It began with lined notebook paper, awkwardly neat letters written in perfected spaces between the lines. Much of the paper had little holes and charcoal smears where I had erased and written another word, then erased again. My writing looked like this until I learned to use the heavy electric typewriter in my parents’ room. Then my writing was on clean white paper with little swipes of White-Out.
I needed it to be perfect. I didn’t enjoy it. But the books I loved ardently because they showed me there was life beyond my house? They guided me to keep writing.
Most of my papers in high school arrived in rough draft form to my mother, who insisted on editing them all. I typed them up with her changes. She wanted me to succeed on her terms. I followed orders. I learned early that the perfected piece of writing that would eventually have a big red A on the top was more important than my words.
In my first writing workshop in college, when I was finally free to write my own stories, I broke down crying when a puzzled young man who played on the football team told me that my stories made no sense. I wanted them to move people. I wanted to share what was mine.
But what was my story? Those stories he read were painfully pretentious short stories. One was about a young woman who was so passive aggressive that her method for trying to die was to deliberately not put on sunscreen so she’d die of skin cancer eventually. (Sigh. That was a thinly veiled metaphor for me at 20.) I didn’t know how to write what mattered yet.
I didn’t know yet.
A writing teacher handed me a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She saw my tears. She had read my awkward attempts at perfecting stories that didn’t sound real. “Read this,” she told me. “You need this.” For months after, I poured over every word and began spilling nonsensical words across the lines of ruled paper. Screw the rules. Words gushed out of me. The dam had been broken.
Teaching writing skills to 10th and 11th graders at the high school on Vashon honed what I wanted to write. If you know something well, you can explain it to anyone, in simple sentences, then watch them flourish. Spending every day teaching the power of strong verbs, the specific details, and the sentences that sang? I ran home every day and wrote pages and pages in big black sketchbooks. I was no longer gushing words. I was choosing them, not losing them.
The year after I spent a summer in New York City, I hit my rage. The stories I had been holding back behind a dam so thick I didn’t even know it existed? They emerged. Fast. My hands couldn’t keep up with everything that my brain demanded. In one six-week period, I filled a 300-page sketchbook with black words written with Pilot pens that emptied quickly.
I still have those notebooks. I never read them again. They hold my purging, the self I am now who was beginning to emerge with each true image I wrote. Writing put cracks in the thick windows. I was starting to drink in clear water.
After I moved to New York, I tutored students in SAT vocabulary and expository writing. My second year there I created a freelance screenplay-editing business in Manhattan. What experience did I have? Decades of studying films, which were bright spots of joy in the darkness. Reading and re-reading every book I could find on filmmaking and screenwriting and storytelling. I had clients lined up every day of the week within a few months. I was teaching. And learning. And feeling so damned good.
One day in 1998, I was hired to be someone’s book editor after a day of babysitting her kid, then marking up the chapters she had written the way I had marked up my students’ papers. That was a crazy year of writing and editing.
I emerged from that year even more clear — teaching writing and editing other people’s writing gives me equal joy to my own writing.
When I’m working with people who want to write a story so they can satisfy themselves, not merely be published or impress other people? I feel alive and useful, fully imbued with joy.
People who work with words, humbly, determined to make sense out of the madness and not be afraid of the mistakes on the paper? You are my people.
And now, I want to work with you.
Some people have asked me, “Wait, you work on joy?” Yep.
Honestly, I don’t think anything matters more than joy. I truly do believe you can have more joy. Through all these years, I’ve learned a gratifying amount in my brain, and now my body, about how to design a life around joy. It’s a profound shift.
But it sort of sounds funny to say, “Hi, my job is joy.” Some people look at me a little oddly.
We all want something tangible. Joy? Of course. But it’s a little nebulous. Hard to tackle.
The joy of writing your own story? Now there’s something more tangible.
“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”
Grappling with words, every day? It has been the biggest joy of my life, a process that consistently surprises me, challenges me, and rewards me with a temporary pause in the need to keep writing. Then, I wake up in the morning and want to begin again.
If you feel like that? Join me at The Joy of Writing Your Story.
This is an online workshop for you, if you want to write the story that has been scaring you, the one you want to write but you don’t know how.
I can help.
Four 90-minute workshop sessions, with specific topics, assignments, conversations, and the chance to talk with other writers.
Daily writing prompts every day of the four weeks.
A one-on-one editing session with me after, whenever you have the draft of that single piece you’ve worked on enough that you’re finally satisfied.
A community of writers, people strange enough to want to type as fast as the song that’s playing in their heads, to sing it out and let it go.
The confidence to know your story matters.
You do NOT have to be a professional writer to take this workshop. We’re not going to be talking about pitching, book proposals, or publishing at all.
This workshop is for anyone who understands this Maya Angelou quote down to the bone: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
You see, the greatest joy of my life is my love of writing and sharing what I learned through all those painful decades of holding back and thousands and thousands of rough drafts, 5 published books, and the blank page every morning.
I want to share that joy with you.
Want to find your joy?
This is a good place to start.
This is a piece for everyone. Most of my essays are sent to paid subscribers, however.
If you choose a paid subscription — at only $5 a month — you’ll receive a weekly essay from me, about a time in my life that I felt doubt, worry, and fear, then came through that time to find more joy.
I also send out stories of other people who’ve come through hard places to find joy, in the form of profiles of people i know in my community. Joy is always specific and pretty fascinating.
Also, check out my new website: You Can Have More Joy. There are lots of joy possibilities for you there as well.