It’s a little embarrassing and quite frustrating to realize my struggles have been the same for so long. It feels exhaustingly neurotic: I chide myself for not being able to stick to any sort of writing routine or discipline. Then I step back and have some compassion for myself because I know, at least practically, that chiding won’t work. And yet compassion is sometimes a cover for laziness. And yet I try not to use the word “lazy” because it’s not compassionate. There you go. But it’s worth noting how happy I am once I’m inside the process. Once I’ve walked into the room, sat down at the desk, started something. I need to make peace with the neurotic thoughts that are such an engrained part of the process, I start to think of them as those annoying people at synagogue that you kind of just accept and eventually develop a warm kind of love for their awkward quirks. I’m thinking of specific people. The ones you really want to stop talking, especially when we’ve been invited to have a discussion, but more so when we haven’t. What possessed you to come here? you want to shout sometimes. But over time they become like family. It would be weird if they didn’t show up (yet so relaxing, too!). Maybe I can treat my neurotic thoughts that way from now on. Picture the one guy in particular, who is such a pain but who I love like a dorky uncle. The guy who can’t help but sing and clap his hands in that idiosyncratic way that grates my bones, but makes me smirk. Oh, you. You silly, sweet guy. I’m going to smile, magnanimous as a Buddha, from across the room, then close my eyes and pray. You can be there, clapping in the background, doing your thing. I’ll be here doing my thing. And there is a joy in my own singing. There is a joy in sitting at this desk, in stringing out the words. A joy in the sleuthing for solutions, in the picking and choosing, in the redoing it. To have compassion for myself equally in the joy and the difficulty. Dude, I can’t even hear you anymore, you have hummed yourself into silence. Amen, amen. I’ll see you next week.
These days I have much to kvell about: one of my writing coaching clients, who had never been published before, had his first short story published, plus two more accepted for publication. Another client, also never published before, just had her memoir published to much (well deserved!) acclaim.
My first reaction to these successes is pride. I’m so moved to have played a part in sheparding my clients’ work toward publication and recognition. It’s gratifying to see the fruits of one’s labor, especially in terms of measurable success. My second reaction is awe and humility, not at the role I played in the process, but in my clients themselves. I could never have done the work for them. I watched my clients work on their projects for months, and ultimately, their dedication to the craft of writing, their tenacity, their willingness to hear suggestions, to try new techniques in their work, to become aware of their strengths and habits, to revise as much as is necessary all led to their success.
On occasion I have started the writing coaching process with a client who was not willing (or able at the time) to do the work. We might have met up once or had one conversation, and it was clear that they were not ready to go all in. Making a real commitment to your writing project is a big deal. There are often many starts and stops when it comes to committing to your writing project. It is easy to get off track or want an easy solution to deeper issues in the writing (sometimes a client insists they just need editing, but often much more work on the part of the writer is necessary). Sticking with the work over time and being willing to go deep and challenge yourself and, again, to really do the work does pay off. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to go through many rejections and “failures” along the way. But endurance is key.
I’ve recently been reading books on childbirth, and one of the best pieces of advice that I came across was: No one will give birth to this baby for you. You can read all the books, have the best doula, the best midwife or doctor, but you’re the one who has to get that baby out. This feels very close to my experience with my writing coaching clients. Like a doula, I can coach my clients through the process, but they are the only ones who can get their babies out into the world. And I’ll be celebrating when that happens.
New workshop offering! From Narrow Place to Freedom: A Passover Workshop on Writer’s Block, March 29th
From Narrow Place to Freedom: A Passover Workshop on Writer’s Block
Renew your writing practice during this season of rebirth
At one time or another, all writers experience dry spells, lack of inspiration, or a feeling of being stuck in their writing. Instead of pushing away so-called writer’s block, there are techniques that encourage us to embrace and use our blocks as part of the creative process. The classic story of Passover is a journey from oppression to liberation. It is often interpreted as a moment in the cycle of the year where we can examine and find freedom from our personal Mizrayim, “narrow place.” This workshop will use Jewish mystical teachings on Passover, meditative techniques, and guided writing exercises to invite us to accept that which constrains us and write through our blocks toward a place of freedom. You will leave with fresh drafts and a sense of renewal and recommitment to your writing goals. This workshop is open to writers of all levels of experience, genres, and backgrounds. Light snacks will be served. Workshop is limited to 12 writers, and the exact address will be given to attendees.
