WRITING LIFE: Questions that Recentered My Writing Joy by Elizabeth Reed

July 8, 2022

It was the fourth day of an intense online seminar focused on the prerequisites of getting your book published—developing social media relationships, publishing in journals, expanding writing community, and where and how to find an agent. I was speeding through each presentation when Brevity editor-in-chief, Dinty W. Moore posed four questions. I paused. I questioned why I was riding this train. I pondered how I could continue the journey at a different speed. I reevaluated the destination. I ditched the excess baggage. Answering those four questions put me back on track. Here are Moore’s questions, with my answers. I hope these questions help you refocus, too.

Question 1: What are your motives for writing?

A flash of writing memories appeared, from childhood to the present. I realized I needed to reevaluate the motives that have taken over so much of my writing time and energy.

I’m a musician, but writing has been a side passion since childhood. I love telling stories, inciting laughter, probing universal memories, and stirring and pricking people’s emotions. Seeing my words in print is exciting and reaffirming—someone wants to read my story. Writing and making music are solitary pursuits and require consistent practice. Writing comes easily to me because the world of thought is preferable to my domestic duties and other challenges.

Question 2: Are these motives healthy for your long-term sustainability as a writer?

I don’t know. What I do know is that this question filled my lungs with fresh air.

For years I took writing classes in the summer. I wrote about traveling to remote places with my husband, growing up in a strict household, and the general absurdities of life. I had never considered writing a memoir until a teacher suggested it. The idea intrigued me, but I knew I was an amateur. So, I took writing lessons for twelve years and worked with a writing coach. I love learning, and, like music, you can study the art of writing and its results forever. Next, my teacher encouraged me to publish. I took classes on publishing. Then, in the post-election fury and shock of November 2016, I penned a piece comparing Donald Trump to cancer. My coach helped me write a pitch letter and suggested places to submit. Entropy accepted it within days, producing yet another shock—my first publication.

By 2020, I had acquired several clips. But the process of submitting took more free time than I had. For assorted reasons I decided to retire from teaching piano. I wanted to finish and publish my memoir. There is a route with necessary stops, to getting published. I boarded the train: Get a website. A writer’s page on Facebook. Learn to tweet. Follow editors, lit mags, publishers, and comp authors. Attend conferences. Connect with writers. Write a killer query letter and synopsis. Prepare a book proposal. Prepare the first five sample pages. The first ten. The first fifteen. The first chapter. Take classes on learning how to do all of this. Write book reviews. Search for agents. The pace quickens: Query the agents. The demands are dizzying. Analyze the responses. Write version three-hundred-two of the query letter. Swerve with the curves. Increase the urgency of the story to hook the agent. I hung on for the ride.

Question 3: What desired outcomes can you release so that you are focused more directly on those over which you have some control?

What a reversal of thought—instead of standing in an eternal line to get on the train everyone wants to ride, I can reroute. I can get off the express train and board the local one, stopping in places I enjoy.

Do I need an agent to publish with “The Big Five?” Absolutely. Is that my motive, my goal? No. I think it’s unrealistic. I hope to publish with a small press. Do I need an agent for this? Perhaps. Do I still need all those Big Five prerequisites? Maybe. Can I adjust the peripheral business of my writing life to refocus on the writing itself? Yes. I’ll keep developing those peripherals, but on a smaller scale.

Question 4: In what ways are you already successful?

Whether it’s modesty or motivation, it’s not my style to brag, boast, or dwell. But a small dose of pride wouldn’t hurt, right? It’s easy to forget my current successes when I’m always looking for the next one. I remind myself of my latest successes: I have written a memoir. I reached out and met two simpatico writers who now comprise my trusty Writing Trio. I was a guest on a podcast. I learned how to use Twitter! I have a website with all my published pieces to remind me that my writing is worth reading.

I’m putting the query letter aside this summer. I’m concentrating on sustaining healthy writing. I might restructure my memoir. I have new essays to work on. I’m on a different train, at a slower pace. My destination is the same. But I’m looking forward to the stops and starts. The journey is what gives me joy.

Meet the Contributor

Elizabeth (Betty) Reed is a writer, musician, activist and traveler. She is querying her memoir about surviving leech attacks in Sumatra and other adventures in marriage and parenting. Her curiosity about different cultures has landed her in 46 countries with her husband and one or two children in tow. As a three-time cancer survivor and parent of a child with a chronic illness, she believes in adjusting, not giving up goals. Her articles and essays have been published in The Boston Globe MagazinePassion PassportParentsThe Rumpus and other journals.