Tag Archives: writing

It’s all in the details

don note
When I was in elementary school, my parents would check my homework each night. Math problems, language arts, all of it. They’d point out errors (before there was a thing called typos) and make me go back and fix it, until I had a clean assignment to turn in. While it would sometimes frustrate me, it taught me early on the importance of attention to detail. At that time, I was rushing through things quickly because it wasn’t much of a challenge, and I just wanted to be done with my homework so I could read. My dad impressed upon me as early as age six that sloppy work doesn’t cut it, whether it was in my homework assignment, while completing a chore, or playing sports. It definitely made an impact – I am a self-acknowledged neat freak, I once organized my CDs and books by genre and artist/author, and I have a solid membership in the grammar snob squad.

In my very first semester of college at Miami University, I learned another important lesson about details from my English professor. For each book we read, Don had us write our analyses in the form of a letter to him. “Dear Don,” each one would begin, and then we’d outline our thoughts on stories from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James, Wharton, and more, weaving in our own experiences with love, loss, travel, and friendship. Don would write us back with little Post-its and margin notes, filled with bits of wisdom and words of affirmation or understanding. “Me, too!” or “I agree!” were common. But the best ones were his gentle critiques and prompts to get us to show more and tell less, to use real examples, and to dig deeper. “Do you have a story, Jenna?” he’d write. Or “I need more details!” My foundation was all there, and I got the concepts, but I was too vague in my examples and not detailed enough in my descriptions. Don knew my writing could have more to it, and he pushed me to explore it.

I continued to look for the details as a reporter on my school paper, and then in my newspaper internships throughout college. Once I began work in digital communications for nonprofits and foundations in 2007, my writing took a different turn. While I had to be accurate with stats and program information, I was frequently told that shorter is better, and so long-form stories about the people these organizations supported went out in favor of 200-word blog posts and soon, 140-character tweets. General descriptions and umbrella messaging took precedent over exact details and deep dive storytelling to appeal to multiple audiences and drive actions and donations. On the side, I continued to write in my personal blog, alternating between specifics and big concepts about self-reflection and growth.

In recent months, I’ve picked up storytelling again as I pursue a more focused freelance writing career. While I adore reading fiction, I’ve always preferred nonfiction or historical fiction to creative writing, which is why I so loved my days at newspapers. As I’m interviewing people for their stories, I’m put back into a place where the details matter: ages, names, physical traits, quirks, interests. There is no fudging here or creating a character upon which someone is based. These are real people, with real stories. As I get back into this pattern, I’m applying it to my work with nonprofit clients when they want stories, and ultimately, I truly believe the details that make a person who they are resonates with donors more than anything else.

I recently sent Don an essay I wrote for submission to a travel writing contest. The subject was near and dear to me: illustrating a strong sense of place in my hometown in Louisiana. In the 12 years since I had his class, Don has never ceased to be a friend and mentor, encouraging me to keep writing and even convincing me to attend and participate in the International Hemingway Conference next summer. When Don sent back his thoughts on my piece, I had to smile. He really liked my work, and said it was “evocative.” But what came next was even better: “If I were to suggest anything to make it even more effective, it would be to be more specific in a couple of key places. But, Jenna, I almost always want more specifics! I’m especially enamored of proper nouns. And dialogue.”

It was so like Don to ask for more detail – and I needed the reminder. He pointed out a few places that could use specifics, and when I added them in, he was right of course. The story really was better for all of its tiny little details.

Just think of all the things you read each day or shows or movies you watch, or music you listen to. Or think about your own experiences and memories. While the theme or the action or the beat may provide for a great foundation, it’s the specifics that bring it all to life – the colors, tastes, sounds, or the words. When we care about the details, it makes our work and our stories more complete, more real, and more impactful.

Finding my way back to writing

old writing

In January, I had the privilege of meeting an author of a historical fiction series about the Civil War. I read her first four books when I was about 12 years old, when she used a pen name and the series had a different name. A year or so ago, I discovered she had started the series again, under her original name, but with a new title. I saw that she engaged with her readers directly on Facebook, which is quite uncommon. She responds to people via email or social media more frequently and promptly than some of my friends or family. Anyway, as luck would have it, she was traveling to San Diego for a few days, and on a whim, I asked if she would be “around,” thinking we could meet. She suggested breakfast, and a few days later we spent two hours talking about reading, writing, growing up in the South, faith, and family. I left the breakfast knowing I had a new friend and mentor. She completely believed I had stories to tell, and that I needed to write them down. I was inspired, and I was going to write.

But I didn’t. Twice, she has asked me via email, “Are you writing, Jenna??” And I, embarrassingly, have not responded, because the truth is, I haven’t. Until now.

Since at least the third grade, if not before, I said I wanted to be an author when I grew up. In the early years, I wrote in spiral-bound notebooks, trying to come up with my own version of The Baby-Sitters Club, writing about best friends with luscious brown or blonde hair, one curly and one straight, of course. I wrote silly poems about boys that would never like me back – “he’s just not that into you” isn’t a new concept. I thought I could be like my first female author crush, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about my own family and our adventures (pioneering or not). I aspired to be at the level of Jane Austen, my second female author crush (LIW and Austen still top my list; you never forget your first loves), who wrote about the everyday stories of family, friends, love, and marriage with such eloquence and humor.

Some of you have read this story before. I went to college for journalism, writing feature and news stories, and adjusting my dream to become a star reporter for The Washington Post, only to shift gears and jump into digital communications and advocacy for nonprofits in DC, right at the time that blogging and social media really began to take off in a big way.

And nearly two years ago, I left DC after several successful and happy years, thinking I would try to “be a writer” again. But today, I find myself questioning what it really means to be something. Am I still a writer even though I haven’t blogged in more than two months until now? Am I still a writer even though I haven’t written anything that isn’t for a client in two months? Am I still a writer even though I don’t actively send out pitches to publications?

I’ve read enough books and blog posts, some by famous writers, and others who just would like to think they are famous, that sternly remind those of us “wannabes” that we need to write every day if we want to become better at our craft. That we need to “shut up and write” instead of talking about it. I’ve read Pressfield’s The War of Art, and know the demon of Resistance very well, and know I have to beat him at his own game.

In some sense, they’re right. Just like any other skill or hobby, you become better at it, or perhaps even master it, by practicing frequently, maybe every day. And there are days when you may like it, or days when you hate it, and you are counting down the minutes until you are done. I see this a lot when I read about running. As a kid, I hated running. I never thought I would become a runner. And even after my first couple of races, post-college, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t have all the gear yet. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t run every day. I didn’t know all the runner jargon. But somewhere along the way, as I practiced and learned and even began to enjoy running, I finally called myself a runner. I get Runner’s World, I have the gear and clothes, and I use the jargon. I am faster, I am stronger, and I run more frequently. I’ll never become an elite, and I’ll probably never win a race. I don’t want to run every day. But I’m a runner because I run.

So why do I struggle so much with this concept when it comes to writing? Perhaps part of it is because there is a stigma around writing, all these expectations. You tell people you are a runner, and they don’t usually ask you if you’ve won any races. They may ask how many miles you typically run. But tell people that you’re a writer, and they want to know where you’ve been published, or if you’re writing the “next great American novel.” Not all runners are expected to be fast. But writers are expected to be good. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expect to be good.

A few weeks ago, I was one of two final candidates for an editor position at an alumni magazine. I wanted it so badly – it was the first job I’d seen in essentially all the time since I left DC that I thought I’d be perfect for, and that was in the direction I want to go. It came down to some very specific feedback about my writing – the headlines being part of it. I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. To be that close to something, and then have to start over, because my headlines weren’t up to snuff? Ouch.

Although I ultimately look at it as a lesson learned and a great experience, I also recognize that it was a blow to my ego, and perhaps has been a factor in extending my writing drought. I have quickly pushed aside ideas for stories and blog posts because I don’t think they’re interesting enough. I avoid sitting down in the morning or night to write because I don’t think what will come out will be good enough, even for me, much less for anyone else to read. So I knit. Or watch Netflix. Or do more crosswords. Anything but write. Because the nagging question deep inside me is quite possibly, “Am I a writer? Will I ever really be a writer?”

