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Other Brief Essays

"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)


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Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, June 18-25


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Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

New edition includes over 100 writing exercises for all genres.

Word Painting

The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

Establishing Internal Guidelines for Your Work

Once your work leaves your hands, be assured that it will be judged according to someone else’s standards, whether that judgment comes in the form of a raised eyebrow from your husband, an acceptance from an editor, a scathing review from a critic, or a yawn from the woman in the first row of the auditorium where you’re delivering a speech. So before you send your work out into the world to be judged by external standards, take time to establish internal guidelines for your work. Think of these guidelines as a quality control measure, a system of checks and balances that will not only prepare you to share your work but will also help make your work the best it can be.

Study published work that you admire.
What qualities in the writing would you like to emulate? Bare honesty? Beautiful language? Odd or unusual subject matter? Accessible prose? Make a list of these qualities, and test your work against the list. I’m not suggesting that you compare your writing to someone else’s but rather that you ask yourself whether the qualities you most admire are present in your work as well.

Clarify your own goals, standards, and aims.
If you haven’t already written a writer’s statement, consider writing one to clarify your visions and intentions. What are your goals for your writing?  Do you plan on publishing, reaching a wide audience, and perhaps even supporting yourself with your writing? Or are you more concerned with experimenting with new forms, carrying your work to the next level, and using writing as a personal growth tool? Do you intend to make writing your life’s work, or is your goal simply to write, as Isak Dineson suggested, “a little each day, without hope, without despair?
Write down your long-range goals, and refer to them often. Knowing in advance what you expect from your writing will help you better prepare your readers. 

Review standards set by those whose opinions you value.
For me, this includes not only writers but also scientists, mathematicians, critics, sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians, and others involved in creative endeavors. If I hear or read a comment that might serve as a guideline for my work, I make a note of it and post it over my writing desk. Here are some of my favorite quotations:
Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
D. H. Lawrence: “Try to find your deepest issue in every confusion and abide by that.”
Jean Cocteau: “Writing is an act of love. Else it is nothing but scribbling.”
Jeanette Winterson: “The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else).”
Isadora Duncan: “If I could tell you what I mean, there would be no point in dancing.”

Prepare a set of questions to guide you in judging your own work.
Guiding questions fall into three main categories: questions about your personal stake in the work, general questions to ask yourself before deciding to share work, and specific questions regarding the particular piece you’re writing.

Questions regarding your personal stake in the writing might include:
Could only I have written this?
Have I been honest?
Why was it important for me to write this?
What have I risked—intellectually, emotionally, artistically?
Is this a piece I want to live with?
Have I learned something new from writing this piece?

General questions to ask before deciding to share work might include:
Have I left a door open for the reader to enter?
Is the writing clear and accessible enough to connect with the reader while still challenging her to make her own connections?
Why would anyone want to read this?

More specific questions will vary from piece to piece, depending on the form in which you’re working. If you’re writing a poem, you might ask yourself, among other things, if the poem is musically sound, the line breaks effective, and the images arresting and apt. You’ll probably pose different questions for a short story: Are my characters believable, my descriptions evocative, the plot clearly delineated? Essays, speeches, lectures, plays, and song lyrics require different sets of guiding questions.

If and when you decide to share your work, first ask yourself what you hope to accomplish from this sharing:

Do you want feedback on the piece? If so, at what stage in the process?
Are you willing and ready to hear constructive, even negative criticism?
Are you wedded to this version, or are you willing to revise?
What venue do you imagine—a commercial magazine, your company newsletter, an internet publication? Will the work appear in print, or will it be shared orally?  
Whom do you envision as your audience—a friend or family member, an editor or publisher, the readers of your local newspaper, the general public?

Establishing your personal goals and guidelines won’t guarantee that your work will be received with open arms, or even that it will be evaluated fairly. But knowing in advance what you expect from your writing will help you better prepare your work to be shared.

Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out