Being Secure Enough to Be Open

I’m getting feedback on a writing project. It’s a devotional for Lent. I’m dealing with prayer and endurance. I’m listening to Hannah’s story and being her student. The other night my friend and colleague brought my pages and over tea told me many things I needed to hear.

I’ve done that before: shown my pages and asked for feedback. Linda and Aja commented on my Advent devotional. Aja will see the next draft of the forming work. Feedback is always a discovery. I never know what I’ll hear. I never know how I’ll react.

In my current educational process to become a CPE Supervisor, I’ve learned a lot about defensiveness. I know that there are times when I’m more susceptible to being defensive. I know when I feel secure enough to be open. In my developing personality theory (which draws from interpersonal psychology and Carl Jung), I’m spending time thinking about anxiety and how it can either motivate a person to become or close a person off from becoming. Anxiety can make me open to what’s said. Anxiety can shut me down before words are spoken.

I think one of the critical features for my being anxious is when I don’t feel secure. When Allie talked with me at our kitchen table, I knew she was contributing for my good. I knew she was a friend. I knew I didn’t need to defend. The same is true with Aja and Linda. They’ve read my stuff but, more importantly, they’ve known me so well, that I know there’s no reason to fear. I can be secure enough to be open to what they say.

Sitting with Edits

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Photo Thanks to Tram Mau Tri Tam

I’ve been spending a lot of my edge time editing. Edge time is time that I have on the edges on my schedule. Frankly there isn’t much. But every few years I get to edit something meaningful. I’ve been working on someone else’s stuff while also writing a few things of my own in the last months. More on that later.

One thing I’ve noticed about editing—my own and other people’s work—is that the space between the readings is the space where the writer grows. That’s particularly true if you sit with the edits long enough to learn from them. The same is true in a verbatim seminar, in a class, or in a meeting with members or stakeholders or friends. The longer you sit with what’s said, the more impact what’s said has.

Feedback is only as good as you allow it be. If it’s dispensable, you’ll dispense with it. Of course, my post is about editing. All those tracked changes can instruct you, change you, improve your ability to communicate. But you have to take the risk and let that happen.

You have to choose to be vulnerable, to admit to poor word choice, to accept that your phrase was confusing, and to surrender to another option. That option may not be what the editor suggests, what you at a different time might choose. But another option may be the route toward clearer, tighter sentences.

Another thing I’ve noticed about editing is that it helps the editing process to pause. There is always space between words in a sentence. Even though there’s only one space after periods, it’s still a space worth respecting.

Giving myself time to think through the questions of my editors or to notice my own literary proclivities or to see how many times I use passive voice will make me a stronger communicator. It’ll make me a poet. It’ll charge my words. It’ll engage me, and an engaged me eventuates into a engaged sentence.

Role of an Editor

The role of the editor is an intimate one because she reads your mistakes and judges your intent and suggests an alternative path to your goal.  As much as we think we do, we never like alternative paths.  We like what we know, words we’re married to, what we’ve spent days writing toward.

An editor sees your gaps, can exploit your errors rather than clarify your efforts, and help you listen to you, to your words, and to the hopes underneath them.  Like a guide, she takes in your hardest-won words and makes them better.

An editor can damage you.  An editor can discourage you.  Or an editor can draw a simple, clear line between your work and your end.  She can look ahead and see the page when you can only see the sentence.  She can show you that there’s more in you without suggesting your earlier presentation as inferior.

Her words return again and again: “There’s more.  There’s more in you.  Go for it.  Go.  See.  Soar.”

About Your Writing

When we talked yesterday about your writing–about the list of books in your mind, the list you went down without any effort, the list that included chapter outlines, themes, and topics in you like blood–I hope you heard me despite my firm and sometimes spicy presentation.  I hope you heard in my words the evidence that there are people waiting for you to get the work done.  I hope you heard, in me, the readers who would not only be open to your book(s) but who would be excited about it.  Interested in it.  Generous with it.

I hope you never lose the sense that you are not done until you are faithful to the conviction you told me about, that long strand of material sitting in you and expecting to be given to readers of your printed words, listeners to your spoken words.  I hope you are upset in an essential way until you respond.

I hope you connect your head, your heart, and your hands, and that the work of your hands proves to you that it’s about those accepting your work with gladness as much as it is about you completing something so internal to you.  I hope you realize that whatever has stalled you has stalled those of us who will read your stuff.

