What’s the value of taking a closer look?

“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.

A tribute to America's love of driving?

A tribute to America’s love of driving?

I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.

The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.

Cadillacs as sculptures.

Cadillacs as sculpture and writing lesson.

From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.

As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.  

Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.

From a distance, Cadillac Ranch underwhelms.

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.

With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.

If you visit:

If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.

For a even more pleasure:

Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.

The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?