As I’m sitting here in a coffee shop with my laptop, I’m realizing that part of my challenge may be that I’ve taken to looking at writing as a chore, rather than something that I once so enjoyed. If I think about my evolution as a runner, it meant changing up my route, trying different running clothes and apps and shoes, and working on specific goals, like improving my time or besting a killer hill. I learned to stop looking at it as a thing I had to do, and instead something I wanted to do – it was fun, it was motivating, and I quickly learned all the little things that played a role in my growing passion for it.

So I think the same thing applies to my writing. It’s been a long time since I tried writing a poem, or wrote real fiction, or something that wasn’t within the themes of this blog. And clearly, I needed to get out of the house for the words to start pouring of me, so now I know that for me, I get inspiration and motivation from changing my location. When I began to see changes in my running, and ultimately, changes in my body and in my frame of mine, running became more enjoyable, and more…flowing. It’s time to get back into that spirit with writing again. It’s time to be a writer, not to be a best-selling author or to win any awards or to make other people proud. It’s time to be a writer because I like to write. And that’s who I want to be.

Send more #snailmail: National Letter Writing Month

lots of letters

Readers of my blog know all about how much I adore writing and receiving letters. I love it so much that I’ve had two mini campaigns (here and here) to promote snail mail with fellow letter lover Leslie. I love it so much that I have a box overflowing with stationary and notecards, pens and postage, and of course, my letters from others over the years. I think I need a bigger box — collecting letter paraphernalia has become a bit like my book buying habit — I get more before I’ve finished what I have. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. One can’t have too much stationary, right?

It’s National Letter Writing Month, so I wanted to share a bit more about why I love the special art of snail mail so much. Just in the past week, I’ve received a handful of thoughtful postcards and notes from dear friends back in DC, and after a few weeks off because of my move, I’ve written a handful myself to be delivered to friends across the country. Just the very fact that I have friends who send me mail ( some quite regularly) all because they know I love it, makes me smile  and makes me cherish our friendship even more. And the postcards I get from friends on their travels means even more to me (do you know how much international postage costs?!), coming from Australia and Hawaii and Italy and Mexico, and elsewhere.

I asked people what they love about letters so much, and here’s what a few had to say:

snail mail tweets

fb letters

Pretty straightforward if you ask me. I think a handwritten letter is one of the most sincere and genuine forms of communication, and of respect. It takes time, it takes thought, and it takes feeling. And the memories of both writing it and receiving it are surely to last a lot longer.

So if you’re ready to send out some snail mail, check out my Pinterest board for some inspiration and options to start your own big box o’ letters. Then share in the comments whom you’re writing letters to this month, and why you love snail mail so much. And of course, let me know if you’d like to exchange letters with me!

Some of what's in my letters box

Some of what’s in my letters box

 

Snail Mail Story Time

typewriterBack in February, I lamented the possibility that the USPS was going to cancel Saturday mail delivery. A long-time letter lover, it was another let-down for an institution millions of Americans have relied on since the late 1700s, and another reminder of how technology, with all of its good intentions, is also changing time-honored tradition.

So another blogger and I decided to rally for snail mail, and offered to write postcards or letters to anyone who wanted one. Writing back was optional. We hoped that our love of letters would spread a little and at least remind people of the joys of receiving mail – the good kind. We were pleased at the results: I think we each sent out a dozen or more notes, to friends, family, and people we’d never met. We loved the letters we got in return, and seeing others inspired to do their own mini snail mail campaigns. Leslie and I have even begun regularly writing each other now – we both wanted a new pen pal! But most importantly, we like to tell ourselves that our little project is what prompted the USPS to withdraw their proposal to cancel Saturday mail. Victory!

Nearly 10 months later, Leslie and I are ready for round two, and this time, we’re kicking it up a notch. We think that writing letters is a perfect medium for storytelling, and that’s why we’re ready to share some of our most personal experiences with our recipients, and we hope we get to learn yours, too. Here’s how it will work:

We’ll take up to the first 10 participants in this first round, 5 for each of us. (don’t worry, there will be more rounds!). Sign up here if you want in.

For each person, we’ll write on a different topic. And to mix it up a little, Leslie and I will randomly select who writes to whom. You won’t know the topic or the sender until you open your letter! Here is the first round of topics:

  • First heartbreak
  • A difficult decision
  • Favorite recipe
  • Offbeat or unusual hobby or interest
  • A vivid childhood memory

We’d love a letter back, too, so start thinking about what you’d share!