I hope you get through your resistance, your fears, however real they are.  I hope that you write and that you publish and that we can laugh about how hard I came at you even though I really didn’t have the right to say what I said.  I hope I was speaking out of my own reactions to the welled up, stored up, waiting up work in you but also for the audience that is expecting.

Victor Lavalle on Writing and Revising

I’m finishing Victor Lavalle’s latest novel, The Devil in Silver, a story about inmates in a mental hospital who befriend each other while fighting a known but unknown devil and an increasingly unresponsive health system.  These videos aren’t about Victor’s novel but writing itself; he reads a good bit of a story in the video and discusses it the way he would in one of his classes.  I hope you learn from him.  It’s helpful if you’re writing now or revising.

Writing Rules

I saw this list of Zadie Smith’s Writing Rules a couple years ago, before I started blogging, I think.  Since I saw it again here, I thought to pass it on.

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Nathan Bransford on Revision Fatigue

I’ve read Nathan Bransford’s blog for years and find it a chest of treasured tools.  He wrote recently about revision, a lovely mess I’m in the middle of, reflecting on a post by Jennifer Hubbard.

The best way to deal with revision fatigue is to trust in your heart that it’s a very useful and necessary feeling: what better time to turn a critical eye on your book than when you think it is an affront to humanity?

The good news is, as Jennifer says, it means you’re almost done (at least for now). The danger is getting discouraged by your fatigue and just calling your work finished and turning it in before you’ve given yourself some time to utilize that fatigue. It can be demoralizing, after all that time and effort, to revisit your work and be unsure of what it was all for.

Just know that the feeling will pass and instead let yourself simmer in it for a while. Power through and keep working. You’ll be glad you did later.

Nathan’s post is here.

First Drafts

A first draft is a funny thing.  A stack of questions waiting to be answered.  Seven thousand, one hundred twenty lines to be reviewed with patience you don’t have.  Words to be heard aloud, doubted like a thief walking through your favorite room, turned over in the mind, changed for something tighter, or left alone like that one lavender flower growing in a field of green.

All the judgment sits in that pile of paper.  You see it differently when it’s paper.  As a file it’s just like anything else on that tap tap tap laptop.  It’s something in a screen.  It’s real but still less real.  When it’s printed, it zips across your all-in-one and each scrimp of the printer is a question and a hope and a prayer about you taking every letter to the next level.  The articles, verbs, and characters join together into a choir, one you love and hate.  They sing to you as the printer forms their melody in the faint, terrible background.  You’re enchanted and afraid of their music.

Lift the language.  Tighten the plot.  Excise the unnecessary.  Describe.  Take your time.  Strengthen the dialogue.  Add this scene.  Delete that.  Say it better.  They sing things like that, and their collective voice takes the tone of a friend.  Their instructions and encouragements collapse the way jazz does, unexpected and delightful.  Go.  See.  Soar.

You wait because you gave yourself a waiting period.  A break.  It’s helpful even if it claims the three ounces of sanity you think you still have.  You hate waiting, at least, for the work of revision.  You remember that conference workshop where the presenter said revision was seeing again, looking again, searching again.  And her broad smile finds you while you wait. She was a white woman, her face plumped like the rest of her body.  She wore red and, though red was a color for fire and heat and summer, you imagined her cool as stood at the podium to speak.  She was joyous as she spoke.  Joy was calming, cool.  Joy was the collection of possessing your words and your characters and your vision for the story.  You thought of her as you waited because her coolness was what you needed while you watched that stack, the pile with 96,504 expectations.  Each word commanding to be the best.

You got tired thinking of those words.  You cherished them.  But they made you a little sick.  You wanted time to pass before you saw them.  Even when you clicked the manuscript open, you couldn’t read.  You saw the blur of that first page and closed it quickly.  The X from Microsoft Word pressed into your mind.  There would be enough time to do what needed to be done.  It just wouldn’t be now.

Interview with Rabbi Zoe Klein & Book Giveaway

I am happy to bring you the next author interview with Rabbi Zoe Klein.  Rabbi Klein’s novel, Drawing in the Dust, tells the story of an archaeologist who risks her reputation to excavate beneath the home of an Arab couple to make a miraculous discovery.  I’d like to give away a copy of the novel, so look into that at the bottom of the interview.  Rabbi Klein inspires me.  As a spiritual leader and writer, she gives powerful answers to how she thinks about what she does, how she wobbles all her plates.  Enjoy…

MW: When did you first know you would be both a writer and a rabbi?

