Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chapter 12 • 2008-2010 • Helping Writers Write

When people tell me they want to write a book, I always ask, “What is your book about … in one sentence?” It is so difficult to answer that question. Unless these aspiring authors have developed a sound byte they can rattle off in thirty seconds, they tend to explain why they want to write the book or tell a long story about the book’s content. Somewhere in that monologue is the point: what the book is about.

In my classes, I insist that every student must answer that question in a way anyone can understand. We don’t move forward until they do, and sometimes that takes a while. In a class fellow students can help to clarify a concept by asking questions and making suggestions. Eventually, everyone succeeds, though they may not understand until much later why this is so important. Yet, they are delighted when someone asks about their books and they are able to confidently respond with a single, well-crafted statement.

If defining the subject of a book is so tough, imagine what it takes to define a life. Training courses on subjects as diverse as managing time and dealing with change often start by asking participants to distill their mission into one sentence. What is your purpose? What matters to you? What do you value? It is hard to set goals or even manage time if you have no North Star to guide you.

Perhaps because I have been to many such programs, I have spent considerable time pondering the answers to those questions. For most of the past forty years, I have come up with the same answer: My purpose is to write. That has been the foundation, to which I have added new goals along the way. I sometimes visualize my career as a house with many additions, some of which go with the original design, while others are just extra rooms I never intended to build.

No one is more surprised than I that the foundation has held firm all these years. “What are you doing these days?” someone will ask me. “Still writing,” I reply. “Really? That’s great!” they may say, as if they thought I would be in another line of work (or retired) by now. I know I am among those fortunate people who find their life’s work and never question their choice.

“"I want you to know, my life changed with taking your class. You gave me the confidence and boldness to be able to put myself out there with my writing. Heroes aren't Superman; they are people like you who take the time to nurture the potential in others so they, in turn, have something to offer someone else. Thank you."

Spring 2008• Kim Dailey • Special Education Teacher

The writing life has neither been a breeze nor filled with the romance of book tours and appearances on the Today Show and Oprah. I have not written a best seller, though I haven’t given up on that dream. Many of my books are out of print, but I have discovered that people do own them. Once, when I lent my only copy of Polish Your People Skills to a client, who lent it to someone else, I bought a used copy on Amazon.

I have always considered myself a working writer. By that, I mean I worked for other people, as a salaried employee or a freelancer and wrote about topics of their choosing. I tackled wide-ranging subject matter, primarily about business and always nonfiction. Only in recent years have I have begun to write articles and books about writing.

A few years ago, when I knew I had to rethink my business strategy or sink, I talked to woman whom I had known for a long time. As “The Job Doctor,” she had years of accumulated wisdom to share with people who were trying to figure out what to do with their lives. I was at a crossroads, and I felt stuck. Entrepreneurs do tend to rethink their direction every five years or so, she said. Being in a state of suspended animation is normal after fifteen years in business. I left feeling somewhat validated but still unsure of where to go from there.

While my entrance into the world of ghostwriting was serendipitous, major changes often happen that way. My mission had evolved when I began to clarify my expanding role and add book coaching and editing to the mix. In addition to writing, I now wanted to help other writers write. With my first job as a magazine editor, I became hooked on enabling talented people to have their work published.

Teaching reintroduced me to the joy of helping others write their stories. I was surprised at how much I loved to teach. I treated my little continuing education class like a graduate-level course in writing. I wrote lesson plans, invited professionals to speak, assigned homework, and read and critiqued students’ work. I related to each of my students and the subjects of their books. At times when the economy foundered, and people were holding on to their money, the community college was often forced to cancel some classes. I felt adrift when mine was among them, and I was unable to teach.

“"Do you realize how many people you've inspired with your classes? You inspired me to write, even though I'm the world's worst procrastinator. Thank you for your encouragement, your sense of humor and your ability to handle awkward situations with aplomb. I enjoy your blog very much - keep it going."

Spring 2008 • Marilyn Heidbrier

When my students and clients began to publish their books, I felt like a proud grandmother. As I put each new, autographed copy on my “friends-of-Bobbi shelf,” I knew that I was doing exactly what I should be doing. I treasure these books more than my own.

Years ago, before anyone ever heard the expression, “pay it forward,” I understood the concept. I realized that no one succeeds without help. I doubt that I even remember all the people who helped me or fully appreciated what they did for me. There was no way to repay them except to pass it on to the next generation of writers. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so. Whenever someone thanks me for advice or assistance, I remind them of their obligation to those who are right behind them on the path. The image of an unbroken chain comes to mind.