Valuable Writing: The Twenty-Minute Trick

Dear Writing Sisters,

All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”

Ron Carlson

Sometimes the hardest part of writing memoir can be staying in your seat or, as Ron Carlson puts it, “staying in the room.” I find this to be particularly true when writing shame. And because my memoir-in-progress is about recovering my voice from silence after my mother sexually shamed me when I was twenty years old, it’s not a stretch to say I’ve spent more of my writing time these last few years jumping up out of my seat to reheat my tea or let the dogs out or switch the laundry or—yes—clean the grate at the base of the refrigerator with a Q-tip (it works!) than I have spent in my seat writing.

Staying in my seat proved particularly grueling this past week as I reworked a scene at the heart of my memoir.

The scene: In 1986, after my mother’s doctor told her that he was treating me for the human papillomavirus, she cornered me with her red medical book (she was a public health nurse) and said vicious things to me that needled their way into my sense of self and, ultimately, sent me into a shame spiral that I would spend the next several decades trying to recover from.

Because I subscribe to Vivian Gornick’s creed that every memoir has a situation and a story—a surface situation (the plot) and a deeper story truth (the emotional truth)—I knew there had to be more to the scene with my mother’s red medical book than, until now, had met the page. Sure, there I was, age twenty, permed hair and blue eyeshadow, mascara running down my cheeks as my mother called me a slut and a whore. But where was I internally as she shamed me?

I’ve rewritten that scene any number of times, but there was still something missing on the page, and that something was me. And yet, as I approached that scene with the intention of exploring the interior of my twenty-year-old self, the pull to flee (fight or flight) was overwhelming.

More tea anyone? : )

Then I remembered the twenty-minute tip from Ron Carlson’s book on writing titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story:

All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”

He uses the example of coffee. He’ll look up from his screen or page and think he wants coffee. But he’s written long enough to know that when that happens he’s at a critical juncture in the writing:

“I’ve come to a little place in the story where I’m not sure of what to do; there’s some decision here that I’m not fully comfortable making.”

For me, it’s more like I’ve come to a hard truth that I’m not comfortable discovering. But writing memoir is nothing if not a process of self-discovery. And self-discovery—self-honesty—is rarely comfortable.

So I set my timer for twenty minutes, stayed in my seat, and re-entered that scene. And within that twenty minutes I discovered the deeper story truth previously overshadowed by my mother’s red medical book. While my mother raged at me and her eyes darted back and forth in their sockets, a voice deep within me said, You are witnessing insanity. Look at her eyes. Right now, she’s insane. I dismissed that voice, which was, of course, my voice. This is the pivotal moment in the scene, the moment when my twenty-year-old self ignores her own voice—her inner guidance—in deference to her mother’s words of shame and rage. And because she ignores herself, she begins, on some level, to identify with the shame her mother levels at her. That’s what was happening beneath the surface of my twenty-year-old self’s mascara-streaked cheeks.

Comfortable writing? No. It was not comfortable to see how I did not stand up for myself in the face of insanity and, by extension, colluded with my own decent into a shame spiral that would erode my sense of self. Valuable writing? Some of the most meaningful twenty minutes of writing I’ve ever written. Indeed, book changing writing.

I’ve employed the twenty-minute trick during most of my writing sessions since that breakthrough, and here’s what I’ve learned. The hardest thing about that first twenty minutes after the first time I want to jump up from my writing chair is setting that timer. Because once I set that timer, I’m all in, ready for discovery, uncomfortable as it may be.

How about you? Have you ever taken a Q-tip to the dust bunnies under your refrigerator when your writing approaches a hard truth? If so, you may want to try the twenty-minute trick. I’d love to hear what you discover in those first twenty minutes after the first time you want to leave the room. Let me know in the comments below or hop on over to the free Writing Out Loud Sisterhood Facebook group and join the conversation there.

Much writing love,

Marilyn

P.S. I’m busy creating a free 5-Day “Writing Out Loud” Writing Challenge, which will be coming soon. Keep an eye out for registration details!

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