It’s All About Opening the Mind: David Saltzman and Deb Smith on the Writing Process

Writing by Heidi Sistare, Illustration by Lesley Numbers
May 12, 2014

It’s All About Opening the Mind is the fourth in a series about the writing process. During each month of 2014, Freerange Nonfiction will post a new piece from this collaboration between Heidi Sistare and Lesley Numbers. You can read January’s piece, The Ecstatic World, here, February’s piece, Open a Door, here, and March’s piece, What Do We Do With Our Violence, here.
At some point I get to ask: Why do you write? What comes next is predictable. Eyes roll to the sky, there’s silence, hands flutter in the air, huge sighs escape from sealed lips, people laugh. David threw the question right back at me, “Why?! Awww hell.” The barista flicked a lever to release espresso and the grinder whirred to replace it.
David Saltzman lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he takes classes with the Madison Writers’ Studio. Deb Smith is also a student at the Madison Writers’ Studio. Both writers are new to the craft of writing, and they’re both lawyers. Why do they write?
“It’s not really anything that complicated,” David answered. “It’s fun. I mean…it’s not fun. It’s very painful. But it’s nice that you could take this thing that’s in your head and make it a reality–even though doing it is work. It’s something that would not have existed if not for you and what was inside your head. That doesn’t make it good, it doesn’t make it great, and it doesn’t make it worth reading. But it does exist. And that’s something.”
For Deb, the feeling she gets from the creative process keeps her coming back to the page. Deb finds that where her stories begin is not where they end up. Between the idea and the final, polished piece are all of the steps that shape a story into being. The work of revising, reading, workshopping, and thinking can change the trajectory.
The thinking is important. “You just sit there staring off, hating yourself,” David said. “What is the story going to be about? Why am I wasting my life writing this story? I’ll write a little bit and look at it and say, this is awful. This is wrong. Then I think of Anne Lamott who would say; ‘write a shitty first draft.’ And I think, shut up Anne, this is really shitty. This isn’t even the right kind of story. Anne’ll be like, just write it, just be uplifted. You don’t know my pain,” he said, laughing.
Deb has transformed her dining room into the place where the thinking, reading, and writing (and perhaps the self-loathing as well, though she didn’t mention that part), all happen. “I hauled all my dining room furniture to the thrift store,” she said. She replaced it with a writing table and chair, a credenza for her files, and a reading chair. “I look out a window,” she added. “I see the corner of the neighbor’s house and a couple of big evergreens and now there’s a pair of cardinals nesting in the evergreens. I had to make a concession. It was my cat Edward’s favorite window and now that I’m blocking it I had to rig up a little perch for him to lie on so he can still see out.”
This room isn’t the only place where Deb’s ideas come to her. She said that when she was younger, someone asked her where her ideas come from and she answered, outer space. “I was young and flip,” she said. “But it really does feel like they come from outer space sometimes. My brain opens up like one of those giant dishes in the desert to pick up distant signals. Things just pour in and then percolate inside my head. I can be sweeping the floor or driving the car or doing whatever and then some little ping goes up and it’s a feeling or an image or an idea and it becomes a story.”
When David is working on a new piece he needs four things before he can get started. The first, and where he usually begins, is a central idea. Often this is a question that he is trying to answer. He needs one image, a moment. Usually this image is the climax or just after the climax. He needs to know the ending. And David needs to know the perspective he’s using to tell the story.
He watches for things: A couple arguing in sign-language on a plane, and an eagle that swooped close in front of his windshield. “I was driving through Kansas at night and there were lines of little fires through the fields. It was like driving through some sort of battlefield,” he said. David stores these moments away for future stories.
Both writers find that they gain insights from the workshop process. David said, “You learn to untether yourself from your version of the correct.” This could be the thread that winds through each step of the writing process: reading, collecting ideas, thinking, writing, revising, revising again. It’s all about opening the mind.


Deb Smith went to college and law school so long ago it’s not worth boring you with names and dates. After a long career working for the Wisconsin State Public Defender she came to her senses and retired. Like most lawyers, she always believed she could write fiction. She is a Wisconsin native and currently lives in Middleton. She has attended workshops at the Madison Writers’ Studio and managed to learn a thing or two. She was recently a finalist in the Lascaux Review 250 Flash Fiction contest. If this writing thing works out, no one will be more surprised than she.
David Saltzman is a 34-year-old attorney and writer from Madison, Wisconsin. After graduating from University of Wisconsin Law School in 2007, he founded his own general-practice firm in 2009. Although he’s always enjoyed writing fiction, he began to seriously study it in 2012, and has been working with the Madison Writers’ Studio since 2013. He lives in Madison with his son, Robert, and his fiancee, Michele.


meHeidi Sistare is a writer and community-builder who lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. imageLesley Numbers is an art educator, printmaker, and mom who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Lesley and Heidi met as roommates at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. There, they transformed their cinderblock and linoleum room into a magical living space, listened to lots of Townes Van Zandt, and plotted collaborative projects. They’re happy to be sharing this project with Freerange.