Tuesday, May 1, 2012


This blog has become terrible. No breaks in my text! Thanks for the improvements, blogger. I am now posting at: http://theartoftransformativewriting.com/ Please join me there.

To die for

I am sitting on a tree stump about 7 inches off the ground. Far in the distance I hear electronic church bells. Closer in I hear the steady beep beep of an industrial truck backing up. Closer still, birds -- robins and mockingbirds -- invisible in the thick camouflage of trees. I am in a cemetery with my poetry students. Before they dispersed to fulfill their assignments, I read a Rumi to them. Now they’ll play with persona a la Edgar Lee Masters and the Spoon River Anthology. I remember the first time I heard the Spoon River Anthology. My brother was an actor in FSU’s theater department and they put on a reading of the poems, voices telling the stories of the people under the headstones. It was one more nail in my coffin -- a love of poetry to die for. The sunlight is diffused this morning by a thin scrim of cloud vapor. Cemeteries are sacred places to me. The ultimate transformation -- dust to dust. Being in this cemetery reminds me of scenes from a documentary film I recently saw. The filmmaker was my friend Therese Bartholomew, who had transformed the murder of her beloved brother into a testament of love and forgiveness. Her grief at his death was torrential. It was a monstrous thing that grabbed her by the throat and tried to drown her. Writing was the oxygen line that kept her alive. One time she asked me in despair, “What do I do with it all? How do I put it together?” “Just keep going,” I answered. “You can worry about putting it together later.” Then one night she woke up about 2 a.m. and told her husband she was going to make a movie. She began to keep a video diary. Then one time at our biweekly writing workshop she met some filmmakers at the coffee shop. They were in our space, but we were willing to share. Serendipity. Within a few years she had a book and a movie. Now she’s a spokesperson for restorative justice. Both of her works are incredibly transformative for one simple reason: the raw stripped to the bone honesty of her telling of the story. When Therese looks into the camera, debilitated by depression, puffy eyed and red-nosed, you know that it’s taken all of her willpower to articulate the pain, and you cannot help but be opened up to explore your own humanity. She transforms that pain into love, into art literally before your eyes. So now my students are wandering back. Two of the young women were resistant to coming here. They hate cemeteries they told me. Cemeteries are creepy, they said. And there’s too much nature out here. At first I wonder if this visit has changed their attitudes, but then I have to laugh at myself: as if everyone has to love what I love, as if a teacher dragging them out at 7:45 in the morning to wander among headstones is going to suddenly break through that iron shell and transform them. And also I know you don’t have to love a situation to write about it. In fact, sometimes getting uncomfortable is the most inspiring thing of all. Here is Merritt’s poem: Outdoors again, Starting to think My teacher is torturing me. Birds are chirping, The bugs are biting, And I am uncomfortably Centered in the Midst Of a thousand spirits. Not my personal place of Peace and relaxation, unaware of the spirits I'm encountering, Praying none of them Leave here with me! Merritt C. Ryan-Jones Ideas to write by: 1. Go to a cemetery. I’ve been inspired to write a story about dead people for a couple of years. One of these days I might even get around to it. At least steal some character names of the headstones. 2. Be honest about something that maybe you haven’t been able to be honest about before. You don’t have to share the writing with anyone else. Just dredge it up, write it, maybe it will turn into a piece of fiction or a poem. 3. Try keeping a video diary. See how that influences your writing voice. 4. Go to Therese’s website. Support a fellow writer. Buy a book, buy a CD. You won’t regret it. http://www.thefinalgiftfilm.com/

Friday, April 20, 2012

Transformation at Work

I have been letting this blog slide a little because I am on a mission to upgrade and sell my house. So I’m writing for money every single day that I’m not teaching. When I am working on a project, I do so in a mole-burrowing-through-the-earth kind of way. Not to mention that my time frame is ridiculously short. I rarely come up for air.

