Revising Your Work: Doug Elwell and Sarah White talk writing craft

Let’s talk about revision. In fact, let me invite you into a dialogue I had recently with Doug Elwell, a frequent contributor to True Stories Well Told. But first…

It’s a fact of the writing life that you will likely spend more time on revising your writing than on writing new first drafts. Publishers say a book typically gets revised seven times between contracting for the manuscript and letting the presses roll. Published writers have told me they have revised a piece seven times on average before submitting it for possible publication. Even I can do that math–fourteen edit passes after that first “vomit draft.”

For some writers, revision is hell. For others it is satisfying work, akin (I imagine) to sculpting or metal-smithing. We remove what is extraneous, shape what is integral, until the final object takes on just the right form, its weight and color and dimensions innately satisfying.

Some writers, like Doug and many other older writers I’ve met, have produced a number of essays or articles. With increasing frequency, their creative pleasure in writing comes from improving on words they put on the page months or years ago. Nothing beats discovering you are a better writer this year than last, no matter what your age.

Doug recently sent me some revisions of pieces previously published on True Stories Well Told, which led to an interesting email exchange. Here are Doug’s thoughts on those revisions.

*   *   *


I retrieved my original and revised versions of Beginnings and Reading the Panama Canal. I matched a couple of paragraphs from each version of both pieces and included a short explanation.


Panda today


Original: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. He is an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age although he is possibly a few months older than I. But we don’t put much stock in that either. What are a few months one way or another when we have collected so many years?

Revision: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. I know he’s an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age.

Original: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway.

The lifelong partnership and loyalty had to be acknowledged in revision 2.

Revision: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway. No matter what happens, you can’t walk away from your best friend. He wouldn’t do that to me if a dog bit my nose off.

*   *   *

Doug and Mom

Reading the Panama Canal

I have moved toward a more minimalist approach over the years. And yet, there are exceptions. In Reading I expanded the first excerpt in the revision. Because it was fresh, I wasn’t prepared to do so in the original.

Original: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and by the look in his eyes—a deer in the headlights. I suspect fear of impending death that could sneak up on him at any moment and he would have no control and control was what he was all about.

I had to get rid of the deer in the headlights cliché. Also, since I wrote the original, my thinking about his death and his need for control had matured and I was ready to add some detail I wasn’t ready to add in the original.

Revision: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and with a fixed look in his eyes—a frozen stare. I suspect it was living in fear of death at any moment that hastened his passing. Knowing him, I’m sure that and the fact he would have no say in the matter if he let nature take its course, kept him awake at night. Because control was what he was about. For as long as he could, he soldiered on and I respected his grit. Then he died—just up and chose his own time and place not leaving it to the whim of another power. On a sparkling April morning before the heat of the day, he dragged his half leg over to a pond a few yards from their place. At the water’s edge, he looked back at his flower beds, then to some geese and ducks paddling toward him (likely expecting some bread crumbs). Instead they took flight at the crack of the .32 caliber round that blew into his temple. He had cheated the dark angel and set his own time and place and left the woman who had devoted her life to him to fend for herself.

Original: Example 2

I went to the kitchen and poured a stiff drink, then went out to the machine shed. It stood about fifty yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

#1 is too spare. In example 2, I added an old dog. One can never go wrong with an old dog. Or Fitzgerald for that matter.

Revision: Example 2

I mixed a stiff drink, then sat in slanted sunlight while an old dog slept there too. I thought of Scott Fitzgerald’s line—all life is but a process of breaking down. I went out to the machine shed a few yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

*   *   *

Sarah here again. Notice Doug’s mind at work in the revision process–you might say his left brain is focusing on technicalities like weeding out cliches, while his right brain is focusing on the emotional currents in the pieces, and noticing where the facts may be correct but the TRUTH is not yet adequately captured.

You might even catch Doug fictionalizing–adding a sleeping dog by the machine shed, stating what his father observed even though Doug couldn’t have known, unless he asked, and dead dads tell no tales.

Some people think of revision as the act of cutting. In my first pass or two after a “vomit draft” that is certainly what I focus on–finding where I’ve been needlessly wordy, especially at the beginning of a piece, clearing my throat before finding my voice. But then come the critical review passes–“what’s not here but should be?”–followed by more “remove unnecessary words” passes with a focus on digressions and tangents–maybe there’s another story trying to break free from this one? It’s easy to see how one gets to seven revisions, or even fourteen.

