Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writing

On writing about dishwashers

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“Anyone who says dishwashers can’t be fabulous hasn’t seen these…”

That’s the prompt I was given for a blog post I have to write today about a premium brand of dishwashers.

Yes, I write about dishwashers for a living…and refrigerators, and coffee machines, and drapery cleaning, and much more (you can learn about that aspect of my professional life here). Of course if I had my way I’d only write creative stuff, but the truth is I have not been paid for any of the creative work I’ve published (the lack of compensation offered by most cash-strapped literary journals is an issue that both the writers and the journals struggle with). I have been paid for freelance journalism and for a few articles that skirt the line between reporting and personal essay. And I received compensation for an interview I wrote for The Writer’s Chronicle. But most of my creative life is spent slaving away at prose that will never earn me a paycheck (at least not unless it gets published in book form, and even then…).

The thing is, the bills have to be paid. So over the years I’ve worked at a wide variety of jobs, most of which were connected in some form or other to my skills as a writer, proofreader, and editor. I’ve written for newspapers, businesses, and non-profit organizations. I’ve been a full-time reporter, a full-time PR and marketing writer, and a part-time or freelance version of any and all of these.

I’ve also done bookkeeping, managed a music business, taught fitness classes, and served smoothies to the wealthy patrons of a high-class tennis facility.

The other day I was talking with a friend who is not a writer, and she was worrying about what she might do professionally during the next phase of her life. This friend was a competitive swimmer for many years, and she earned a college degree in sports fitness. Since that time she has worked at a variety of jobs, gotten married and raised a lovely daughter. Her daughter, in fact, is rather brilliant — she earned a scholarship to attend three years of high school at Exeter Academy and has just been accepted early admission into Columbia, where the crew team also recruited her.

But my friend, who is highly intelligent in her own right, didn’t have the same educational opportunities when she was young, and she never carved out a specific career. So she is wondering now, in the middle of her life, what to do next. Her husband recently earned a doctoral degree and is starting a new career as a chiropractor. My friend wonders exactly “who she is,” because she knows that our society tends to be focused on your “title” and professional accomplishments, along with the size of your bank account.

I felt the same way about my life for many years, although in my heart I always knew I was a “writer” (whatever that meant). The few times I worked at corporate-type jobs I had a nice salary and comfortable benefits, and I knew that if I remained diligently on that path I could eventually have some sort of title that people would respect along with a nice paycheck and a big 401(k). But I was restless and miserable sitting in a cubicle all day, and my mind was often bored. I spent 40 hours of each week feeling that way, and then spent the weekends dreading Monday morning. After my last experience at a full-time job, during which I experienced a conflict with a supervisor that caused me a tremendous amount of stress, I decided I was done. I have worked at home ever since, without a fancy title or a nice salary or a 401(k). And I have devoted more of my time to creative writing.

You’d think the moral of that story would be to choose the path that inspires you so you can end up in some happy state of bliss. But my life hasn’t really worked out that way. Like I said before, the bills must be paid. My husband is pursuing a PhD in Social Work and works with people at a mental health clinic. The most generous thing one can say about the compensation in the mental health field (at least at this stage) is that it is higher than the pay for creative writing. So I have to do something…and what I do to help pay the bills is write press releases and blog posts and web copy about dishwashers (and clothes washers, and house cleaning, and…). I also tweet and maintain Facebook pages for small businesses.

You wouldn’t think that type of work helps my creative writing; you might even think the formulaic aspect of a lot of it hurts me. And it’s true that I sometimes make fun of the things I write about, although I can’t stress enough that I appreciate the work and always — if I dare say so myself — do a cracker jack job for any company I work for. But interestingly, I’ve actually found that there is value to this type of work that carries over into my creative writing.

For me, writing press releases and blog posts and web copy is like practicing scales when you play a musical instrument. It’s the same basic process as the creative aspect of the playing. In terms of writing, I still have to come up with ideas, do research, lay down a first draft and then improve that draft at both the structural and language level. I have to determine if the draft is cohesive, and if the most important points are coming across. I have to edit out the passive tense and make sure punctuation is correct or has a very specific reason for being incorrect. And because I go through this process over and over, day after day, that part of things is like clockwork when I wake up in the early mornings …

“How Do You Know When A Work is Finished?” and another helpful link

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I’ve been down and out with a miserable cold all week, and my writing time has been limited (never mind my blogging time!). Still, I wanted to share a couple of helpful links for writers.

Writer and teacher Michael Steinberg recently wrote two new blog posts titled Parts 1 and 2 of “How Do You Know When a Work is Finished?” I have grappled with this issue many times — thinking a piece is done and not wanting to face, after tireless hours of tweaking, that perhaps it still isn’t there. Sometimes even when I’m sure an essay is “done,” I discover that if I read it just a few days or a week later there are still elements I can improve.

At the same time, you could say that writing is never “finished.” Yet there comes a time when you have to let a piece go out into the world, and move on. So how do you know when that time has come? Mike shares his insight and experience — as both a writer and the founding editor of the well-known creative nonfiction journal Fourth Genre.

Meanwhile Erika Dreifus, author of Quiet Americans, publishes a blog packed with practical information for writers called Practicing Writing. From the “Monday Markets for Writers” segments to advice on how to apply for grants and fellowships, you’re likely to find something helpful on Erika’s blog.

As for me, I’m heading back to the kitchen for more tea with lemon and a cough drop. Earlier this morning I rather optimistically turned the computer on in my writing room, but I still haven’t made it back in there. With a little more tea, I might feel more inspired. But I’ll have to avoid watching the next episode of my latest addiction, Downton Abbey, which has gotten me through the last several days on the couch.…

A helpful revision exercise for writers

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My friend, writer Cindy Zelman, recently asked me to read an early draft of a new essay. Cindy and I exchange new work occasionally to help us each push past those points where we feel stuck with a draft. It helps to gain the perspective of an objective, keen, and supportive reader who shares your general writing sensibilities. That person can offer advice about what is working – and what might not be – in your draft. Cindy and I are very different writers, but we find that the things that we notice when we read each other’s work helps us kick our drafts up to the next level.

In reading Cindy’s recent essay, I picked up on something that happens to so many of us when we are working on early drafts of our work. We start out with an idea of what we want to write about, but new ideas fall onto the page as we work on the draft. We add scenes or characters that we didn’t necessarily plan to include at first, and we segue into other topics that sometimes lead us off track. Or maybe we are not heading “off track” at all. We might be finding something more compelling that we really want to write about. We might decide, through the drafting process, that our original intention is no longer as interesting as a new direction we now want to pursue.

That’s all a part of early drafting. The drafting process for many writers is about having ideas, exploring those ideas, and throwing a variety of things down onto the page to see where your mind and your writing might lead.

But once you’ve finished that first messy draft you might sit back, re-read it, and ask, “Now what do I have? What do I really want to say with all of this? And in order to say it well, what has to stay and what has to go?”

Cindy was at this place with her essay. She had arrived at what she wanted to write about, and she had some wonderful characters and scenes to help her get there. But she also, we mutually agreed, had some elements in her early draft that she might now be able to let go. There also were some places where she might want to go deeper to make her point. And all of that would happen before she started to worry too much about line editing on the language level. (For both Cindy and me, that tends to come later in the game).

So I suggested that Cindy try an exercise that was assigned to me by Laban Carrick Hill, one of my teachers at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, when I was working on my critical thesis. After I had completed one or two drafts of the thesis, Laban asked me to answer these three questions:

What is this thesis about in one word?
What is this thesis about in one sentence?
What is this thesis about in one paragraph?

After really pin-pointing what a piece of writing is about (whether critical or creative) you can begin to move outward from that important information to organize and carefully target each section, paragraph, and sentence of the piece so that it leads to the ending you want. Maybe you started out writing about the color of the sky as a metaphor for world peace, as an off-the-cuff and perhaps silly example, and ended up deciding to write about an association you have between the color blue and personal safety because of a blanket you carried around as a child. Now that the topic of your piece has changed, you might want to cut out the lengthy paragraphs about clouds or air travel that you had in your original draft. In other words, you can cut away the stuff that doesn’t lead to your new destination. If that original draft talked a lot about clouds and only had one sentence about that blue blanket, but that one sentence really hit you and made you want to change the whole focus of your essay, you’ll likely want to add in a lot more about that blanket. Maybe you’ll include a better description of the blanket or add scenes that revolve around it. And since you’re now writing about personal safety and not about world peace, you can leave out the paragraph you had in your original draft about your time spent volunteering for Amnesty International. Or did that volunteering stint actually have something to do with your own quest for personal safety? Hmm. This is where your thinking, imagination, and creativity come in. Maybe. If so, figure it out and make it work.

I made up all of that about the color blue and the sky and a blanket this minute, but I think it should help you get the idea. If in one word your essay is now about “safety” and not about “peace,” this is going to change what you do with the next draft of your essay. And you’ll know better what to do if you expand that one word first into a sentence and then into a paragraph so that you can get a more complete (yet still focused) idea of what you want to say.

Try the exercise — it works. Cindy said she’s going to try it, and I am already looking forward to the next draft of her piece. I know it is going to be another Zelman classic.…

Finished! (My NaNoWriMo Novel is Done)

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This morning, four days shy of the deadline, I finished my 50,000-word “NaNoWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month) novel. The novel actually strayed about 700 words longer than the required word count, and that included wrapping up the story VERY fast at the end. I realize, of course, that I didn’t have to stop at 50,000 words. But I wanted to stick to the goal and allow the project to be what it was meant to be. So I wrapped up my story when I hit the 50,000 word mark knowing that in the future if I revise it, the whole thing will be much different and more drawn out. The real work will begin if and when I decide to turn this very rough, loose draft into a real novel.

Still, it feels like a true accomplishment to have sat down every morning in November (with the exception of Thanksgiving) to complete the project. It also felt good to “write with abandon,” as NaNoWriMo encourages — to forge ahead and let the characters appear and the story develop in a free, easy, and even cliche form, without worrying about the quality of the language or even the story itself just yet. Ideas came and went, the story flowed, names were silly, the plot was a little too neat, and everything wrapped up much too quickly so that I could finish the draft on time. But none of that matters. What matters, according to the NaNoWriMo website, is simply to reach for the goal and complete it — to get the words out. The site also claims that I can now call myself a “novelist,” but I’m not sure I would go that far.

What the effort did do for me was boost my interest in writing fiction and learning more about the craft of that genre. But it also taught me a few things that I can apply to my ongoing work in creative nonfiction. It is so important to let your mind go in early drafts and to prevent that critical editor that sits on your shoulder from stopping you from moving forward. There is plenty of time to strive for perfection during the revision process. And for me, it’s also important to have specific goals and even to set deadlines.

Well, NaNoWriMo is over for me. But it was a great experience, and if you’re interested in trying to hammer out a first draft of a novel while testing your discipline under a deadline, I encourage you to try it next November.

Anyway, a little congratulatory video declares you a “winner” when you upload your novel and the word count is verified, and it’s always nice to be called a winner. It’s funny, when I think about it, how that word can mean so many things.…