So here we go! Let’s get some #snailmailstories going…who will sign up first?

Adjusting the journey is part of the process

writingI’ve been in California for nearly a month. Some days it feels like I left DC ages ago, other times, like I just left yesterday. These are the times I’m grateful for technology like social media, where I can check in to see what’s happening with my friends and in my former city. And I’m grateful to the friends that have been so great about keeping in touch in these first few weeks, texting me, emailing me, reminding me to stay strong and that things will all work out the way they’re meant to.

When I made the decision to come out to California and start this journey, even though I knew the first few months would be a transition, I was already running all the scenarios in my mind of how to immediately get consulting gigs, and how to get my writing published. I’m a planner, always have been. And it honestly scares me to think of not having a steady income after being so fortunate to have one since I’ve been out of college. It scares me to think that I could sit and write every day, all day, for years, and nothing ever come of it. As my dad said, I was looking for the silver bullet, and couldn’t stop planning, as opposed to just using this time to do what I wanted to do, which is relax, write, and reflect.

And yet, in the last several weeks, as I’ve split my time between part-time work for my job in DC, writing, and spending time with my parents, I’ve realized a few things about myself that I guess I didn’t think would be so important and immediate.

For one, living out in the country with my parents is a great way to spend time with them, to focus, and have some solitude. But it’s not for me in the long-term. And I’m not even sure I’d be ready to move to the nearby city of SLO … which means that I very likely may end up in San Francisco, where I can be around more people, more things to do, and more variety. And that’s okay. As my aunt said in a lovely note to me, I’m at a different place in life than my parents, and what’s right for them right now may not be right for me. So if what I need right now is to be in the city, that’s okay.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about of course is what I’m doing out here and what I want to be doing. As I’ve been outlining themes to write about, one common thread kept popping up  — connections with people. Whether it’s through food, health and fitness, technology, or family, all of the things that interest me and make me feel fulfilled involve interacting with people directly and either helping them do something they love, or telling their stories. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed journalism so much several years ago, and why I loved meeting supporters for the campaigns I worked on at my second job. That personal interaction is key for me. And once again, my dad helped me sort through some scenarios; and I always chose the one that involved people, rather than writing in isolation.  So what does that mean? I crave being around people more than I thought I did, as much as I do cherish my time alone. It means that I need more structure to my day than I imagined, and that maybe writing isn’t the end all be all, maybe it’s just a priority, rather than the priority.

And that is okay, too.

There are lot of different routes I could take – I could do teaching, or coaching, or mentoring, and I can figure out how to incorporate writing into any of those.

I spend a lot of energy (too much!) trying to prove to others and to myself that I am capable of something, or that I will follow through based on the original plan. But life doesn’t work that way, and people don’t work that way. If I’ve changed the context of what I want to do a month after getting here, so what? I’d rather do that and be true to myself than force myself to make something work that I’m just not feeling. If I’m more suited to live with my parents for a few months and then move to the city instead of sticking it out here, so what? I’m still near them for frequent visits, and if I need that for my heart and mind, then that’s what I’ll do.

A friend of mine told me to think about things I wanted to accomplish while I had this time. Whether it’s reading 10 books, or trying 10 new recipes, or writing 10 blogs, if I focus on that, then the other things will fall into place in time.

And that is okay.

1 2 4
The History of Love

The Trials & Tribulations of English Romance, 1660–1837

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

life~lessons~literature

Blogging for a Good Book

A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library

Austenesque Reviews

Reviews of Jane Austen Sequels, Para-literature, and Fan Fiction

litvisuals

Just another WordPress.com site

Classicritique

What classic will you read?

A Celebration of Reading

It's All Fiction!

Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

Join the celebration of Jane Austen novels, movies, sequels and the pop culture she has inspired

Live to Write - Write to Live

We live to write and write to live ... professional writers talk about the craft and business of writing

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.

101 Books

Reading my way through Time Magazine's 100 Greatest Novels since 1923 (plus Ulysses)

Eleventh Stack

A books, movies, and more blog from the staff at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Main.

Word by Word

Books I've enjoyed, Journeys I've loved, Places that inspire

The Fearless Cooking Club

It's never too late to start

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,849 other followers

%d bloggers like this: