Thursday, January 24, 2008

Writing my life - and leading with my heart

I'm in the process of negotiating a contract for the memoir I've been working on for, oh, two decades or so. When I started writing it, I had no idea what I was doing, no idea of what memoir was, and no real understanding of how to tell the story - hence the very long gestation. I describe this as "a book of my heart," and it's true. It's taught me who I am in many ways, what I care about, what motivates me, and why I live the way I do. It's a story about love and life: how I nearly lost both, and how my relationship to nature, the living world that nurtures us, gradually brought me back. Back to life and love, and most importantly, back to myself - to believing in and loving who I am, just as I am.

There was a time when I was sure this was a "big" book, a book that would bring me a contract with a big publisher and get me the kind of exposure all of us dream about. I thought it was my chance, my corner, my way to finally get my due. And I couldn't figure out why I struggled with the story. It sounded too heroic, or too stilted, or too forced. It just didn't sing.

A few years ago, on my way to a residency at the Mesa Refuge in California - two heavenly weeks of time to write uninterrupted, I read a slim book called Faith, by Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg. And I had one of those "Duh!" moments. I realized that I had been going about the story all wrong: I couldn't write it with the idea that it would bring me recognition or mention in the New York Times Book Review or big advances or being published by the right publisher because that's not what I believe in. That's not why I write. I write because I love the world, because I want to spread my own ocean of light over the ocean of darkness, because I hope to touch people's hearts. I write because I believe, as author and psychologist Mary Pipher said in The Shelter of Each Other, "Good stories have the power to save us."

I write because I want to tell the kind of story that can save me, you, all of us, and this singular living Earth, the only planet we have ever known.

So when I finished the memoir - when it finally sang, beginning to end - I didn't sent it to the hot-shot agent who read an earlier draft and loved it, the guy who doesn't take a project unless he can earn money from it, or to the pair of agents who love great stories and who loved my proposal, or to the editors at big houses who had said good things about earlier versions of it. I sent it to the editor-in-chief of University of Texas Press because she loves my work, she's market-savvy, and she publishes beautiful, thoughtful books. She has time to talk to me and she believes in what I have to say. She cares about the work as well as the bottom line. So I picked love over prestige and money.

That's not to say I don't intend to sell as many copies as I can when it comes out next year - I want those books to fly off the shelves! But if I don't live what I write about, the story won't work or touch its audience. I have to be the person I say I am, all the way though the process. This is truly a project of my heart, so I'm leading with my heart as I send it out into the world. I can hardly wait!


Linda said...

Oh, Susan, what wonderful news! I've been the blessed recipient of your light, and so I'm so glad it will indeed be spread much more widely. You can bet some copies will be flying into my hands and on to friends.
Thank you for this post, too, that reminds us of the connection between the deepest truth and writing.

Donna said...

What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. It's so inspirational to hear that other writers go through the same pains. And break a leg selling that memoir. Put me on the waiting list for a signed copy!

Susan J Tweit said...

Thanks, Linda and Donna. Spring of 2009 - when the book we're calling FOLLOWING THE STARS will come out - seems a long time off, but I'll be counting on you all to help me get it out to a wide audience so it can touch lots of people's hearts!

Another writer (thank you, Marla Purl) reminded me of the connection between "integrity" and "integration." It seems to me that living and writing with integrity as best we can (none of us is perfect, thank heavens!) allows us to integrate all of who we are into our writing, making our stories just that much more authentic and compelling to our readers.


Joanne said...

Susan, Donna pointed me to your blog and your post, which is so lyrical. I also know just how you feel about finding the right home for your work. I'm in the midst of meeting deadlines on my first book. I'm working with my second publisher. The first one? The one where the deal fell through? In my gut I sensed it wouldn't work out, because my values just weren't going to shine through, it was too glitzy and all about the money to work. I'm so thrilled and happy now to be working with another press who loves my thoughts on community, on fiber art, and makes me feel like I'm producing something of value. That, as the commercials say, is priceless.

Jerry Waxler said...

Congratulations on finding a home for your writing! And thanks for the lovely insights into finding your writing "center."

Best wishes,
Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

Susan J Tweit said...

Welcome, Joanne and Jerry! It's such a pleasure to meet other writers through this odd virtual place we call the blogosphere (a truly awkward word). Joanne, my sympathy on your deal with the first publisher falling through. I've been there, and I'm glad that the experience gave you the opportunity to find a publisher who "fits" you and your work better. The culture of publishing varies, and it's so important that we find the place that will nurture our words and our work. Let me know when your book comes out - I'd love to read it!

Jerry, thanks for your congrats. I should probably have said in my original post that this is not my first book; it's my eleventh. But it is the first book that I've written just for me, because I had to tell the story, whether or not I ever found a publisher for it. (You can see my other books, and snippets of my magazine and newspaper writing, on my web site,

What I've learned from FOLLOWING THE STARS is one of those "Duh!" things that I should have known: my best and most powerful writing comes when I'm embodying what I believe in, including the choices I make about what publishers I work with. I knew that; I just wasn't living it! Now I am.


Linda C. Apple said...

Thank you for the reminder of why we should write. Beautiful

Susan J Tweit said...

Thanks, Linda!

In my earlier comment, the writer who reminded me of the connection between integrity and integration is Mara Purl (web site She's not just a writer, by the way - Mara also acts, produces, and teaches. She's one of those all-around talented types that I admire.