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What a Stonemason Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Now that the New Year is upon us, I have made a commitment to my own work – to finishing the novel that I started under Lisa Cron’s Story Genius tutelage. I made a weak commitment at the end of 2015 and did not see it through so now I have to get serious. Towards that end, I did two things to make my vows stick:

1.)  I promised my agent I would get her 100 consecutive pages of the new book by February.

2.)  I promised my mastermind partner that I would post every day in our shared chat how many minutes a day I worked on the project.

In other words -- accountability squared. Nowhere to hide.

Why minutes per day and not pages?

Because creativity is not always about production, progress, or moving forward. Many times you have to go backwards to go forwards. Many times you have to throw out the last three weeks of work.  I wanted a process that honored this.

Also, sometimes I have only worked 6 or 8 or 14 minutes a day, and you can’t normally write a good page in that period of time. But you CAN organize files. You CAN scan a paragraph to see what it needs. You CAN think about a character, do a bit of research, evaluate how a scene is working, move a chunk from here to there.

It’s only day 15, but here’s the thing: minutes add up. Progress is absolutely being made. Pages are being generated, the story is being told. And the most important thing that has been generated is momentum. I’m doing it.  Yesterday, in fact, I came back three times to the project, for a total of about 90 minutes. I couldn’t stay away. I wanted more minutes.

I notice that a lot of writers who are new to the creative process feel a certain panic around how messy it is. A book that comes out seamless, chronological, neat and whole is a hot mess while it is being made – and oftentimes, the whole time is being made.

When I approach my project for my minutes per day, I feel the unsettledness of it in my stomach. I approach with a certain amount of worry – and even dread. Something has to be untangled and solved, and ugh, the only person who can do it is me.

But here’s another thing: the untangling is fun.  Putting your mind to the task is very satisfying.

I know that this is also true about all creative endeavors. It’s a large part of the reason people are drawn to make things.

I recently heard a riveting interview on NPR about Jamie Masefield, a renowned jazz mandolin player, who became certified as a drywall stonemason – a process that includes a 7-hour long test.

The finished walls are gorgeous – smooth, fluid, rhythmic, perfect in their organic-ness. (Take a peek at Jamie’s walls here.)

But the process? It literally starts with a pile of stones. Total chaos.

And while you are building, you have to both think fast and think about the long- term goal of making something as timeless as anything humans can make. “It takes creativity and discipline,” writes NPR correspondent Angela Evancie. And, I would add, a tolerance for chaos.

Masefield compares the work to playing jazz. Evancie writes:

“It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes.

`When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long.’”

Jazz. Improvisation. Building a stone wall. Writing a novel or a memoir or a non-fiction book. It’s all fundamentally the same thing.

I have a pile of words. I have an infinite variety of ways I can put them together. I want to make something that has an impact, and that lasts. I can let that reality paralyze me, or I can move forward, one word at a time.

I thought I would share one stone that I put in place yesterday – the fruits of the luxurious 90 minutes I spent.

I started with this exchange between a woman whose lover lies dying and the nurse in the hospital ICU. The nurse asks if the woman is the patient’s wife.

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

The exchange did what I wanted it to do, which was establish that my character’s decision to not marry this man (and to protect herself from the pain of love) was now going to cost her – big time. But the more I read it, the more I felt that it was flat. It didn’t have any rhythm or beauty. It didn’t elevate the moment in any way. So I went back to it and added a phrase:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word.  
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

But that addition only made me see that what I had here was an opportunity to let the reader into my character’s mind – to let the reader see what friend meant, what love meant, what this particular man meant. So I added to it:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

This was better. This was beginning to please me – but I saw opportunity for going deeper. How was this man the center of her life? How was love different than friendship? If I didn’t put it on the page, no one would know. I would be leaving the opportunity unused. So again I went in and added more:

 “I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine. Henry was the first person I wanted to tell good news and bad, the first person whose advice I sought out, the only person I could be with when I was furious or sick or elated. He was the only person I could travel with, the only one I could sit next to in silence while reading, the only one I ever wanted to go home with after a party, no matter how many beautiful, witty and clever people I’d spoken to that night. I hadn’t gone to the movies without Henry for 15 years, because he would laugh out loud while it was running, spend just the right amount of time analyzing it afterwards, and at night just before we fell asleep, he’d say something profound and moving about what the movie had taught him about life or love or guilt or regret.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”


There are parts of that sentence that are clunky and can be made better, but I love where I got in the 90 minutes I spent on it. It feels effective. It feels solid.

