Tag Archive | "Mothering"

The Premise as Journey

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The Premise as Journey

January 20, 2006 My day started listening to Aretha Franklin sing, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and it will end singing the Internationale while my grandmother is interred.  By then it will be tomorrow in the place I am traveling to.

A premise is a journey. It’s the itinerary of a journey, more precisely. It says, if you get on this plane in San Francisco, you will get off in London. It does not say that all planes go from San Francisco to London nor even that all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. It just talks about this plane, this journey. But what it says is true.

A premise is not the flight itself, not the play list you listen to or the memories each song evokes. Not the two seats that you try to lie upon, legs folded against one armrest, head propped on pillows, blankets, jacket at the too-close other armrest. A premise is not the orange juice you drink, the articles you read in the New Yorker, the way you laugh at Eddie Izzard and wonder if the people around you notice. It is not the freelance golf writer on her way from Maui via Los Angeles and San Francisco and London to Scotland who does not like to fly. It is not the view of the ocean cliffs and the Richmond Bridge that you point out to her, feeling that you have been drafted to distract her as the plane takes off. It is not the baby boys you have left behind, the nap they are supposed to be taking and the park they will go to afterwards. It is not your questions about what they make of your absence. It is not your grandmother’s funeral ahead, the dawning realization that she died of old age and is only twenty years older than your mother, her daughter.

The premise takes all of this and more and kneads it as your reader’s mind will knead it, until it joins together and rises, and the journey becomes clear, the specific journey–San Francisco to London, child to adult, a person who feels outside a family to a person who feels inside a family, perhaps. Your premise looks at where you started and what kicked you over to where you landed, and it makes a claim:

Commitment leads to connection.
Ritual triumphs over daily life.
Responsibility conquers division.

Not always. Not all commitment leads to connection. Not all ritual triumphs over daily life. Not all responsibility conquers division. Not all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. But this journey went that way, and showed us something about these qualities: commitment, ritual, San Francisco.

Once you have made the journey–written the book–you read back over it and you dig out your premise. What does this journey teach you? Name the qualities that characterize the book’s movement.

This becomes the lens through which you revise. It is the unity that pulls your book together, and anything that does not support your premise belongs in another book.

Now, just to be clear, this does not mean that scenes, actions, characters and events that directly oppose your premise should be excised. On the contrary, your premise requires a good fight, a fair fight, to prove itself. Let it do battle with ideas and forces that suggest it is wrong. Just don’t wander off on a little Los Angeles to Los Vegas loop when you are going SFO to Heathrow. See?

When someone dies there is, I’ve found, a kind of internal reckoning. Their premise becomes clearer, once the whole arc stretches–rainbow-like–before you. Not that I can see anything like the whole of my grandmother’s arc, but I see that she lived a single life, after all. My father used to talk about how life zigzagged while you were living it, but looking back, it turned into a straight line. What is remarkable about a human life is that its conflicts and contradictions and layers all unite, in the end, into a single strand of days, years, decades–nearly nine, in my grandmother’s case.

Near the end of her life, my uncle asked my grandmother what the purpose of life was, and she mouthed one word: “Love.” Now, this is not the most original idea, but if you’d read the whole book, you’d know that there was a distinct character arc, that that moment and that insight represented a journey and an arrival.

Love conquers even politics.
Bitter memories and eccentric independence lead to the embrace of love.
The revolution of the heart conquers even a family whose spine looks like the post-1988 Berlin wall.

What’s the premise of a book you love? Of your own book?

Posted in Mastery, Mothering, RevisionComments (0)

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In Praise of Praise

In raising two lovely little boys, I have been thinking a lot about praise. People and books offer all sorts of advice about how to raise children, and one suggestion is that parents praise effort and persistence, rather than simply the child’s existence. Obviously, the idea is that if you reward the push, you’ll get a child (and then a grown-up) who keeps trying, who doesn’t give up. These qualities are required for success or even just for hobbling along in the world, so why not nurture them?

I was at a dinner party last night, and someone talked about praising children so that they would grow-up feeling good about themselves. I pointed out that “self-esteem” acquired from being told you are great is hollow if effort and persistence haven’t been encouraged. Someone else pointed out that praising kids for “trying” sometimes leaves us with people who feel good about making an effort even if they don’t actually achieve anything or gain the necessary skills to accomplish whatever they are trying to do.

As a parent, abandoning formulas which can never be proven anyway, I find myself praising all of it: effort that leads to failure, effort that leads to success, and just the downright praisability of their very beings.

In editing writers, people often forget the importance of praise. Here I do not mean empty or false praise. I mean praise, lodged in the middle of a rigorous critique, that acknowledges what is working (and perhaps why). Writers need to learn what we do right as much or more than we need to learn what we do wrong. Writers need to be guided by the light of their own visions along the paths they are attempting to hack through the jungle, rather than be pointed toward some far distant light or hounded off the path with complaints. A smart reader brings out a smart writer.


I can give you the harshest critique of “The Secret” and other like-minded new ageiness that makes all of us the authors of our own destinies. This logic can be cruel in many instances, and unhelpful. But in those moments of those lives that have a heck of a lot of leeway and privilege–like mine, knock wood, most days–a little dose of optimism surely goes a long way.

I’ll tell you a secret.

A writer friend of mine, Katia Noyes–hostess of the wonderful dinner party last night and author of an amazing novel called Crashing America–has been helping me structure my revisions of my third novel. First, I went through the whole thing (which I wrote in seven crazy, sleep-deprived weeks with two babies under eight-months old) and created a fifteen-page, detailed outline, a list really, of the book. Each day I had to go through a minimum of ten pages, and then report to Katia by email. In the email, I also had to include an affirmation to the effect that this novel does not have to be perfect, and that I know what the book needs and what I want.

There is a lot the affirmations cannot fix. But none of this–my hesitancy, my fear based on past experience and fatigue, my self-doubt–is one of those things.

I was supposed to post affirmations all over the house before giving birth, and you know, we never got around to it. Instead, Angie voiced them all to me throughout my labor, and that worked fine. I am not a devotee of affirmations. Or I didn’t used to be. But this daily reporting to Katia got me going. It shifted the way I felt about the project and its writer.

There’s that old story of Niels Bohr, the physicist. He had a horseshoe hanging over his office door, and a colleague said, “Niels, why do have a horseshoe there?” Niels said, “They say it brings good luck.” “Surely,” the colleague replied, “you don’t believe in that.” “No,” Niels said, “but they say that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

So, too, with affirmations. Try it. Not for curing cancer, you know? But for changing attitudes: at least your own.

What do you affirm?

Posted in Editing, Mastery, parentingComments (1)

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