Writing Is Doing the Hard Work of Justice

I am honored to have Brian Forschner, author of the compelling Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders, his wife, Joyce, and his granddaughter as authors of the guest post this month. I met Brian about six years ago through an online writing group, and three years later, Brian began sharing with me his research for his book, which I ultimately had the privilege and honor of editing. As does Cold Serial, this post conveys Brian’s heart and passion for justice and his belief in the power of the written word.

 

Sixty students had tackled their eighth-grade capstone project. The theme was “Justice and the complexity of story.” The words of Malala, a favorite quote of the class, became a battle cry for the students: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” So sixty “pens” and one teacher went to work. The project entailed searching for sixty “voices,” defined as individuals whose stories illustrate the concept of justice. Students interviewed their “voices” and then wrote a summary of their conversation. These stories were then compiled and published in a book entitled Hear My Story: Be My Voice.

The day to unveil the book finally arrived; the audience of parents, grandparents, and other middle school students did not know what to expect. The ceremony began with a moving ritual honoring the “voices.” Each was met by his or her student “pen,” presented with a white rose, symbolic of hope, escorted up the aisle of the one hundred-year-old chapel, and seated near the altar. A priest and a rabbi then offered reflections, which were followed by the son of an Auschwitz survivor whose story had spearheaded the project. Given time constraints, only a few of the “voices” spoke, each briefly telling his or her powerful story, and the audience was awestruck and deeply moved by their words. The speakers were a Western Saharan woman, ousted from her country by invading Moroccans, now a human rights activist; a granddaughter who spoke for her grandfather, a WWII decorated veteran, who was present; and a high school student who spoke of his mother, a beloved teacher at the school. He told of her long battle with depression, culminating in her suicide. Many in the chapel were brought to tears listening to his words. The audience realized they had just witnessed a sacred moment and responded to the stories in the only way they knew how: a standing ovation.

A minister closed with a prayer. The students then filed out and went to the school cafeteria for a luncheon in honor of the “voices.”

The “pens” may not have anticipated the impact of their efforts. This is true for us writers. We often do not know the impact of what we say. Perhaps that is why and how stories should be told, innocently, truthfully, vulnerably, and forcefully, placing the words upon the page, allowing the reader to digest, feel, know, critique, admire, and act. Then the writer moves on to tell the next story, and the next and the next. This book, Hear My Story: Be My Voice, is a witness to the nature of doing justice. It is telling story after story, each building on the veracity of the previous one, words woven together into a tapestry illustrating justice.

This was hard work for the students and their teacher. Writing is hard work. Justice is hard work. Writing is doing the hard work of justice. A key learning from this project was that, in every era, words can bring about justice and change.

Malala would be proud.

Process: Where Life Happens

Right after I wrote my last post (January 2016 “Taking Stock”), I got sick. Down-for-the-count sick. No longer do I have the bounce-back I did in my twenties. Or thirties. Okay, or even my forties. Gone are the days of a round of antibiotics and I’m up and at ’em, good as new, back to business as usual.

It didn’t take too much reflection for me to realize that I had gotten so sick because I had, once again, burned it at both ends, leaving me a flamed out pile of ash. Having long been a get-it-done kind of person with an overdeveloped work ethic, I derived way too much satisfaction—one could even say I was addicted—to accomplishment and achievement. Even when I felt like I was at the tail end of crack the whip, I was still compelled to keep all the balls in the air and considered every day that I managed to do just that a good one. But when I found myself bedridden, too sick to move or even care, I knew something had to change—and that something was my thinking about life and myself. Rather than focusing so intently upon the end result of my efforts, or the product, I have learned that I need to focus on how I do things, or the process. Product is important, yes. But the process is where life happens and where the quality of that life lies.

This hard-earned wisdom applies to all of us, especially we driven, ambitious perfectionists. Whether writing a book, story, essay, or article, editing one (or all), building a business or platform, or promoting a business or newly published book, what is the point of achieving our goals if we are too burned out and sick to enjoy the fruits of our labor? I now know that I’ve crossed the line when striving for the goal supersedes taking care of myself and enjoying the trip. Since my bout of illness this past winter, I am now all about quality of life over quantity of achievement. Maybe I’ve finally learned my lesson.

As a result, I have developed a much more reasonable and sane strategy for my work life. No more working late into the evenings, getting to bed late, and sleeping poorly, only to get up feeling hung-over (only I’m really not) and dragging myself back to the computer and doing it all over again. Now I finish work by no later than 5:30 p.m. and work only five days a week, which gives me the downtime I need to actually relax and nurture other important areas of my life. And I can honestly say that I am even more productive.