At the end of his interview, Masefield beautifully explains the goal of such work:

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.”





What Michael Lewis Can Teach Us About Writing in the Real World

I went to see The Big Short last week. As someone who has worked as a writer, editor, writing instructor and book coach for 27 years, I am not a person who has a natural understanding or affinity for numbers, but I am a reader of newspapers, and I have a mortgage, and I am a generally aware citizen, and care about the state of our world, and I am just as susceptible to the buzz of a big movie as anyone else, so I thought it would be an interesting way to spend an evening. It was – though not in the way I expected.

I went to the movie with my husband, who has an MBA, is a CFO, and worked on Wall Street for several years after college. He is, in other words, a person who has spent 27 working with numbers. Throughout The Big Short, Rob was belly laughing. Totally cracking up. And I kept looking at him thinking, “What? What?” Afterwards, he declared that he loved the movie. He thought it was hilarious and important – a masterwork.

I understood the storyline – Adam McKay worked hard to make sure that someone like me would – and I understood what an important point the movie was making about our banks and our culture. It was, in that way, quite frightening, and also motivating in terms of making sure I continue to be an aware consumer and citizen. I also recognized that some of the acting was amazing, because I largely forgot that I was watching Brad Bitt and Ryan Gosling – which is hard to do.

But what I took away from the theater was this: a million questions about how it was done.

Not every movie – or book -- causes that reaction in me. I saw The Force Awakens over the holidays and also Spectre, and loved the experience of those movies. They were fun – Star Wars even despite the obvious plot holes and plot repetition. But with a movie like The Big Short, which by all measures shouldn’t work (a movie about banking and bankers and the arcane facts of trading?), I am just dying to know how.

How did the writer get the idea? How did he know it was a good idea? How did he organize the material the way he did? How did he choose whom to give a POV? How did he convince anyone else this story was a good idea? How did they get Brad Pitt?

When I came home from the theater, I hit the Internet to answer my questions. We live in extraordinary times, that we can do such a thing – just instantly get answers to almost anything. I learned all kinds of interesting things about casting, and the bit with Selena Gomez, and then I happened upon an article by Michael Lewis about his surprise that the movie got made at all. I want to share it with you today, because it’s a beautiful and profound explanation of what it means to be a writer in the real world.

What do I even mean by that? Well, it’s pretty easy to be a writer who sits in her room alone and never shares her work with the world, but to be a writer who thinks about her reader, and who thinks about the marketplace, and who is brave enough to want to be read and to do what it takes to make it happen – that’s hard. That's what I mean by being a writer in the real world. It’s what I work to help people become, and it’s what I want to be in my own work.

In this article, Michael Lewis shows us how it’s done – step by step, from the moment the idea hit him, through his exploration of it, through the doubt he felt about it, and all the way until the big movie rolled into the theaters. I annotated in yellow the passages throughout where he shows us these things, because it’s not always explicit. But it’s there – a subtext to everything he is writing. I explained my thinking so you can see exactly what I mean. I hope you take inspiration from it for your work in 2016.




