Has anyone noticed how my blog posts have steadily decreased in 2015-2016? It’s true, I’ve reduced blogging to occasional at best. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing, though. Yes, I’m still working on the novel, the one on my bucket list. It’s getting closer to first draft stage (then the hard part begins). As loyal readers know, I also started a blog that draws on my expertise as an occupational therapist and reaches out, forum-style, to therapists and people/families with health challenges. This past year much of my writing effort went into a project that diverted me from my goals, yet is turning out to be a learning opportunity. That’s what I’ll be telling you about today.
My local writer’s group is publishing an anthology through the Florida Writer’s Association. Its many chapters, written by locals, highlight Clay County history. It will be called Embedded in Clay. You can read more about it over here.
I’m used to writing essays for health science. In college, I impressed my English professor with the best CLAST essay score he’d ever seen; the best possible, actually. I’m used to writing various styles of poetry. I’m used to writing recovery curriculum, personal stories–and I’m somewhat comfortable writing fiction. I’m mostly used to writing in my own way, on my own time, as an introvert, for pleasure.
I’m not used to writer’s groups. I’m not used to Chicago-style referencing. I’m not used to historical, referenced work.
When I accepted the challenge to write for Embedded in Clay, I did so with some trepidation. A transplant from Maryland, I knew little of Florida history, and less of my own county. I wanted to learn more, though. Taking on a writing project was a sure way to force myself to learn. You can’t write what you don’t know. My initial trepidation was well-founded.
Months, and several history books, trips to Clay County Archives and internet searches later, I knew more about Clay County history. What did I know? One thing, mainly: that I knew too little to write for an anthology!
Yet the deadline loomed.
I dug in.
My first draft = my first mistake
I took on too much without clarifying the parameters of the project. I thought the chapter could be anything I wanted it to be, any style, as long as I used Chicago-style references. When I brought it to group, I learned we had a 2500 word limit! How did I miss this? My chapter was more like 7000 words. Everyone else knew the parameters. I searched through my emails and contract, and realized I must have not received that page. How could I have embarked on a project not knowing its parameters? I quietly received feedback from the small group on how to start slicing and dicing. Some people loved my imagery, which was encouraging. Approaching our new, extended deadline, I carved writing time out of what usually is reserved for sleep and family time.
My second draft = my second mistake
Returning to group with a hard-fought (harshly shortened) second draft, I felt relieved and proud of what I’d accomplished. Again receiving feedback quietly, only one piece being negative, I felt pretty good about the piece. I started working on the summary, the loglines and photos. I was happy to turn it all in before the holidays. Now it was time to get ready for family at Thanksgiving, and, before long, Christmas. No time for anything else.
Then the email came. “Please give me a call when you have a few minutes to talk about your story,” our group leader wrote.
This can’t be good, I thought.
It wasn’t. Turns out the one negative feedback I’d received had been hers. She didn’t like the way I’d presented the historical report. “Their lives are interesting on their own,” she said, “It’s distracting to the reader to take them on a journey through time. Just tell the story.” She didn’t stop there. “Why are so many people trying to write about an imaginary journey through time? I don’t understand it. . . just tell us what happened, it’s interesting in and of itself.”
I realized I was face to face with a professional writer who tells it like it is. She likes to read history as they tell it in history books (I never did; I actually liked Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure!). She likes the facts (I like the human interest side–skip memorizing the dates of this battle and that invention). She likes structure (Me? Freestyle, much preferred). Why, we are Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen, 1811): both valuable, but very different. She, however, is the founder and leader of the group.
After a few questions to clarify the knock-me-off-my-feet-but-okay-I-must-learn-from-this feedback, I swallowed hard and thanked her. After hanging up the phone, I decided to abandon the project. I just couldn’t give it any more of my time.
Then my conscience bothered me. I don’t give up, it’s not my style.
Instead of giving up the project, I gave up that Sunday and rewrote the chapter. I savagely edited everything flowery–all the parts that made it come to life for me. I took out the imaginary journey. I cut the imagery that transported the reader 200 years back in time. Sensory experiences: gone. I’ll reserve those for another publication, I figured. If she wants the facts, okay, she’ll get the facts. I was mad, but I did it. I didn’t have time to figure out how to keep sensation and imagery without the imaginary journey.
I read it aloud a few times. It was okay. It told some pretty interesting stories that really happened. There was only one problem: I didn’t really like it. It didn’t move me. I didn’t feel proud of it.
I decided not to turn it in. I went on with holiday preparations. So what if I’d spent the last nine months nurturing this chapter for naught?
But it wouldn’t stay dead. As the new deadline approached, I decided to take it out again, just to be sure I shouldn’t turn it in. The chapter tells the story of three women in history who faced some serious challenges and made some serious differences. Their stories are truly worth reading. I still didn’t really like the writing style I had to use, under the circumstances, but I decided to turn it in anyway. I promised myself I wouldn’t do much more, though. The holidays are for my family.
My third draft = Apparent success
Wouldn’t you know it, she liked it! I still don’t like it much, but I went ahead and (fairly heartlessly) crafted a summary, loglines and some photos from the archives. It’s all been turned in and is in editing now, so I’m still not sure what it will look like when they publish it.
Will anyone else like it? I honestly don’t know. This is a learning project for me. I’ve thought about publishing both versions here, and asking for your feedback, to see what my readers think. Yet, I get few comments on my blogs. I don’t know what to do at this point. I don’t really feel like promoting the piece, since I’m not really proud of it. . . but the women whose stories I told deserve to have their stories told. It’s not about me, it’s about them. It’s about you, the readers, and the encouragement, inspiration and enrichment you may gain from what three amazing women–in what is now Clay County–did between 1806 and 1906.
Final Publication = ?
Still in process. . .