So what about you? Are you focused strictly on product? Or do you have a healthy process on your way to the goal, all while keeping your eye on the prize?

Taking Stock

 And now let us welcome the New Year

Full of things that have never been.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

As I set out to write this post, my initial topic was perseverance. Then it morphed into expectations (which are often as fruitless as resolutions—see my January 2014 post for my take on that) and ultimately led to goals. I like to write about topics that I need to lean into, and perseverance and goals are two big ones as I stand on the threshold of 2016.

But as I pondered these two, I realized that before I could determine this year’s goals and then persevere in fulfilling them—in short, before I could focus on looking ahead—I needed to reflect back and take stock of where I’ve been.

Life is about trying different things to find out what fits and works. As I looked back on 2015, the question “What is it time to let go of?” came to mind. After sitting with this question awhile, I eventually saw where some pruning was in order: a behavior (actually a couple … okay, more than a couple) that was reaping negative returns, a volunteer position that had become stale, even, sadly, some relationships that were no longer healthy—or rather, hadn’t been healthy for ages and showed no signs of changing. I feel a deep sense of loss and sadness where the relationships are concerned, and yet, after letting go of all that I needed to, I feel lighter and freer, which confirms to me that I have made the right decisions. Their time had indeed come.

Some “new” has already presented itself: healthier behavior on my part, a different volunteer opportunity that I’m excited about, and membership to a professional organization I have long considered. Who knows what else is in store? One thing I do know: I will pause and take stock before I proceed.

In letting go, I have freed up space for the new to enter and the energy to engage with it. What about you? What is it time for you to let go of?

 

Guest-Posting Trifecta

In my September 2014 post, I stressed the importance of having a storefront, which for authors (and freelance copy editors, proofreaders, cover designers, and web designers) means a website. Next to an engaging, meticulously edited book, this is your first order of business. But once you’ve done so, how do you let people know you’ve set up shop in cyberspace? Can’t you just “build it and they will come”? Ah, if only that were so.

But don’t despair, for there is the most effective and quite simple strategy that benefits not only your business or blog or both but also that of other industry-related businesses. This strategy is called guest posting.

Guest posting is just what it sounds like—you post an article as a guest on another’s blog. In my case, I saw an invitation on Twitter from a self-publishing company for authors, editors, and cover designers to post an article on the company’s blog. I contacted them, pitched my idea for an article, and received the green light. From that one guest post (April 13, 2011, “Don’t Bypass the Copy Editor”), I have received business from clients I might not have met otherwise. But there’s no need to wait for an invitation. Just contact the owner of the blog on which you would like to post and ask if he or she welcomes guest posts and go from there!

The beauty of guest posting is not only its ease and simplicity but also what I call the guest-posting trifecta: publication, marketing, and goodwill.

1. Publication

This is the dream and goal of every writer, even those who may not be concerned with book sales, such as freelance editors, proofreaders, cover designers, bloggers, etc. Writers are communicators and connectors, but in order to so, they need readers. I have writer friends who tell me they aren’t interested in publication, yet they are prolific bloggers. Guess what? Without realizing it, they are already published! And there is no better way to increase readership and thus communicate and connect with even more people than guest posting on another’s blog.

2. Marketing

Ugh. Just the word, along with its sister “networking,” strikes dread if not terror in the hearts of most writers. Yet guest posting is a fabulous way to market yourself and your work, all through the written word—your chosen medium—and from the comfort of your own computer. Music to your ears, right?

3. Goodwill

All business is competitive, and book sales and blogging, as well as the business of freelance publishing professionals, are no exception. But it doesn’t need to be adversarial. Guest posting actually inspires goodwill between the site owner and the guest rather than pitting them against each other. And this goodwill is paid forward when the guest then welcomes another to post on his or her blog. As I see it, we are all on this journey, so why not help one another succeed?

The best part of guest posting is that it’s a win-win. You and your book, business, and/or blog gain exposure, as does that of the site owner when you promote your post through word of mouth, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. So don’t be afraid to reach out to other site owners (including yours truly!). Many of them would love new content and, like all savvy business people, the opportunity to expand their readership.

Copy Editors Are People Too

I did a double take when I saw that the comma queen, Mary Norris, was speaking at this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival. I made my way to the already-packed room with ten minutes to spare and managed to snag a seat in the last row. There was ample seating available in the overflow area where the event would be streamed, but I wanted—no, needed—to be in the actual presence of Queen Mary.

