Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gestation is a Necessary Part of the Process

I went a couple of weeks without writing a post for this blog -- or writing anything else, for that matter. I was tired and there were some personal issues that were on my mind. I didn't even write in my journal.

Writers tend to beat themselves up if they aren't writing, but I have learned (finally after many years) to give myself a break and to have faith that the creative urge hasn't gone anywhere. I also comfort myself with the knowledge that my favorite writer Toni Morrison says you should never force the writing. She says she can always tell when a writer is pushing the writing out instead of letting it evolve organically. So when it's not there, I let the fields remain fallow.

I don't know exactly what is happening in the brain during those fallow periods, but I do know that eventually the words come pouring out in a torrent. That's what happened this time. I hadn't touched my notebook in a couple of weeks. And then that first line started dancing around my brainpan. The narrator in my head started explaining things to me. It was my story but it was really happening to someone else. All the things that were going on in my life fell into some kind of pattern and over a period of two days I wrote and rewrote. It seems like I wrote the story in a couple of days but it was really working itself out over the weeks. The story was like one of those children who wait to begin talking for so long that the parents become worried, but when the kid does finally start talking, she does so in full sentences.

That's how it worked this time. Other times it may be different. You may need to prime the pump by writing in a journal or going to a writing retreat. Sometimes spending time with a friend in a coffee shop where you both commit to writing for 15 minutes can get you going again. The thing I'm trying to say is trust your instincts. If you need to stop writing for a week, a month or even two or three months, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Relax. Find some quiet time. Give the narrator in your head a chance to find the story. When it's time you'll hear it, and you'll be ready to start taking dictation.

WIY: Winter is a time for the busy natural activity of the planet to slow down. You may need to slow down a little too. Take some time to relax. In mid-February (just before you go stir-crazy) my friend Angela, whose last name happens to be Winter!, and I will be offering a Winter Writing Retreat. We'll be engaging in exercises that will help free up those trapped ideas. Think of it as a chance to play, to discover, and to deepen your writing process.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Things Tell Us

We live in a material world. We wear clothes, we own things, we make art and hang it on our walls. We are constantly in contact with things. Right now I am sitting on a couch that is covered with a large piece of light brown cloth with a black mandala design to hide the torn cushions. My fingers are tapping the keys of my computer while my wrists rest on the flat area below the keys -- an area I don't even have a name for. I am wearing a T-shirt a friend gave me when I threw away all the ones I used to sleep in that had once belonged to my ex-husband. I am wearing the slippers the same ex-husband and my daughter gave me for Christmas one year. And I'm wearing a black fleece jacket that used to belong to my now dead mother. Everything I'm wearing (except my sweat pants) has a story attached to it.

Objects help us to concretize abstract ideas. Whether you are writing memoir, fiction, or poetry, tangible items will help to make your writing more real to your readers. My friend Robin Edgar often has people write the story behind a pair of shoes that they own. For women, this is an easy assignment, but I have found that men's shoes have stories to tell as well.

Jane Hardwidge, who attended one of my workshops in Esalen, wrote an entire autobiography in just a few sentences based on a coat:

I found my Betsey Johnson faux zebra, velvet coat when I was shopping with an old friend of mine from London. She lives here now but she remembers me when I was wild. Before I started dating my husband, before I had children.

“You’ve got to get it,” she said. “It’s so you.”

And that reference to me was not to the happy but constantly exhausted and inadequate wife and mother. The ‘you’ Alison meant was the woman who she spent evenings drinking fruit-flavored vodka shots in the Dog House bar in Soho, who took a fancy to a car’s wing mirror and had to be restrained from snapping it off the vehicle. The ‘you’ who tried to throw an apple at a miserable-looking line of late-night commuters standing at a bus stop on Whitehall to liven them up.

I couldn’t fit into my well-loved leather pants any more but the Betsey Johnson coat fitted me like a dream.

The pictures that she puts in my mind when I read this piece delight and intrigue me. This is someone with many stories to tell. And they are stories I want to read.

