What growth looks like

by Kristin on June 18, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

My tomato plants seem to have grown a foot while I was at the Glen Workshop. They’re reaching up out of the tops of their cages, and busting out the sides, producing flowers and fruit and causing me to wonder if I wasn’t, in fact, away for more than a week. There is also an evil, prickly weed sharing the tomatoes’ plot. Well, sharing is perhaps a generous word—this weed is at least four feet tall, and has sprung up from some mysterious source since I last saw my garden.

After corralling the spindly growth of my tomato plants back into their cages, and gloving up to hack away at the monstrous weed, I go inside and hug my children again—partly because I have a lot of hugs to catch up on, and partly because I want to better gauge their size, using my arms and the level of my chin to their heads (rather than my sight, which isn’t as trustworthy in these matters).

I’m beginning to think my perspective on growth isn’t trustworthy in any sense. I spent the past week in a memoir-writing workshop, mentored by Lauren Winner, whose own memoir, Girl Meets God, changed my approach to both faith and writing when I first read it eight years ago. Sitting around a seminar table day after day with Lauren and a dozen other writers was bound to result in all kinds of growth (ideally the sort that’s akin to my healthy tomato plants, not the monstrous weed).

And I know I did in fact grow—perhaps just not how I expected. Here’s what I expected: that I would get all kinds of specific feedback on my book project—this part is working, this part isn’t, here you could use more dialogue and less exposition, here I would like to see this character more fully fleshed out, etc. I expected to leave with revisions on my current chapters, moving them closer to “perfection,” and an eagerness to tackle writing the rest of the book, chapter by chapter, following the outline laid out in my book proposal. That, I thought, is what growth looks like.

But on the second day of class, Lauren Winner said this: “Revision means ‘seeing again.” Of course that makes perfect sense, so why had I never considered it before, in terms of my writing? Lauren went on to explain that because revision is about seeing again, subsequent revisions do not necessarily look more complete. That is not the goal of revision—the goal is to revise in such a way that helps us see better so we can move forward.

A revision, in other words, might appear more like regression than growth to the casual observer. It might involve rewriting an entire chapter of my book in dialogue, not because I ultimately want a chapter that’s all dialogue, but because I want to be able to see better what’s going on in the situation I’m writing about. It might mean writing 1,000 words from which I extract just one perfect paragraph.

Writing, Lauren said, is a process of getting to the heart of the matter, and discovering Truth.

Now, starting today, I will be writing and writing, not to watch my page-count grow, but to help myself grow. I will be writing not to get further along in the story but to get deeper into the story—to excavate, discover and learn what it is that I really need to be writing about. I’ve been approaching my book and the idea of progress in the wrong ways. My guess is this has a lot to do with why the stress-to-joy ratio in my writing has been all out of whack these past several months. As Lauren said, it is time to give a Valium to all of those questions (especially the questions around publishing) that get in the way of writing what I really need to write.

So did I grow this past week? Absolutely. In some very exciting, dramatic ways. It just might be a while before anyone else can see evidence of that growth, and for now, that’s just fine with me.

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Great thoughts on the ways writing and growth work. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is that I sometimes need to write 1,000 words just to arrive at the idea that I need to write 1,000 words about. The first 1,000 words are scrap, but they made the next 1,000 words really, really precious.

    This is sort of different, but the STORY conference was really helpful in ways I didn’t expect as well. It gave me permission to explore deeper into my creativity and desires, to say yes to the directions I didn’t even know I’d been blocking or ignoring.

    Maybe I’ll go to the Glen in the near future. I used to live 2 hours away from it for 6 years. How did I miss it all of this time??? Sounds great!

  • http://www.terrybernardini.blogspot.com Terry Bernardini

    It is sometimes better when we don’t get what we’re expecting, isn’t it? Thanks for your reflections here and I look forward to keeping up with things in your world.

  • http://www.daysbetweendays.blogspot.com Hannah P.

    Kristin,

    So great to spend the week with you! I really enjoyed this post.

    Pip pip,
    Hannah

  • Elena

    Lovely food for thought on the revision process. I think the idea of revision itself is worth…revisiting (:)) from time to time. It was a relief for me to hear Lauren talk about writing into a place of clarity. That it doesn’t always happen in a first draft, chapter or paragraph…
    It was great meeting you at the Glen, Kristin :)

  • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

    I like that thought, and how you expanded on it here. I think it’s true that there is word count growth and then there is growth that goes deeper into the words you’ve already written, and figures them out. That kind of revision is hard and good work.

    I also think we can be more gracious with ourselves in it :) At least, I have a tendency to boo my efforts after I feel like I’m getting nowhere, but it’s called a process for a reason.

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams

    I love this idea – the Glen kept pushing me to reconsider how I see writing and revision, and how I define growth. So glad to be part of this process with you.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Oh, good, good stuff, Kristin. Thank you for sharing these insights with us. Glad to hear the workshop was a positive experience. I look forward to reading the fruits of your labor some day.

  • http://alissawilkinson.com Alissa

    Lauren gave a similar lecture to the CNF MFA students last summer in Santa Fe and I wrote about it afterward . . . might be useful!
    http://blog.spu.edu/mfa/2011/08/25/fruitfulness/

  • http://www.throughaglass.net Kari

    I loved the parts about writing to find an answer. I know I have done that (maybe not 80 drafts, though), written until I realized how I felt about something. I never feel like that time is wasted when it happens. It would be hard to know going in that I am going to have to write 80 drafts of something, but it looks better from the other side.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, this is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? “The first 1,000 words are scrap, but they made the next 1,000 words really, really precious.” I could say something similar about certain months and years that I struggled through, that made the months and years that followed more precious. :) (Btw, you didn’t miss the Glen at Mount Holyoke all those years you lived in the area, because 2011 was the first time they held a Glen Workshop somewhere other than Santa Fe!)

    Terry, getting something we didn’t expect can indeed be better. We don’t always know what we really need most, do we? So glad to have learned alongside you last week. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

    Hannah P., I’m getting emotional, seeing all these comments from my fellow Glen memoirists! Looking forward to continuing the friendship.

    Elena, yes, I needed to revise my idea of the revision process! I agree—what Lauren said was a relief, even if the process does feel a bit daunting. Thank goodness we don’t have to have it all figured out *before* we start writing!

    Stephanie, thinking about writing in terms of word count is similar to thinking about time in terms of seconds and minutes, isn’t it? That’s something I’ve been pondering about, lately—trying to get to a place where time feels more like openness and space, and less like something I spend, save and count. Thanks for all the good times and conversations last week, and good luck with all that’s ahead of you!

  • http://padremambo.wordpress.com GdL

    The comment Winner made immediately demonstrated that this class was serious business. Excavating our inner work in such a way that it avoids the easy way out is what makes writing powerful.

    Great post!

  • Jen

    Goodness gracious. I feel like a goober for not having heard the distinction of RE vision before. Wow that is eye opening. And I am jumping up and down with joy that you are writing and writing and writing. Go go go!

    I also like the Valium idea….I have to give Valium to a bunch of things today.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Katie, I’m so glad you were (and will be) a part of the growth process, too! It would be easy to get caught up again in the numbers and comparisons game, so I will need friends who can remind me why I’m writing in the first place.

    HopefulLeigh, it’s great to learn and be inspired—the least I can do is share it with all of you. (You should really consider a fiction workshop with the Glen some time!)

    Alissa, thanks for sharing the link—I’m eager to add the wisdom you’ve gleaned from Lauren to my own stash! So glad we met and can continue to learn together.

    Kari, I really wish my productive, goal-oriented self didn’t fight so hard against this great concept! It’s going to take some retraining on my part, if I’m going to think about it differently. (Last summer I wrote a post about this struggle in the realm of blogging—you might be interested! http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/?p=2854)

    GdL, a big yes to this: “Excavating our inner work in such a way that it avoids the easy way out is what makes writing powerful.” As a kid and teen, I always wanted/expected things to come easily—it indicated that I was “good” at something. It’s a tough mindset to undo, but thankfully it’s never too late to learn how to really struggle with something that matters.

    Jen, you and me both, sister. We attach these emotionally-laden definitions to words, and forget to really see them for what they are. (I hope the Valium does the trick on all those worries that are getting in your way.)

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com Addie Zierman

    Love the idea of writing to get “deeper” into the story instead of “further along” in the story. Truth! Wish I could have been there with you guys!

  • sarah louise

    I remember a teacher once saying “all writing is re-writing.” I find it is true.

    xo,
    SL

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I love how getting out of our routine and around fresh faces can really get us out of a rut. It sounds like you’ve got just the spark you need to take on your writing with a fresh mind and soul.

  • http://www.aborderlife.com Shannon Huffman Polson

    Thank you for this- a deceptively simple reminder on how to reconsider writing. I loved it.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Addie, it’s amazing how just a simple shift of a word—further to deeper—can change an entire perspective. It’s going to take me a while to re-train myself, but I feel healthier already.

    sarah louise, hmm…I’m going to have to think about this one for a while! I’m not sure what it means for all writing to be re-writing. Maybe I need another cup of coffee!

    The Modern Gal, yes, the fresh take on things is definitely there. Now to dive in and get started…a whole different challenge!

    Shannon, thank you for reading and commenting! I am often amazed at how many simple, refreshing ideas (like re-vision) I seem to glide right over. It feels good to slow down.

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  • http://www.eloranicole.com eloranicole

    yep. those tears :: writing not for word count but that pesky Truth always hanging in the balance of our willingness to get messy with our manuscript.

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