The money writing is not transformative, per se, not by my definition anyway. It’s just some online course development, but I like the fact that it is the engine by which I am transforming my house. A week ago the bonus room of this house was covered by a pathogen-ridden, blue-paint-stained, even blood-stained carpet that had been there for thirty years. The blood came from a poor little dead bunny that the cat dragged in. The blue paint came from our dog who knocked over a can on the carpet and then proceeded to step in it and leave retriever-sized blue paw prints. Now the green chalk-covered walls have been painted a soft neutral color and wood laminate covers the floor.

As my house transforms, so do I. For several years now I have been wrestling with the aching emptiness of the sudden absence of daughter (grown up and gone off to college) and husband (got mad and left one day) and dog (died young). But my house is becoming new and beautiful. I am becoming new, too. Happier and more fulfilled.

For one thing, I’m enjoying my teaching job more. Last week, one of the students asked me to give a poetry workshop for a few interested kids. Since I was already at school and not in my burrow, I said, sure. As soon as we were in the room with the rolling chairs and we were writing, I was like a fish that had been caught and then dropped back into its pond. I gleefully breathed in the delicious words. I even wrote a poem that I don’t hate.

Transformative Writing is like a shot of tequila. It warms your blood. It changes everything in an instant.

Here is my poem:

For our dead, beat daddies

And what has happened to us, the children
of the angel-headed hipsters? You who drank
and raged in your never-ending youth. You
freed us from the conformity of the 50s,
taught us that black was cool even before
it was beautiful, and we took your tea,
decided to make a buck, put it in cans for sale
at Walmart – or almost. We would have sold
our souls if we’d found any buyers, but we
were beaten.
You were beatific. We were beaten disillusioned gave up
the fight, bought Barbies for our babies, bought
shiny shoes, bought Mercedes Benz, bought
houses and then lost ‘em to a Hong Kong pirate
in a silver suit. We dropped that dream into a nightmare
poison cup of never good enough, never got enough – and all
the toothpaste ads came to life, pushed right past us, and we
went down without a whimper. We wrapped up our anger,
moved to the suburbs, voted Republican, bought handguns.
And we stopped being we and became
me and me and me. But not

Write, howl, sing:

1. I got the inspiration for this poem from reading portions of "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg out loud to my students. There is something about reading poetry out loud that short circuits the censors in your brain -- especially a poem like "Howl." So my suggestion to you is to pick a poem you love and read it out loud, really out loud, howl if that works for you. Then immediately pick up your pen and roll with it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

First Impressions

Recently my college roommate came to speak to students at the college where I am now a professor. We showed a video featuring her on various TV shows by way of introduction. After that, I said a few words and then turned the crowd over to her. She almost leapt out of her seat and in a loud voice she exhorted the auditorium full of people to get up and greet someone else in the room as if that person was a long lost friend. Within seconds the place was noisy with laughter and chatter. Then she quieted us down and began to explain the importance of the greeting.

When meeting someone new, the first impression carries enormous weight, according to my friend, the body language expert. Her entire talk was on first impressions and she’d made an indelible one. After her session, the students didn’t want to leave. They formed a semi-circle around her and peppered her with questions until I was finally able to drag her away.

I thought of that beginning, that first impression this morning as I was remembering some of the manuscripts I’d read for a contest last year. What my friend had said about first impressions was also true for writing. Your writing should leap off the page from the very beginning. Just as you are looking for “cues” when you first meet another person, your reader is looking for cues to figure out whether or not she wants to commit to you.

In some of the stories I read for the contest I had to plod through paragraphs that became pages before I finally felt connected to the story. It was all expository material, telling, telling, and more telling. When you send a story to a magazine or to an editor in hopes of publication, you need to catch them from the first sentence. You’ve probably heard this and wondered, but how? Why does one story’s beginning make such a good first impression, and another is just ho-hum.

Part of the answer to that is personal taste. Some readers like stories about kittens. Some readers want a bloody axe murder. That part you can't control. However, you can control how quickly you bring your reader into the story. For my money, the quicker the better. To make a good first impression, you need voice, imagery, and a singular perspective.

