these articles?" he inquired.

"I thought I'd reprint them in book form," I replied.

From this introduction he said I might consider rewriting what I had from a 10-year-old boy's point of view, and if I was willing, he'd guide me in the project. Thus my mentor spent the next few years guiding my work in progress - An Island In Time: Growing up in the 1940s.

In 2007 I sent a proposal to Arcadia Publishing who publishes pictorial histories of communities throughout America. My enquiry proved effective and I was on the way to showing my work in progress to a series of editors: Front cover photo editor, back cover copy editor, copy editor, interior photo editor, caption editor. I talked on the phone and exchanged emails with various editors as I produced the final product: Fox Island.

Don has several works in progress in Port Orchard, WA. Some of his past works may be viewed at www.anislandintime.com.

Hide and Seek

  by Joan Zerrien

Sharing work in progress is a risky business. I have five trusted but unseen confidants who see my work online around the middle of nearly every month. Without them I would not be writing as much as I do. I might not be writing at all.

I met two of them at writing events but that was merely an introduction. As a group they know me through my writing. I like it that way. We are not joined because we are thrown together in daily life. We are joined because we have made a commitment to nurture each other's genius, the guiding light within each of us that seeks expression through words. Marriages have been made on less.

Last year most of them got together at a writing conference. I wasn't able to attend. I was somewhat relieved because I am hesitant to alter the bond I feel with them. What if I roomed with someone and she snored all night or left her toothpaste leaking on the edge of the sink or had a really annoying laugh? Wouldn't that alter how I read her words the next month, and how I felt about her reading mine? Familiarity is also a risky business, even with these, my familial sisters of the pen.

They sent pictures of themselves, cheerful writers hanging out together. Someone commented, "We haven't seen Joan yet." In seeing my work in progress, they see me more intimately than do my friends, and far more intimately than does my family. We are not precisely friends, but I trust them completely. They share their considerable skill and their intelligent hearts with me, and they impel me towards clarity and focus. I wouldn't trade that for a lunch on the terrace, not even in Tuscany.

This winter I sent them a holiday photo of my daughters and myself. There is a point where withholding one's visage could be construed as coy, or incipient Howard Hughes behavior. I was conflicted about sending a photo. They know something about me now that my words did not reveal. I enjoyed being known only by my writing, but I figure with all they've given me they deserve a gesture of disclosure. We are creatures of curiosity, genetically programmed to scan each other for similarity and difference. I think we are more similar than different, but what do I know?

We are strung along the West Coast like so many beads, from Port Townsend, Washington to Idyllwild, California. I treasure the connection that keeps me writing. I treasure the web we weave among ourselves each month, as we read and respond to each other's work. They will read this, and they will catch a glimpse of the person behind the stories they read each month. It's a risk I take, being myself a work in progress.

Joan Zerrien lives in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California, where she faithfully corresponds with Judy, Catherine, Florrie, Janet and Rebecca.
jzerrien@yahoo.com


WHO CLEANS MY WRITING HOUSE?

  by Sara Baker

Literary creation is rewarding yet demanding, so I understand and instinctively accept the fact that it is often solitary and companionless work. Like Stephen King and Charles Dickens, I understand that working alone purifies my experience so that the voice I hear the loudest is my own. Solitude allows me to concentrate, to avoid the whims of the world around me, and to give volume to my own voice untarnished either by potential criticism or by praise of my work.

As Paul Theroux said, "…a writer works alone, indoors, in a room, on a chair, with the door shut." Willingly, I shut the door either figuratively or literally and embrace solitude in order to better create artificial worlds with real people in them. Because seclusion is necessary, my work-in-progress is intensely private and remains private until I am ready to show my work to someone I trust.

Therefore, I avoid critique groups, networking sites, and blogs as a means of exposing my work-in-progress, for they are not only public but also time-consuming and confusing-—too many cooks spoil the broth—-so to speak. They simply violate the solitude I need in order to create effective fiction and non-fiction.

At some point, though, I must open the door of seclusion, invite vulnerability, and share my manuscript with someone before submitting it for publication. Although sharing my work-in-progress is deeply personal, I must detach myself emotionally from it in order to accept honest assessment and criticism.

Before deciding who participates in the process, I ask myself: "What do I hope to accomplish in letting someone read and comment on my work? What questions and issues do I need addressed?" Generally, I am not seeking praise but am seeking a person whom I can trust that will genuinely and objectively critique my work without being harmful or destructive.

Mainly, I trust my instincts when I ask someone to read my manuscript. However, simply because he can be sensitive, honest, but non-judgmental, my husband frequently reads my work-in-progress. He takes even my roughest drafts, disheveled papers and collection of notes, and provides insightful feedback on almost every aspect of my writing.
Because he understands my organization, style, and thinking, he often guides me through murky scenes, ambiguous characterization, awkward sentences, poor constructs, and indistinct transitions. Like a maid who sees my home at its messiest, he sweeps clarity and cleanliness into my otherwise unkempt writing house.

