Writing and Letting Go



Copyright Dianne Lehmann
 

Quite a few years ago, I did a lot of writing for a website that, in exchange for content, allowed me to advertise my own website. It was a great arrangement. I got to hone my writing skills and, ideally, drive buyers to my jewelry “shop.”

I received a comment on one of my articles that caused me to think a lot more about it than I might ordinarily. For the most part, fellow authors on the site wrote most of the comments I received. Rarely would a non-author take the time to leave a few words behind to let me know they had read it. So when I got one of those, I took note. And when they were less than complimentary, I especially took note.

It’s one of my goals as a writer to always improve my writing skills. This goes beyond mere grammar and spelling (which Microsoft Word does a fairly adequate job of monitoring and fixing). The words one uses and the orders in which they are applied are essential to getting ones meaning across as unambiguously as possible. Still, as careful as one might be, things might still be misconstrued. I’ve sent a number of what I thought were perfectly clear emails that ended up creating a lot of trouble.

Because we writers are privy to our thought processes (hopefully, but sometimes there are things going on in my head that I just don’t understand), we sometimes leave something out or write something in our personal “shorthand” that the reader might not understand. That comment I mentioned pointed this out to me very well.

The authors on the site I have mentioned who read my articles on a regular basis had come to know me a bit. They had learned about the way I think and become familiar with how I express myself. The casual, off the cuff reader had none of that. And when you add in this particular reader’s not very well expressed comment, it led to a lot of confusion on my part and my poor little brain was working hard to figure it out.

It finally did do that about half way through a 30 mile drive I was making shortly after reading the comment. I had cleared my mind so that I could focus on driving and then the real meaning of the comment became apparent to me. I struggled for the rest of the drive to focus on driving because a part of me wanted to rewrite the entire article to make what I meant clearer.

By the time I returned home many hours later, I no longer had the compulsion to rewrite it. I did however, think about leaving a reply to my reply that would hopefully explain things better. Ultimately, I decided that what I had written as my initial reply was fine. This led me to believe that my initial article as it was published was probably fine as well. Maybe not perfect, but good enough.

When I first started writing, I had the hardest time letting go of my articles. I would agonize over them for days wondering if they were actually finished and as good as they could be. Did they really say what I wanted to say? Were they entertaining? Enlightening? Were they any good at all?

I never went back and rewrote a single one of the articles I wrote for that site (and there were something more than 250 of them). Yes, I might correct a spelling error if I noticed it or fix a typo, but an actual rewrite … never. I had to ask myself why.

When my husband, Bernd, was first teaching himself to paint with watercolors, the thing he had the hardest time with was knowing when it was finished. Could it use another duckling sitting on the water? Did that tree need a little more light in the crown? Does this shadow firmly anchor the potted plant on the tile? He would agonize sometimes for days. But finally, he would decide to let go of it. He has never gone back and modified any of his paintings. Although there is one that he started over three times. The first iteration ended up on the floor, upside down, and smeared liberally all over the carpeting. You’re probably thinking, hmm watercolors, no big deal. Well, not really.

I would upon occasion, reread some of my earliest articles. I tended to sit there and cringe. I could have fixed them. But I didn’t. They are a history of my progress as a writer. But that isn’t the real reason I did not rewrite them.

Once I decide to let go of something I’ve written, it is finished … at least to my mind. Done. As perfect as I could make it. And that’s pretty much how I feel about anything that I’ve created. So to rewrite it would be to say that I had not done the best that I could at that time. That I had let go of something that was not ready to be let go. That I had failed to do my best. I don’t really have a problem with failure. I do it all the time and I’ve become accustomed to it, more or less. But to not have given something my best shot is not something I want to do and to think that I may not have disturbs me. So I didn’t rewrite. There might be a little unwillingness to firmly face reality at all times in there. I don’t know. But I do know that at some point, you just have to let go of it.

I’ve spent some time over the years studying and learning from the Tao Te Ching. I have a favorite “verse:” 

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” This is from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.

Not only do you have to let go of what you have written, you have to also let go of the negative comments (it’s okay to hang onto the good ones). If you don’t let go of the negative bits it will undermine your confidence and tie you into so many knots you’ve no hope of escape.

Having written all that, I am, even so, now sitting here and wondering when this post will be ready for me to let it go. I will not tell you how many times I have reread and edited it.

