Sara’s Second Draft

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Several years ago, I bought a novel titled The Answer Is Yes. I didn’t recognize the author’s name, but the cover copy sold me immediately. I read the book once, then twice, and just yesterday, a third time. What’s different today is that I not only recognize Sara Lewis’s name, but I’ve read all her books and even taken a writing class with her.

Sara has published six books-a short story collection and five novels-before she made a decision that would change the course of her life and career. (I’ll let Sara tell you about that in a minute!) Her writing career is quite impressive for a woman who seriously studied acting before getting a degree in psychology and then, finally, at age 29, started to write. Her first short story was published in “The New Yorker.” Many of the stories in her first book, Trying to Smile: And Other Stories, were initially published in women’s magazines and literary journals.

Sara’s work mixes humor, free-floating spirituality, and tenderly flawed characters. Her voice is of this minute, smart with heart and conscience. It’s not that Sara’s characters do no wrong, it’s that they make mistakes with an acute awareness that they need to find a better way to live.

I’ve been trying to figure out which of Sara’s books is my favorite. I’ve read each of them mulitple times, and I still can’t decide. The Best of Good tells the story of musician Tom Good’s slow awakening from years of depressed isolation. Tom begins to wake up when he learns that ten years ago, he may have fathered a child. Watching Tom reconnect to the human race is like watching a baby learn to walk. There are spills along the way, but his determination and courage eventually lead to success. “Watching” may seem like a strange word to use in reference to reading a novel, but Sara’s voice is hypnotically visual, almost cinematic.

The Best of Good is Sara’s latest novel, and a great place to begin her back list, unless you’re a writer, in which case you might want to start with Second Draft of My Life. Charlotte Dearborn is a mid-list writer stuck with smallish sales and a disillusioned agent. Finally fed up with her unstable income, Charlotte decides to change careers, reasoning that anything, even teaching elementary school, must be easier, at least emotionally, than what she’s doing. The steady paycheck, and an attractive male teacher, are other lures.

Charlotte’s journey goes soul deep, but also has its lighter moments. Charlotte’s interactions with her young students are often as hilarious as they are poignant. But as an artist confronting an indifferent audience, she painfully realizes that the joy of writing has evaporated. It’s time to move on. Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Writing is a part of who Charlotte is, and the muse won’t let her go without a fight. She has to find a new way to be with her art.

Sara’s own story is remarkably similar. After six books of fiction, she failed to find a publisher for her seventh novel. So she took a soul journey and started something else. Like Charlotte, Sara became a teacher. But fortunately for writers, she’s not teaching six year olds. I recently completed my first session in her brilliant Intuitive Writing School, and recommend it to any writer at any stage of her artistic development.

Since taking Sara’s class, my writing has opened up in surprising ways. I wrote a paranormal short story–something I’d never imagined I would do, but was so much fun! I also sent two story pitches to Oprah–before Sara’s class I would have been too intimidated. And then there’s my non-fiction book proposal. Pre-Sara, I dismissed the ms. as “just a textbook” and planned to publish it myself. At Sara’s suggestion, I’m sending it to publishers–and just this week Writer’s Digest Books asked to see the proposal.

But enough about me. What can Sara’s school do for you? I asked her that and a lot of other writerly type questions. Here’s what she said.

Cindy: How long does it take you to write a book?

Sara: If only it were so simple! Just X number of days, weeks, months, and you’re done! Ha! No such luck! The shortest length of time was 9 months; the longest was 2 ½ years. It really depends on the book. Like most things about my writing, I don’t get to decided; the book does.

C:What’s your writing schedule like?

S: I usually do most of my new writing in the morning. I get up early (between 4 and 5). Most of my work happens before noon.

C: What other things in a writer’s life should happen for the optimum writing experience?

S: Speaking for myself, I believe I need daily exercise for a lot of reasons, the primary ones having to do with the writing itself. I get a lot of good ideas while exercising. It also helps to build and maintain the stamina I need for writing, which is pretty physically demanding sometimes! I feel that daily meditation helps a lot, as well as experiencing other art forms, such as film, music, painting, etc.