Thanks, Doug, for playing along with me on this! Anybody else want to share their “before-and-after” editing process with readers of True Stories Well Told?

(c) 2018 Doug Elwell and Sarah White

Posted in Guest writer, writing workshop | 3 Comments

“What It Is” by Lynda Barry

Book Review by Rebecca Ahl

I first started reading Lynda Barry in 1990, when her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek ran in Seattle’s free weekly paper, The Stranger. The oddly ugly drawings and scathing observations about childhood grabbed me every week. Later, I picked up her book One! Hundred! Demons! The book stunned me with its naked grappling with life’s painful and mysterious experiences. That book closes with Barry’s encouraging invitation to pick up a sumi brush, and try this kind of writing. What It Is (Drawn and Quarterly, 2008) feels like a full-length continuation of that invitation, offering thoughtful insights and advice for creatives of all types, and especially those looking to write memoir.

In recent years, Barry has taken a deep dive into research into images and human cognition, designing and teaching a multi-disciplinary course at UW-Madison called “Writing the Unthinkable.” What It Is came from these deep explorations into images, writing and memory. It’s an illustrated book for adults, about plumbing the depth of your own memory, and using writing and images to better understand your own life. What It Is is presented as a richly layered multi-media art-journal, that reads as a do-it-yourself guide to inquiry into the self. Barry raises the deep questions she has pondered and researched: What is an idea made of? What is an image? Where do images come from? What is the difference between remembering and imagining? In exploring these questions, Barry offers not only personal observations about imagination, but also precise insights into memory and cognition. She translates these observations into useful exercises for unblocking creative drives and exercising creative muscles many adults have let atrophy with decades of disuse.

Throughout the book, Barry offers practical exercises for writing, especially writing memoir or writing from memory. Examples include writing prompts that start from lists (10 Mothers You Have Known; 10 Cars You Remember), and prompts that begin from randomly selected words from “word bags.” You don’t need this book to make a word bag, randomly draw a noun and a verb, and start writing. What What It Is gives you is broad ideas about memory to explore, as well as step-by-step questions to consider that help you add to those first thoughts that pop to mind from the prompt. Some are easy to answer (What color was her apron?), and some are deeply challenging (Why do you remember that day)?

I’ve learned a lot from Lynda Barry over the years: from specific, simple tips for creativity to broad, life-altering skills. A common theme among all her shared wisdom is a strong message of permission. One of my favorite tips from her is that when she sits down to create something, she first makes a big “X” across the center of a blank page. “There,” she says, “now I’ve already ruined it, so anything else I do can’t make it any worse.” I’ve been encouraged by her to make things by hand, all the time, every day. Barry presses hard on the neurological evidence for greater neuroplasticity and cross-cortical activity created by simply doing things with our hands. Another practical bit of advice from these scientific observations: Barry always has scrap paper available on her workspace; when she gets “stuck”, she can continue moving her hand – with no agenda – on the scrap paper. This manual activity keeps the creative juices flowing, without imposing judgement or anxiety. Like other creatives who’ve worked to bury the notion that “inspiration” randomly strikes, Barry encourages readers to create, create, create, without an agenda or goal, and to be willing to throw the product away. Throughout What It Is, Barry also encourages readers to watch for and use unexpected memories that bubble up. She teaches readers to pay attention to these seemingly untethered images, and to follow them, and gather them, as a means of understanding them.

For me, one of the most memorable pages of the book is one where Barry, as herself, is shown walking and talking with her husband about what’s been troubling her. She can’t figure out why she can’t remember some things, but also can’t stop going back and re-playing something stupid she said thirty years ago. In What It Is, Barry gives herself and her audience permission to pick up these breadcrumbs of memory, to gather and examine them, without judgement, and even to let them go.

Pick up What It Is from your bookstore or library, and let Lynda Barry lead you on an unusual exploration of your memory and your creative abilities. I also strongly recommend Syllabus (Drawn and Quarterly, 20014), her follow-up how-to book that explores even more directly the creative art and writing exercises she developed in “Writing the Unthinkable.” For more, check out all her graphic novels and illustrated novels, and search online for interviews and lectures, and her Tumbler page.

