Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Four? Fore! Who's still with me? (20 questions)

4) Can you write from the heart and still distance yourself from your writing enough to judge its quality?

Usually I can, but for a book length project I want other opinions. Some of you may know the story of my test audience for Transit Gloria. For those of you who don't, I promise to dedicate a post to it soon.

For the stories I write for the paper, I trust my own instincts most of the time, and very seldom do I hear from a reader or one of the other editors that I've missed my mark, but in most cases I force myself to be the dispassionate journalist - a skill I think most of us have (but not something a fiction writer should ever do, in my opinion). The one piece that sometimes worries me is my weekly OP-ED column. In it, I occasionally let down my hair and pour my emotions onto the page. The emotions cause me trouble. I don't have time to wait six weeks before I revisit and revise my column - I usually write it right before deadline, and that precludes having an "early reader" as well. AT deadline, no one has time to read my column.

This is a column I wrote last week. I know it isn't a great, I know it's not even close to being one of my best, but I like it. A lot. The problem is, I am very emotionally invested in the subject matter, and I'm not sure I can trust my own judgement on it. I cried when I wrote this, and I expected everyone else to cry with me. Now I know that some people did, and some people didn't, but I still can't approach this story without feeling the emotions I put into writing it.

I want you to meet a friend of mine.

By Mark Pettus

Bob Patterson is my friend. I first met him a few years ago when I moved in next door to him and his wife Judy. Bob is a big man, not quite big enough to be called a gentle giant, but gentle enough. Soft-spoken and well mannered, he is every inch a gentleman.

Two years ago Bob and I built a screen porch onto my house. Every day after work, we put on our bib overalls and went to work sawing wood, hammering nails, and painting boards. For weeks we shared each other's afternoons, and every afternoon I grew fonder of this old gentleman with the boundless energy of a man half my age, and a third of his. Bob is in his mid sixties, only a little younger than my dad, and he treated me the way I hope I treat my sons. Bob told me about his years working on the railroad, and about the time when he was pastor of his own church. He listened to my tales about army life and regaled me with his experiences working in a foundry as a young man. In his sixty-five years, Bob has done almost everything - which comes in very handy when you are building a screen porch.

Last year Bob laid the carpet in my dining room, and I helped him lay the carpet in his bedroom. Last spring I help Bob and Judy sell blueberries from a booth at the St. Augustine Farmers Market. Bob retired from the railroad a couple of years ago, and after Judy retired from teaching school, the two of them started a blueberry farm, and side by side they worked that farm - working harder after they retired than most people work before. Every morning they were up at the crack of dawn watering, planting, weeding, picking - blueberries are a very labor-intensive crop - so labor-intensive that most blueberry farmers turn their farms into pick-your-own operations. Not Bob and Judy. They were afraid their plants would suffer at the hands of customers who didn't understand how much work and love went into growing them. So, they worked all day at the farm, and then brought home buckets of blueberries to sort and package as they sat together at the kitchen table every night.

Bob and Judy love each other in a gentle, playful way that is delightful to see in an older couple. Both were widowed, Judy twice, before they found each other, and they obviously know how blessed they are to have found each other. While Bob and I were working, Judy always let him know dinner was ready by calling his cell phone. Bob always answered with, "I'm on my way," and when Judy told him to wash his hands first, he always replied, "Yes, Mother," and said it without any hint of sarcasm. When I rode with the them to the farmers market, seated behind Bob in the tiny jump seat of his truck, the two of them played "Punch buggy" while he drove and she read the newspaper aloud.

One of my kids found a baby squirrel and brought it home for us to nurse, and when he showed it first to "Mr. Bob," Bob said, "Oh, my goodness." That's Bob's signature phrase. I think you could tell him that the Martians had invaded Orlando, and Bob's response would be "Oh, my goodness." Bob has seen a lot in this life, but it hasn't jaded him. He's a good man with a good heart. I'll never forget attending a funeral for Bob's grandsons' dog, who had been run over by a delivery truck. Bob gave a eulogy that touched my soul, and made me believe that every pet I'd ever loved was waiting for me in heaven.

Last Thanksgiving, Bob knocked on my door. He wanted to tell me something - I don't remember what. He had the sniffles, and I asked him if it was a cold - or allergies - and he told me it was polyps in his nasal cavity, and that he was having them removed the following week. Two weeks later he came by again, and told me the biopsy on one of the polyps had come back positive for cancer, and that he was going in for more surgery after Christmas. He didn't seem terribly worried. He said the doctors' biggest concern was that his nose was just so close to his brain.