C: How’s teaching?

S: Teaching has been a big, happy surprise to me. I am learning so much and gaining so many side benefits! I have wonderful students, who are all doing different kinds of interesting projects.

C: Can writing be taught?

S: I’m sure it can. Material for a traditional writing class–the mechanics of writing–is not part of my curriculum, however. What I’m teaching is not so much how to write good sentences, exposition, characters,and plots, but how to get out of your own way and let the writing happen. I’m focusing on how to listen to and believe in your own inner voice, your intuition. I’m finding that for many people, writing has become a miserable chore filled with worry and self-doubt. My purpose in Intuitive Writing is to help writers to let go of the anxiety and rediscover the magic of letting their own writing bubble out of them without their intellectual judgment and interference.

C: What’s the difference between teaching real and virtual classes?

S: The advantage that immediately comes to mind is that anyone with Internet access anywhere in the world can join the class. Some of my students would not be able to participate in a face-to-face class, because they are too far from towns where classes are offered. Another advantage, from my perspective anyway, is that the interaction seems less invasive. Writers need to have the space to develop their own idiosyncratic projects. Distance learning allows them that space while giving them support at the same time. While I try to have a light touch with the interaction, I also connect with the students daily. I want them to feel that they can be alone to write, but that they don’t have to be lonely! In a traditional class, interaction is usually less frequent. Paradoxically, I feel that the connection between my students and me, even though it’s through email and phone calls, is more intimate. Maybe because we’re not face-to-face, they seem immediately open to sharing their writing issues. There’s very little pretense to get through.

C: What are the tools students should expect to use in your writing school?

S: I use what I call the 20-Minute Write-Away, daily timed writing sessions, using pen and notebook, to help writers generate material quickly as well as to get in touch with their intuition. I also have quite a few exercises to help writers develop their projects.

C: If you don’t teach craft, what do you teach?

S: I would not say that I don’t teach craft. I feel that I teach parts of the craft that are often overlooked in traditional writing classes. I teach empowerment, optimism, and joy. I feel these are essential basic equipment for writers. As a writer, your ideas and abilities are unlimited, and I want you to be in touch with that as soon and as often as possible. We writers have received so many strong, negative messages, telling us that our work may not be original enough, that writing itself is a self-indulgent pursuit, that only a few really special people have access to the rewards of writing, and all kinds of other limiting beliefs. Some of us can no longer write a word without trying to assess and grade our output according to some unattainable standard. That’s all nonsense!

I want to show people who have the urge to write not only that they should write what their hearts tell them to but that they must write it. In addition, I want them to have the experience of the words coming quickly and easily from deep within them and to have the profound pleasure of surprising themselves with the wonderful, quirky things they have to say. And I want them to understand that there is a perfect place for their writing to be gratefully received by an appreciative audience and to be generously rewarded.

C: Can a writer learn to be funny, or is humor genetic?

S: I think a writer can learn to allow herself to be funny. Like many of the skills involved in writing, chances are this ability is already there, fully developed, if you want it, you just have to be willing to let it out.

C: Why do you call your writing program “intuitive”?

S: My approach emphasizes allowing the work to take shape as you write it and de-emphasizes planning and outlining. In this way, we’re trusting our inner guidance to show create our projects and keeping out intellect out of it as much as possible. I’ve found in my own work that there’s a strong connection between intuition and writing. Often my plot and characters seem to take off in a direction I haven’t expected. Sometimes things I’ve written about in a novel later happen in my life. To me, these surprises are among the most exciting, gratifying parts of the writing experience.

C: Do students want you to read their manuscripts?

S: Sometimes, but more often, they’re relieved that they don’t have to show me anything! So many of us have been over-criticized to the point that anticipation of others’ responses has created anxiety and blocks.

C: What’s your policy about that?

S: My policy, and I did not know how unconventional this was when I started, is that students need to develop their projects without interference. I don’t read their work. I encourage them in their writing on a daily basis through emails and phone calls. I help them set up their schedules and develop daily writing habits. But I don’t read and give feedback on what they’re writing. They really don’t need me for this. Students coming to my class already have the skills they need to write exactly what they want to write. What they may need is encouragement, structure, daily practice, and companionship.