To rousing applause, she took the podium and began sharing her story of a good Midwestern girl’s climb through the ranks from foot checker for athlete’s foot at the pool in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, to milk woman (her word—great story), to cheese packager, to editorial library staff at The New Yorker, to her now venerable position as copy editor of the same. She then segued into giving us the goods, what we were all hungering for: her grammatical wisdom. I resisted the impulse to stand and applaud her take on the epicene, or gender-neutral, pronoun “they” (it satisfies the problem of gender but not number), and her reading from her book, Between You and Me, regarding the common conundrum of “that” and “which” left us geeks in stitches. Who knew that grammar could be so funny?

But when Ms. Norris said, “People tend to be afraid of copy editors,” I really sat at attention. She shared that when new employees are brought around her office to meet the staff, they recoil in fear when they approach her door and discover that she’s a copy editor. Only when she reassures the trembling new employee that it is indeed safe to talk to her, that she doesn’t edit the spoken word only the written that is destined for publication (her emphasis), does the poor soul relax. It was then that I recognized Queen Mary as a kindred spirit, for I, too, experience others tiptoeing around me once they know  I’m a copy editor. People repeatedly apologize to me in follow-up e-mails for grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors in their previous messages. I even receive follow-up texts with “* (word spelled correctly),” and sometimes with the commentary, “damn spellcheck!” It pains me that my profession, and apparently I by association, strikes such terror in the hearts of people.

After a Q&A that included such fascinating topics as peeked/peaked/piqued and “hopefully”/“presently,” the event concluded, and we all herded out of the room en route to the bathroom or bookseller’s table, or both. My heart went all a-flutter when the Queen herself and I practically brushed elbows as she made her way through the throng to the book-signing table. Never before have I been so near royalty.

Little did I know that this would not be my last encounter.

One hour later, I left Central Library and headed to the parking garage one block away. Since I have a chronic mental block as to where I’ve parked, I had taken special note, and even checked three times, the floor of the garage: X5.

After climbing eight flights of stairs, I came to a door marked “X3-X4.” Since five comes after four, it stood to reason that I needed to go up one more floor. However, after doing so, I was met by a door marked “Y3-Y4.” Hmmm … Y comes after X. What happened to X5?

I hiked another two flights of stairs, only to find myself standing on Y5, the top floor of the garage. Where the hell was X5??

I traced this route twice, certain that I must be overlooking something, until I finally just hoofed it through the ramps, where I eventually found X5 nestled within the recesses. Upon laying eyes on my beloved car, I almost ran to it with outstretched arms and draped myself across its hood.

As I approached the exit, two women were ambling away from the parking attendant. One was laughing while the other was turning in circles, scanning the walls of the parking garage with a befuddled look on her face, saying something like “Now what?” Then I recognized her black shoes (I loooove shoes). “That’s Mary Norris!” I said out loud to myself.

I wanted to roll down my window and speak to my kindred spirit, as twice we had crossed paths in as many hours. But I didn’t. Why? Because she’s Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker! Copyediting royalty! But I suspect that Mary would have welcomed the interruption and even chatted shop with me a bit and shared a good laugh had I the guts to engage her. We copy editors from the Midwest are down-to-earth folk, after all. We also get lost in parking garages.

So don’t let our good grammar fool you. We scary copy editors are people too.

Writing Funny

Humor writing is a conundrum that baffles even the most prolific writer. A situation in real life that causes people to howl with laughter can and often does fall flat on the page. Why?

Apart from the highly subjective nature of humor, I’ve found writing that is universally perceived as humorous has three qualities: a distinct voice, honesty, and fearlessness.

Distinct Voice 

It makes sense that a person whose writing is humorous is also funny in person. For example, Michael Perry, Anne Lamott, and David Sedaris are hilarious on the page as well as when they speak. The key is they write like they speak, capturing the cadence, timing, language, and sensibility that is uniquely their own. A writer with a distinct voice shows up fully as him- or herself on the page. This is a must in all good writing, but it is vital in humor writing.

Honesty

Writing that causes readers to guffaw is honest. It tells the truth as the writer sees it, and is oftentimes factually true, yet is conveyed without judgment or bias. The fact just is, and this honesty adds vitality and integrity to the story. For example, Michael Perry writes about a cross-eyed butcher, a true fact about a real person. You laughed out loud just thinking about it, right? I do every time!

Fearlessness

Humor writers bravely go where most people fear to tread, saying and admitting to things that most of us reveal only to our therapists who are paid and bound by law to keep our secrets. Yet humor writers bare all for all the world to see. Their vulnerability and integrity make them highly relatable, and their bold fearlessness makes us laugh from shock, recognition, and awe.

If you are one who leaves people in stitches, you can on the page as well. Learn how from the master, Michael Perry, who will be the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Writers Association Fall Conference and will also participate in a panel discussion called “You Write Funny” on October 3.

The Power of Punctuation

You might want to consider having a copy editor on retainer.