©  2018 Rebecca Ahl

Rebecca Ahl is a mom who likes to explore, make things, and write things. She is overeducated and unemployed. Most days she can be found making things with her kids, near Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted in Book review, Guest writer | 2 Comments

Ice Cream “Sundays”

By Suzy Beal

Full of excitement, we pile into the station wagon and head the six miles into town. We seven kids do everything together. There are no neighbors close by so we depend on each other for everything; entertainment, adventures in the forest, chores, and even picking out the switch with which Mom is going to spank us. It is impossible to do anything private or independent from the others. We never get to choose anything for ourselves. I know that getting a choice means a kind of freedom that my parents, with seven children, can’t afford to let us have, but on Sunday afternoons this all changes.

It’s crowded, the car is warm and the windows foggy.  Mom and Dad seem at peace with each other. All my brothers and sister are laughing and making jokes.  The anticipation of an ice cream cone at Richmaid’s fills me with excitement. Will I choose the same flavor as last time or will I try something different? We each get to choose our own favorite flavor or try something new. It is the best experience, because we get what we want without sharing.

I stare at the list of flavors beside the little window where the ice cream cones come out: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, rock road, pistachio, licorice. The pressure mounts as everyone calls out their order. Dad always orders pistachio and Mom chocolate. Tom orders licorice, Hank, chocolate, Carl, chocolate – my turn is next. Oh, what do I want… too many choices!   Once I ordered licorice because my older brother did and I hated it, but it was too late to change and I had to wait until next time. Dad doesn’t let us change our minds once we call out what we want, so I need to get it right the first time. Strawberry is my favorite, but sometimes in a moment of madness I call out another flavor.

I holler out, Strawberry!

Mom orders strawberry for Jan and vanilla for Conrad, but little Frankie just gets licks from her cone. I lick mine round and round in circles. The thick, sweet ice cream fills my tongue in scoops. The rich strawberry flavor delights and when I come across a partially frozen strawberry, I chew it slowly so the pleasure will last.

Dad drives leisurely through town, ending up at the Nye Beach turnaround where we park and watch the Pacific Ocean and the surf coming up on the beach. Mom loves this sight, so this is where we come.

This is the same spot where Mom brings us sometimes during the summer when it’s so hot at our home up the river. The northwest wind blows hard in the summer and it sends the sand scudding across the beach. It stings our legs as we run to the ocean. We are only allowed to go out in the surf up to our knees, but that’s enough. It only takes a few minutes for the ocean to turn us blue. It’s so cold.   If we are very brave, we lie down in the surf.

On these Sunday evenings everything seems right with the world, everyone quietly eating their ice cream. The only sounds we hear are the ocean rolling onto the shore and the sea gulls crying out for bites as Mom throws to them pieces of her cone. She throws the pieces onto the front of the station wagon, so the sea gulls will come close and we can all see them fight over the tidbits.

On the way back home Dad stops at the gas station to fill up the station wagon, so Mom will have gas all week. Mr. Peters comes out of his little office to fill the tank. Mom told us that Mr. and Mrs. Peters don’t have any children, but wanted some, so we are always to be nice to them. Mr. Peters leans in Dad’s window to say hi to us. A thought rushes through my mind. I could go live with them and be an only child and all the choices would be mine!

The six miles back home up the river road is dark with no street lights. Mom starts a game in the dark: “I’m thinking of a number between….” or “How do you spell…?”

There isn’t much room in our lives for special wants. We share all our toys. We all eat the same food, play the same games, but on Sunday afternoon we get to select our own special flavor of ice cream. For me the freedom of choosing for myself is more glorious than that special flavor.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 started studying with Sheila Bender at  “She has given me the courage to begin to submit pieces for publication,” says Suzy. I’m 72 years old and live in Bend, Oregon.  I was born on the Oregon Coast in Newport.  In 1961 when I was a teenager my parents took all seven of us siblings to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca.  There my dad and brothers built a sailing boat onto which we moved and sailed the Mediterranean.  We later moved to the Caribbean and lived and sailed from St. Croix.”