Scrivener is well known for being a great writing tool for novelists, screenwriters, and long-form non-fiction writers, but when my friend mentioned she used Scrivener for poetry manuscripts, I was intrigued. As a poet, I’d always used Microsoft Word, with quite a bit of frustration. I usually write first drafts by hand in a notebook, then type them in Word, and save multiple files of subsequent drafts. The biggest problem was putting together a poetry manuscript. I would copy and paste each poem into one big file, which became unwieldy. It was especially tricky to keep track of subsequent versions of poems once the big file was created; each time I edited a poem in a single file I’d have to remember to update the main manuscript doc as well. I’d also have to save multiple versions of that main file with different types of front matter depending on where I was sending the manuscript (some places want acknowledgements, some don’t; some want a title page with contact info, some without; etc.). And worst of all, it was really annoying in Word to try to mess around with the order of poems in a manuscript––cutting and pasting them throughout the main doc, and then manually updating the TOC.
Once I took a look at Scrivener I immediately could see the benefits of using it for a poetry manuscript. I spent a chunk of hours one afternoon going through the main tutorial, and then started using it and figuring out how to make it work for a poetry manuscript. It isn’t always easy, but Scrivener understands the writer’s need to organize and re-organize pieces of text, to categorize pieces of text in certain ways, and that’s why even while Scrivener sometimes gets confusing it’s actually fun to try to figure out how to make it work for you.
These tips will be useful to you if you already use Scrivener and have gone through the main tutorial. Here are my 10 favorite ways Scrivener is useful for a poetry manuscript:
1) Reorder poems
This is a simple but brilliant function. Reordering is something most poets do constantly while working on a manuscript. When I first starting using Scrivener, I imported all my poem files from my current manuscript and dumped them into a “binder.” Now that each poem was living in my Scrivener binder as separate documents, I could easily drag each document and reorder the manuscript to my heart’s content. I keep all the documents for the manuscript in one folder with the manuscript title. When you’ve found the current order you like, you send the group of documents to “compile,” where you can export it to an RTF or PDF. Whenever you create a new order you like and want to save, you just “compile” it again (but see below in #2 about updating the TOC each time you reorder). No more cutting and pasting individual poems within a large Word doc!
2) Create and Modify a TOC
To create a TOC in Scrivener, you select all the documents that you want to include in the TOC, go to “Edit” –> “Copy Special”–> “Copy Documents as TOC.” Then you open a new document and paste. The TOC will format itself, and create poem titles based on the document names (so be sure to name those documents based on the poem titles). This is all in the main Scrivener tutorial. The TOC will not automatically update every time you move around or delete a poem, so you have to re-do the TOC every time you change the manuscript order. I don’t mind this, because it still takes out the hassle of creating a manual TOC in Word.
You may find there are some wonky issues that come up when creating a TOC in Scrivener in general, depending on what program you export the manuscript to, but these problems can be solved with a little help from the Internets (I won’t reiterate those issues here, as they aren’t specific to poetry manuscripts). 🙂
3) Switch Between Different Versions of Front Matter
This is super helpful when you need to use different versions of front matter based on a press’s or contest’s specific requirements. Some presses want to see acknowledgements or a title page with contact info, some don’t. I created two versions of the front matter, and when I’m ready to compile the manuscript to send off to a contest, I have the option to choose the front matter I want to include. And thankfully, the front matter doesn’t get included in the page count, which was something I couldn’t figure out how to get around in a big, single Word doc.