During surgery, the doctors found a small tumor on his brain, which they removed - Bob said they told him it just slipped off. He came home a couple of days later. That night, he became confused and angry, and frightened Judy so much that she took him back to the hospital, where he later underwent more surgery, and then over a month of therapy. Bob came home again a couple of weeks ago, but soon suffered another bout of confusion and anger. He is now in a long-term care facility. The doctors say his brain is damaged, and that Bob will never recover. Judy says he won't know me if I go visit, but I need to go see him.

Please join the American Cancer Society in their Relay for Life. It means a lot to me. You see, Bob Patterson is my friend, and I just don't have that many friends.

Can you write from the heart and still distance yourself from your writing enough to judge its quality?

How do you do it?

Mark Pettus,
Wednesday, April 05, 2006

26 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Lady M, Blogger Bernita, Blogger Dennie McDonald, Blogger Jeff, Blogger Erik Ivan James, Blogger anne frasier, Blogger Rene, Blogger Mayden's Voyage, Blogger M. G. Tarquini, Anonymous Kirsten, Blogger Shesawriter, Anonymous Andy, Blogger skees, Blogger S. R. Hatcher, Blogger JLB, Blogger Lady M, Anonymous Kim, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger September, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Frank Baron, Blogger Moni, Blogger serenity, Blogger jen.nifer, Anonymous Anonymous, Anonymous Nienke,

Let me know what you think

Leave a comment


at 11:55 PM Blogger Lady M said...

I mostly write fiction...

So, little pieces of me are interspersed with imagination.

I tend to let my brain just go on autopilot and type like I think... in the words that flow out of my brain and onto the keyboard. More like autowriting, if you ask me.

I've rarely had any scenes that moved me - but for some reason, when I write scenes or situations where the lead character is upset about something, my husband always mentions that I'm in an odd mood...

So perhaps we aren't all able to distance ourselves.

You wrote something very personal to you. You took a chunk of your heart and laid it bare for people to see. In that chunk you shared your feelings, your thoughts... You cannot distance yourself from your own feelings.

Especially when it is something that is currently happening. To do so would put you in the hall of Psychosis. And that, I hear, is a very dangerous hall to walk down...

As far as distancing myself from my writing. I don't. I don't wait weeks to read it over again. I write a page - read that page... Correct the stuff on it - and move on. To me ---- it's written... over with. Unless I'm asked to edit it - I will generally never write that page again. So the emotions or thoughts on that scene are gone - over with... Never to return.

I know that doesn't help you with your current issue on how to keep yourself from "feeling" your writing while you're writing it...

But Mark, to be honest, you wouldn't want to distance yourself. THAT VERY REASON, is why you're such a good writer.

Believe in that.

That is all you need.

Lady M

at 5:25 AM Blogger Bernita said...

Mark, the tools of style and grammar, the discipline of mechanics, the selection of supporting detail, becomes inate, sub-conscious, automatic.
The creativity comes from the crucible of emotions, the impulses of the heart.
Good writing about people always has heart.
"Distance" is not required.Perhaps it should even be avoided.

at 10:02 AM Blogger Dennie McDonald said...

I don't know about the distancing thing - Whatever emotion I am feeling will wind up in my books when I am pissed, my characters are angry. Sad and they are melancholy.

I really don't know about journalistic pieces as I only write fiction but I want pieces where the writer feels passionate about the subject - now some things like the national budget might not garner pathos from the reporter (or maybe it does) but like your piece on Bob and Judy - I wouldn't have wanted it any different than you wrote it!

You did a great job telling their story!

at 10:32 AM Blogger Jeff said...

Friends like Bob and Judy are a rare treasure, Mark. Go visit him, sit and talk with him, even if you think he isn't aware of your presence. He might be, you never know.
I believe any writing that comes from the heart has a unique quality that stands on its own. :)

at 2:27 PM Blogger Erik Ivan James said...

Difficult to comment with eyes full of tears.

I make no attempts to distance myself from the writing. If I don't write from the heart, then I'm not telling the story "I" want to tell.

at 9:37 PM Blogger anne frasier said...

i've had relatives who were victims of cancer treatments they should never have had. the article made me feel sad, but also made me wonder if we're still stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to medicine.

at 9:46 PM Blogger Rene said...

