I have found that writers are generous with one another. We have to be. Generally speaking, our families and friends think we’re half-a- bubble-off-level for devoting our lives to the written word, and our editors and agents and publicity people (if we have them) are so overworked and underpaid that we feel sort of guilty bugging them at all. That leaves us with our characters, and sometimes they’re not so kind. They tend to sneer when we’ve neglected them. For instance, I’ve had a pair of lovers standing in a labyrinth in Tulum, Mexico for over a year, and by now they’re really really sunburned and dehydrated and they’re begging for a margharita…but oh no…their author is holding them to the small task of self-actualization, never mind finding the meaning of life. Problem is, she can’t seem to find the time to breathe life into them these days. And to add insult to injury, they live in a stack of dissheveled coffee-stained papers, topped off by bills and mouse turds, not to mention a layer of dust. No, it’s writers who buoy writers. We get each other. We cut each other slack. We connect each other. We forgive each other. We cut to the chase and we bleed easily with each other. That is who Lee Woodruff has been to me. Sister in words and heart. Fairy god-mother of my muse.
I met Lee because she interviewed me for a Redbook piece when my memoir came out in 2009. It was my first magazine interview and I answered the phone with my “business” voice, which was one cleared throat away from the way I talk to my golden retriever. In other words, unimpressive. A husky voice came through the phone: ”Girlfriend!’ And I knew in that moment, we would become just that. Friends.
I love Lee. I love her honesty, her depth, her style, her self-deprecation, her wisdom, her willingness to connect kindred spirits, her drive, her compassion, her humility, her example as wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, community member, charity maven. But most of all, I love that she talks about her dirty underwear. Literally. Any writer on tour knows what a precious commodity clean underwear is, and because you are living out of a tiny roller bag for weeks on end, it’s quite likely that you have, yes, some pretty skanky drawers. Lee likes to open with that fact when she is the MC at womens’ conventions in front of thousands of nattily dressed professionals. You’d never expect it, as this lovely, angelic, petite blonde in a twin set takes the stage. I love her for this. And so much more. She’s one hell of a writer and one hell of a gal.
The first time I actually met her in person was at the end of my first book tour. I was in New York, and the limo dropped me off at her house where we’d planned an afternoon together. I had read in her book “Perfectly Imperfect” that after a tour, she gets out of the car, flings her rollerbag to the side (by the way, it’s red with pink hearts on it), drops to her knees, and kisses the ground. Well, I did exactly that. I was so happy to be at the front stoop of a writer sister who GETS IT. Who would allow me to be puny and complaining and a miserable wreck for at least the time it takes to have a cup of coffee and get over my self.
She said, “Oh, my dear. Come on in. I’ll take care of you.” No one does that on book tour. You are the one delivering. You are the one who supposedly knows something. And somewhere in the sea of fans, old boyfriends, relatives, and scrutinizing potential readers…you hope you will find at least a teaspoon of grace in your time-zone-challenged, sleep-deprived, airplane-ozoned, out-of-shape poor excuse of a body.
I looked at her, in her T-shirt and shorts and bare feet, and just burst into tears, fell into her arms.
She knew it was triage time and she ushered me to an outside deck where we sat in Adirondack chairs and looked at Long Island Sound, cormorants diving, two authors being as raw and real as it gets. No hair and make up. Nothing eloquent to say or feel or share. No audience member to comfort. No message to get across or nasty question to field. Just a gushing of understanding from someone who knows that the very thing that got you to this place, that keeps you balanced in your daily life…your sacred writing life…is in the crapper. You haven’t been that girl for weeks, or if you’ve gotten a book published recently, likely months. You don’t recognize yourself. You don’t really even like yourself. You feel like a social media whore. And you just plain miss your precious practice.
I’ll put it this way and hopefully it will help you understand: The writing life ain’t for sissies. It requires intense vulnerability and empathy almost to a fault. Plus, it’s totally solitary. Until it’s not. And sometimes it’s weirdly full-frontal public. Writers are ridiculously driven, nay obsessed with our craft. Our writing is our lifeline and that means it can be blood sport. No one asked us to do it, so we feel lead like Joan of Arc, but also sort of ashamed of the whole thing too. Like, who do we think we are, anyway. Writing books. Thinking we have something that the world needs to hear. Add to that pesky personality disorder, the fact that most of us are some sort of cross-section between being total wall-flowers, and the one wearing the lamp-shade, sometimes all in one fell swoop. Think Hunter Thompson. Think Fitzgerald. Think Steven King. In short, we’re whack jobs. Our friends and families, and yes agents and editors too…all know this. I had one publicist say, “I’m glad you said it, not us,” winking at her marketing buddy.