To create front matter, add a folder called Front Matter outside the manuscript folder. Create the documents within the folder, i.e., Title (with contact), Title Only, TOC, Acknowledgements, Epigraphs, etc. Create a second folder, which I call Front Matter2, with the desired documents. During compile, choose the front matter version you want!
For each document in Scrivener, you can assign a status, i.e., first draft, revised draft, final, etc. You can easily create your own statuses as well. On the right-hand side of every document is a section titled Synopsis, General, and Document Notes. In General, you’ll see Label and Status, which both have drop-down menus where you can choose or edit the labels. If you click on the drop-down menu in Status and click “Edit,” you can manage your classification system, or meta-data. I like to classify poems in the following way: Published, Maybe, First Draft, Revised Draft, Done.
5) Include or Exclude Specific Poems
As you probably know, a manuscript is never really done. Sometimes it’s “done enough” to start submitting (which is where I’m at right now), but you’re still tweaking along the way. I might have submitted my manuscript to a few contests, and then later was like––why did I include those five or ten poems that weren’t really good enough? (okay, that actually did happen, and continues to happen every time I look at the manuscript anew). These are poems I’m just not sure are worth keeping, but maybe at some point I can revise and salvage them. But I don’t want to include them in my current manuscript submission.
Recently, I went through my manuscript and started assigning the status “Maybe” to all those sad poems that have been around for a while and just aren’t getting any better. When I was finally ready to sort of let them go, I created a folder called “Maybe poems” and dragged them (kicking and screaming) out of my main manuscript folder. Then I created a new TOC and compiled a new manuscript with just the clean, finished poems from my main manuscript folder. I can always add back any Maybe poems by changing their status and dragging them back in, but they’re going to have to beg.
6) Work on Groups of Poems Based on Status
Sometimes I want to just work on revisions, and it’s nice to be able to quickly find and view just the poems I want to revise. (I assigned the “Revised Draft” status for these poems, because they have been revised and I want to keep revising them. The “Maybe” poems, on the other hand, have been revised but are very close in my mind to being discarded completely or being saved by a miracle). You could get even more specific with the level of draft you’re on or how you want to classify poems by status, of course.
To work on the poems that I think still have a chance at getting better, I created a search for my “Revised Draft” poems. I typed in “Revised Draft” in the search bar, and then chose “Status” from the dropdown menu.
Then I chose “Save Search As Collection” from that same dropdown menu, and, voila, I have a collection of my “Revised Draft” poems. I can now look at them on their own when I’m in revision mode.
I’m also now doing this with my “Done” poems as a way to focus while submitting. These are the poems I’m pretty sure are totally done being revised (I know, you’re never totally sure), and therefore are ready to be submitted to journals. Now I can view them together as a collection and start figuring out where to send them!
I can also do this with the poems that are already “Published” and designated as such, which is helpful for creating and updating an Acknowledgments page. This also allows me to easily count how many poems have been published, reminding me I need to send more of the others out!
7) View Earlier Versions of Poems
Instead of saving file after file of poems, as I used to do in Word, adding a number at the end of each file name to designate the draft, now I used Scrivener “snapshots.” These are easy to use and part of the main Scrivener tutorial. In Scrivener, you keep editing a poem in the very same document for it’s entire evolutionary existence, but you take “snapshots” along the way so you can refer back to earlier versions when needed. This is actually much simpler than looking through multiple Word files to find that one phrase you thought was great and you lost.
8) Use Labels (and Colors!) for Themes
This is fun. Most poetry manuscripts have themes that are threaded throughout. They may not be overt themes as in actual topics, but modes. When I print out and order a manuscript on the floor (which is still a great way to do it, but now that I’m using Scrivener I do it less often), I sometimes use markers to label poems with a particular color. In my current manuscript (which has some pretty clear themes) I have blue for cool/ice/snow-related poems, brown for animal poems, pink for myth-based poems, etc. I’m now using the Label feature in Scrivener to assign these labels to poems with colors. Here’s what some of them look like in Meta-Data (above) and in action in outline view (below).