Hmmm....I do feel like I can seperate myself from my writing. I write fiction however I am always trying to deepen the emotion in my writing so I will try and write something difficult i.e. the death of a child. I don't feel the sadness or heartbreak of the piece until I've written it. My focus is on the writing when I write and not on how it makes me feel. I save that for later.

That was a lovely column, very heartfelt and full of humanity.

at 11:03 PM Blogger Mayden's Voyage said...

I write because of the way I feel, and then later can remember the way I felt because of what I wrote.
Something so important happens in between those 2 things. I KNOW how you feel about this man and his wife, and it seems to me in this age of flash, and attention grabbing techniques...actually knowing how a writer "feels" about something is pretty special.
You have it...
-Cora :)

at 3:14 PM Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

Can you write from the heart and still distance yourself from your writing enough to judge its quality?


How do you do it?

I don't know.

at 8:12 AM Anonymous Kirsten said...

I think all forms of communication are a meeting place. It's as if there's a place "out there" between two people, and if communication takes place, it takes place because they've established a connection, a kind of consciousness handshake, because the two relate to one another, & because there is empathy; for a moment or two their minds are synchronized.

Good writing, like all good communciations skills, helps to establish that space and make that handshake possible. And as part of that shared experience there is the sharing of an emotion.

So where does the emotion come from, that a writer infuses into his/her writing? It has to come from within the writer. You can't assemble it, coldly, from words that you stack one on top the other like blocks.

You've probably heard of Masaru Emoto, the fellow who says that when people send loving thoughts to water, the structure of the water changes. Water, he says, is imprinted with the emotion to which it is exposed.

I think words are affected in this way: words are imprinted by the emotion felt as they are being spoken or written.

So I'd say it isn't wise for one to try to distance oneself from emotion, not as one is writing.

Sure, you can come back later, and edit. A first draft hopefully gets the bones in place, then later you shave here & build up there to make sure the bones stand out better. That's the craft & the mechanics of writing. But the emotion has to be there, and it's not going to be there if you don't let yourself feel as you write. IMO.

at 10:25 AM Blogger Shesawriter said...

The only way I can do that is if I put the piece down for a month or so. Otherwise I can't see anything clearly.

at 12:43 PM Anonymous Andy said...

Mark, I'm kind of fuzzy on the question when hit with a piece of writing like that. It hit me in the guts. There was no trace of sentimentality; just the truth. You didn't appeal to the heart-strings - you pulled threads of metal out of the belly with this.

I've read three consecutive blogging friends' latest entries today. All have related to serious illness, death or the process of dying in one way or another. As I don't believe in mere coincidence, I'm kind of led to conclude either death or serious illness is knocking on the door of someone I know, somewhere. Your article gave me a lot to think about. And I hope your meeting with your friend goes better than might be expected, for you and for him. x

at 5:34 PM Blogger skees said...


What is good or better or best? Who really defines that? I write fiction except when I write about family and a few special friends. When I write those occasional pieces, normally memories about family, it literally tears me up, but it just flows and flows. It's theraputic in a way. It's a cleansing of sorts.

I don't know, I guess there is published "best" and personal "best" but when it comes down to the end of the game, what really matters? If you like it that's what matters, because if you like a personal piece it's a damn sure thing that others will. You can never miss with truth, sincerity and heart. I thought these two sentences you wrote were interesting and telling, when split up a little into two seperate thoughts....think about it.

"I know it's not even close to being one of my best,
but I like it. A lot."

And btw, a helluva nice piece. Honest and heartfelt writing. -Sincerely, John Wilson

at 9:53 AM Blogger S. R. Hatcher said...

I like the Op-Ed columns because they are NOT sterile. They are opinons, ideas, someone else's slant. On Sundays, I go to OpEd first.

Pieces written from the heart strike an emotional chord--and isn't that what we hope to do in fiction anyway--connect with reader on some emotional level. Your piece makes a point in a very personal way and I like that.

Lastly, the only way for me to write from the heart and distance myself is to put it aside for a while and then come back to it.

My one cents worth today. Maybe half cents worth.

at 11:50 PM Blogger JLB said...

It is possible to write from the heart, and still maintain the necessary objectivity to review it intelligently – but it takes work and perspective.

