What Writing Has to do With Love and Death

I know it’s Valentine’s Day, and the world is awash in roses and chocolate, but I had a few things happen this week to my students and clients that shook me up and caused me to think long and hard about love as it relates to writing, and writing as it relates to death, and why any of us even bothers trying to put words on a page for other people to read, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
 
The first thing that happened, first thing on Monday morning, was a phone call with a client whom I shall call Sue. This was a follow-up call to a manuscript review and analysis that I had done in early January, but when I asked casually how Sue was doing, she burst into tears. Her little sister had died unexpectedly a few weeks before, after a life that was plagued with all manner of difficulties, and Sue was so deep in grief, she could hardly breathe.
 
Sue, too, has led a difficult life and overcome roadblocks that would stop most of us in our tracks, and for several years, she has been trying to weave these tales of survival into stories.
 
Why on earth would she want to talk to her book coach when grief has such a firm grip on her? Because writing was actually at the forefront of her concerns. “Tomorrow could be it for me,” she said, “for any of us, and where am I? I’m pretty sure I have talent, I’m pretty sure I have good stories. I just can’t seem to get my books done, and if I don’t get them done, I will not fulfill what I think is my purpose.”
 
What could I say to such a pointed, poignant summation of the frustrations of the writing life? Well, the first thing I said was that I hoped she was seeing a good therapist. The second thing I said was that there was plenty of time to move forward with her books. She could take time to grieve. She could give herself a break. She could get back to it when she felt ready.
 
Sue would have none of that. “I’m ready now,” she said — and within hours, my inbox had notes from her about her plans for getting back out there to query agents about her finished manuscript, and to revise her work in progress.
 
I specialize in helping people write books for commercial publication, but I will be the first one to stand up and say that while that is the end-goal, it is hardly the point.
Writing heals us from a world that sometimes makes so little sense. It gives us a way to contain what we feel, to put some order to it. When there is nothing else to fall back on, you can always write what you see and what you feel and what you know. Those satisfactions are there for all of us, always.
 
And what happens when you are no longer able to do it? What happens when, as Sue put it, “tomorrow is it?”
 
On Wednesday, I received an email from a woman I had never heard of. She introduced herself as the mother of a young woman – Allegra Johnson, her real name -- who had taken one of my classes a few months ago at UCLA. I remembered Allegra very well, because she was writing about a very troubled life in a very vivid and riveting way, and she wore black combat boots that made her look like she was going into battle rather than going into a memoir class on a bucolic college campus.  She was a little scary. She had a habit of disappearing into her work and typing very loudly on her laptop, and I kept having to ask her to keep it down so the other students could think. Once, I asked her to go out into the hallway.
 
Her mother was writing to inform me that Allegra was killed in a tragic accident. Among the things her parents found when going through her room was a letter she had written to me but never sent. Here is some of what she wrote: “I'm glad I finally get what you mean by story--that exercise in class was really helpful, especially calling it `the real story.’ To me, story always meant plot, like a script, the action. But now I see that you mean what I'd call the `Real Meaning’ or `Human Meaning’ story. And I do agree that focusing more on that will improve the book.”
 
She got it—the whole point of writing.  And she had hoped to be able to keep doing it. Writing brought her great happiness and peace, and she felt it was her life’s purpose, but she will never be able to share her book with readers.
 
In her honor, her parents are going to establish a substantial scholarship for an emerging writer of great promise, and they have asked me to help guide them towards institutions and organizations that could facilitate that wish. If their daughter can’t fulfill her purpose in writing a book, perhaps someone else will be able to, in her memory.
 
So what about you? Here you are, on this Valentine’s Day, possessing everything you need to tell your tale. If you are called to write, and you are able to write, you should write for all you’re worth. I know it’s a heavy message for a happy day, and I promise to get back to some lighter “how to do it” posts next week, but that’s the message I have for you today. And I also have a gift to sweeten the day….
 
Happy Valentine’s Day
 
I have been taking a workshop on nation-building with Sarah Bray and it has been spectacular. Among other things, it’s going to make me better able to help all of you! One of the things Sarah asked each of us to do is make a small, beautiful iteration of the big thing that we do. The big thing that I do is guide writers through the entire process of book writing, from inspiration to publication. How do you make a small, beautiful iteration of a long, messy, creative process? Well, I made something I’m calling The No Excuses Book Map: How to Get From Inspiration to Publication. I wanted to give it to all of you before I give it to anyone else. You can grab it here at this link and download it. Print it out, pin it on your wall, send it to a friend. I hope it helps you envision your book on the shelf. I’d love to hear which NUMBER most interests you right now. I am interested to see where, on the timeline, most people are feeling stuck. And if you see typos or glitches or problems in my little project (there are no doubt a few), please tell me! This will be a work in progress for awhile, and I will send out a new and improved version in a few weeks.