How to See the Story

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

Over Thanksgiving my kids were talking about the concept of a “lame superpower” – which I take to mean a superpower that would be cool to have, but also somewhat useless in comparison to actual superpowers such as being invisible or being able to time travel. One such lame superpower that was discussed, for example, was the ability to wake up with a smile in your face every day – before coffee.
This whole train of thought led me to think about a superpower that I believe many writers possess – and one which I believe we should all seek to strengthen. It’s the ability to see stories – to see the resonant moment in our own work, to see the core of the point we are trying to make, to see the idea that is strong and powerful and everlasting and not just the next shiny thing in front of us.
I think this would be a powerful asset, because sometimes the story is so maddeningly elusive. I have a client whom I shall call Joanne. I have been working with her one on one for a year – and she has been working hard.  She never misses a deadline, she estimates that she has written 500,000 words, she is willing to throw things out, to start over, to try again and again and again. And yet only this week did she really SEE her story.
Here is what she wrote about it:
 I feel excited about the story as if it were a new idea.  I can see how it plays out and, most importantly, I understand why I’m telling it.  I am embarrassed that it took so long to get here, but my sweet spouse’s reaction was pure delight: I found the key piece of the story!

I kept looking under the lamppost where the light was brighter.  I kept looking there until you suggested I wander over to the dark side of the street where more interesting things were happening if I’d stick around long enough to look and listen.

[This is Jennie and I didn’t want to include the next part but this writer made it a requirement of my using her words, so here it is…] I would not have gotten here without you.  It’s that clear.  You showed me what we missing, time and again, and the last piece helped click it all together. Thank you a million times over!
A year to see your story isn’t actually so bad. That’s actually somewhat fast. I have taken three times that long to find a story I was writing – and that was only after an editor led me to it by my nose. (In a post in the next weeks I’m going to write about what you DO once you have this aha moment – how you write forward, how you revise, how you use this information…. I call it The Golden Thread. Stay tuned for that!
The truth is that sometimes the words get in the way of the seeing, or the world, or our doubt, or a million other things. But like Joanne, when we see it, it’s so clear.
I am going on a trip this weekend with a friend who has just embarked on a grand adventure in her life. She is an interior designer who has a newly empty nest at home. She loves to travel, and loves to make spaces beautiful, and she has made a commitment to transform ten houses in ten cities in ten years. This is a commitment to how she wants to live in the world and how she wants to work – not from one home base, but from ten home bases. We are travelling to New Orleans, where the first of the ten projects is underway.
All I can see here is the story. It is like a neon sign flashing in the night! Who wouldn’t want to know how she chooses the cities, how she chooses the spaces, how she populates the spaces with lovely things in under a week  ( a one woman extreme makeover), how she meets people in the new place (the realtor, the woman at Restoration Hardware, the professor from the college down the road, the owner of the building…) what she does when she visits the new city, why she does it, and what lessons she will take to the next city on the list (which will be Rome)?
I see in stories and my dear friend simply does not… she is not chronicling the first of the ten, not writing blog posts about it, not taking pictures of the process, not taking notes. Part of me is jumping up and down and screaming, “Story, story, story!!!” I feel as thought my heart is about to burst.
But another part of me is realizing that my friend is not a writer. She tells her story in different ways, through furniture and art and fabric and rugs and even the glasses in which she serves drinks. A few weeks ago, she held a cocktail party for all the new friends she has met in her new place, and I have been to her parties so I know what they are like – warm, friendly, festive. I am certain that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and marveled at the lovely surroundings and felt the enveloping glow of a woman who likes nothing better than to host a party in a pretty space – even for people she has only just met.
I would tell the same story in a very different way – I mean, I can just SEE it: ten chapters, a through-line about making the world more beautiful and being at home in the world, a thread of how-tos about the stores visited, the money spent, the secret list of things that you can buy at Target that you don’t need to buy somewhere more expensive.
I have the power to see this story – but not the motivation to tell it.*
Having both the story and the motivation?? Maybe that isn’t such a lame superpower at all.
* Yes, yes I know that I could actually write my friend’s ten houses story on her behalf. But I have so many of my own stories to tell – I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s. And since you asked (ha!), my dog story is going just fine, thank you. I have a character who is writing a twist on Romeo & Juliet-- I basically need a play within a play within the story -- and so on my weekend outing, I will be reading some Shakespeare and thinking about the fabulous movie, Shakespeare in Love, and trying to tell myself that I can do this. 



The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat, #3.

You Become Paralyzed By The Fear Of Failure

You have a great idea for a book and you make the time to start in on it – and then you start thinking about what it would be like to fail. There are a thousand ways to fail! 