Have I lived up to the implied promise in the title? Have I written clearly and unambiguously? Does it have a point? Was the point well made? And a more important question for me right now, when the time comes to hit the “Publish” button on my first novel, will I be able to do it?  I certainly hope so.

C. J. Box and Joe Pickett

A few years ago, I thought it might be nice to move to Wyoming. I looked at housing and income information, weather, and the availability of the basic necessities of life. For one reason or another, I shelved the idea. That was until I discovered C. J. Box and his Joe Pickett novels. They have me seriously considering moving to Wyoming again. My husband isn’t completely against the idea, but wonders about the winters.

All that aside, I find Box to be a compelling writer. His characters are like real people. His descriptions of the localities are lyrical. You can sense his reverence for his home state and all that it has to offer in the way he writes about it.

I bought one of his novels at our local Costco. Checking out, the cashier told me I was really going to like it and that there were very many books before the one I was buying. I reserved my judgment until I read it. I was instantly converted. And very happy that there were many more.

Joe Pickett is a game warden for the state of Wyoming. More often than not, his sense of what is right and what is wrong gets him into trouble. And it’s not necessarily trouble related to his regular job. He gets involved in solving all sorts of crimes and problems.

Joe Pickett is the kind of guy you want on your side and not the other way around. He’s at his best doing his job in the wilds of Wyoming and a bit inept in social situations, which just increases his charm. In many ways, Joe is the quintessential cowboy of the old west; polite, quiet, competent, and a good hand on the ranch. 

I now own all but the most recent novel. I could review a single novel in the series, but I’m not sure I could do it justice as a singleton. It really is more of a serial than a series with each new novel building on where the last one left off. Box immerses you in the lives of Joe Pickett and his family.

I can highly recommend them all. Box blends good description with great action scenes. He balances peril and danger with depictions of family life. These people could be your neighbors.

Box writes about his characters with dignity. He makes them so real that you are sure that if you were to visit Saddlestring, Wyoming, you would see Joe walking down the street with his Stetson firmly clamped on his head and a determined-to-set-things-right look on his face.

If you haven’t read any of C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, try one, any one. I’m sure you will be delighted.

Five Things I Look for in a Good Read

Copyright Dianne Lehmann

It doesn’t really matter where I’m reading what. It can be on my desktop PC from the Internet, in a magazine, or a paper book (I still don’t own a tablet, iPad, Nook or Kindle but my husband does). To get my interest and keep my interest the article, poem, story, or book has to have something. It doesn’t always have to have a lot of something, but it does have to have at least one thing that grabs me and holds my interest. It can be as simple as that I like the author and just want to see what the author has to say. Or the premise of the story interests me. Or it speaks to one of my pet peeves. I have many. And who doesn’t like commiserating with a like mind?

But in general, and especially when I am reading something by an author with whom I am totally unfamiliar, there are probably five factors that will get me reading and keep me reading.

Opening Remarks and First Paragraphs

The first couple of lines or the first paragraph has to grab my interest. This is truer of a work of fiction than an opinion piece or educational article. In those cases, I am more apt to give it a few paragraphs to make its point and get my interest. But generally, if it doesn’t hook me right off, then it’s probably a lost cause.

In an article, the first few lines should set the tone for what follows and give some indication of where it will all end up. As a corollary, the last few lines should reiterate the opening remarks. In this way, one knows that the author has had a specific point to make, worked her/his way through it in a relatively logical fashion, and come to a conclusion. Basically, that’s Writing 101.

Blogs can often have a tendency to ramble and end up somewhere totally removed from where they began. There is nothing wrong with that in a personal blog. A DIY or instructional blog might be a different case. But an article or short story, in my opinion, should be cohesive and have a point. And it should make that point well.

Grammar and Punctuation

I’ll be quite blunt. Bad grammar and bad use of punctuation put me right off. There is a difference between being judging and being judgmental and in this case I’ll admit that I am being judgmental. Not paying attention to using good grammar and good punctuation seems to me to be lazy and inconsiderate. I do, however, make allowances for authors for whom English is a second language.

Good punctuation helps to foster good understanding of what is written. Periods end thoughts so that we can move on to the next one. Commas separate phrases so that we get pauses that help us to organize our thoughts. Semi-colons connect related issues that might not stand well on their own. Word order can confound or astound. Good grammar and punctuation just simply make reading the piece effortless and more enjoyable.