For me, my greatest challenge in this comes with writing my poetry. I can look objectively on all other works with a bit of effort, but really standing outside my poetry and looking at it objectively is one of my greater challenges as a writer right now.

at 6:13 AM Blogger Lady M said...

Dude - where are you?

Missing your wit on the boards.

Hugs to ya!

Lady M

at 9:58 PM Anonymous Kim said...

Blessed with a terrible memory.
So I can write a piece,
and then read it a week later and not remember it's mine.
Sometimes I'll say "what crap" and be embarrassed to have written it.
Other times, I'll think "this is good...I wonder who wrote it?" and then be surprised it was me.
Beautiful post and yes, the cancer society is such a good cause.

at 9:32 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Thank you all for commenting. I've been so busy the last few days - some of our writers are on vacation - spring break. I'm doing some freelance stuff on the side - trying to offset the paycut I took to become a full-time writer.

I have time this weekend to either blog, or read blogs, and I've decided to read. I'll post again as soon as I can.

at 12:34 PM Blogger September said...

What a beautiful thing you share with this man. I can see you treasure your relationship. What a role he is! I was touched. The two of you have bonded so well - nothing can change that. I loved that you ended by asking that people participate in Relay for Life. I've written about the event several times in my hometown and am always so blessed and touched by the stories I hear.

at 11:10 PM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

I'm very touched by this column, Mark. And I'm so sorry to hear about your friend...

I can't distance myself emotionally until I've had time apart from it, maybe a month or two, then I can go back and start editing. But I still feel for my characters. =)

at 12:10 PM Blogger Frank Baron said...

Writing that comes from the heart is my favourite to read. The only time I think it should be second-guessed, or set aside for a more subjective assessment is when the emotion that inspires it is anger.

Lovely piece Mark. I'm so sorry for Judy, Bob, you, and his family and friends.

at 5:38 PM Blogger Moni said...

That was beautiful Mark, at least you got to know Bob as himself before he lost himself to his illness.

No, I can't distance myself when I write and that's why it's so scary. The rawness of emotional exposure and the fact that maybe the reader will pass grammatical and functional judgement on the inner "me" is scary as hell.

That's why all my blog entries are pure fluff.

When I was in high school I took a college level writing class. Needless, to say I barely passed the class. Each time a paper was due, I would sit at my desk and cry because everything I wrote seemed silly, unsubstantial, and just plain stupid. My life was not that way, so why would writing about it be that way? I don't know. I'm just not evolved, I guess.

BTW, if you keep posting questions and answering them, then I won't have any to ask you? ;p

at 9:13 PM Blogger serenity said...

Well, Mark, I was going to leave some witty comment about writing from the coffee pot and giving it the editor's eye later, but this just caught me entirely by surprise.

I wrote an editorial about a year and a half ago with almost this same exact intent and purpose. I cried when I wrote mine, too. Everyone else in the office cried when they read it in the newspaper. To me, that meant I'd done it right.

I don't believe in the "dispassionate journalist" figure. Every story and every person I've ever worked with has touched me in one way or another. I've been moved, angered, proud, utterly disgusted, utterly delighted and everything else. I believe to do it well, a journalist has to live through his/her subjects, even if only for a short time. You can do it with a poker face, but it still shows in what you write.

at 7:41 PM Blogger jen.nifer said...

Oh, Mark, that certainly brought tears to my eyes. You wrote it very well.


As far as becoming emotionally attached, if you put the piece away for a while (say, a couple of weeks, if you are at liberty to) and come back to it -- telling yourself beforehand that you are now looking at it from an editor's perspective -- would that help at all? I haven't read the previous comments, so, my apologies if someone has already suggested something similar.


Touching story, though. I'm sorry for your friend and for his wife.

at 11:17 AM Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lovely piece. I like how you took the time to let the reader get to know Bob before telling us the sad news. I also liked the conversational style of the writing.
I, too, write full-time for trade magazines, and often I have to write on deadline w/o the opportunity for distancing. I feel I'm getting pretty good at being able to read what I've written objectively. In fact, as I'm writing a piece, I'm reading it to make sure it flows well.
Now, writing fiction is another matter because I'm just a newby. I try to apply the same strategy, but time will tell if I'm effective.
Great post.

at 11:18 AM Anonymous Nienke said...

That was my post BTW, Blogger didn't allow me to put my info in. So here it is.


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