Sometimes when I am teaching poetry, I will bring in my shell collection. I ask the participants to choose a shell and write about it, describing it and telling its story. These are always fun poems to write and they help participants understand the importance of concrete reality in the symbolic realm of language.

WIY: Think of an object that is meaningful to you (or to one of your characters). Describe the object. What is the history of the object? Where did the object come from? Who are the people associated with the object? What has happened to them?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where is the love?

I had the good fortune to speak to a room full of women from various book clubs the other day. During the question and answer period, a woman asked me if I ever wrote romance fiction?

“Well,” I answered. “I don’t write romance novels but there is a lot of romance in the books I write. In fact, I think all of my books are love stories in one way or another.”

As I thought about it later, I realized that was true. Not just for my books but for every book I have ever loved. In one way or another they were love stories. And it starts early. For instance, Harry Potter is a love story. Not just Harry and Ginny or Ron and Hermione, but think about the long-lasting love between Dumbledore and Harry that drives the story. Huck Finn is a love story about a runaway slave and a vagabond boy. Black Beauty -- a girl and a horse.

You ever notice in mysteries and thrillers how often the hero’s love interest gets in harm’s way? The suspense is greater if his or her personal feelings are involved. Even the macho, macho man Hemingway wrote beautiful love stories.

Great stories are filled with love lost, love gained, love yearned for. From the ancient Greek myths to today’s sitcoms, love in its infinite permutations seems to be the point of it all. If you really want to engage your readers, let your story (no matter what “kind” of story it is) be a love story.

WIY: Think about a time you were in love. How did you meet? What were the obstacles that had to be overcome? How did you fall? Slowly? This can be any kind of love -- from love for a child to love for God to romantic love. Write about the physical feelings. Write about the moment you knew.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Little Help from Our Friends

The other day I got an email from a writer-friend. She was feeling a strong desire to put more time into her writing and wanted a guide-rope to help her get up the mountain. She asked if I could recommend any writing books that might have exercises to inspire and guide her. I’m glad she asked because when it comes to writing books, I’m a believer. I used to think that perhaps it was a waste of time to read books on writing -- time that was better spent actually writing. But quite early on, I realized there was a lot of wisdom in those books, as well as good company.

Now I’d have to say that all of the writing books I’ve ever read have been useful in one way or another. It’s not necessarily the exercises they offer as much as the feeling of being in conversation with another writer, discovering their thought processes, and learning the tricks and techniques they use to keep their writing honed. Whenever my writing is in a lull, I find that reading the musings of another writer nearly always manages to reboot my own writing program.

The writing book I quote the most is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I love her admonition to give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. But the writing book that taught me the most was Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. The “shapes” that Stern provides are like doorways into the heart of short story writing. Of course, for building a foundation in fiction writing, you can’t go wrong with Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction.

Another book I enjoy, especially for its prompt on writing the 15-sentence portrait, is Wendy Bishop’s Working Words: The Process of Creative Writing. And then there are the standby’s that no writer should be without --Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. She’s got a new book about memoir writing that I plan to add to my list. Many people swear by the Julia Cameron books.

Recently I picked up a different kind of writing book. It’s called Citizens of the Dream and is a series of letters to advice columnist Cary Tennis, whom I recently met at the Sun Magazine’s Writing Conference at the Esalen Institute. The subtitle of the book is “41 good, serious, smart answers to your questions about writing, painting, paying, acting and living the creative life.” And that’s just what it is. He has gathered questions pertaining to creativity (and lack thereof) and provided answers that are heartfelt, thoughtful, funny, and so human.

Here’s an excerpt from one of one of Cary’s answers:

Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic, and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

WIY: Write a letter of advice to yourself. What is the wisest, most compassionate thing you can tell yourself about your own writing? Next, Get thee to a library and check out a book on writing. Spend time with it. Treat it like an old friend. Or a new friend. Get to know it. Get inspired.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mind Over Matter: Make the Most of POV

A lot of fiction these days is written either in the first person or the close third person. Close third person is similar to first person because the character’s sensibility is the lens through which we receive the story. Close third person gives the writer a tremendous advantage -- we get to know every thing that the character sees, hears, thinks and feels. We are privy to the character’s internal monologue. Sometimes I think this is one of the main reasons we read: we want to get in someone else’s head and find out what that is like.

