A Learned Lesson About Sharing Writing Before It’s Ready

March 6, 2023 § 5 Comments

By Jessica Carney

I bombed one of my first readings in the strangest place you can bomb—a hospice room.

As I was finishing writing my first book, my grandma had a medical crisis and was moved into hospice care. She was alert and not in too much pain, and because there are only so many things to do in a hospice room, my mom suggested I read some of my work-in-progress to her. It seemed like a good idea. The only problem with that plan was that my book was a draft, and some of it was rough.

My grandma’s regular room in the assisted-living facility had knickknacks that made the space feel like home, like the always-full candy dish she insisted visitors sample. Her drab hospice room was devoid of all that. Still, the space was made warm by family members buzzing in and out and by my grandma herself, who continued to be the sweetest person on earth. She was quite at peace with everything. 

She said, “I’ve lived a good life.”

So many staff from the assisted-living facility came to visit that my mom put a handwritten sign on the door: “Family Only.” My grandma wanted to see everyone, but the number of visitors was exhausting her. The sign didn’t work. Each staff member assumed they were the special exception to the rule because my grandma made them feel like they were. 

My grandma was originally estimated to have less than a week to live. I’d been by her room at least briefly every day, each time thinking that when I said goodbye to her it was going to be for the last time. Then, something unexpected happened. She stopped declining.

“Do you feel like you’re dying?” my aunt asked her. She said no. Although she felt ready, the universe wasn’t ready for her to go yet. Honestly—somewhat selfishly—neither were we. 

Given the bonus time, my grandma’s obituary was drafted and she approved it. She also approved her own urn, which still seems like an overly practical move to me. And we planned my reading. My mom, who had edited my book, suggested I read the chapter about former President Clinton coming to visit the venue where I worked in the leadup to the Iowa caucuses—a chaotic and funny story.

“Are you sure? That one?” I asked, feeling somewhere deep down that the chapter wasn’t ready to read.

But I agreed, thinking it would make my family happy. When I got to her room, the vibes were off. Everyone was having a hard time living in limbo, and we were all looking for a distraction. I pulled out my pages, began reading, and immediately started sweating. Hearing this chapter out loud, I realized that as I described my coworkers’ quirks, I sounded more mean than funny. Instead of highlighting the absurdity of the situation (i.e., preparing for the hordes of politically curious Iowans), I sounded annoyed. This piece of nonfiction wasn’t ready to go. 

A few paragraphs in, not one person in the room had laughed. I felt myself speeding up and breathing at weird times. The tension in my voice made the parts that were (maybe) funny—really unfunny. My grandma tried to follow along, she’s unfailingly polite, but there was no mistaking the boredom in her expression.

“Boy, that’s not going to make you any friends,” my aunt said after I was done.  

After that awkward reading, I didn’t read any more passages at hospice. Something amazing did happen, though. My grandma got out of hospice. She moved with her knickknacks back into her regular room. She wasn’t ready to go after all. 

I’ve learned with nonfiction—humor especially—that you must get all your thoughts out on the page first and then pull back and analyze the work. After you write a rough draft and grumble about whatever bothered you, then you can zoom out and find the humor in it. A humorous piece isn’t ready unless you’ve made that full transition. No one wants to read a rant. 

In my haste to share my writing, I forgot that humorous writing is almost never funny on the first draft, at least mine isn’t. I’m nicer and more self-deprecating in the second and third drafts. Writing mean things about people generally isn’t funny. Counterintuitively, you have to be nice to be funny. Being nice to others is certainly a life lesson I can take from my grandma.

Visiting someone you thought you said goodbye to for the last time is kind of a wild experience. We only sometimes talk about her hospice stay, because we can’t possibly talk about the serious stuff all of the time. Instead, we have to find the humor. Like the fact that her urn is gathering dust in the back of a closet.


Jessica Carney has essays published in HuffPost, Shondaland, and ManifestStation among other outlets. She’s currently querying a book about her 15 years as an event planner and all the chaos and times plans went awry. Jessica lives in Iowa with her spouse and her dog, Lucy. Learn more at her website.

§ 5 Responses to A Learned Lesson About Sharing Writing Before It’s Ready

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    You got the tone just right in this essay, Jessica! I enjoyed reading it — and laughed about the urn gathering dust in the back of the closet. Go, grandma!

  • rose2852 says:

    What a great story about the urn gathering dust at the back of the cupboard!
    I almost shared my (still) unready draft with a close relative who likes to read but is not a critical reader. I’m not sure what pulled me back from doing this at the last minute, but I’m very glad I did.

  • This is a lovely story about your grandmother, beautifully told – and I agree with your takeaway. When a beta reader gave feedback on what I thought was a near-final draft (ha!) of my manuscript, he pointed out that the witty comments didn’t come across as funny; they read as snark. I was astonished, but he was right. Humour is so tricky.

  • campanaconstancewheatoncollegeedu says:

    Jessica, I know this; I’ve done this. It doesn’t feel good. Anything, especially humor, is hard to read aloud if you don’t know what you sound like–and often with humor, you don’t! Thank you for writing this. You’ve reminded me how important real revision is and how long it can take. You’ve also reminded me of AUDIENCE. Our writing is revealing and no matter how close we are to our families, it’s sometimes hard to hear the “writerly you.” But I loved hearing about your grandmother and the obvious graciousness of your family.

  • A member of my writing group once said she liked to read to a live audience because she could see what worked (read: got laughs) and what did not. I guess the lesson here is that we still need to prepare heartily.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading A Learned Lesson About Sharing Writing Before It’s Ready at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


%d bloggers like this: