New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

"Begin as you intend to continue," my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that's the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.) 

It's an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it's easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you'll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year's Eve party last night, I thought, I'll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast. 

Then I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission: 

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet. 

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it. 

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It's also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, "To everyone everywhere." By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life. 

And wouldn't you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don't want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that's difficult.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning. 

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it's a compelling vision that will speak to others. 

The gamble is that you won't necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn't ever cohere and sing. 

That's where I've been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn't know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable. 

These past few weeks, I've been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself. 

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me. 

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole. 

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It's full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life. 

I'm going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I've been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds. 

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year's. May you begin this year as you intend to continue. 

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day. 

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn't quite right for them. 

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all. 

Simple, no? 

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive "ears" tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I "heard" them, like a click in my mind that said, "Stop here. This needs work." 

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well. 

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that's 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while. 

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds "season."

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I'd be done with the revision–she's eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, "I'll have it back to you by July 15th." 

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could "hear" passages that felt like they weren't necessary.

What isn't necessary to a story like this? That's hard to define: it's both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers' engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts. 

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice. 

There's no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what's not working. 

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages. 

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier. 

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread. 

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit "send"–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. "We expect service to be restored again tomorrow," the chirpy support person said. Great. 

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did. 

That's the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard's birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir. 

So here's to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I've learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn't let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person. 

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died