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Giving Your Writing the Whole Nine Yards

Jennifer Gaites, a book inc Peer Artist Leader, receives a writing lesson from an interesting experience in a museum.

By Jennifer Gaites

November 21, 2022

I love going to museums. The art. The learning. The creative space. But the people … well, I don’t always love the people. I get annoyed by crowds. I’m not proud to admit that I often end up people-watching (and, yes, people-judging) instead of taking in the exhibit.

During a trip to New Orleans a few weeks ago, my husband and I visited the National World War II Museum. The museum—its architecture and the presentation of information—is amazing. However, as we moved from room to room, my usual annoyances crept in. People bumped up against me. I felt someone’s breath on my neck. At one point, I turned to my husband and whispered, “For real, how many times can that dude cut in front of us?” My enthusiasm was quickly diminishing.

And Then, a Gift

Then, I happened upon a black and white photograph that was unusually artistic for a war photo: a young soldier (they were all so young), his back bent as he laid out rows and rows of ammunition. The light moved across the neat lines of bullets, the pattern broken only by the boy’s body as he worked. I was mesmerized.

“Twenty-seven feet,” the man next to me said. I looked over. “I’m sorry?” “Twenty-seven feet of bullets. That’s how long those rows are. It’s where the expression ‘The whole nine yards’ comes from. It meant a gunner gave it his all.”

“Wow,” I said. I marveled at the image, and also at this stranger who’d offered me an interesting nugget of information—a little gift that I would have missed if I’d let my frustration get the best of me.

It’s the Same With Writing

As I sat at the computer this morning, working toward my next deadline for the Memoir Incubator, I realized my relationship to writing is much the same. Like the nudge-y crowds in the museum, resistance shows up as frustration, impatience, and discomfort. I’m quick to judge myself. I want to walk away. But I don’t … because then an idea bubbles up. A sentence flows. A connection is made. And I think of all the surprises I’d miss if I didn’t push through those feelings.

I’ve since learned that the origin of the expression “the whole nine yards” is up for debate. Nonetheless, my interaction with the stranger at the museum was a reminder that people are funny and quirky and interesting—when they’re not totally frustrating. Same with writing. To find the real magic, you have to push through. Give it the whole nine yards.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now, and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and is forthcoming in Hippocampus.