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Not Enough Time

By Kaye Ketterer, performed at “First Monday, First Person” salon for memoir writers recently. When Kaye read her essay, I encouraged her to share it with readers of TSWT.


I have no time to write a story.   I’m busy. I have Easter baskets to make, packing to do for a 3-week trip, and a book to make for my granddaughter. After I write the book, I need to take it to my friend who will translate it into Spanish.  I also go to the Y three times a week and take care of my granddaughter, Elena every Tuesday. When my son or his wife is sick, I help by taking Elena to child care in the morning and fetching her at the end of the day.

Those are just the “extra” things that need doing.   There are still the household chores of cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry.   Oh, and then there are the que of books to be read.   I take long lunches and read while I eat and sometimes for another half hour when I’m done eating. And what about the cotton rug I’m crocheting, and the locker hook table runner?   They are my winter projects and they’re not done yet!!

I have friends I want to have over, friends I’m going to have coffee with, and friends I go out to a dinner with.   The Oscars are over and there are even more movies I want to see now! My piano always needs practicing for my weekly volunteer gig at a nursing home, and every once in a while I like to scour local thrift stores for any “new” music they may have.

Why aren’t there more hours in a day?   I just can’t do it all!   I have no time to write a story!   Besides there is nothing to write about anyway.

© 2018 Kaye Ketterer

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.


Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

Happy International Women’s Day on March 8th!

Most years since starting this blog (seven years ago!), I have commemorated International Women’s Day with a post. I don’t know why the United States hasn’t embraced this holiday to the extent Europe and Eurasia have, but I hope that’s changing, #MeToo movement and all.

Today I revisit an essay by Leigh Hyde that I originally posted on International Women’s Day, 2013. “Who Do I Kill” explores her coming to feminism in the 1970s. Read on!

If you’d like to see the women’s movement thrive, please consider making a contribution to One Billion Rising or  Half the Sky, organizations that use the power of media to ignite the change needed to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.

  • Sarah White
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Missing the Point

By Sarah White, October 2017

I think I just missed the point—again—of an assignment for a class. (This time, the assignment was for my Big MFA Adventure.) This makes the third time.

Funny, the first two times were in art classes, where I thought I had natural talent that meant I could trust my hunches. And now it’s happened again, only this time in my new field of study, writing creative nonfiction. Another field where I thought I had natural talent.

The first time was in 1972. I was a junior in high school. I was taking an art course that finally interested me, because it was applied, not a study of history or theory. In this class we would create commercial art—advertising designs, album covers, and such.

For this assignment, the class was given a perfume named 4079 and asked to design a package for it. I chose a computerized typestyle and a palette of yellows and greens inspired by sunlight dappling through leaves, intending to emphasize the contrast between the random-number name and the natural environment the perfume’s light, fresh smell evoked for me. The teacher gave me a D. “You totally missed the point,” he said. He expected (and the other students produced) something sleek and futuristic, machined and shiny. I missed the point.


Eight years later, having finished a journalism degree, I was taking art classes part time at a technical school to fill in what I missed in college about composition, design, and materials. This class was basic illustration, and the assignment was about perspective: “Produce a black and white drawing that shows you understand how to represent three dimensions on flat paper.” I chose for my subject outer space, with a spaceship-sized pair of pliers speeding toward the picture plane.

The earlier assignments had been product illustrations, and I carried over to this new assignment my enjoyment of rendering different surface textures. I lovingly illustrated the detail of the pliers, its knurled handles and serrated gripping surfaces. I surrounded my realistic pliers with planets in various sizes, to indicate its enormous scale.

The teacher gave me a D. “You totally missed the point,” he said. “Perspective reveals itself through scale, through seeing the size of one thing compared to another.” This is what the painters of the Renaissance discovered, that lifted their compositions far beyond the iconic representations of those who preceded them.

Space is the one place where we do not know the size of anything. Yes, my pair of pliers was rendered in perspective—you could tell its orientation in the space it occupied. But was it six inches long in a sea of planets the size of marbles and peas, or was it the size of a football field in a sea of asteroids? There was no telling. I missed the point of the assignment again.