I like to think of writers like Lee and me as being only minor offenders in this regard. We dress up nice. We know our way around firm handshakes and eye contact. We know not to chew gum. And we’re not mean chicks. Sure we both like to throw around the F bomb from time to time and who cares. You would too if you spent most of your time channeling the human condition.
All this to say that I am starting a Lee Woodruff fan club and I’m the president. So there. If you have not read her three very different (this woman has range!) books, RUN to your local bookstore. Get all three. Put them on your bedside table. Savor them with cups of tea and many pillows propping you up on back-to-back Sunday mornings. She is an immediate friend on the page whether or not you are lucky enough to call her friend in real life. Frankly, I think the page IS real life. Realer than real. So that means…we’re all in luck.
Here’s a bit of what Lee has to say about the writing life and life in general. Enjoy!
Click here to buy her fabulous novel, now out in paperback!
LM: You’ve written a memoir, a book of essays, many interviews and featured articles, and now a novel. Which is your favorite genre and why?
LW: By far my fave is fiction. It’s what I always thought I would do. If you’d told me that my first two books would be best-selling memoirs, I would have chortled in your face. Notice a chortle and not a laugh-riot because chortle is such a cool thing to execute and type. In memory you have to color in between the lines– you are playing with material that is real so you can’t stray too far from the facts– but with fiction– you make these characters out of clay and you can have them do anything really, so the artifice is to make it authentic, interesting and believable.
LM: Which came most easily to you and why do you think that was so?
LW: Memoir came easily. I think it’s from years of being a freelance writer and doing articles and essay pieces on family life. I learned to know “where the line is” when writing about other people– namely my kids– who didn’t ask to have me as a mother, let alone a memoir-writing mom. I have always enjoyed mining my own life and life as a parent to draw the parallels to other folks who have collectively experienced the same over-arching themes.
LM: What did you learn from each about the written word?
LW: I learned that less is more. Each book has taught me to be a more demanding editor of my own work and forced me to end up with a more minimalistic paragraph than the first draft would have suggested. Memoir writing taught me that we don’t have to go through life in a particular sequence nor should we feel compelled to include the every day, the mundane, or life in a linear world.
Perfectly Imperfect taught me to hone my funny bone a little and refine my every day sarcastic wit on the paper. It helped me focus on how to make things funny- which is a big challenge when you are armed with only words to create a mental picture as well as dialogue.
Fiction taught me the balance between character development and dialogue– it also taught me that you may not have to like every character you write but you have to root for at least one. The reader always wants to root for someone.
LM: What did you learn from each about yourself?
LW: In an Instant— that I could write a book– a feat I’d always thought was only possible when the kids were out of the house and I had giant stretches of time
Perfectly Imperfect — that I love the essay genre and always will and that I have a good knack for knowing where to end things.
Those We Love Most — that I loved getting inside the character’s head and describing things far more than I like writing dialouge. But real dialogue is tricky– it’s not easy to write the way people actually talk.
LM: Do you think it’s important to consider your reader in constructing your writing?
LW: I do think so. But I don’t write with the reader in mind. I think I EDIT with the reader in mind but when I first write the story I want to get it out of my head and onto the paper. I want to see where the characters will take me and what will happen– I don’t start out with a firm outline and a precise idea of every little twist and turn– but at some point you need to consider how it will all hang together for the reader – and that was probably on my second or third pass through.
LM: How was the editing process different from one genre to the next?
LW: Memoir writing was so much more straight forward. Editing the novel was much more like taking a serious scalpel to real plot and character parts, whereas editing the first two books was just about letting material go so the book would be tighter and move along.
LM: What’s your next project?
LW: Working on another (very rough) novel and I know it needs tons of work. But I love/hate having a project. Love it because it inspires me and makes me feel like I have a secret love– hate it because it’s alway sitting on my shoulder and I never have a regular period of time in which to write. Someday — oh someday, I’ll put that empty nest to good use, but I’m not about to wish these years away!
THANK YOU, LEE! oxoxoxoxoxoxoxox Here’s the link to buy Lee’s books!