I met Jamie back in 2010 when I took an advanced-level workshop she was teaching with fellow writing coach Joyce Sweeney. At the time, I don’t know if I qualified as “advanced,” but I do know that her weekend-long workshop catapulted me to the next level of writing.
It also showed me how much more I had to learn, so I eagerly signed up for more Jamie workshops. And in between those workshops, I hired Jamie to critique my work. The first time she read my manuscript, she was full of praise, but she also told me the truth.
Sometimes the truth comes as a revelation. (Wow, every scene needs an arc!) But more often the truth is hard to swallow. (So my main character sounds whiny?) Criticism—even when it comes from someone you respect—can hurt. But if I hadn’t listened to Jamie, my growth as a writer would have been stunted. Jamie helped me realize that my protagonist in A WORK OF ART would sound less whiny if I revealed her backstory… And thus was born the backbone of the novel, a series of flashbacks that dovetail with the main plot and provide (in my humble opinion) the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book. That’s just one example of how Jamie’s truth-telling made me go deeper. Each time she critiques my work, it gets better, and every time I take one of her workshops, my writing improves.
This past summer, I sat down with Jamie to explore more of what I like to call her awesomeness.
MM: In a nutshell, can you describe the services you provide?
JM: Sure! I actually have three nutshells!
Nutshell #1 is writing coaching. As a coach, I support writers in their process—getting the work done, and on time—as well as helping them shape and develop that work so they can be proud of what they’ve created.
Nutshell #2 is developmental editing—aka, critique. Here, I carefully review a full draft and report back, letting the writer know what’s strong and what needs further attention.
Finally, Nutshell #3 is my teaching: I’ve got a bit of a Mary Poppins thing going, in that I travel to writing groups and organizations and present workshops on craft, process, or team-building—whatever the group needs that a writing workshop can provide.
The work you and I did together on A WORK OF ART straddled Nutshells #1 and #2.
MM: And how did you come into this line of work?
JM: I facilitated my first writing group in Seattle in 1993. I’d just read Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and was moved by the way an open heart and mind could lead to such fresh expression on the page. Hooked, I went back to school to study writing and found I had a talent for responding to others’ work. I was offered some amazing opportunities at college—assisting the then Head of the Writing Program in a groundbreaking, community-wide writing class and mentoring Peer Writing Consultants in the Writing Center, among them. After I graduated, I got certified in the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method and started teaching.
MM: Wow, no wonder you’re so good. I’ve had many critiques of my work, but none has offered your level of insight. You seem to have an instinct for knowing what’s wrong with a piece of writing. Would you call it a sixth sense, or does it come about from your years of study?
JM: Well, first, thank you. And, second, I’m laughing because I hope I have an instinct for knowing what’s RIGHT with a piece of writing, too. I wish I could explain the feeling I have when I’m reading a piece of work. It’s like some part of me—heart? mind?—is tapping on the metaphoric walls of the piece, listening carefully for the hollow spots. And finding the studs, too! Those are the strong, solid areas that can bear more weight.
And, yes, it’s a sixth sense. I’m a pretty intuitive person, generally speaking. In Myers-Briggs terminology, I’m an ENFP. The “NF” part stands for “intuitive/feeling,” which is how I prefer to operate in the world. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the language of craft. Just the opposite! Being able to articulate the how’s and why’s of all that I notice with my intuitive tap-tap-tapping is vital. I mean, for heaven’s sake, YOU shouldn’t have to be a super-intuitive to work with me! It’s enough that you’re doing the freaking writing!
MM: Yeah, I heard somewhere that writing is hard. When I began this long journey to publication, I didn’t know that writing is an actual craft that has to be learned. How extensively have you studied that craft?
JM: Although my college writing program was great, I’ve learned most by teaching; by reading and responding to student and client work; by bouncing ideas around with colleagues and clients; by getting my hands into a piece of work and seeing what clicks, then backing up and figuring out why that particular approach or technique was successful. It’s exciting. Fascinating. I learn something new from every piece of writing I address and every writer with whom I work.
MM: Having studied writing so extensively, it makes sense that you’d be a writer yourself. Is that the case?
JM: I was a writer. Or, I was going to be a writer. Then I went to school and discovered what a people person I am. It’s so much more satisfying to engage with other writers and help them move their stories ahead, to problem-solve on their behalf, than it is for me to sit alone in a room with only a cat and my single brain. Working with others is play. Sheer joy. Writing alone is hard, grinding work. (Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t mention that. In case your readers haven’t noticed yet!)
MM: If they’re reading this, they’ve probably noticed. What kinds of problems do you see most often in people’s writing?
JM: It’s often a matter of balance. For instance, some writers rely too heavily on narration, which makes the surface of their stories slippery, hard for the reader to get traction. These writers benefit from learning not only how to write effective scenes but where to place their scenes for greatest impact. On the other hand, some writers neglect to include enough narration. This can leave the reader struggling to make meaning from the scenes they’ve been shown. I’d have to say that the balance between scene and narration—between show and tell—might be one of the most important things to get right. That just-right proportion differs from writer to writer, from genre to genre, so determining the balance requires tuning an ear to that particular piece of writing.
This issue of balance is evident in other aspects of the writer’s craft, too: Some writers create so much description that their story is drowned in sensory detail. Or they might not create enough description to conjure the world of their story in the reader’s mind. One writer might overuse clever language and distract the reader from the story, while another might write with flat, unimaginative language that doesn’t engage the reader’s ear.
It’s important to have a balance—and a complete literary toolkit at hand.
MM: Wow, I think I just learned something from listening to that. What other advice can you give the writer who’s maybe just starting out?
JM: I often work with first-time book writers. For them, understanding the drafting process—heck, understanding that there IS a drafting process—is vital. In my experience, writing a book, especially a narrative work, whether novel or memoir, cannot be rushed. The most successful writers I’ve worked with were either born with patience, or developed it over a series of revisions. If there is a way around the revision process—a diligent, painstaking revision process—I’ve yet to hear of it. Craft can be learned; manuscripts improved; voice developed. But finding your way in the work of writing takes time.
MM: Can you estimate how many writers you’ve worked with who have gone on to publication?
JM: About twenty-five of the writers I’ve worked with to date have gone on to publication—or, as playwrights, to production. Some of these have self-published, while a handful more are either agented and actively seeking deals or teetering on the edge!
MM: Yes, I think I’ve teetered on that edge myself. Thanks, Jamie, for sitting down with me. I’m sure I’ll be calling on your services again as I grind out my next novel.
To find out more about Jamie Morris and the services she provides, visit www.VoiceHeartVision.com