But some writers don’t take full advantage of the close third person. They underutilize that wonderful device we call point of view. Here’s the thing: if you are going to use a close third person (or a first person) point of view, you need to spend some time in that character’s head. What is the character thinking? Or not thinking!

Here’s an example of the close third person from my novel From May to December:

Lolly picked up the pie from the round metal table where Aunt Jewel had left it and turned to go inside. Sue, a friend from work, had invited her to the movies, but she didn’t really feel up to it so she called and canceled. Saturday night and all she wanted to do was to eat some left over Thai food and read a book.
After her dinner she decided to take a bath. Her bathroom was small and covered in green tile. She’d need to redecorate in here, she thought. Maybe make a mosaic. She lit a vanilla-scented candle and undressed, drawing a hot bath. As she eased herself into the water on her one leg, she looked down at her body. How long had it been since a man had touched her? More than a year. Damn it, she thought. She used to see a guy named Sean. He was a French horn player, and what he could do with his lips was pretty spectacular. But then he got a symphony job in California and moved away. She missed him. Most men were afraid of her. Was it because of the leg? Or just because she didn’t take any crap from them? Being a feminist didn’t mean you were dead down there, she wanted to tell them. She leaned her head against the plastic waterproof pillow she’d stuck against the bathtub wall for just this kind of deep, soothing soak.

Supposedly we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. (I have no idea how they figured that out.) That’s a lot of thinking. You don’t need to overload your poor reader with all 60,000 thoughts, but don’t be stingy with them either. I know we harp a lot on the idea of “show don’t tell,” but sometimes you just need to tell your reader things and the best way to do that is through a character’s thoughts.

Why is it important? Mainly, it helps your reader begin to identify with the character, to care about the character, and to understand the character’s motivations. When you withhold information that a point of view character should know because you don’t want to give everything away, you run the risk of making your reader feel cheated.

Like most fiction guidelines this applies to memoir as well. The more we get in your head, the more engaged we will be in your story.

WIY: For ten minutes, write down all the thoughts that go through your head. Intersperse the thoughts with what is going on in your body and what you are experiencing externally. Now, let one of your characters talk to you. Ask your character what he or she wants to say, and then have your pen at the ready. If you’re writing memoir, that character can even be yourself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mirror, mirror!

One of the most frustrating things for a writing teacher is to encounter students who say they love to write but they don’t like to read. What? Really?

Recently I was writing a proposal for an introductory course in creative writing. My colleagues couldn’t understand why so much of the course was devoted to reading and analyzing the works of others. Did I need to point out the obvious? Reading the works of great (or even good) writers is simply the best way to learn how to write well. One of my coaching clients has never taken a creative writing course, but he’s read everything Tom McGuane ever published. McGuane is a brilliant writer. My client is pretty darn good, too.

Immersing yourself in reading helps to plant a narrative voice in your head. You begin to think narratively. This voice is something we need to coax. It is the muse. And quite often we catch the muse from another writer. Reading widely also opens your mind to the incredible, the infinite, variety of forms that your own writing might take.

Of course there are those who are afraid their own unique style is somehow going to be unduly influenced by reading someone else. Harold Bloom called that the “anxiety of influence,” and I suppose at some point that can happen. You might not want to read Ulysses while you’re in the middle of your epic novel. (But you should read some James Joyce at some point in your life -- if only his famous short story “The Dead.”) If this is a worry, read outside the genre you are working in. I love to read poetry. I read several poems a day, but I rarely write it. Still, reading poetry makes me think about language. It keeps me attuned to the way words crumple the spaces in my heart.