Spelling

I have much the same to say about spelling as grammar and punctuation. Ooh, I am so critical.

Glaring spelling errors, just as errors of grammar and punctuation, take me right outside of what I am reading. Suddenly, I am no longer immersed in the topic or story. Instead, I am trying to “fix” what is wrong. Sometimes it cannot be fixed and I cannot understand what is written. If it is an article (the medium does not matter), I will very likely drop it at that point. If it is within a fiction novel, I will usually continue with the hope that all will become clear at some point. But I’m not always happy about it.

There are so many either cheap or free spell checking programs out there that I really can’t see the reason for spelling errors to persist. Of course, someone will come along and find one in this. As good as the spell checkers are, syntax and homophones and homonyms are still beyond most of them. Where is artificial intelligence when you need it? Nothing really substitutes for a good proof reader. And as I have learned, it isn’t always the person who wrote the piece.

Content

I won’t go as far to say that content trumps all the other considerations, but sometimes it comes close. At least for me it does. I’ve read and enjoyed novels that my husband has put down because they were so poorly written. And he’s done the same. His tastes are pretty general as are mine, but he tends to like action/adventure novels more than I do. I tend to like science fiction and fantasy novels more than he does. I’ll excuse a lot if I like the story or the topic.

But basically, without a good story or premise or topic, you really don’t have much to go on. The characters need to be engaging as well. The author needs to create understandable characters with whom the reader can relate. Or at least empathize.

Craftsmanship

Writing well isn’t just about the mechanics of writing or having a good plot. It’s also about the art. Good chefs everywhere have always known this. It doesn’t matter how wonderful something tastes. If it doesn’t look appealing, no one will ever even try it. Presentation is everything. And that is where craftsmanship comes into play.

How a writer strings the words together, how they build mental pictures of events and characters is a very important aspect. Also, when crafting an opinion piece, if your prose falls flat or if you string words together with little regard, you are not likely to get many people sticking it out to the end and your point will be lost.

For me, craftsmanship is all about making it fun to read. Of course, I leave out of this discussion the things I read in order to educate myself about something. In those cases, I have the desire to learn something and as long as I can get the facts, I don’t always care how they are presented. But there have been a few educational articles that I have read that were extremely entertaining. I consider that a bonus.

When I started this, I wasn’t sure I could come up with five things. But I did end up with five things that I think make for a good read. Not four and not six … five. And thus I have stayed true to my title and come back around to my opening remarks. How about that for Writing 101?

There’s Nothing to Figure Out

For the most part, I spend my days with people very near to my own age. I do get the opportunity now and then to spend some time with people considerably younger than me. I’m not talking about ten year olds. I’ve reached an age where I think thirty is pretty darn young. Oh my!

I know a couple of twenty somethings. Their priorities sometimes amaze me. Although not too much. I was young once. Yes. Really.

They make me reflect upon my younger years and what I thought was important and not important. Okay. When I was younger, I thought every darn thing was IMPORTANT. But chief among them was figuring out life.

The older people I knew when I was younger seemed to have it all so perfectly together. They knew where they had come from and they seemed to know where they were going. They had figured out what works and what doesn’t, or so it seemed.

It didn’t help that I was socially inept (still am to a certain extent but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it once did) and basically so darn shy that I’d break out in a sweat at the mere thought of going to a party or having to call someone on the telephone. The older people I knew would just pick up the phone and dial. And parties were a no-brainer for them. They knew what to do, what to say, what to wear and all the rest. These days, speaking from experience, it wasn’t so much that they had it all together as they had done these things a thousand times. Experience will often stand in for wisdom. And doing something over and over again can make it look easy.

So I look at the young people I know today and I’d like to tell them not to worry. Because I see them worrying. They worry about what to wear, how to do their hair, and do they have the right cell phone. They place a great deal of importance in what other people think of them. I can see the wheels turning as they try to figure it all out and get it all right.

But the thing is, there is nothing to figure out and you’ll never get it all right anyway. All you can ever do is the best that you can do and hope that it is good enough. Please don’t think this is a pessimistic point of view, because for me it isn’t. It’s liberating. Life is life. It’s what it is and nothing more. Sitting around and trying to figure it out won’t get you there. You just have to go out and live it.