Here is the first paragraph from a chapter in Tamara Titus’s work in progress, a novel about a 20th-Century leper colony in Louisiana:

Chen glanced up when the door to the canteen opened. The tables had been slow all morning—just a few poker players and a Mexican who came in once a week to shoot dice—and all the dealers were hungry. He sank his hand into the fan-tan bowl, allowing the beads to sift through his fingers. The man who had opened the door was well known to him: Early Wilson lived in House Twenty-Six, and normally he was a good loser, quick to laugh and shrug off misfortune. But a year of positive tests had stolen his smile, leaving swelling and lesions in its place. Yes, Chen thought, the disease was gaining ground. Luck had abandoned Early Wilson, and now he was bad for business.

Immediately we are in a point of view. Immediately we are in a place. And by sentence three we are being given sensory details to ground us into the setting. By the end of the paragraph we’ve been given some internal monologue as well so we are firmly in this character’s perspective. And let’s not forget the tension -- the hungry dealers, the bad luck, the disappearance of the man’s smile. This writer has given us every reason to keep reading.

But let’s suppose you are not writing fiction. You’re writing memoir, and you want to explain things to the reader. You feel you need her to understand the backstory first, give her some context, right? Well . . . not necessarily. Let’s look at a passage by Natalie Stewart, a student writer at Queens University. It’s either memoir or written like memoir.

Her name was Dareth, which I found incredibly androgynous and unique. She was no taller than 5’2 and had the tiny body of a child tennis-pro-hopeful. The summer had intensified the tiny brown freckles that covered her from hair line to toe nail and lightened her gold hair in perfect lines to the bun at the crown of her head. I was 18 years old; she was 27. We didn’t exactly have the same hobbies, so we would never have met if we didn’t work in the same restaurant. I was a hostess at Village Tavern, an upscale casual neighborhood place where the hillbillies could feel fancy and the lawyers let their hair down over a decent cosmopolitan. From my post behind the podium at the front door, I could see into the open doorway of the dark bar past the tie-back black curtains where she stood center stage.

So this doesn’t exactly start in the middle of a scene, but it has the same immediacy. The story shows a distinct perspective, a voice that is willing to assert itself in the first sentence. Then that opening is followed by a wonderful cascade of visual details. The setting is visceral and summed up by someone with a sharp eye. The end of the paragraph circles back to the beginning, to Dareth. Whatever the backstory is, it will come later. As a reader I am not worried. I’m willing to simply follow the writer and her obsession. Right now, I want to learn more about this woman and this situation.

You know this already. You know how important the beginning is. But sometimes we forget. We need reminding that first impressions really do matter. If you’ve got a piece that you think isn’t working as well as you’d like it to work, look carefully at your first paragraph. Is this the strongest place you can begin? Is there a powerful moment buried somewhere in the story that needs to be dredged up to the surface? Pull it out. Start there and move forward.

Two simple exercises:

1. Go through your favorite books, stories, or essays -- at least ten of them. Look at beginnings. What made you want to keep reading? Do they start in the heat of a moment? Is there something intriguing about the voice that pulls you into the narrative? What visual, tactile, and aural details help create a sense of thereness?
2. Think of at least three dramatic events in your life. Write the first sentence of a narrative about each of those events. Then choose the one that has the most life to it and write a paragraph. Don’t write backstory. Don’t give us exposition. Be right there in the moment. What were you seeing, feeling, and thinking? Hmm. It’s good, isn’t it? Well, keep going.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On Literary Fathers and Mothers, On Harry

Today I am in Jacksonville, Florida, the city where I grew up. I am here because I was invited to go to my old high school, Robert E. Lee, and speak to students who have been reading my novel, Picara. I had just finished breakfast and I picked up a copy of the Florida Times Union. As I glanced over it on the elevator on the way up to my room, my heart lurched. One of the teasers on the front page of Section C said that Harry Crews had died. My literary father was gone.

I’m sure most writers have a literary father or mother or both. My literary mother is the artist and short story writer examplar, Lynda Schor. She was the teacher who gave me permission to use my voice and to own my writing. We are still friends to this day. I still feel supported by her, encouraged by her to eschew the mundane, and reminded by her about what makes the writer’s life worth living.