Late last month, a judge of the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals ruled that a parking ticket be overturned due to—wait for it—a missing comma. The village ordinance refers to the unlawful parking of “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours …” However, the vehicle that was ticketed was a pickup truck, not a “motor vehicle camper,” which the owner cleverly pointed out in her appeal. And the judge agreed. It would have been a different story if the ordinance had read, “motor vehicle, camper, trailer …” It wouldn’t even be a story if that were the case. This is the power of punctuation in living color.

I’ve long known the power of punctuation. Thirty years ago, as a secretary in the loan department of a bank, I typed real estate descriptions for mortgage loans on every pertinent document, as this was years before word processors and decades before computers with the time-saving cut-and-paste feature. My boss and I then read these descriptions out loud to each other, ensuring that each word, comma, and period matched the original. One mistake could have caused a ripple effect of grief and aggravation down the line. (Hmmm … perhaps this was my training for my current profession.)

I can’t help but wonder if the eagle-eyed Ohio woman was a copy editor. At any rate, let her experience be a lesson to you. The next time you get a parking or speeding ticket, be sure to have your trusty copy editor look it over. She just might find a loophole.

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

As another Fourth of July approaches, I’m struck by the sad reality that the true meaning of this holiday—our independence, our freedom—has been replaced with thoughts of camping trips, cookouts, and fireworks.

All freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are precious, but the one near and dear to the heart of every writer is the freedom of speech and the press. Not only is this a constitutional right, it is also a privilege, one we too often take for granted in this country. My blood runs cold whenever I read or hear a news report about the imprisonment and, in many instances, the execution of authors and journalists who dared to write the truth, their truth. These brave writers, along with the tens of thousands of military troops who have sacrificed their lives, not to mention the sacrifice of their families, remind us that freedom is not free. Nor is it a license to abuse or endanger others. With freedom comes responsibility, the responsibility to respect one another and protect our common welfare while maintaining our individual integrity.

As you gaze upon Lady Liberty, remember what she stands for. Remember that you not only have the right to express yourself through your writing, you also have the privilege to do so. And the responsibility—to be true to yourself and to your readers, who need to hear your stories, thoughts, and insights as only you can tell them.

What you have to say matters—and you have the right and privilege to share it with the world. So don’t give up. Keep writing.

Blocked? Don’t Fight It

I struggled with writing this article all month. Ideas came to mind only to fizzle once I began researching them. Then when one finally took root, some unidentifiable force ran interference between the page and me while simultaneously tapping its wrist with its finger and the floor with its toe, saying, “C’mon! You have a deadline!”

Blocked when faced with the blank page yet pressured by the tick-tick-tick that sounded more like a time bomb than a clock filled me with panic and my head with “what ifs” that multiplied like rabbits: What if I don’t make my deadline? What if my article isn’t helpful? What if I sound stupid, or pompous? What if people don’t like it—or me? What if … what if … what if … ?

Sound familiar?

I’ve long ago learned that the creative spirit cannot be forced to perform according to my, or anyone else’s, dictates. Nor does it give a rip about deadlines. Rather, it’s like a stream of water breaking away from the river and carving its own path through dry land—it moves when and where it will and at its own pace. Trying to “push the river,” as I call it, only results in drowning in my own frustration. So, stymied, I did the only thing I could: surrender. And then I did the next best thing: I parked on the couch and lost myself in my current guilty pleasure: episodes of the series Brothers and Sisters, along with a hefty bowl of salted caramel ice cream. Since I couldn’t write, I may as well relax and enjoy myself, I reasoned.

After an hour of blissful escapism, there was a scene where Nora and Kitty were commiserating over a bottle of wine, when Nora said, “You won’t do anyone any good by pretending to be less than what you are.” I bolted upright as if struck by lightning. Grabbing my pen and paper, I began writing, “what ifs” finally in the backseat, where they belong.

I can’t explain how Nora’s well-timed words broke through my block, but I know it had something to do with my surrendering. A power struggle with writer’s block never ends well for the writer, as, like struggling in quicksand, the block will always win. Rather, I’ve learned the only way out is to lay down my will, give up the fight, and let the creative spirit lead me through the chaos of creativity—this time where it wants to go, not where I do.

I no longer view writer’s block as an enemy. Rather, it’s a reminder that once again I’m trying to play it safe and control the uncontrollable. I don’t know about you, but I like guarantees, such as readers’ and editing clients’ positive reactions, and am sometimes leery of veering off the beaten path. But playing it safe requires that I be less than who I am, and as Nora said, then I won’t do anyone any good. And doing others some good, even in a small measure, is why I write and edit in the first place.

The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.