Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 6, 2010

The Semi-Dark Cave of Writing

When I began writing in my twenties, honestly it was kind of to save my life. I had thoughts, feelings, memories, doubts I hardly dared to put in words, and they certainly weren’t going to be spoken ones. My notebooks were entirely secret at first. Then I enrolled in writing classes, and stories had to come out on tables surrounded by a dozen or so other writers. But I was careful about what I typed onto what a few of you may remember as carbon paper to make duplicates. Before I showed my work, I had to feel that it was as good as it could be at the moment. I had to feel that it was both mine and going to be worth the time someone might take to read it.

I’m still cautious about what I show to people. I have a critique group I trust with my life, okay my words (close enough) but I want what they read to have gone through my own interior cycles of compression, revision, and shaking out. My writing process hasn’t changed so very much, but I’m at a point in my career when I occasionally join conversations about branding, or what, if anything, is going to make my books stand out and stand together. I sometimes catch glimpses of expectation when people in the field ask me about what’s next.

I go back to my cave and wonder: does the manuscript I’m working on follow the last in a way that people can follow with ease? I’m not sure these question belong in the cave where I follow the passions of personal questions. Of course I want an audience sometimes. Of course I will step out of the darkness. But when I do, I want to bring something shaped by the measure I began with: simply, words as good as they can be.



  1. One of the hardest things I’ve done with this WIP is decide to show the 1st draft to my critique group. I wasn’t going to, but it was taking SO long, I was feeling lonely & as if I were writing into a void–that just doesn’t work for me. Luckily, like you said, I trust them with it all–and with lots of caveats about just wanting reactions & ideas, and hoping they’d be okay if (when!) the next draft changed so much, they might not be able to track any of their comments into it, etc, etc… 🙂 It’s been good for me, just to have the motivation to get the scenes out, and to have someone I can talk to about Caro and her family. I think my cave is for my worries and my fears, although I admit those slip out sometimes, too! 🙂

    And now you’ve got me trying to remember how I made those copies for my writing classes in college. I do remember carbons, but we were up to copy machines by then, but WHERE?? Where did I go to make those copies–I hate these memory gaps! 🙂

  2. As long as you keep writing to save your life, you will be okay. You can listen to or share with the outside world; caution and knowing when to show will always keep you on the right track.

    Ah, yes, carbon paper, and white-out, and little rubber wheel erasers, and keys that got all smooshed together against the paper. Then little round golf balls with clogged “e”s and “o”s that had to be cleaned with a little brush….

  3. Oh, yes, the loneliness factor absolutely must be considered. You can only stay so long with a ms, and a good critique group is one where it’s safe to show your imperfections. An excellent one can help show you a way out.

    And we’re bound to have some memory gaps! I did use carbons, but also in college Collective Copies, which is still around in Amherst, was a celebratory sort of place to go when I was ready to xerox: and leave with some slightly warm paper in my arms.

  4. Your first line is going to stay right before my eyes today. Headlines on my work in progress. Thank you, Toby!

    And for reminding me of those rubber wheel erasers which seemed oh so exotic in my father’s desk, and typewriter keys getting rammed together when I got frustrated!

  5. I tend to play my early drafts very close to the vest also. I don’t like to talk about a project too early because it drains the energy, the momentum. After it gets to a certain point of solidity, I can speak about it more.

    I don’t like to show my work to people until I’ve fixed all the problems I can find myself. Otherwise, I feel like I’m serving an undercooked meal. Yet some people can invite everyone into the kitchen earlier on!

  6. As long as you keep writing to save your life, you will be okay.

    I’m going to paste this up on my wall, too.

    “Words as good as they can be” sounds like a good place to begin — and end. Tell those other questions to stand out by the river and wait. (Easy to say, I know…)

  7. “And for reminding me of those rubber wheel erasers which seemed oh so exotic in my father’s desk”

    I never got the point of those erasers. Why a wheel? I always wondered if it meant that for some special kind of erasing, you might need to ROLL the eraser over the surface of the paper. But that didn’t actually DO anything. I still don’t get it. But they do look cool. — PL

  8. Good luck with writing to save your life, Amy, and extra hugs to you, Toby, for spurring us onward. May we all have a rewarding fifteen minutes or more today, saving lives or just letting the river flower.

  9. I’m with you, Jenn, for the most part. I try to get things perfect, but sometimes the loneliness factor that Becky mentioned, living too long with people only I know, comes in, and I’ll let a trusted few take a peek. I know they’ve seen the kitchen as a wreck, but still have faith that I can turn out a good meal here. And sometimes their ideas help see me to a new way there.

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