Harry Crews was my literary father. I will never forget my first fiction writing workshop with him. We were all undergraduates, and he was drunk for nearly every class. Most of the other students were terrified. Having grown up around alcoholics, I was right at home. The first story I turned in was about a girl who works in a liquor store and decides to run off with a guy who comes in to rob the place. He accused me of playing fast and loose with point of view and he spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the sex scene which he called “the rut,” but he took the work seriously, and that made a difference. It was the first time in my life I had been taken seriously as a writer.

When I went in to have a conference with him about my next story, he pulled a tall boy out of the bottom drawer of his desk and asked me, “Ms. MacEnulty, did you really write this story?” I told him that I had. It was based on my experience at the prison farm where I had been housed a few years earlier after an unpleasant run-in with the law. I guess I didn’t look like someone who would be able to write about that topic. But then he said, “Well, it was so good I thought you might have stole it.” And let me tell you -- that was the highest compliment I’ve ever had in my life.

Harry Crews schooled me in the basics. He excoriated me for putting a comma before a prepositional phrase. He made me adhere to the rules for point of view, which I still religiously obey, and he exhorted me to let fiction be fictional, an idea to which I have not been so faithful. I took as many classes as I could take with Harry. I got drunk with him just once. When I reached for a glass of water that turned out to be vodka, I realized I'd never keep up with him.

But it wasn’t in the classroom or even in the barroom where I learned the most important lessons that Harry had to impart. That lesson I learned from his writing. I recently re-read a few sections of his autobiography that were publishedin the Georgia Review, in which he talked about a time during his childhood spent in the (at that time) gritty Northside area of Jacksonville in a rooming house on Main Street. From his writing and from his take-no-prisoners style of teaching, I learned the first tenet of transformative writing: brutal, naked honesty.

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told,” he told one interviewer.

“To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get to where the blood is, where the bone is,” he told another.

I only saw Harry a couple of times after I graduated. I always wanted to go back and find him, get him to sign a book for me because I was too stupid to do that while I was a student. But I didn’t. Yesterday, for some reason I was singing an old James Taylor song with a lyric that goes like this, “I always thought I’d see you one more time again.”

Today I did my power of voice exercise with the students at Lee. You never know what’s going to come out. That’s why I like these exercises. What you need to say arrives just like that. Today I started writing about my “Down Home Jacksonville Self”:

“Me, driving the highways for hours, going through the grime, soaking in the overwhelming sadness, the stagnation, and how you captured it so well when you wrote about living on Main Street. You opened it up like a ripe cantaloupe and the seeds spilled and the meat was sweet and full of juice. This is my mourning self, my sad self. Sad that I didn’t come back to you or say thank you over and over again or let you know every word I write is a love letter to you.”

Who is your literary father? Your literary mother? Have you thanked them lately?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome Back to the Age of Jive

Back when we had these quaint things called newspapers, I used to cut out the column on writing by James J. Kilpatrick.(I know newspapers do still exist but they get thinner every day and there are newsrooms like ghost towns all over the country.)

How wonderful that people were interested enough in the art of writing that there was a weekly column called “The Writer’s Art” in a general publication. As I was cleaning out my old files, I came across one of his columns on yellowing newsprint titled “Catching wind in a net.” It was about style.

Let me quote the last paragraph for you: “A good many writers have insisted that style can be neither taught nor learned. Like tears or sweat, they say, it is something that springs from within. You either have the gift or you don’t. This is probably true, but only to a point. The good stylists work at their craft. Consciously or unconsciously, they master the little dog tricks of euphony and cadence. Little by little we learn what works for us -- bare and bony sentences, or china dogs with pouting eyes.”

We writers tend to have a way of writing that we prefer. We may like long, elaborate sentences with multisyllabic words. Or perhaps we are more comfortable with a sparer style -- a few stark images and then time to move on. Some writers have an arch tone; some writers seem to be just sittin’ on the porch, talkin’ ‘bout life. Some will take you on a long stroll; others will drag you into the ocean and try to drown you. Sometimes we don’t even know what our style is. We’re just trying to get the words to stay on the page and make some sense, hoping they won’t fall off their bar stools and slobber all over themselves. The first time a reviewer compared my work to Hemingway I was shocked. I’m not a minimalist, I thought. I wanted to be thought as a lyrical writer. And yet there’s no doubt, I like to get in and out of a scene as cleanly as I can. I may have picked that up from American Lit’s quintessential hard-drinking tough guy.