Pretty! But also really helpful conceptually. For example, do I really want to include those two icy poems side by side? It might work, but I might also consider spreading them out, as I’ve done with some of the other differently themed poems, so as not to have too many similar ones next to each other.
And here’s where you assign the Label on the right-hand side of the screen, like you do with Status:
8) Write Notes on Poems
Sometimes I have ideas about a poem, and it’s useful to write them down in the Document Notes section on the right-hand side of the screen. I never really used to do that before, and because Scrivener offers this functionality, it’s actually influencing my creative process. Sometimes I need to think things through off to the side of the poem, ask myself if the poem fits in the manuscript, or what threads it picks up on, or if I want the title of the poem to reference another poem in the manuscript, etc. You can also write Project Notes as well.
9) Keep Research Close at Hand
Not everyone does research for poems, and it just so happens that for my current manuscript I am doing research (unlike my first manuscript which had zero research). So the Research section of the Scrivener binder is awesome. You can save all types of media including PDFs, web links, video, audio, etc. With the Research section I save articles and pictures, and then use the split screen functionality to work on a poem while referring to the text/picture that is inspiring me. So much fun!
When you “compile” a manuscript to export from Scrivener to RTF or PDF, you can update the manuscript styles all at once. So instead of manually going through and changing the font or title style for each poem, you can focus on writing and revising, save formatting for the end, and do it all in one shot. I won’t go into much detail on all the wonders of the “compile” function, and if you’re already using Scrivener you probably have had the chance to play with this feature. Suffice it to say, it takes away a lot of the headache of formatting a complete manuscript of poems.
I’ve only just gotten started learning how to make Scrivener work for my poetry manuscript. Please comment with any other tips if you’ve tried it! Happy writing!
I’m so proud to share that my client, Lene Fogelberg, has just shared the gorgeous cover of her debut memoir, Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir of Surviving Heart Disease, forthcoming from She Writes Press. I had the honor to work with Lene on this memoir, which even in its first draft was impossible to put down. In draft after draft, I watched the story find its shape, the writing tighten and distill to become even more powerful than my first read.
One thing I love about non-fiction is that often the telling of the story is more compelling than the subject matter itself. Some people are drawn to non-fiction, understandably, because of a personal connection or interest in the subject matter. As someone who hasn’t had a connection to the subject of heart disease, I wouldn’t necessarily have been drawn to a story like this. But the quality of the narrative––the way the author takes us through her psychological experiences living with a disease that for years was a mystery to her and her doctors, the way she carries us back and forth from childhood and adolescence through to the present––is what kept me enthralled. I can’t wait to hold a copy of this book in my hands!
This past weekend I had the pleasure of hosting two inspiring Red Sofa events: Friday was our first reading of the new year featuring three incredible poets & writers, and Sunday was the workshop open house. The energy at both events was infectious and nourishing for me and for those who were present.
Now is the time to make a commitment to your poetry writing practice and join the winter/spring workshop series. As always, the workshop includes homemade vegetarian food, wine, & drinks, and a supportive community in which to grow in your practice. Workshops include optional writing exercises, close readings of poems, and critiques of works in progress, in addition to an optional one-on-one conference with me. The workshop will run for 10 weeks on Sundays (1:00–3:30pm) starting Feb. 1st. The cost for the series is $400. Registration deadline is January 28th.
Special early bird discount of $20 off if you register by January 25th.
If you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com. I’m saving you a seat at the Red Sofa!
The Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop has been around since April 2013. We are still very new at this and are always interested in learning what YOU want from a writing workshop. Whether you’ve just discovered the Red Sofa or have been a curious lurker for a while, I’d love to get your feedback on what you are looking for in your ideal writing workshop. Please take the following short survey to share your thoughts. This is totally anonymous. If you’d like to talk more about your workshop needs after you’ve taken the survey, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!
