Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.

Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 3

This is the third in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today in the Tao of Memoir Writing, I’m reflecting on the telling of our life journey. Consider this:

The journey begins at the gate or the journey begins in the middle of the garden.

Wherever we are appears to be the center. And wherever we go, there we are.

Let me ask an important question for memoir writers. Where will we begin our stories? There is no single answer, no right answer.

Perhaps we should start where we are–wherever our thoughts are focused now. The structure will grow from that. “A tree broader than a woman can embrace is born of a tiny shoot.”

THE TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: If you are just getting started on your memoir, the most important thing to do is to just begin. As your ideas and words begin to flow, there will be plenty of time to consider the structure of your memoir. If you are bogged down, don’t worry about a cohesive flow. Pick up your writing at another point in the story. Later you can organize the material.

Many years ago, so long ago that I was using a Smith Corona Coronet Super 12 electric typewriter, I developed a three step trick for getting my writing started:

(1) Insert a blank piece of white paper into the platen and roll it until about an inch is visible;

(2) Type the word “The”;

(3) Cross out the word with a series of xxxs.

Voila! I didn’t have to worry that the first word or first sentence was perfect, engrossing, or even vaguely interesting. The blank page wasn’t blank. I was already launched.

That old trick seems silly today, but it conveys a message. You can start any place. You cannot imagine where the memoir writing journey will take you. You simply need to get started on the adventure.

Remember: Wherever you are in the process of memoir writing is the center of your thought. Wherever you go, you will find yourself.

by Matilda Butler

What’s Your Story?

One of the reasons we write stories from our life is to make sense of our journeys.

What have we accomplished that has made a difference? What lessons should we pass on? What wounds need to be healed? What do we celebrate, and who do we forgive? What story are you creating foryourself?

The answers to these questions are revealed in the stories we tell about ourselves.

Periodically we need to pause and assess how our lives are unfolding. Understanding the twists and turns that our lives have taken gives us a choice to move forward on the same path or in a different direction. “They” say that we cannot change our past (and they are right). However, we can start fresh with a new beginning at any time in our lives.

We were created by a loving God who gives us the gift of free will to be authors of our life stories. How is your story unfolding? Are you the hero(ine) or the victim? As children we depended on others to give us a good life, and sometimes they let us down in tragic, even horrific ways. But we are the adults now–the ones in charge–the ones who are responsible for our happiness and peace of mind. The truth is, we can keep doing the same things over and over expecting different results, or we can have the courage to change and embrace the life we were meant to live.

Writing prompt: Write a letter congratulating yourself on a time you stood your ground. How did it make you feel?

Helpful resource: One of the books in my personal library that has helped me dig deeply into myself for understanding is Barry Lane’s Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery (Writer’s Digest Books, 1993).

Joyce Boatright has been writing stories from her life since 1991. She serves on the Board of Story Circle Network.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 2

This is the second in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Tao [dau], n. way or path

Yin [yin], n. negative, dark

Yang [yahng], n. positive, bright

Let’s consider a second element in the Tao of memoir writing. Our lives are not a series of unrelated elements. Each flows into the other. I put it this way:

Yin becomes yang as night becomes day.

Each has an element of the other within it. Yin and yang are opposites, yet interdependent. Together they represent the process of transformation.

In telling our stories, we look for elements that brought about changes in us or in others because of us. Are there the seeds of one in the other? Does tragedy lead to new hope? Does happiness eventually come from pain? Does health come from sickness?

Lives are not all yin or all yang but an ever-changing combination of the two.

A TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Take time to consider the turning points in your life. In reflecting on your life, what do you think has made you the person you are today? Influences from the geography in which you were raised? A relative or teacher who helped redirect your life? A passion that you “gift” to someone else? A trauma that redirected your energies? A death that released you to be the person you are?

Create a list of turning points in your life. These might be times when you moved from yin to yang or the opposite. Create a second list of people who have helped you through your turning points or who even created them. Write a paragraph on one combination of a turning point event and a person involved in the turning point.

