Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.

In celebration of its sequel, Amos McGee Misses the Bus, Philip Stead, author, and Erin Stead, illustrator, spoke on Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR) about writing stories untethered to time.

Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”

He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.

We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.

We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.

The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?

But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.

It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.

Free-Notebook-clipart-png

Sometimes, the most mundane habits are the most useful. So it is with note-taking.

The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, project-oriented note-taking serves important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes

When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence,  or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.

Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also provide past evidence for future meanings.  

The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever, especially for writers, and most especially for writers of creative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, and biography.

Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent. This gap is necessary, but it’s also useful: A gapless map would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be a useless map.

This gap is also a consequence of selection. Whenever we represent something, we make choices. When, for example, we decide to make a map, we choose a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We choose which of our needs we must meet and which to meet of our fellow wanderers.

In fact, the gap makes the map a product of form and a product of function—maps are representative and operative. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther makes this point in When Maps Become the World: [Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”

For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating, and comforting, expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book. 

Ultimately, there will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it: The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.

Road Running

Brian Stevenson / Getty Images

For most of my life, I’ve found comfort and catharsis in running. The relentlessness of the pace and its imperative to persist (almost) always help quiet my busy brain.

Like many dedicated runners, I’d always assumed that, sooner or later, I’d run a marathon. For years, I waited for inspiration to strike. When it did—usually while clicking through finish-line pics of exhausted-but-elated marathoners—I expected motivation to follow. But the sustained urge never arrived.

Over time, I upped my mileage, hoping that, eventually, I’d need to, I’d just have to run a marathon. But many miles were logged, and still I failed to feel the urgency commensurate with the goal. It wasn’t until these last months of Covid-provoked upheaval and change passed that I remembered that I can change, too.

Among other experiments, I decided to try a training plan. Which I hated. Change is hard, and new learning curves are often very sharp. The plan insisted on showing me, with spreadsheet severity, that what seemed possible in the abstract was impossible in practice: I couldn’t hit my paces; my watch was constantly disappointed in my efforts; and marathon mileage felt totally out of reach.

I decided I wasn’t going to run a marathon after all—clearly, I wouldn’t be able to, anyway. Instead, I’d just have to work on disciplining myself to the plan, and that would have to be enough.

Surprisingly? It was.

Many weeks have now passed, and I’ve made that imperfect plan a part of my every day. This is not to say that I hit my paces (I don’t) or that my watch is happy with me (never). But marathon mileage is in reach, and its proximity has given me the motivation, the drive (if not necessarily the need) I passively sought in the past.

What lessons have I drawn from this experience? A few, but among the most meaningfully applicable: The discipline is the goal.

When a goal is too big, or too diffuse, or maybe even too quiet to command attention, a plan to start and a commitment to continue can bring it into view and therefore in reach. I didn’t have to need to or have to run a marathon. I could simply want to, and start from there.  

Chuck Close famously observed that “inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s one way to describe it. But here I think Rilke offers a more philosophical sourcebook: You don’t yet know the answers. That’s okay—you don’t have to. You inhabit your answers by first living your questions.

If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.

Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool. 

For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.

Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.

Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.

Vulnerability is less Achilles Heel, more Athena’s aegis. Aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.

By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.

Ferris Wheel

Against the black background of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, “vulnerability” feels like it has lost some of its millennial sheen. It’s no longer (just) Brené Brown’s shame, and an opportunity for open-hearted living. Today, it means feeling—and being—a persistent target for viral attack.

Although vulnerability can make us feel extraordinarily alone, “vulnerability” contains the roots of collective rescue. From Latin stock “to wound,” vulnerability once referred not only to our susceptibility to wounding but also to our power to wound. These referential foes–to be hurt and also to hurt–have flowered again during our pandemic year.

Now (as, in some ways, always), we’re vulnerable because we can be wounded, get sick, stay sick, die. We’re vulnerable because we love people who can also be wounded, get sick, stay sick, and die. And yet we’re also vulnerable because, in our vulnerability, we can wound and sicken others.

To be vulnerable means to carry an enormous weight, but its etymology suggests it’s not one we must–or even can–privately bear. Instead, the discomfort of our vulnerability can serve to remind us of our collective responsibility to safeguard one another.

As we pass the signpost marking a quarantine year, we can mark our progress not in days (ha.), but in terms of our ability to accept vulnerability as both weakness and strength. We now know the associated cost of denial: When we fail to accept our vulnerability, we relinquish the power we have to keep ourselves and others safe.

Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?

If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.

The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.

What should you do? You should take a break.

“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.

Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.

So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.

Building an author platform is an especially important task given the quarantine’s likely long-lasting impact. In the indeterminate new normal, “the digital first impression is…the only impression.”

Authors for whom a digital first impression feels uncomfortably distant can take refuge in the etymology of digital in “finger’s breadth” (and in the inherent ambiguity of every impression).

According to ZG Communications, a Canadian-based marketing agency, authors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, book buyers, and anyone associated with writing, making, selling, buying, and reading books must be especially agile in adopting (and adapting) digital-first branding strategies.

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) echoes the suggestion. In Action Items for Authors, ABA instructs authors to work with local booksellers to create virtual story time, livestream readings, conduct Skype- or Zoom-based conversations, or offer Twitter-based AMAs.

It isn’t clear how the pandemic and potential bookstore closures will redefine bookselling or buying. But the general, newly narrowed focus on establishing, maintaining, and building a digital presence will broadly impact the industry.

Publishers Weekly, for example, has responded to COVID closures with a virtual handselling campaign. The effort, designed to give booksellers an opportunity to introduce books published during the pandemic, works to replicate the bookstore customer’s happenstance purchases.

Its reach is necessarily limited and not yet tested, but the campaign nonetheless introduces new and old readers to books they might not have otherwise encountered. Consequently, it gestures to the intimacy available via digital strategies. For authors, in particular, such strategies can offer readers the realness of apparently unfiltered immediacy—sometimes by simply providing glimpses into authors’ private lives.

Adrienne Westenfeld, in Esquire, writes extensively to this point. By necessity, readers are now able to gain access to authors in a a variety of new ways, including via their bookshelves, living rooms, partners, kids, and pets. Readers in the pre-COVID normal were seldom invited to peek beyond the bookstore’s walls. 

While authors may have little control over the future of the industry, they can certainly use their platform to more intimately communicate with potential readers. Authors who build platforms featuring virtual events (or events that easily adapt to virtual venues), for example, will be better positioned to reach a variety of readers in the future, regardless of the future’s particulars.

This is true for unpublished authors or authors with a work in progress, as well. These authors can create digital-first platforms that deliver reader-responsive expertise through webinars, lecture-led discussions, Q&As, specialty training sessions, or anything else their audience might like to access.

Simply put, when a digital impression is the only impression, it’s the only impression that matters.

For first-time nonfiction authors, the passive pressure to “build” an “author platform”  shares some of the urgent-but-empty significance of corporate jargon. What does it mean? Is it really necessary?

Brooke Warner describes it at The Write Life as an “author’s visibility”; Agent Kate McKean describes it as “name recognition”; and Jane Friedman, publishing industry insider, describes it as the “ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is  a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects. 

For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects. 

Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.” 

Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.

The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.