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The writing process is notoriously mysterious and hard to describe, especially when one is in it. Writers are used to having to prove to people that they actually work, even though what they do doesn’t look a lot like work, or a lot like anything. Case in point: I’m coming up on the last week of my residency at the Vermont Studio Center. What did I do while I was here? It probably doesn’t look like much. The question reminds me of that Seinfeld scene where Elaine describes doing nothing.
JERRY: So what did you do last night?
JERRY: No, I know nothing, but what did you actually do?
ELAINE: Literally nothing. I sat in a chair and I stared.
JERRY: Wow, that really is nothing.
ELAINE: I told ya.
Most days of the residency involved walking from one building to another, eating food, talking to people, but most of the time just sitting and staring: out the window, at a book, at the computer, in my notebook. Today, for example, I wasn’t expecting much. Like every other day, I showed up at the writing studio really hoping I’d come up with something to write about. Then I decided to spend the morning avoiding writing, by doing some administrative work for my literary journal. This was a useful distraction––I got some things done, which felt good, but it had nothing to do with my writing.
Then when I was ready to really work, I picked up the photocopy of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, which I had decided at some point was going to inspire me. I waded through some beautiful sections, some confusing parts, and then landed on something that made me stop. The sentence spoke to a difficulty I was having in moving forward and more deeply into my poetry collection. Something about the sentence made me put down the photocopy, pick up my notebook, and write. And then I wrote something that really surprised me––that felt new and exciting. It was probably the thing I’d hoped would happen, but not at all the words I would have expected to come out.
You can’t ever know what will happen.
And I know people say this a lot, but you really have to show up. And showing up is brave. I totally dread approaching my work sometimes cause I think I have nothing to say or it’s not going to be great. But I surprise myself over and over. I’ve seen that happen during the residency, where my job has been to show up. I’ve learned that if you sit and stare long enough nothing will become something. So what did I do on my residency? Nothing. And everything. And I even have some poems to prove it.
I’m on the other side of the Ides of March, post-Purim (the holiday of reversals), and inhabiting another side of myself. I am two weeks into my first writing residency, with two weeks to go. The first week here at the Vermont Studio Center was long and deep. I started writing immediately on the first day (even at the airport on the way from Philadelphia), and kept up a good pace for the first few days. The experience has been a big adjustment, an inversion of my everyday life at home, where there’s always something else to do other than focus on my poetry. Here poetry comes first, and that’s thrilling and frightening.
I enter my writing studio after breakfast and I expect to just walk straight into the deepest parts of myself. Eileen Myles was a visiting writer here the first week and talked about the writing process as similar to when a dog circles and circles trying to find the perfect position in which to get comfortable. That’s how I feel when I walk into the studio. I pace, move books around, fill my water bottle. Finally I sit down in the velvet green armchair by the window overlooking the frozen lake. I stare out the window and start to feel my mind move. Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I pick up a book and read and a sentence injects itself in me and I grab my journal and start a new poem. I get up for lunch. I return. I go to yoga or to chop vegetables for my kitchen duty. I eat dinner, return to the studio at night.
I have moments where I’m worried I haven’t written enough each day––that old capitalist impulse toward mass production. But artistic production is much wider and deeper; poems don’t take shape on an assembly line. They inhabit the moments in between the actual writing of poems. It’s true that you have to show up for the muse. You have to treat the process as primary, as the first thing you’re responsible for. So that even when you’re not writing, the poems brew. You learn to be gentle with them. You learn to be okay with just sitting there for a while. The longer you do it the more normal it feels, and like animals, the poems begin to feel more comfortable emerging from the underground.
It’s kind of painful at first to transition to this way of working––you’re afraid you won’t make anything good, that you’re wasting time. You want to go home, be with your partner, go to a party, watch a movie. But the poems are spirit animals walking alongside you, sometimes going off on their own, but always returning. You have to feed them. You have to make it your full-time job.