Karen Telleen-Lawton: The Writing Life | Homes & Lifestyle

Revered writers nudge us toward a new way of thinking, an adventure, or an avocation. Some of my favorites include Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, John McPhee and Terry Tempest Williams. These writers empty themselves to connect with readers and share their perspectives on the human experience.


I just read an enticing novel by Maggie O’Farrell. “Hamnet” weaves a fictional story around Shakespeare’s elusive life. The book convinced me that writers like Shakespeare are compelled to release the words surging within them, even at the potential cost of their livelihood, family, reputation, or life.

Other writers are reasonably content to journal daily, compose haikus, or create a page or sonnet when it moves them.

Most writers have other occupations, whether for interests’ sake or to help with the bills. My professions have included industrial engineer, computer teacher, adjunct economics professor, and, until my retirement this year, financial planner and advisor.

In my writing I work to dovetail these technical-oriented professions with my passions for nature, justice, and healing the environment. Sometimes I feel it as an urge; other times it’s a struggle.

The most powerful writing book I have read is Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” now in its 25th anniversary printing. Lamott is a believer in the power of routine to ensure output, while allowing serendipity to guide the creative process.

Lamott responded to a query posed to her friend Amy Dickinson (Ask Amy), “[An aspiring writer] is lucky to have … many great ideas but that does not mean they’d make good books. I’d create a file of plot ideas and see if they excited me a month later. If one plot won’t leave me alone, and the characters are compelling enough to spend a year with, I may be on to something!”

Lamott’s advice is geared for fiction writers, but nonfiction is worthy of the same care. While I love reading fiction, it is well-written nonfiction that moves me to action. Facts are precious and, while not few, are difficult to uncover in a world of fictions presented as facts.

For nonfiction writers, the daily or near-daily journal is essential for mining what moves us sufficiently to write convincingly. Later, reviewing a period of your journaling will help you perceive where your heart is.

How can you help a friend or partner who is an aspiring writer? Lamott warns, “The ‘help’ is not helpful — the hyper-excitement and support turn the project into frappe speed, instead of the daily elbow grease all writers need to get a few pages written every day. … Express quiet support for new ideas, but no more than that. Maybe [they] follow through, maybe not.”

Ask Amy follows Lamott’s advice by urging writers to, “Write a really s— first draft; keep [your] butt in the chair; then go through and take out the lies, adverbs and boring parts.”

I’m encouraging my granddaughter with a cleansed version of that advice. She enjoys writing chapbooks, copying them on her mom’s printer, and selling them in her front yard. Nice to have good neighbors.

If you’re writing for yourself or your personal circle, celebrate the completion and sharing of your work. If you’re aiming for wider publication, don’t let rejection stand in your way. My most motivating feedback came from John McPhee, who wrote me the kindest handwritten rejection note I ever received.

I asked him for a quote for the book flap of Canyon Voices back in 2007. He handwrote an encouragement-filled rejection note whose sentiment I found included in his Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process, “No one will ever write in just the way you do … Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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