Writing Can Change Lives

Have you ever made a decision, taken an action, voiced or written something and then had one of those intuitive prickles that tells you that what you just did has irrevocably altered your life path?

That's what happened to me when I started working on the story that eventually became my new memoir, Walking Nature Home, just published last month by University of Texas Press. When I first got the story out onto paper, I read it over and got goosebumps. "This is going to change my life," I thought.

It did. But not the way I expected. And the change didn't exactly happen at warp speed: it took more than two decades. I figured that once I had the story written, I'd find an agent, who would sell it to a big publisher, the New York Times would review it and I'd be on my way as a writer. Well…. The last part was right: once I finished that first draft, I was on my way as a writer. No, I did not find an agent, sell the manuscript to a big publisher, or get reviewed in the New York Times (yet).

What I did do was get hooked on writing. And over the next 26 years, I wrote 11 books, literally hundreds of newspaper columns and articles for magazines and newspapers from the Cody (Wyo.) Enterprise to the Los Angeles Times, from Cricket for kids to Popular Mechanics and Audubon. I spoke to audiences large and small, taught writing workshops around the country, and eventually attracted readers who buy every book I write.

All those years, whenever I had time between urgent deadlines, I kept going back to that first story. I tried various ways of telling it, experimented with different voices, wove in supporting information from experts…. Each time, the tale improved, but it never quite found its rhythm or its heart. Finally, a friend read it and told me: "It's a love story. Let it off the leash!" (Thank you, Nancy Fay.)

I re-read it, and saw what she meant: I had tried to tell the story in a distant, objective way. That sucked the life out of it. I needed to write as the passionate, joyous, imperfect, doubting, searching, generous, foolish, loving human being I am, and let the other characters in the memoir speak up and be themselves too. Once I did that, the story found its voice and began to sing.

And I found a publisher who loved it and turned it into a beautiful book, the kind of book that people pick up and cherish. It's gotten some wonderful reviews (not in the New York Times–yet), but mostly it seems to be selling by word of mouth, hand to hand, and heart to heart. Suddenly (and the book has been out less than two months), I get a steady stream of fan emails and requests for my time: Can you come speak to my club, group, or in my lecture series? Will you read at my bookstore? Would you teach a workshop at my school or writing conference? 

Suddenly the quiet writing time that I have depended on to meet my deadlines and generate work that pays the bills, the time I need to listen to my inner voice and nurture my soul, is hard to find. Suddenly I'm working seven days a week just to keep up. (And no, I'm not getting rich. I was going to say that would make it easier, but truthfully, it wouldn't. Money brings its own complications.)

What I felt twenty-something years ago was true: this story would, and did, change my life. I just didn't know how long it would take, or what the change would mean. It hooked me on writing, helped me find my voice and the stories I tell best, and finally, it gave me the courage to write in a personal and open-hearted way that inspires readers to say things like, "Could not put it down–when to bed with tear tracks still staining my cheeks. What a beautiful, intimate, insightful, and moving piece of work."

Oh, my! Even as I struggle to find my balance in writing and life, I am grateful to have the gift of reaching and touching others' hearts. And onward I go, trusting that the story I've finally written will guide me, too.

This is the tenth and penultimate stop on my blog book tour, a virtual journey to promote Walking Nature Home. My previous stop was with artist, writer, and considerer of a creative life Susan Gallacher-Turner. Last night Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett interviewed me for their insightful teleseminar series for Women's Memoirs. (If you missed the live event, you'll be able to hear it via a link on their site beginning on Monday.) The tour ends at my blog, Walking Nature Home, on 4/12, with a wrap-up and surprise. If you want to know more about the book, check my web site or read a review on Story Circle Book Reviews. (Illustration of the constellation Orion by artist Sherrie York, from the book.)

6 responses to “Writing Can Change Lives

  1. Susan, Thanks for your remarks here. I think the act of writing changes every writer. Whether we’re writing a memoir, a poem or a piece of fiction we become very introspective as we think about what we want to say and as we search our minds and experiences for the right words. We examine ourselves, our lives, our beliefs, and consciously and unconsciously we are changed.
    Matilda’s and my time with you last night was a real treat. I think your comments will be useful to many writers. As for your Room of Your Own, your study, I’m terribly envious. In fact everyone here should listen to the recording, which will be published at http://WomensMemoirs.com on Monday, just to hear about the very special writing space Susan enjoys. Believe me, you’ll want one just like it.
    Thank you again, Susan, and continued good luck with the book. Matilda sends her good wishes as well but she’s still cut off by the fiber-optic communications blackout plaguing Silicon Valley.

  2. Kendra, Thanks for that insightful comment. I found it interesting that one of the questions from listeners to last night’s teleseminar was about just this subject. I had already written this post, so I’d been thinking about how much writing this particular story had changed my life–and the way it’s going, will continue to change my life! You’re absolutely right about introspection–it does and should change us.
    I very much enjoyed the conversation with you and Matilda last night and am looking forward to linking to the audio version on your Women’s Memoirs site on Monday. I’m going to add it to the reading group guide for Walking Nature Home.
    And I hope Matilda’s internet connection is back up soon! We forget how important the technology that links us is to our daily lives….

  3. Susan, I’m so glad you got hooked on writing. Your on the ground tour and your blog tour have been exciting to witness and be part of in a small way.
    May your book and your work prosper and grow.
    Janet Riehl

  4. Janet, your Riehlife newsmagazine site and your courage and heart in tending to your communities both on this continent and in Africa are an inspiration to me. I can’t wait to read your African journey stories!

  5. I’m really hoping the SCN Lifewriting group gets to read/discuss Walking Nature Home. Will you come visit with us when we do, Susan?

  6. Dani, I’d love to visit the SCN Lifewriting group. Just let me know when you decide and what you’d like from me! I’ve already put a reading group guide up on my web site at http://www.susanjtweit.com/Susansite/Walking_Nature_Home_files/readingguide.pdf
    It’ll load slowly, but it should give you good material to get started with. (Check out the beautiful endorsement from Barry Lopez, one of my writing heroes!)

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