Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
After Page One: Process

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A guest post to motivate, encourage and inspire...


My Cathartic Writing Exercise

I know “cathartic” sounds dramatic, but I have no other way to describe the experience. It was intense, emotional and therapeutic. Why? Because having gone through it, I discovered that I am capable of achieving what I thought was impossible: to edit an essay down from 2700 to 850 words.

The piece was about my girlfriend’s widower who had begun dating only a few months after my friend had died, and whether or not there is such a thing as “too soon.”

When I first completed the long essay, I found a writer with an interest in Internet dating and who seemed approachable. I hoped that given the topic of my piece, he might recommend an outlet. His immediate request almost sent me through the roof in exasperation: “I am happy to read your essay but bring it down to about 800 words.” Yeah, right, I thought. Now that’s funny. I walked away from my desk, mumbling what might have been curse words.

Photo by Amanda Morris

Photo by Amanda Morris

My essay consisted of what I believed were beautifully crafted paragraphs about a delicate topic involving my dear friends. I couldn’t fathom getting rid of any of it. Where to begin? But in the end, I managed to kill some of my darlings, as Faulkner once famously stated.

During the night, repeated whispers of Hemingway’s mantra “write one true sentence” lulled me in my sleep, calming my agitation. Early the next morning, I woke with a resolve that almost puzzled me. I sat down at my computer and went at it with gusto.

Round one: I highlighted the one true sentence in each paragraph. Round two: I allowed myself to find the next one. And so it went until the word-count dwindled and the real labor began. “Do you need this sentence to say your truth?” I asked myself. The answer was usually no.

I sent the new and trimmer version to the generous reader, to whom I was technically a nobody, just a random inquiry in his inbox. He answered within the hour: “This is a terrific piece that deserves to be published. I will ask my editor.” I almost feel off my chair.

Later that week, having still not heard back, I wrote a whiny email to my partner, a retired academic. His response reminded me of why we need to move on and keep writing: “I once early in my career sent an article to a journal in London. 17 years later I received the reply: ‘Dear Dr. Perry, now that we have been able to read your paper, we would be happy to publish it.’ It appeared the following year and is still one of my best pieces.”

In the end, the editor my reader had approached on my behalf decided not to run the piece. But now I have a carefully polished and much improved essay, and I can say that the confidence that resulted from this experience has been remarkably empowering.


Editor's Note: Nina published her revised essay, My friend died of cancer. Six months later, I met her widower's new girlfriend in The Washington Post on July 6, 2015.

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Nina B Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway. Dedicated in-betweener and bon-vivante, teacher, writer and blogger, she lives in West Hartford, Connecticut with her three mostly adult sons. When she is not writing or gathering family and friends around her dinner table, she is planning to migrate to Mid-Coast Maine, as soon as her kids fly the nest. Some of her writing lives at

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My best friend from childhood has advanced cancer. We've known each other 52 years and I've known her husband for over 40. I may find myself writing a blog post about her one day - I've already thought about it. I read your essay, and it was well written. It made me think about my friend's husband, who has been her caregiver through this 3 1/2 year battle. I'm happy that, in the end, you did not judge your friend's widower. I am not going to share the essay on Facebook, though - both my friend and her husband are my Facebook friends.
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