I like Kilpatrick’s words: euphony and cadence. Those two ideas are, I believe, all about the rewriting. What words need to be excised? What words need to be pulled out of the ether and nestled into the sentence? How can you say something differently from anyone else? Do your characters sound like they are speaking in an English comp class? Or do they sound true, weird, and wonderful?

One of my favorite stories of all time was written by my friend Ron Wiginton. It’s called “The Blood-Rushing Face Thing.” In it Ron invents a slang-language that is spoken by violent and yet wonderfully inventive high school gangsters. When the leader gets mad, he feels a “blood-rushing face thing.” Anthony Burgess did that, as well, in A Clockwork Orange, the story of the ultra-violent Alex and his droogs. At one point Alex says, “Appy-polly-loggies. I had something of a pain in the gulliver so had to sleep. I was not awakened when I gave orders for wakening.”

In our winter workshop at Sevenoaks, my co-leader Angela Winter, gave us certain voice exercises. One of them was an exercise in “glossolalia” -- essentially speaking in tongues. It was fun, it loosened up our tongues and loosened up our minds. I think our writing was freer afterwards.

And just when I thought I’d said enough on this subject, I came across this in the NY Times in a column by Jhumpa Lahiri:

“Only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.”


Maybe that's what we're really looking for -- writing with a live current. Speaking of which, here is an example of writer Benjamin Haag’s style from an writing exercise we did at the Sevenoaks Retreat. It’s a dialogue with a body part, in this case the belly.

A Heartbreaking Gullet of Staggering Genuis



No, dammit!  What did we just talk about?

BEER.  Beer is what we talked about.  A nice, hoppy IPA.  A sweet, dark porter.  BEER.  STOUT.  I deserve it.  You know I deserve it.  Especially after you made me digest that shit...what was it, again?  Saw grass?

It was bean sprouts.  And, it was a date.  With a vegan.  You know how it goes.

Yeah, I know exactly how it goes.  You go on a monthly dietary guilt trip after inundating me with beef, bacon, beer, cheese, and deep-fried damn near everything, and then discover Vegetarian Jesus and decide to "cleanse."  Well, you know how "cleanse" translates in my world?  WITHDRAWAL.  I'm like a junkie with the sweats down here!  Beer.  NOW.  You bastard.

You're not the boss of me.

Really?  Keep believing that, fatass.  What size jeans are you wearing now, again?  How far did that button fly off your khakis the other morning?  BOSS of you?  I OWN you.  I rule your sad, jiggly, flabby little kingdom.  I am your boss, I am your dictator, I AM YOUR KING.  And what do you give a king?  Tribute.  And the tribute I demand is BEER.  ALE.  STOUT.  A pint of Guinness, black as the darkest night, graced with foam as light and pure as new-fallen snow, or whipped topping.  An IPA with so many hops that it makes your tongue curl up inside your mouth.  A weissbier that makes your palate seig heil...

OK...not cool.

Go to hell.  You're torturing me!  

Stop being dramatic.  It's not going to happen.

You're not going to break me, you know.

Shut up.

You'll cave.  You'll collapse like a FEMA trailer.  Just like you always do...

SHUT.  UP.  You're not winning this one.

Yes, I am.  So you're going to keep your ample rump planted on that bar stool, push away that sissy club soda, and order me a BEER.

 Fine.  If I order ONE, will you leave me in peace?

And some potato skins...

