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“How My Wild, Creative Craft Was Made More Wonderful with Structure.”

“Going to a tutor allowed me to break through the cycle of ADHD-related shame and disappointment that kept me back from other writing projects. Now, I have the rest of my career to practice what I just learned and to learn what I have yet to practice.”

I sat in my car, waiting for my son’s tutoring session to end, eager to hear feedback on his Great Gatsby essay (which I came across while rummaging through his backpack the previous evening, unbeknownst to him). I wanted to see if the tutor’s edits were ones I had as well. More than that, I wanted confirmation that I — a professional writer for 30 years — knew what I was doing.

My son and I both have ADHD. He started working with this tutor to help him improve his writing skills and reading comprehension. I struggle with writing as well because of difficulties with focus and organization — even while medicated with stimulants.

Working to improve my writing skills at 51 years old is an admirable endeavor, I think. But why should I have to sneak around my son’s room like a criminal to mooch off his tutor’s lessons? Why covet my son’s tutor? Why not get one myself?

Admitting I wanted a tutor is embarrassing. I started out writing as a fluke, as an “editor” of a non-profit housing organization’s newsletter. Panicked over my new fancy title, and wishing I hadn’t overplayed my writing abilities, I took crash courses in journalism and creative writing through my local university. Equipped with good reporters’ tools — namely, curiosity and audacity — I learned to write news and feature stories.

But writing, even simply news stories, takes me forever. I write the lede, get distracted, and lose focus. When I try to pick up where I left off, my mind goes blank and I panic, furiously writing whatever comes to my head about the topic until suddenly, almost miraculously, the information swirling in my brain materializes into a well written, organized, polished story.

[Click to Read: Writing My Way to a Happier Me]

My process is hectic and haphazard, driven by panic rather than technique or structure. I try organizing my thoughts using outlines, webs, and charts — but nothing works.

Determined to get over my insecurities and really improve this time, I begin asking around for tutors who work with adults. But psychologists, teachers, school administrators — everybody is confused by my question. A tutor, at my age? Did I mean a life coach? An editor? A consultant? Facilitator? A highly regarded psychologist gives me someone’s name.

The tutor sounds flaky over the phone. She tells me that changing my writing process would change my life. “You’ll never think the same again,” she assures me.

She can only help me if I let her “get into” my head, she says. “We should get together sooner rather than later to see if we’re going to get along,” she adds. “Bring stories you’re working on.”

We plan to meet at a diner on a Wednesday morning. I won’t have trouble finding her, she says. “I have a lot of hair.”

[Read: Manage Your Distractions]

I hang up wondering if I should cancel.

I arrive at the nearly-empty diner on time and set up my laptop. A woman with long wavy hair and bright red lipstick traipses in, a fur hat covering her ears and fur boots, looking as if she were meeting a friend in Alaska, rather than a client at a Washington D.C. diner in the fall.

“You must be Marcela,” she says, squeezing my hand, a burst of sweet perfume settling between us.

“Let me tell you what I do.” Her fingers rub against her temples, as if nursing a migraine. She takes out a pencil and a pad and writes in big letters: F-E-A-R.

“I help people overcome their fear,” she pronounces, “because fear is the major obstacle to change.”

She resembles a TedX speaker giving a powerpoint presentation, but instead of standing before a large audience, she is sitting next to a jukebox, talking to me.

I wonder if I can just end the session, give her the check, and leave. But if I want a shot at something better, I must believe that this disheveled, eccentric woman can help me.

She lowers her voice and reaches out her hand. “Show me what you’ve got.”

I give her what started out as an essay about my experience trying to get out of paying hefty fines for overdue books to my local library. The essay evolved into a hodgepodge of funny stories – getting bad legal advice from baseball moms, misplacing book returns in the donation pile, and dodging surly librarians who would gladly throw violators into the slammer.

I worry about her reaction, but every so often she lets out a loud, throaty laugh. Or she stops to underline a sentence and mutter, “This is an excellent point.”

She moves closer as she finishes and says, “Do you know how difficult it is to write a funny story like this one?”

I nod. Her words strike my fragile ego. But then she begins to draft an outline, and I immediately object. “Outlines don’t work for me,” I blurt. “I can’t organize anything that way.”

She pauses, perplexed. “Tell me the story about the library.”

I stammer at first, having told the story dozens of times to friends and attempted to write it dozens more. But my voice steadies, and I tell the story I want to write. I picture the events leading up to the confrontation with the librarian, describing the scenes with vivid imagery, humor and irony. The story I tell is actually well organized and evenly paced.

The tutor sees the lightning bolt in my eyes, and begins drafting out my story in a storyboard. Together, we fill in the panels, stick figure style, to depict the sequence of scenes. It is exhilarating to lay out one thought after another, without fear that the whole structure might tumble down if my mind drifted, if I lost focus, or struggled with organizing my thoughts. Together, we build a story, one thought at a time. Later, I return home and use the story board concept to lay out another piece.

The next time we meet, I pull out a copy of the “Corporate Relocation Survey 2009,” which highlights challenges faced by employees who must relocate for their jobs. The report has caused me much agony, as I struggled to figure out whether to start my coverage describing the problem, summarizing the conclusion, or presenting the findings. My tutor groans over the selection.

“Take out a piece of paper,” she orders. “Write 10 questions you have about the report.” “I haven’t read it yet,” I say, confused by her suggestion.

“What questions will this report answer for me?” she asks, drawing a question mark that takes up the entire page.

I grow impatient. And then, a light bulb goes off. “What’s it about?” I write down that question. “Who does the survey affect? Why would anybody care?” The questions come faster than I can write them down. Surprisingly, I know more about the topic than I realized.

She then asks me to identify the questions that strike me as most interesting and to dig through the report for answers. Eagerly, I thumb through the pages. I am on a mission to find something specific, insightful, and spectacular — an item that will reveal what’s at stake over a problem that, seconds before, readers had no idea existed.

In this way, I find my lead.

I ended up having just five sessions with my tutor. But in that short time, she identified inefficiencies in my writing process and provided solutions to fix bad habits.

When I told my son I had been seeing a tutor, he looked up from his Game Boy and laughed.

“You going back to school or something?”

Is that notion so strange? Going to a tutor allowed me to break through the cycle of ADHD-related shame and disappointment that kept me back from other writing projects. Now, I have the rest of my career to practice what I just learned and to learn what I have yet to practice.

How to Become a Better Writer: Next Steps


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Updated on February 5, 2021

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