What did you learn about yourself? Notice the interdependencies of dark and light, of negative and positive. Be attentive to the events and people in your life, including those that seem like opposites. Understanding the yin and yang will help you develop the insights necessary for memoir writing.

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 1

This is the first in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

A memoir begins as a seed. It soon becomes a shoot, then a sapling, then a tree with many expansive branches that arches over an entire garden. How does it know to do this?

Tao [dau], n. way

The Tao, the way or the path, views life as part knowledge, duty, rationality, and part religion, morality, truth. It is not a fixed set of principles. In fact, it often employs riddles and paradoxes to convey its meaning. The Tao offers distinctive insight into many of life’s endeavors, including memoir writing.

Here’s the first Tao of Memoir Writing:

The complete truth is that truth is never complete. The unchanging truth is that truth is forever changing.

In our memoirs, we want to honor the emotional truth of events as we remember them while honoring the factual truth as well.

At the same time, we acknowledge that we are different people today than we were yesterday or last year, so today’s perception of yesterday’s or last year’s truth changes as well.

Seek the emotional truth of your story. You may remember the story differently than others, but readers understand this is your version of events. Most memoirists tell the story their way. Period. Others tell the story as they remember it and then state what someone else, usually a family member, says happened. The particular sequence of events, the location of events, the emotional states of those involved, even who was there are remembered differently by different people. Doubt this? Just reflect on any recent family gathering and you’ll see what I mean. All of these facts can change depending on the role of the person in the story and even the amount of time between the event and the writing.

Acknowledge, at least to yourself, that the memoir is your version. At the same time, don’t alter what you know to be the ‘truth’ to have a better story or to put you in a better light.

by Matilda Butler

White Board Magic

by Jude Walsh Whelley

While in Prague for a Deep Writing Workshop with my creativity coach Eric Maisel, he walked us through a demonstration on how to use a white board to focus and track your work. He mapped out a three-month plan to write a non-fiction book. I have found that using the white board to focus my work really helps. I use this technique in different ways; this is the current version.

I note the goals at the top. These are the big ideas, the final products.

Then I list the specific things I am doing that week to advance those goals. Now the nice thing about a white board is the ability to easily erase and revise. So I can set my plans for the week and then adjust them as the week progresses. For example, I may have on the board to read a particular article for research and get that into Evernotes. Then the next step listed might be to incorporate that into the chapter where it belongs, to add some words to that chapter. But if in reading that article, I get leads on two or three additional articles that look good, I can revise my board to include more research time as opposed to writing time.

What is most helpful for me is having the plan in such an easily viewed form. My white board is oversized; many folks work with much smaller ones but bigger is better for me. It is hard to miss this in my smallish workspace. Setting the board up weekly is best for me now because I am working short at the moment, concentrating on personal essays. As I begin to plan a non-fiction book I will move to the three-month plan on the big board with a smaller board for weekly tracking. If I am working on two projects simultaneously, I just use different colored dry erase markers to identify which task goes to which project.

Simple, easy, efficient! Thanks Eric Maisel for a strategy that continues to serve me well.

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together


Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn’t quite right for them.

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all.

Simple, no?

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive “ears” tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I “heard” them, like a click in my mind that said, “Stop here. This needs work.”

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well.

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that’s 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while.

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds “season.”

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I’d be done with the revision–she’s eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, “I’ll have it back to you by July 15th.”

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could “hear” passages that felt like they weren’t necessary.

What isn’t necessary to a story like this? That’s hard to define: it’s both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers’ engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts.

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice.

There’s no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what’s not working.

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages.

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier.

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread.

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart


I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit “send”–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. “We expect service to be restored again tomorrow,” the chirpy support person said. Great.

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did.

That’s the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard’s birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir.

So here’s to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I’ve learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn’t let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person.

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died


((This post was originally published on Susan J. Tweit’s blog.)