Here are some writing games for you this week:

1. Write your own dialogue with a body part. Give it its own unique voice.
2. Write a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss or Jabberwocky. Bend and break the language!
3. Go through one of your favorite books and copy down the sentences that have that live current. I'm reading a James Hall mystery right now called Rough Draft. Hall's style is understated and classic, and yet there's a fine buzzing in that crackling prose of his. Certain sentences that kill softly with his words.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What We Don’t Always Talk About When We Talk About Transformative Writing

My definition of transformative writing is writing that seeks to connect, understand, and illuminate. Although transformative writing is therapeutic, it’s not just that. Transformative writing strives for a level of artistry that, to borrow from Faulkner, uplifts our souls. Transformative writing may inform, it may entertain, and it may heal, but it also does something more. It connects to and transmits something of our human/divine nature.

Writer Moira Notargiacomo said it beautifully in a recent workshop:

Writing is what speaks to my soul, what cries out from my soul. Writing gives me sustenance, a raison d’etre. When I am sad or lonely, I write it down and the feelings pour out of me and onto the page. When I am joyful, I write. I write about what inspires me. Writing is a pathway to the divine and from the divine. Writing is the blessing that was given to me. I find out who I am by what I write. I find out what I care about by writing. I transform my soul. Rather the words and images transform my soul. I expand and grow from writing. I communicate my thoughts and feelings to others. Writing allows me to communicate with the silence, with that which cannot be seen or even be known. Writing is as necessary as life, as breath, as love. With writing I have everything.

I realized when I first led a writing workshop in a women’s prison that we were doing something different from ordinary workshops. This work was not about getting published in The New Yorker. It was not about fame or fortune. Rather It was about unlocking something within ourselves that had been locked up. It was about freeing these women (and myself) from our internal prisons.

And so I began approaching workshops differently. I realized that helping people become better writers was actually a side effect, not so much the purpose. But of course I never said this out loud. By introducing participants to the principles that would make their work more artistic, these workshops also became laboratories in spiritual transformation. For years I couldn’t exactly articulate what was happening, but I knew it was profound.

Recently I found a book that had been sent to me by a publicist several years ago. At the time I had no interest in the book and it sat untouched on my book shelf. Then the right moment came and I plucked the book off the shelf. The title is Alchemy of Light, and the author is a Sufi teacher named Llewelllyn Vaughn-Lee. He writes, “Through our human consciousness, new forms, images, and ideas can come into being; through us the intelligence of the world can be more creative.”

Aha! I thought when I read that. This is what it is going on when we write from our deepest selves. We are, as Vaughn-Lee points out, connecting to a light deep inside us, and this light is God. To get to that light though we must first travel through darkness. In transformative writing, we confront the shadow. We embrace it, dance with it, and sometimes make love to it.

Another book I have picked up recently is Fear No Evil by Eva Pierrakos and Donovan Thesenga. This book contains lectures that Eva channeled in the 1970s. I remember reading some of those lecture around 1985 and being launched on a spiritual journey that continues to this day.

The lectures are filled with great wisdom. In one lecture, the guide says, “To face life’s reality means to be able to face yourself as you are with all your imperfections.” Life tends to numb us. We are constantly distracted by our work, our entertainments, and our addictions. But writing, especially transformative writing, requires that we un-numb ourselves, that we focus, that we face our imperfections because that’s where the gold is. If we want to create an interesting, compelling, three-dimensional character, we look to our own imperfections. If we want to write an honest memoir, we unveil the dark parts of our hearts. If we want to wake up the world, we sift through the collective unconscious to find the fears and prejudices that keep it entranced.

Vaughn-Lee says in his book that we must transform ourselves and then the light of the divine will be able to enter the world. We cannot change the external structures. They are too entrenched. But we can go deep within ourselves and connect to that light within us. He connects this to writing and art when he says, “Through the mediating power of symbols, we can reawaken to the mystery of life as a continual relationship with the divine, a constant communion.”

Symbols, shadows, light. Creation. Becoming a better writer is a by-product.

This week’s inspirations:

1.Write your own answer to the prompt: Writing is . . .

2. Think of the most meaningful symbols in your life. What does your house symbolize to you? What about nature? What are your current personal struggles? What “thing” symbolizes those struggles, and conversely what do your outward obstacles tell us about your inner struggles?

3. Kill your ego. Write a scene where your alter-ego dies. What is left behind?