Dear Readers,

Since I last wrote I have embarked on serious work on my memoir. I am five chapters in what I call a first or second draft, depending on my mood. The memoir originated in a habit of writing that I have had for most of my life, aided by over twenty years of writing and meditation retreats with Natalie Goldberg, and vomited on the page in three years of NaNoWriMo from 2009-2011. I had written a lot, over 150,000 words, plus countless stints of writing in notebooks and I did not what to do with what I had, so I let it sit. And sit. And sit.

Then, shortly after I wrote my last blog post in January 2021, Saundra Goldman invited me to a free webinar on writing. One of her questions caused me to weep, sweat, lose sleep. She said, “Tell me about experiences when you went out on your own and what you dreamed of.” The question haunted me, bringing every failure in my life into focus. She was offering a four-session class in February. And, before I even started it I knew it was time to write the memoir, time to dig into what my life had been and the root causes of much heartache and self-doubt.

Before Saundra’s class started I set a strong structure in place to help me make it through the emotional ups and downs of writing. I already had a writing group that I met with once a week. To that I added twenty minutes of sitting meditation each morning and a ten-minute check-in write that Saundra recommended: “Where I Am.” Right after breakfast I returned to my room to sit and write.

When I took Saundra’s class I connected with one of the other students. I liked her energy. I liked her project. I reached out to her on Facebook and joined a dyad of writers who wrote with each other twice a week for an hour and read to each other for an hour on Fridays with limited feedback. I was nervous about giving and receiving feedback because I had been working in a tradition for over twenty years where you don’t comment on each other’s work at all. At the same time, I was excited because I was engaged with the memoir again. Writing is lonely work and being able to ask questions about how my work was landing with listeners felt helpful.

I registered for one of Natalie’s online writing classes to keep me going after Saundra’s class ended and signed up for a writing retreat in July in Wisconsin, even though the pandemic still raged through the United States — I figured if it was impossible Natalie would cancel the retreat. I started meeting with a writing group twice a week rather than once, knowing that every time I attended I would be writing. If I could I would work my memoir into the writing topic; if not writing would keep me limber for memoir writing.

With my structure in place, I wrote. I had written a draft of my first chapter in 2019 for a manuscript review. I took out the draft, reread it, read the comments Natalie had made, thought about them and began to craft a new shape for the chapter. I took out some parts I loved, hoping to use them later, and tried to make the story clearer. When I thought I was done with the chapter I asked a few writing friends to read it and comment. I asked one of them, my most clear-eyed and enthusiastic reader, what he thought the story needed next and he said the reader needed a break from the intensity of chapter one.

I considered what I could start with in chapter two and ultimately decided to go back to the day I was born, before I was born, where the main character was my mother.

All through the writing process I spend time rereading parts of notebooks and journals, making time lines for the section I am working on, drawing diagrams to represent potential structures of the book. I work intuitively, letting writing do writing. Sometimes I don’t know for days or weeks what is happening next in a chapter or in the memoir as a whole, but I keep writing anyway, even if I’m writing “I don’t know what else needs to go in chapter five.”

I also keep asking for what I need. One day I was writing in writing group about wanting more feedback from people who did writing practice. When I read the piece aloud, one of the listening writers said to me “We have a group like that that meets on Wednesday evenings.”

I agreed to attend one meeting to see how it went before making a commitment: my entire writing life I have stayed away from “critique groups” and competitive situations. At that first meeting we got a fun writing topic, a piece of a Nick Drake song. No one was slashing and burning the writing we heard. I joined up and added the Wednesday Evening group to my writing, support and feedback structure.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because if you want to work on a sustained writing project such as a book you will need a good structure. My pal Saundra will tell you to study books for their structure — she’s good at that. But the structure I mean is a writing and emotional support structure because writing a sustained work is hard work. The part that no one tells you about writing a book is that you will unearth things about yourself and your past as you write and it will not all be pretty and some of it will not feel very good.

So, first things first: if you want to write a book, do whatever supports your sanity. For me this is sitting meditation. Then make some writing structures: if you like writing groups or classes, join some and show up for every meeting. If you want or need feedback, find a trusted friend or two who is willing to read your work periodically. Ask people for what you need and see if it doesn’t appear.

And then what? Keep going. Keep going when you write junk. Keep going when you are confused. Keep going when you don’t know where you are going. Let writing do writing.