In the end models aren’t likely to turn us into imitators. Our own experiences and filters will ensure that. I love Faulkner, for example, but I’ve never lived in Mississippi or experienced life from that particular perspective. That doesn’t mean I might not want to try on the long, verbose sentence for size. On my story it will look different.

When I teach introductory poetry, I ask students to study a particular poet and then write a “mirror” poem. That is, take the cadences of the poem or the rhyme scheme or some essential aspect of the poem and borrow it to write a new poem. What comes out is often fresh and exciting even if the frame has been borrowed.

WIY: Try it. Find a poem you like and borrow the structure to write your own poem. And if you’re writing a novel or a memoir, then read a novel or a memoir, paying close attention to the structure. Is there something that will be helpful to you? We don’t reinvent the wheel (forgive the cliche), every time we write. It will still be original if we’re true to the heart of the story or the poem that we need to write.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slay 'Em with Your Verbs

It’s a truism among writers that the most important word on the page is the verb. Beginning writers sometimes think it’s the adjective, but nothing works harder than a good, muscled-up verb.

Here is an example of muscular writing from Frances Lefkowtiz’s memoir To Have Not:

My brothers and I are released from the truck like air from a tire, and we scatter off to find a driftwood for a campfire. We help pitch our five-man ten behind dunes and out of the wind. Then we tighten up the hoods on our blue sweatshirts and go to play tag with the thick, foamy surf. Signs warn of rip tides, undertows, and sneaker waves, but we don’t need signs to tell us that we are not supposed to enter this water. Its danger advertises itself: thick gray wedges curl into sharp peaks before smacking with a loud pop against the beach. We run up, up, and way, to the dry sand, where the thunder of the surf subsides, and we give in to gravity and geography and emotion, dropping onto that dark , pigeon-colored sand, our faces to the sky.

You could almost use the verbs to plot a small arc of action. Strong verbs are not particularly showy. You don’t even notice them at first. They simply sweep you up into the swirl of the language. But they make writing more vigorous or, as an Irish writing teacher of mine used to say: They fill it with verve. Even if you know this little truism, which you probably do, we need to be reminded of it from time to time. That's what Frances' memoir does for me -- reminds me of how transformative writing can be.

Does your writing seem a little flabby? Look at the verbs. Could they be stronger? If so, then shoot some steroids into your sentences. Don’t worry. It’s legal.

WIY: Make a list of ten things a dentist or a carpenter does. Now use those verbs in a passage that has nothing to do with dentistry or carpentry.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mad for Metaphors!

Metaphor is what makes writing delicious. In our Sevenoaks Transformative Writing Retreat, Kim Garcia asked us to look over our timelines and choose a particular event. We were to freewrite about the event and then to come up with a series of “it was like” statements. Then we were supposed to get rid of the “like” and simply go to “it was.”

Metaphor is sometimes stronger than simile, she told us. We struggled a bit with this exercise but by the end of the workshop, poetry was springing up all over the place. Once the mind gets into the metaphor habit, it’s hard to stop.

I want to share another piece by Sharon Glynn from that workshop. This is her response to the “What happened was” prompt that we did at the end of the workshop:

The edge of this clean, crisp day
Cream thumb prints mark the
blue palette of sky.
I see so far into the eye of morning
And the plump ball of mango
moon last night
Just a glowing sphere suspended
on a gossamer thread
Just a hush
curled into the vast night sleeve
of silence
I cradled it into my arms.

Lovely. Just lovely.

WIY: Play with similes and metaphors. What is this moment like? What is the scene like outside your window? Choose an event, a moment, a feeling, and come up with ten things that is like, no matter how silly. Now, take out the like.

Friday, October 28, 2011

In the Body

In an earlier blog I mentioned my writing teacher, Jerry Stern. He was one of the truly great teachers. (If you’re interested at all in writing fiction, you should get his book Making Shapely Fiction.) One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Jerry is that if you really want your reader to get what you’re trying to say, you need to get into the body.

