How Do You Put Lipstick On a Pig?

This writing journey has never been a smooth one. I suspect this is the case for most, if not all writers, but we don’t often get to see the road, only the finish line. We see the success stories on the best seller lists and on book tours. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the journey through a film like Eat, Pray, Love (which I liked inspire of it being somewhat Hollywooded in it’s execution) or even better, get to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person. She is amazing, and humble, and real, and inspiring all at once. You could very easily hate her if she wasn’t so genuinely nice.

So, I had a skewed view of how this writing thing was supposed to go. A view which was shattered very soon after I wrote my entirely shitty first, draft. I realized I didn’t know how to write. I could put words on the page (almost a hundred and fifty thousand of them in two months. I definitely had some skills, in the area of verbal diarrhea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing anything to pull my readers in, to paint a picture people wanted to look at, or to make them want to read more. I thought writing was a completely one sided exercise where I told about this happening, then that happened, then something else happened, until the end. So boring. I realized this when I picked my zombie epic up after not looking at it for about a month.

“Who wrote this crap?” I asked myself. The “exciting zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories” I had set out to write was nowhere to be found. I’m a voracious reader of two or three books a week in all genres and all quality levels–although, the more I’m exposed to really great writing and learn what goes into it, the less willing I am to tolerate low quality writing–besides being a shameless zombie aficionado, and even I couldn’t read it. I scoured the NaNoWriMo forums, Googled how to write a novel, and checked out books at the library, read On Writing by Stephen King and generally tried to learn how to look critically at my own writing. It seemed like every Writer’s Digest article or blog post I read added another item to the list of things I was doing wrong but I couldn’t apply it to my book. How the hell was I supposed to take the mass of caca on my computer and turn it into something readable. I knew it was bad and some of the reasons why. But I didn’t know how to fix it.

Lucky for me, at about that time, my brother and his family moved back to Colorado after spending fifteen years working overseas, mostly in Africa, where he and my sister-in-law worked for various NGOs and USAID. My sister in law was interested in writing a memoir of her experiences and took a class on memoir writing from The Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver (A wonderful place with amazing teachers and a supportive writing community that I’ll talk more about in a later post). There she met a trio of other writers who hit it off and decided to form a workshop group after the class was over.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing or what group members are writing.

One night my wife and I were at my brother’s house for dinner and my sister in law says, “Why don’t you join this writing workshop we’re starting? We need a couple more people and you can work on your book.”

“What’s a writing workshop?” That’s how ignorant I was. “And, aren’t you writing a memoir? What are the other people doing?”

“Oh they’re all doing memoirs too, but it’ll be fine. They’re really nice.”

To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. “Is any of them doing a memoir of their time working in a slaughter house, cuz that’s about how much gore is in your average zombie book? Have any of them actually read a zombie book?”

“Not sure what they read. but this one lady, is writing about how she worked on fishing boats in Alaska.” It turns out that tales of the Alaska fishing industry in the eighties have a lot in common with the zombie apocalypse and the woman, who was a graduate of the Maritime Marine Academy, could curse like the sailor she was, and watched the Walking Dead religiously. I knew none of this the first day when we all introduced ourselves and talked about ground rules for our group. I also didn’t know that this group–we called ourselves “The Quillers”– would endure for almost three years and give me more quality feedback and result in more improvement in my writing than anything else I have done since I started this journey.

All Workshops Are Not Created Equal:

The Quillers met regularly, twice a month, and reviewed a ten to twelve page excerpt from a pair of members at each meeting. Even when only three of us showed up, I got so much out of the session because we all took the time to dig in to each other’s submissions and look critically at where improvement was possible. It’s amazing how much you learn about your own writing by reviewing the writing of other people. The more things I found to improve in the other’s writing, the more I was lerning to see those things in my own writing. One of my teachers at The Lighthouse said, “Writing a critique isn’t for the person who wrote the piece–they can probably throw it in the trash and be ok–it’s for you to learn how to look at your own writing.” It’s true, but I’ll also say that when you have a generous and knowledgable group, the feedback you get can be invaluable.

Everyone was committed to helping each other and very committed to their own writing. We focused on talking about the writing and not making any critique personal. We even had a rule at the beginning that we had to talk about what “the writer” was doing rather than what “you” wrote. We talked about “Opportunities for revision” and “things that worked for me.” All of us had something to contribute and almost always, when something didn’t work for one person it didn’t work for the rest of the group. I learned how to make my story come alive by making my readers feel what my characters were experiencing. And the group learned more than they ever thought they would about zombie’s and how to kill them.

Another thing that made our group work was our commitment to our writing, our willingness to learn, and our generosity with or time and our knowledge. We shared the things we were learning in the classes we took, and the things we had learned on our own and took the time to really understand what each of us was trying to do. We were all there to help each other achieve our goals. And when one of us reached a milestone like finishing a draft or getting a story published somewhere, it felt like a victory for all of us.

I’ve been in a bunch of workshops since, through the lighthouse and on my own, and although I continue to get a lot out of them and continue to learn, I will never forget the Quillers and the growth I experienced along with them. Unfortunately, our little group broke up. One of our members left to take her family on a yearlong trip around the world (check it out at Travels With Paradise) while our sailor got a job teaching at her alma-mater. I have huge hopes we can get back together, but even if we don’t, what they taught me about writing will always stay with me.

Thanks so much for reading. Leave me a comment below and tell me how you like these posts. Also, let me know if you have any questions, or suggestions for future posts.

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