Once my writing house is in better order, I occasionally offer my writing to other family members, friends, and colleagues who supply support and enthusiasm. Ultimately, I shut the door again, return to solitude, and contemplate. I am now grateful for words, for the opportunity to participate in an act of creation, and for the possibility of sharing; I connect with the universal creative force and seek spiritual guidance for the final work and its destination. Here, I seek the peace and strength to submit my work-in-progress.


Sara Baker is a freelance writer, technical writer, editor, and retired teacher who currently lives in Allen, Texas, with her soul mate with whom she has been married for 27 years. She can be contacted at sab_1529@yahoo.com


Labor of Love

  by Susan Bono

I can't say I've made a career out of critique groups, but it's a big part of what I do. Writers meet with me in groups of six and, at regularly scheduled intervals, present drafts of their work for feedback. We all proceed carefully and respectfully to offer thorough and useful criticism. At the end of each session, two writers leave with six detailed reviews of their drafts. The ones who learn to stick it out thrive, and I see how their writing benefits from opening themselves up to others' opinions.

You can't imagine how it pains me to confess that I have a hard time with this kind of approach to my own work. I'm not so stuck on myself to think I don't need help. In fact, it's the opposite. When I offer my work for critique, everyone's ideas sound better than anything I could ever actually implement, and so reasonable, even the contradictory ones. If I get input from more than three or four reviewers, my brain goes into overload and I lose my way in my own story. I can't tell you how many stacks of marked up multiple copies of essays are moldering in my file cabinets, waiting for me to get a grip.

Timing is also critical. I hate being one of those writers who has to grope her way through her stories, but I usually have to work a draft in isolation until I tap myself out, or else risk draining the juice by sharing it too soon. When I get to the point where I've tried everything I can think of, I still have to decide if I want to take the chance of getting lost in the feedback loop or just call the damned thing finished before I lose my nerve.

When I wisely choose to submit my work to trusted readers the way the writers I admire most do, I've learned that, for me, a carefully chosen writing partner, preferably someone whose writing I love and who has previously done me the honor of letting me edit him or her, is my best bet. I get an extra set of eyes, an honest opinion, and a hand to hold as I go into revision. It's closer to the relationship I try to foster with writers whose work appears in the print version of Tiny Lights—a laboring writer and her birth coach, both doing everything they can to get a story into the world.


Susan Bono is working on her nerve in Petaluma, CA.

Lucky 15

  by Theresa Sanders

My husband and I zip down I-70, off to watch our beloved St. Louis Cardinals play. Just over the next rise, the Gateway Arch comes into view, and as we exit the interstate, the excitement between us is palpable. Several city blocks later, we see it, our stadium, our home away from home every summer, the site of all our little World Series dreams. After we park the car, my husband glances at me. "You change your socks?"

"Nope," I answer. "You?"

"Nope. And my jersey's still coming off that lucky three-game streak."

I smile, knowing he's not kidding. "Excellent. Can't wash it yet. Gotta make the mojo last. I'm wearing my lucky bracelet too."

I hold out my right arm, where a thin red-and-white leather strip sports my favorite player's number. I call the bracelet my Lucky 15, and I never attend a game without it.

My husband and I take them seriously, our silly baseball rituals. Not that lucky bracelets or unchanged socks and jerseys can really facilitate wins, but that's our story and we're sticking to it. Sometimes it's all in the perception.

As I settle into my seat at the game, it occurs to me that I deal with writing a little like I deal with Cardinals baseball. I have guidelines for optimum performance and unstated rules for good luck, especially regarding my works in progress. For example, if I talk about a project too much, I just might jinx myself. If I let too many people read a rough draft, I might lose that magic ingredient, Focus, and not be able to finish it. Superstitious? Definitely. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But hey, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It works for me.

I think that's the key to it, really, finding our own unique ways to make writing work. It's such a difficult endeavor, writing, such an individual thing, but if we can somehow discover ways to trust our own vision, it doesn't seem quite as daunting. Some writers turn their works in progress over to critique groups, others have writing partners. I find that I do better with a few trusted readers. For shorter pieces, I often don't let anyone see my work before I submit it. For longer material, I usually try for no more than three readers at any given time, the theory being that if one person says one thing and another says the opposite, the third person will serve as tie-breaker. I listen to what my readers say, and whether read by others or not, I revise all of my work until I have it as polished as possible, but ultimately, the final decision must come from me. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it…though I guess a little Lucky 15 doesn't hurt now and then. And with writing, unlike with Cardinals baseball, at least I do change my socks.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, and is the mother of four grown children, her greatest joy and accomplishment. An award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a documentation and training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. She contributes frequently to theChicken Soup for the Soul series, and is completing a novel. Theresa welcomes email at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net.


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow


Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: greenwriter1960@gmail.com

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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