Some Advice on Writing and Life

photo by Victoria Ristenbatt
photo by Victoria Ristenbatt

So right about now, this book I’m writing is feeling a little bit like that mean kid who holds something like your notebook or your hat just out of reach while you jump at it over and over, thinking this time you’re going to grab hold and not let go. I’m feeling kind of blue about the fact that I’m not done. (Side note: If you are feeling kind of blue, listening to Kind of Blue may actually help, especially “Blue in Green.”) My self-imposed deadline of the end of March has come and gone, but I’m still not done. Every essay I plan to include has at least been started, but I’m still not done. Since beginning this journey, I’ve written fifty posts for this blog, I’ve published excerpts from my manuscript in Creative Nonfiction and The Chattahoochee Review and have one forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, I’ve read selections from it at several story nights in Chicago and I have one more slightly thrilling book-related announcement I’m not at liberty to make yet. I’ve learned a lot, I’m a better writer than I was when I started—

But. I’m. Still. Not. Done.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a writing conference in Poets and Writers that sounded kind of dreamy. It takes place at the Algonquin Hotel (among other spots) in Manhattan, surrounded by the ghosts of writers past; they only accept a handful of writers—and they hook you up with literary agents cherry picked to be a good fit for your particular manuscript. And though it costs beaucoup dollars, which I don’t currently have on hand, I applied anyway in case they had financial aid or scholarships or something like that. Continue reading Some Advice on Writing and Life


I’m working on “Law of the Jungle” which I’m thinking is going to be chapter three of The Saltwater Twin, and I feel like it’s taking forever. It’s one of those essays I’m pretty much figuring out as I go along. With chapters like this, I start out with a sense of the general direction, but the writing is investigative, exploratory, the terrain shifting. I’ll get an impulse to include some image or anecdote, then have to figure out why and how it’s connected to the other stuff I’ve put in. It’s like assembling a puzzle but first having to find the pieces; there’s a lot to sift through, and I have to ask each piece where it belongs and listen to what it says.

My mind is a noisy place sometimes…fine, almost all the time. Today, for example, it is saying that the cemetery I saw on my drive out to Palatine, IL to teach five workshops looks beautiful in the rain and also I love cemeteries and also I’m remembering certain magical cemeteries in Paris and New Orleans and walking through them when it was cold and when it was hot and my mind is saying remember, I have to get a cashier’s check to send in for my health insurance and should I get some vegan cake and also I need to do some fairy tale research for the Lyric Opera study guide maybe on Bettelheim and I’m recalling how my neighbor’s bitchy bunny sounded when he hissed at me when I put his salad in his cage and I didn’t even know bunnies hissed and my mind is also saying rain! I love the rain, also I need to get to the gym and why is it so hard and also I want to sleep and also what if after all this work this book never gets published, what then and also what do people eat on backpacking trips because I’m going backpacking for the first time ever in a few weeks? It’s like my brain is a concert hall where the orchestra is tuning up and the lady next to me is unwrapping candy and I’m in the middle of 360 degrees of conversations about workdays and affairs and trains, and amid the noise, I have to listen for the voice that is telling me the story of the thing I’m trying to write.

It helps to remember a quote I love from Martha Graham.  (Ever since I read it a few years back, I’ve pretty much plastered it all over the place, including my artist page at, the non-profit that sent me out to do those Palatine workshops.) Graham says,

There is a vitality, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

First of all, I love the word and concept of “a quickening,” a coming into being, coming alive. Second, she’s so clear: your job is simply to translate your own voice.

I like it when the things I want or need to do to earn a living or achieve something I want to achieve are also the things I believe I need to learn to be a better human being. This lesson is about listening, getting still, paying attention to what matters in the moment. Trusting your voice to emerge. Those are good things to learn.

How do you pay attention to what matters? And what does your voice say in the stillness?