C: And what’s the philosophy behind it?

S: The philosophy is simply that writing needs to develop considerably before it’s ready for an audience. When you first start a project, you really don’t know yet where it’s going. Early reaction can seriously damage or derail a project. The way most writing classes are set up is that the student receives feedback at every step in the process. Write a paragraph, see what people think. Write a chapter, get a reaction from the class. While writing classes are designed to give students needed structure, support, and accountability, the feedback aspect of most classes can make students deaf to their own inner guidance. Writers can become dependent on others’ reactions and shape their work to fit what they think this audience wants. Often they become so worried about what the feedback will be that they stop writing entirely. What I’m trying to show students is that if you give the work time to develop (I recommend taking a piece through three full drafts) before getting a response, you’ll end up with a piece that is much closer to your soul goals than you would otherwise. Your writing will be stronger when and have a clearer voice and purpose. Meanwhile, working in this way, you are training yourself to feel what works in your own writing, which is an essential skill. And I believe that this method may even prevent or heal some of the blocks that come from worrying about a teacher’s or group’s response to your work.

C: How has your acting education and your psychology degree helped you as a writer?

S: I use my acting skills every time I write fiction by playing all the characters I write! I think the psychology has helped by giving me deeper insight into the way people think. With fiction, it’s all about being able to empathize with the characters and to create thought patterns different from your own. Both acting and psychology help with that.

C: How many years did you spend writing fiction before you took on this non-fiction project?

S: I wrote mainly fiction for 23 years before I started Intuitive Writing.

C: Were you always writing or planning a novel or did you take time off between books? How long do you need to “refill the well”?

S: I was always writing.

C: What has this vacation from fiction done for you?

S: Vacation is certainly not the term I would use! Developing Intuitive writing has been a very intense journey in many directions at once. I’m turning inward to understand how I do what I do, and at the same time, I’m listening to what other writers say and trying to get it all down in the form of useful lessons. My expectation is that I’ll return to fiction more grounded and conscious of the way my own creative process works.

C: Your bio says “Drama school killed my acting career.” Explain how you think that happened.

S: Overemphasis on criticism that I discussed earlier with regard to writing classes was very much a part of acting school. It took away my natural fearlessness and put self-consciousness there instead. I’ve since noticed that a lot of artists who go to school to train a native talent end up doing something else. In my case, I think that my creativity survived; I just found a different way to express it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

C: Why the switch to non-fiction and teaching?

S: I wrote a novel that I thought was to be the first in a series of five about a California family. Unfortunately, no one bought it. I decided that the universe was telling me to switch directions and do something else. But I had no idea what! I felt that if my intuition were stronger, I would be able to figure this out. So I took some workshops on intuition and read a lot of books about it.

Gradually, it came to me through my daily writing that I should offer help to other writers in the same way a mentor had once offered help to me. As I started writing a how-to book on writing, I discovered that the purpose of my intuition studies was to show people how to let the work come to you from a deep inner place and not from some external concept of what you “should” be writing or what you think will sell. This is the way I have always written, but it was the first time that I’d thought to call it “intuitive.”

C: What’s the status on those connected family sagas?

S: I’m not sure what will happen with them. I have an idea for a second book, but I really don’t know where it will take me. Stay tuned!

C: Who were the authors of the books you loved as a child?

S: This is a very astute question that no one has ever asked me before. Now that I think about it, I realize how much the books I loved growing up influenced my writing. I loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald, illustrated by Hilary Knight, the Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These were all books my mother read aloud to us. I also enjoyed the series about The Melendy Family by Elizabeth Enright. I adored a book I got from Scholastic book orders in sixth grade called The Funny Guy by Grace Allen Hogarth. I still have it, and it I read it right now, it would still make me cry.

C: Where in the process is your creative writing book? Have you finished a final draft?

S: I’ve finished several drafts, and I have a lot of ideas for additional products for Intuitive Writers.

Can’t wait to see everything, Sara.

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1 Comment

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