Draft Markup

“…You have to sit and tolerate yourself long enough to grind out a shitty draft.” — David Rakoff

Hearing voices

The writer, David Rakoff, died a year ago, August 9. It was hot that day in San Francisco, hot enough in this wintry-in-summer place that I tied up my hair and took off my bra, turned up the radio and listened all day to the author talk in pre-recorded interviews to Terry Gross, David Sedaris, Ira Glass, all the radio literati that loved the man for his writing and spirit, no doubt with even more reverence than mine.

He was 47. He was sharply funny and painfully insightful. In interviews and readings he had the kind of voice I hear in the writers, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed. The kind I asked my therapist about while scratching at the surface of my own writing, “How do they reach that low-belly sound?” Deeply resigned. Full of life. At the same time.

It’s a sound that says, “Life’s a bitch, in slow, criminal strokes, yes it is. When you get used to it, you’ll find that, for this it is remarkable, the dark a matter of reality, the light, indelible.” Their voices descend to rise. They’ve managed to tangle in life’s bedsheets without losing themselves forever so much as fever-ing off the layers that were not they.

What if to live with any salt, to inhabit something meaningful about yourself, you have to submit to your darkness, and grieve it to light? To find that low-belly voice of acceptance and light despite its counterpart, you have to be willing to get grave.

Getting lost

Rusted behind writers block, for six years, I kept altering my approaches, trolling depths to get something out. One day I hit on a fear that when I wrote, I was submerging myself into another world, my story’s world, and what if I couldn’t come back? What if I got lost over there and couldn’t interact in this world anymore? Or what if I left something of myself over there when I did make it back? I called two friends and asked them to check on me if I ever went too many days without calling them.

I didn’t recognize at the time I was describing grief, the abyss of prior losses, terrified of falling and never landing, never again finding the me I was before I gave in to despair. Neither did I recognize that my grief would be the thing to save me, writing to get through.

Writing changes you. It’s the nature of story: if neither hero nor circumstance changes from beginning to end, then there is little reason for telling it.

Getting found

Authors like Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Lidia Yuknavitch, David Rakoff, have gone to their personal darkness and reported from it. All have come back from it, breathing, alive, resigned to its magnitude, and pulsing with the life that grows out of it.

Watch this two-minute video of David Rakoff by Sheepscot Creative, and listen to a writer’s writer talk about doing it for the satisfaction of being listened to, the capacity to convince through words, the nature of creativity, and about writing being not just difficult, but really hard.

If you’re afraid of the change, or afraid of facing the page solo, take these writers with you. It’s not rainbows and yellow brick roads. It’s your very own writing journey. So much better.


You can also give me a call. I help people write because I eventually did let go into the dark. And eventually I wrote my way back. You may have to journey to your darkest places alone, but no one said you can’t have people pulling for you and offering support from the sidelines. When the writing begins, sometimes a lot more begins that we didn’t expect. You’re allowed to enlist help. You may journey alone. But you don’t have to write alone.

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Revved on a road to nowhere

Has this happened to you? You sit down to write…a fantastic idea, your book chapters, your site bio…and the minute the laptop’s fired up, your brain is blank. Blank as the page.

So you shove a few lines onto it, hoping to jump start the flow. What happened to all of those ideas you had? Why do they look so limp after the inspired frenzy from which you bulleted your topic list? Now that you’re here, at the page, with the time for it, why can’t you WRITE it?

Tick. Tock.

Here’s the thing. There’s a redefinition required.

Let’s use a parable for it:

An athlete on the rowing team in college, I worked out with my team twice a day. We were a winning crew in top shape led by an Olympian fresh off her medal: we ate painful workouts for breakfast. But I hated, with all my passion, running days. I hated the sluggish feeling of pounding the ground to get my body through space.

Years after college, a marathoning friend talked me into letting her train me. When I resisted, she said, “Just let me try. I can make running easy, I promise.” So I hit the road with her, and within a week, I got hooked on four-mile days that grew easily into six miles then eight.