And now, I fear I’ve done it again. Assigned a research paper for the MFA program I’ve just begun in Creative Nonfiction, I proposed an alternate to the topics offered by the professor went own way, producing essentially a sales piece on the attractions of ghostwriting. As I began to read the papers produced by my fellow students, in which they industriously explore the academic and professional concerns of writers of serious creative nonfiction, my heart sank into my gut and twisted there. I’ve totally missed the point again. The professor will probably give me a D.

  • Sarah White

p.s. In fact, I hadn’t missed the point, and when grades were issued–I got an A!

Posted in Sarah's memoir | 3 Comments

Pails and Pollywogs

Bang, bang, bang, tap, tap, tap

“Hey guys, Mom is making something.”

We race for the stairs to the basement.

“What are you making, Mom?”

“Be patient.” She has large Maxwell House coffee cans on their sides and is putting a hole in the sides with a nail and a hammer. She strings a wire through the holes and leaves a loop. “There, now we have berry picking pails.”

We kids grab the pails and head out. With thoughts of pies in our heads, we take the path along the slough. There, the huckleberry bushes grow in abundance. This is the spot we found last year when Mom showed us how to pick huckleberries. She grabbed a limb loaded with berries and stripped it off into her hands. The sound of the ping, pinging of the berries filling our pails soon dims as the pails fill. The younger ones stuff their mouths with handfuls of sweet ripe berries, but we older ones know huckleberry pies are on the horizon.

On this hot summer day we head for the slough. We place our brimming pails on the path, take off our shoes, roll up our pants and wade out into the mud flats. The tide is out. The cool mud seeps between our toes. Our feet make a sucking sound as we pull them out. “Hey, stop that,” as a blob of mud hits me. I grab a handful and throw it at my brother. He tries to get out of the way, but he can’t jump because his feet are stuck in the mud. We are sitting ducks. Everyone is a target.

Back home we hose off each other. Showing Mom our full pails, “Dump them into the water in the sink.” The green berries and leaves float to the top and Mom skims off these. Huckleberry pies for dinner tonight!

Left to right: Henry, Mom with Baby Frank, Carl (in front), Dad with Conrad, Jan (in front), Tommy (in back), and me with our dog.

Just before school starts in late August, Mom calls out to us. “Go get your berry pails; we are going to pick blackberries, so I can make jelly.” Mom’s blackberry jelly is legendary.

Mom pulls a long plank out of the garage and tells the older boys to bring it. The youngest is in a baby buggy. The rest of us go behind her single file along the county road to her secret place. She holds the plank up on its end next to the black berry patch and lets the plank fall into the middle of the patch. She steps up on the plank jumping up and down as she walks along to the end.   “Okay, come on carefully and line up on the plank.” We take turns standing guard over the baby and walking out on the plank. We feel like pirates. It’s scary out on the plank, but thoughts of Mom’s jelly turn our minds to filling our pails.

“Everybody off.” Slowly we back off the plank. Mom pulls the plank out. We move further along the patch. She repeats the process. With our pails full we head home. That night she surprises us with blackberry cobbler for dessert. “But, Mom, will there still be enough berries for your jelly?” She smiles.

Several days later we kids are walking along the county road to visit Dad. He is working at the boat shop a mile from our house. There are large puddles alongside of the road with pollywogs just beginning to form their hind legs. We need to catch them, but they slip through our fingers. “Hey, somebody run home and bring our berry picking pails,” shouts my older brother. I run back to the house. We figure out how to hold the pail just so, so the water slides into the pail bringing the pollywogs with it. Our pails filled with, soon to be frogs, we run home with water sloshing against our legs. The pails are lined in a row on Dad’s workbench. We check them daily, but two days later we discover that our ducks have made a nest and laid eggs. Pollywogs forgotten, we watch the nest each day.

“What’s this mess?” We hear Dad holler out. We run to the basement. On his bench the five rusty berry pails are reeking with dead pollywogs. Wide-eyed we look at each other and race back upstairs.

© Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 started studying with Sheila Bender at  “She has given me the courage to begin to submit pieces for publication,” says Suzy. I’m 72 years old and live in Bend, Oregon.  I was born on the Oregon Coast in Newport.  In 1961 when I was a teenager my parents took all seven of us siblings to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca.  There my dad and brothers built a sailing boat onto which we moved and sailed the Mediterranean.  We later moved to the Caribbean and lived and sailed from St. Croix.”




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