RZK: Hi Michael! Thank you for bringing these questions to me, it is an honor to participate in this interview! Long before I ever could imagine that a little girl like myself could grow up and become a Rabbi, I knew I loved to write. I wrote stories all the time. I remember writing stories on those beige thin sheets of paper on which the lines were two inches apart, filling in scenes with chubby crayoned letters. I even remember one of my first stories, about a magical species called the Giringos, half giraffe and half flamingo.

I remember a powerful moment, the first time I told my father I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. He is an artist and I remember standing beside his dawing board while he worked and saying I wanted to be a writer. He said, “That’s great. But you cannot call yourself a writer until you finish a book. Even if it is never published, even if no one reads it, once you finish a book you will be a writer, but until then you are not.” It sounds like a strong thing to say, but it was a valuable lesson. For my father, it was very important that I learn the value of taking a creative idea to its completion. Lots of people have wonderful novels in their souls, but very few put in the tedious effort to realize it. When I finished my first novel in college, an as-yet unpublished story called “The Goat Keeper”, it was such a proud moment to hand it to him and to become a writer!

It wasn’t until I was in my Junior year in college that I truly understood that the path to the rabbinate was even a possibility for me. I had always thought that it was something only men could do. Even though there were female rabbis around, I hadn’t met any. However, I always loved religion, studying faiths and myths and cultures. The kinds of conversations and debates I had with people with strong faith identities in many ways mirrored the conversations I’d hear between my parents and their artist friends. The artists would always talk about such things as mortality, man’s fragility, the futility of monument, shattering dogmas, the supremacy of blank space…it was art they were discussing, but it filtered into my mind as theology, and I loved it.

In many ways I think of myself as a rabbi with the heart of a novelist, rather than the other way around. I started as a writer and then expanded my material from the confines of pen and ink to people and community. As a congregational rabbi, I have the opportunity to help craft the story of a community of families, engage in their sacred and profound moments, adding our chapters to an ever-unfolding scripture of a people.

MW: I realize both roles relate to one another, if I’m reading your interview in Drawing in the Dust correctly.  But does writing serve your role as a spiritual leader? If so, how?

RZK: Sometimes I think my rabbinate is almost like fieldwork for writing, and my writing is soulwork for the rabbinate. Writing is interesting in that it is done in physical solitude, and yet it is never lonely for me. I am full up with characters, with vivid dreams and scenes, demons to wrestle, I’m haunted and vexed and also ecstatic and weeping. In contradiction to that, in the rabbinate there is no solitude, you are continually working with people. It is a very social position, and yet for me there is loneliness there. There is a lot of what the mystics call “tzim-tzum,” a kind of spiritual contraction one does to make room for others. You retract yourself enough to allow space for other’s voices. You become an expert active listener. When I write though, that part of me that contracts in order to give center stage to others’ stories and needs, suddenly unfurls its great wings and jets about wildly.

The short answer to your question is that I think my writing allows me to be a whole person as a spiritual leader. Without it, I think I’d be fragments of a mosaic, chipped with no clear design. I think when you take the time regularly, whether through writing or meditation or running or whatever, to reflect on your decisions and desires, face your darkness, and emerge with a burning but joyful heart, you can better take others by the hand and lead them through a courageous process of reflection and growth.

MW: Talk about your experience as a person of faith—indeed a leader—writing biblical fiction for a broad audience.  Were you concerned that you wouldn’t be received well, that you might misrepresent yourself, or that your story might be misperceived?

RZK: While I was perhaps concerned about the story being misperceived or not received well, it was not a deterrent for me. I was encouraged by a great editor Al Silverman to forget while I wrote that I was a rabbi, a mother, a wife, and just write from a place of uniqueness, without titles, and I’ve always tried to do that. I am a person of faith. I believe that stories which are filled with metaphor and myth are a form of prayer. I never feel far from God when I write, in fact I feel close, even if I’m writing a scene that is sexual or violent or both. It is a process of exploration into human nature, into fantasy, into longing and fear, and it is not too different than the best kind of worship experience, where you are completely honest and raw, repentant, mournful, terrified, awe-filled, trembling with humility, romanced and swept up in all your smallness into the impossible arms of the infinite. There is no doubt that it is scary to write for a broad audience, and that no matter how much you try to hide your truths under layers and layers of plot and characterization you always end up realizing that despite your efforts you ended up publishing your very private diary, but it is also freeing to realize that the things that you say are the honest voicing of your humanness, what a relief to not be a spiritual leader hiding behind a façade, with word locked into routine platitudes! How refreshing to be real, to have a faith that wrestles, breathes, challenges and confounds!