What happened? She taught me that running was a technical sport that, for some, takes tools and training to enjoy. She taught me that just because I knew how to walk didn’t mean I knew how to run.

Writing is the same. See, the definition of “write” is to mark symbols on a surface. We know how to do that. I’m doing it now, and you’re reading those symbols. But just because we’ve learned how to string symbols into words and put them in an order, does not mean that we have an automatic skill set to compose them. On paper. In use of all of their complexities and persuasions.

Tools and talking

If you’re frustrated at your desk because, come on already, you’ve got a pen and paper and memory and you’re ready to go, maybe cut yourself some slack. Instead of running at full steam and petering out in pain, stop. What can you learn? What can you do to slow down the sport, look at its technical processes, and then practice one or a few at a time?

One of my favorites is talking. Listening to conversations, recording dialogue, typing sentences out exactly as I hear them spoken. Another is using the recording tool on my phone to talk out ideas when I’m on my morning walk…because like most verbal humans, it’s easier for me to figure out what I mean to say by talking it out. Hearing myself speak my thoughts and immediately reorganize them till they sound like what I’m trying to say is lightning fast compared to writing and believing it should be good at first try.

Collect and compose

Another consideration: In our do-it-right urge, we think that when we put pen to paper, it has to sound like what we see in our head. But take a second to notice that emotions, memories, they don’t live as words inside. They live as sensations, images. And you’ve got to find words to put to them. This is not a simple you’re-walking-now-speed-it-up-to-run process. Give yourself the time to notice the difference, and practice the space between writing and composing. Talk it out. Notice the way you tell stories to friends. Notice the way your mind finds its clarity through speech. And afterward, bullet your ideas, the images that arose, the ideas the feelings attached to. Then take that to your desk, and compose.

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Characters, meaning, revelation

When people sit down to write an account of their lives or work, many times they begin with the timeline and try to tell everything that happened between the beginning and the end. But there are patterns to see and follow that tell your story in a much more significant way.

Nature organizes its expression in patterns…in petals, symmetry, cycles, rhythm. In the same way, our stories organize themselves into characters, meaning, revelation. This is true for business stories and book outlines, big booming brand stories, and homegrown tales spun on the back porch at sunset.

An inherent language

You can tell your story in a memorable way when you invite readers (and listeners) to recognize the patterns we all understand. Every story has them. They are made of these patterns because our stories are made of us. Help your listeners to hear the inherent language we all share by looking at your story and identifying:

Who are the characters?
What is the time span of the story?
Who is the main character, or the what we call the hero, of the story?
What matters to the characters at the beginning of the story?
What matters to the characters by the end?
How is this hero different at the end of the story than in the beginning — emotionally, physically, in attitude or position?
How does this story matter to the reader/listener? Or to you, the teller?
Tell the details that 1) matter to the listener, and 2) move the story to its end.
Rule of thumb: If it matters to you, and your details show us how and why, it’ll probably matter to us.

Every story collects around these elements. Every hero learns something, or catalyzes something, or comes to a conclusion. Every hero takes a journey, no matter how small.

Journey markers make it matter

In our human lives, we are each taking journeys, and the points we want to share shape their own story arcs inside our bigger paths. Whether we recognize it or not, these elements are what we’re relating to when we, ourselves, are listening to story. Help your listener understand yours by pointing out the journey markers.

You will start to notice we often have similar journey markers. Patterns of events to which we, as characters in our lives, respond to in similar ways. Grief events. Celebration events. Anger events. When you show the details of yours in your story, you pull the listener into the universal experience of the journeys we all are taking.

Said in short, when you make me feel, you make me remember. What makes me remember are the points about which we relate. The points about which we relate are nestled in the patterns of our lives. So make me feel by telling me what matters. Point to the patterns we share and I’ll pull up a chair for your next story and your next.

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