You imagine spending hours every day sitting at your desk, writing, writing, writing – and never writing anything decent enough to show to anyone. 

You imagine telling all your friends you’re writing a book – and then having to tell them that, no, you’re not; you couldn’t hack it. 

You imagine sending your work out to agents or editors and getting back an impersonal, thoughtless rejection. “We’re sorry, but your work doesn’t fit into our publishing plans at this time….” 

You imagine giving up work, pay and productivity to get this book done – and never earning a dime for your efforts. 

You imagine that you publish the book – and no one cares. It doesn’t make a single ripple in the pond of the world. You end up with boxes of the book in your garage, where they yellow and mold along with your old tax returns.

You imagine that you publish the book – and it’s raked over the coals on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and no one ever speaks of it again, although the fact of it sits there like an elephant in every room you enter.

You imagine your mother reading your book – and saying, “It was very interesting, Dear.” 

These images of failure become so vivid that they you can’t see be-yond them. You become unable to write. You become unable to move forward. You quit.


Everyone is scared of failure. We live our whole lives trying to avoid failure, but to what end? None whatsoever. Stop thinking of fear as the enemy. Stop waiting for the fear to go away. Fear is an essential part of the process. If you’re not scared, you’re not likely to produce anything worthwhile.

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an in-dicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Re-member one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
 ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art




The Writers' Guide to Agony and Defeat: Intro

The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat

Writing a book is like childbirth: no one ever tells you exactly how painful the process is going to be, and when you are in the middle of hurting you wonder if you are, perhaps, the only person in the history of the world who has ever felt exactly this awful. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, and a writing instructor and coach for seven, and I have either witnessed or experienced every possible kind of writerly pain. The possibilities for agony and defeat are everywhere – at the start of the process when a book idea is forming in your mind and doubt is pounding on the door; in the middle of the process when you begin to show your words to the world and fear gnaws at you like a dis-ease; and at the end of the process when you hope your work will find an adoring audience and must come face to face with how much greed and envy have taken up residence in your heart. It can be a brutal business – but like childbirth, the deep satisfactions on the “pro” side tend to outweigh the long list of “cons,” and so we forge ahead, writing our stories and often suffering our heartache.

I recently endured a seventh-month wait for my seventh book to find a publishing home. Every day my novel failed to sell, I imagined that my writing career – this thing I had nurtured since fourth grade and that I thought had grown unshakably strong – was coming to a quiet, bitter, wretched end. I’d had a good run, but it was over. I thought I might never get to write again. When friends would ask how things were going, I would shake my head and say, “Not well.” But people don’t empathize with a writer’s private agonies – it’s not like it’s cancer or global financial meltdown – and they would quickly move on to talk about the latest Bourne movie or the beauti-ful heirloom tomatoes they got at the farmers’ market. This made me even sadder, because now instead of just feeling like a tortured art-ist, I felt tortured and ridiculous. I had, after all, chosen to be a writer.

The enlightenment gurus say that you should “feel what you feel” so I began to wallow even deeper into my misery. I began to catalog the specific agonies of the writing life. I came up with 43. I figured I could turn my pain into something useful for my fellow writ-ers who might feel less bleak about writing when they recognize their own particular moment of wretchedness set down on the page. I thought we could all feel a little less alone. 

My story did not have a happy ending. My seventh book did not sell. I have published six books with major New York houses but book number seven turned out not to be so lucky. The irony is that it is far and away the best book I have written. The first six books helped me get to the place where I could write a much better book, but their less-than-blockbuster track record hamstrung me. I’m a midlist writer with modest sales numbers, and so now I am a writer with a book that has no home. Yes, of course, I have choices about how to proceed – self publishing, e-book publishing – and those things are happening. It’s a good time to be a writer because there are so many more opportunities available to us than there were in the days of the Algonquin Roundtable. But opportunity is not what this story is about. This is a story of pain – of the precise kind of pain writers are heir to. 

I will be posting the 43 moments one at a time here. The complete collection is available for purchase as a download HERE.