MW: How has your congregation responded to your writing life?

RZK: My congregation has been celebratory and wonderful. I am fortunate to share this journey with them! We have many writers, thinkers, professors and experts-in-their-field in our community, people who love and appreciate art and don’t shy away from its darker sides…

MW: When I connected with you about this interview, I mentioned my gratitude for the seen and unseen work behind this novel.  I’m glad you’ve labored in all the ways you have to give us this work.  What don’t people know about what it takes to write a good story for publication?  Will you give us a sense of some of what it took for you?

RZK: Ah, that’s a good question. I don’t think people understand the sheer mass of hours that it takes. People don’t realize that once the book is finished and you feel completely beaten and your hair is grayer and thinner because of the process, and your eyes are dim from staring into the computer, and every time you blink you see bright blue squares, and your wrecked with fatigue after months of not sleeping, once you’ve gotten that far, you have to STILL muster the strength to face rejection after rejection after rejection…years of rejection and pitching your story, and trying even after years have gone by and you’ve already become passionate about a NEW idea retaining the freshness about the book that no one seems to want…and then after you finally find an agent and an editor, realizing that there are two of three or four more Everests to climb with revisions, revisions that keep tearing out your heart and then sewing it back in. Every time I’d get to a new mountain where it would be so easy to just drop the whole thing, I would think to myself, “This is a filter, and only the most determined get through.” And I was determined to be determined enough! I think people understand how steep the climb is from conception to publication, but I don’t think people know how long it is, how much stamina is involved.

I also tend to like to write stories that have a lot of different characters and layers of interpretation, and it is hard to keep track of all of those little pieces over the course of 600 hundred pages, which was how long DRAWING IN THE DUST originally was. When I was editting it at one point I realized that if one added up the years and scenes carefully for one of the very peripheral characters and tried to figure out her age, she would have to be something like 130 years old. Keeping track of all these strands of lives is hard!

MW: I’m pretty sure you have many things to do.  I could be wrong.  I’m probably not.  How do you serve both these areas in your life well?  And how do you do anything else?!

RZK: Sometimes I feel like one of those cirque-d’soleil contortionists with the spinning plates on top of sticks, except that while they make it look so graceful and beautiful, all the plates spinning perfectly, my plates are often pretty wobbly! And some of them crash. If I were to label my plates, there would be the Writing Plate, the Rabbi Plate, the Children Plate, the Husband Plate, Friend Plate, and of course lots more. I think while I’ve made time to keep the Writing Plate spinning by devoting Mondays, my one day off, to writing, and the Rabbi plate I devote much time to, and the Children Plate keeps spinning even though it’s hectic, I admit the Husband Plate often wobbles and falls (luckily it’s a sturdy, rebounding plate!), and I haven’t been able to devote much time to the Friends Plate (I have friends, we just don’t see each other at all, I haven’t been able to nourish that part of my life)…there are a lot of sacrifices! As I’ve gotten older, I am trying to redistribute my energy, focusing more on my family and building relationships, and trying to approach work with less frenetic energy and more joy and appreciation. Everything is not always in balance as people like to believe! But up until now I think I’ve lived my life is a giant rush, and I really want to learn to slow down and appreciate BEING instead of eating up every hour with DOING.

MW: I read Eugene Peterson who is a pastor and writer, and he encourages clergy to read fiction.  He says that artists have become his allies and have taken a place next to theologians and scholars in his formation as a pastor and as an artist.  You talk about the power of fiction in your provided interview.  How does fiction nurture a person in general and a religious leader in particular?

RZK: That is beautiful. I think that fiction unlocks people’s hearts in a particular way that nothing else can. You take fiction under the covers with you, give it the heat of your breath, and like the genie in the lamp it has an enchantment. Somehow entering the world of fiction, our vault of tears is more easily unlocked, particular drama reflects universal understanding. There is an intimacy in fiction, partly because of the intimacy it took to create it. In terms of a religious person, I think that today we tend to sterilize the idea of a person of faith, turn that person into a kind of sexless judge. Piety is purity. But dancing with God is an intimacy, it’s a cosmic affair, filled with subordination and abuses, mastery and humility, and of course love. I once wrote a new definition for love — Reverence for Mystery. I think fiction nurtures a person in general and a religious person in particular because there are very high truths that can only be expressed in metaphor. God, for example, can only be expressed in metaphor, as shepherd or teacher or lover or parent or guide.  I believe Fiction, ironically, is Ultimate Truth’s master key.

MW: What are you reading these days, by the way?

RZK: To be honest, I’m reading a lot of Science Fiction! I just printed out the top 100 Science Fiction books, and right now I’m reading Ender’s Game. It’s just a field I had never read before, and I am surprised at how much I’m loving it! Before this new kick though, I read Cynthia Ozick’s novels, The Shawl, The Putterman Papers and Heir to The Glimmering World, and my goodness, her language was like cashmere, so rich and sumptous.

MW: You’ve talked about God as the Reader of All Life—language that I love.  What are you working on, preparing, and “offering skyward”?

RZK: I just finished a novel called Origin of Color which will be released in summer of 2012; it is going through its editing process now. I went to Swaziland and Tanzania to research for it when I was on sabbatical this past December. The book is about an American couple that accidently falls into the middle of a crime ring of witchdoctors and politicians in East Africa who sell albino body parts to be made into potions. I met with East Africans with alibinism and families whose children with albinism had been butchered. I wove these experiences into this novel. It was an emotional novel to write, it is a thriller, and it even scared me as I was creating it. I’d be writing in the middle of the night and leaping up to make sure the doors were locked…jumping if I thought the curtain moved! The “offering skyward” part of it is that it is also a contemplation about perception. I am very excited about it.

I am also leaving in two weeks to go back to Africa, to Ghana, with the American Jewish World Service. I will be in Winneba, Ghana with American Jewish World Service’s Young Rabbis’ Delegation. The Young Rabbis’ Delegation brings together a group of rabbis from all over the country to experience first-hand the power of grassroots development and explore issues of social justice and global responsibility from the perspective of Jewish texts and tradition.  The group is working at Challenging Heights, an AJWS-supported NGO devoted to providing education to former child slaves and resources to families whose children are at risk for slavery and human trafficking.

MW: How can readers stay in touch with you and support your work?

RZK: On my website www.zoeklein.com, or by emailing me at zoe@zoeklein.com. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate on your website. Abundant blessings to you and to all of your readers!

As for the book giveaway, if you know of a clergy person who would benefit from reading this novel, post a comment, a sentence or two, about why they would.  Do so by Friday, midnight, CST.  I’ll choose a winner randomly and you can give a copy to your clergy person.

In The Margins, pt. 1 of who knows how many

I will seek representation early next year for a novel I’m revising.  I tell people I can’t say much about the story because the story could seek revenge and change on me.  I tell them that talking about a story without them having read the story is like telling somebody about a movie.  You’re left to explain with ambiguous language that just isn’t helpful.

Nonetheless, a few months ago, I enlisted a professional editor to help me do this well.  When I got my critique letter from the editor, I paged through the letter and then the manuscript itself, following all the tracked changes, comments, and proposed corrections.  One thing stood out immediately.  Well, two things stood out.  I’ll tell you about the first one and leave the second for another time.  In a word, overwriting. 

She had listed that as a kind of threat to the manuscript.  Of course, that’s my way of saying what she said.  She pointed to several sections where I wrote too much description, for instance, and not enough immediate action or feelings or body language.  Or where I included chatty dialogue on two occasions.  She highlighted times when the narrator went on too long about this or that.  Overwriting.  It’s writing that doesn’t move the plot, writing that affects the pacing.  Incidentally, pacing is the second thing that stood out, but I will bring that up later.

I had already made it a goal to write less.  And I told my editor that I, indeed, had cut a fair amount of the overwritten morass.  I’ve even made it a personal goal to say less.  I think words are best when chosen and offered carefully, sparingly.  Words are expensive and they such be cherished and not thrown to the wind or cast in any and every direction.  Less is more.  Which is why the language of my stuff being overwritten is powerful. 

I want to do the opposite of that.  I almost want to underwrite.  I almost wish I could say right under enough, using provocative words and compelling language so that the eventual reader of that novel can ask for more.  So, as I’ve revised once post-critique, I’m looking forward to adding a few new scenes before resending it to the editor for that line edit.  I hope the feedback in the margins will come back that it’s right on, not overwritten or underwritten.