Writing: To Listen
December 6, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Morgan Baker
I sit at the computer on the round table in the tiny dining room in our rental house in Hawaii and listen to my dog whine because I didn’t take her to the beach this morning. “Tomorrow, I promise,” I say to her. She knows. She lost out today and I feel guilty, but today, I’m writing.
Yesterday, I gave my husband a draft of the feature piece I was working on – he’s a writer and a former editor. I knew he’d be honest. He told me it was choppy and needed better transitions and more reporting.
I sat quietly, trying not to feel sorry for myself. I knew he was probably right. I went into a decline. What was I doing? I started questioning my ability to write – feature stories and essays.
In the midst of all this angst during my rewriting, I thought about quitting. This is hard work and I’m not getting rich doing it, so why not just give up. But it’s not like I have anything to do instead.
I said to him in the thick of my frustration, “I’m a better teacher than I am a writer.” I’m not sure that’s really true but as we just moved from Cambridge, MA – where I taught Magazine Writing and Creative Nonfiction for more than 30 years at Emerson – to Kailua, and left most of my teaching behind, I needed to rationalize the loss.
I need to be strong enough to listen to feedback from my husband and editors when they have suggestions for making a piece more specific or they don’t want the pieces I’ve written, which sometimes feel like hits to my ego.
The truth is no matter how many essays I write that don’t get published or how many pitches I throw out that don’t get picked up and despite all the rewriting I do on the features and essays that do get picked up, I don’t know what else I would do with myself if I’m not writing or in the classroom.
I’m a writer. Plain and simple.
I write to hear what I’m thinking. I write to learn. I write to share ideas. It’s a way for me to be heard.
I write essays about moving to Hawaii, about teaching, about my family’s life-threatening food allergies, about being an empty-nester, and about growing up in multiple homes. Whether I’m writing an essay about my dogs, or a feature story about dead end marriages, I learn something new each time and that is exciting.
Plus I don’t give up easily. As a friend just reminded me, I’m tougher than I think I am. I can withstand the comments and rejections, after the initial sting, just like I could handle the move from Cambridge to Hawaii, better than I thought. The remarks just spur me on. I’ve written two memoirs that I hope will someday get published. But the truth is, published or not, I needed to write them. They were stories I needed to tell. All the years of research, interviews, writing, rewriting and looking for agents wasn’t for naught because I told my stories.
I take an on-line writing course several times a year to make sure I keep writing – to have the structure in my life and ears to hear what I’m working on. When I was packing up my house in Cambridge, I took two back-to-back flash courses that saved me when the packing got too hard and sad. I sat down and worked on short pieces – about a party I had in high school and a time a bike was stolen from me while I was riding it -that kept me super focused.
Writing not only helps me understand today, it helps me understand yesterday as well.
I have been writing for 40 years now. It sure doesn’t feel like that when I start a story, it feels like I’m writing for the first time. I’ve written feature stories about travel, business ventures, health issues, children’s development, and now I’m working for a new publication writing about issues with which older readers are dealing.
Every time I start a new project, I worry about how I am going to do it – start it, develop it, finish it. I worry about finding sources for my feature stories. I worry about interviewing those sources. I worry about writing essays and whether I have interesting topics to write about.
As I told my students for thirty years, the best way to start any project is to jump in and know you’ll make a mistake or two along the way. Don’t edit as you write, it’ll slow the process down. Chances are, they, and I, are better prepared than we realize. Interviewing a source is often just like having a conversation with someone you think is interesting.
Writing anything starts with writing crap. Sentences may run on, descriptions might not be tight enough. You just have to let that happen. Staring at a blank computer screen isn’t going to help. I have learned that I simply have to start writing and once I have those bad sentences, on the screen or paper, then it allows me the opportunity to rewrite, and as another friend told me after she read a book proposal I’d written and gave me some helpful notes, “you’re good at rewriting”.
I love rewriting and I have to remind myself of that. It’s when I get to make the piece really come to life and make it sound the way I want it to. I can talk about the birds singing in the background as I write a piece about moving to Hawaii, and the cars going through the rain puddles in front of my house in another essay about walking my dog in my new neighborhood, or on an article about gratitude.
After seething for a bit when I was writing the feature piece that Matt critiqued, I went back to it and looked at where he thought I needed smoother transitions and I realized, to my horror, he was right. I put in more transitional words and phrases, linking paragraphs. I looked at the places where he wanted more information and after much interior debate, I sent two additional emails to new sources, one of which returned my request for an interview.
Finally, I reorganized the material in the story, putting the how-to solve answers in the end of the piece instead of in the middle – duh – and sent it back to Matt with the subject line Better?
He wrote back. “Much.”
It’s still a work in progress, but I’m ready to put a leash on my dog, knowing a change of pace, as we walk through the neighborhood of Palm, Monkeypod and Mango trees, is good. Mayzie jumps up from her bed and twirls in delight when she sees the leash in my hand and then sits calmly while I snap it on her collar and we’re off.
Morgan Baker has returned to Cambridge after almost a year in Hawaii, where she walked her dog to the beach for the sunrise, and explored O’ahu. She is the Managing Editor of The Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, Under the Gum Tree, Writing it Real, and other publications. Find her at https://www.bymorganbaker.com or @mmorgbb