In other words, what is it that you or the character you’ve created is feeling physically? It’s one thing to say you are grief stricken. On an intellectual level, we all understand what that means. But when one of my students wrote that he felt like a broomstick had been broken off in his chest after his grandfather died, I understood his pain on a gut level. “I feel your pain” may be a cliché, but that’s exactly what we want our readers to do: feel our pain, our joy, our love, our lust, whatever it is.

So one of the things I do in writing workshops is ask participants to convey an emotion through the physical sensations of body.

Here is how Sharon Glynn responded to that exercise:

The anger flowed through my entire body. It rushed up to my neck, my face, my ears. My ears became red hot. That anger it flowed down my veins into my hands -- yes, my hands and they too felt hot and moist. And that anger it sucker punched me in my stomach and again in my groin and I can tell you now I never saw that coming. Anger cruised crazily up and down veins and arteries. It sped so fast it actually bumped into itself and exploded and imploded all through all the corners and bends. That anger, it just went on and on unchecked until it plum wore me down and wore me out.

Now that’s anger that will make an impression on a reader.

You don’t need to limit this idea to just emotions. Getting into the body helps the reader feel conditions, too. And sometimes it may be something as simple as remembering to describe the warmth of the sun on a bare arm, hanging out the window of a Chevrolet.

WIY: Choose an emotion and describe the physical associations that accompany that emotion. It may help to think what it felt like. Use similes and metaphors to get your point across. Or try personification. Then do it with another emotion. Spend at least five minutes writing about each emotion. (Ten is even better!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Your Cheatin' Heart

Last night I dreamt that my writing teacher, the late Jerry Stern, caught me kissing someone I was not involved with. He was going to tell on me, and I joyfully said: “Go ahead! I love kissing different people.” It wasn’t till I woke up and started thinking about the writing workshops I gave at the Sun Magazine conference last weekend that the dream began to make sense. You see, when it comes to writing I refuse to be monogamous.

The workshops I led last weekend were all related to writing fiction, but I told participants they were welcome to write nonfiction or even poetry in response to most of the exercises. The same principles that are used for one genre can generally be adapted for others. I think it’s healthy to mix it up. If you’re writing fiction, dabble in poetry. If you’re writing memoir, try on the authorial distance of fiction. If you’re writing poetry, play with play writing. One activity feeds the others.

I actually used four different genres in my memoir, Wait Until Tomorrow. Obviously, the majority of the book was creative nonfiction. But if I’m honest about it, there’s a chapter early in the book which I originally wrote as a short story. In that chapter I have an epiphany, which I probably did not have in real life but which related to the theme of motherhood in the book. Sometimes in memoir we ascribe a conscious awareness of what is happening that perhaps we did not have at the time, and yet the message itself is true. So while I may not have been thinking about my great-grandmothers, my grandmother, and my mother as I sank down in the tub -- pregnant and alone -- the truth is that my maternal lineage played a role in my ability to confront the challenges I faced whether I acknowledged it or not.

Later I was trying to describe the events of a family Christmas a few months after my sister-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I went back to a poem I had written at the time and took out the line breaks: “Beth comes through the doorway, gaunt, hollowed, stoop-shouldered. Tears fall at their leisure from lashless eyelids as she recounts these long six months since July: the trips to the emergency room, the good nurses who bathed her as if she were a baby, the scar from sternum to pubis, the row of chairs in the chemo room. She takes off her wig and swigs from a beer, this soldier who looks at us from the middle of the trench, and the words pour like coins from a torn pocket. We are the dream of home she’s falling toward, the place where she plans to be born again.”

It might not have been a great poem, but it turned out to be pretty good prose.

I also incorporated a little play I had written about a conversation with my imaginary mother and my real mother later on in the book. Readers have commented on how "visual" this scene is. Makes sense since plays are written to be seen.

So what I’m saying is that it’s okay to be unfaithful to your genre. Sneak out to the local Days Inn and have an affair with poetry or fiction or whichever one is not your main squeeze. When you go back you’ll have a few new tricks up your sleeve that will make your writing feel fresh. I promise your writing won’t divorce if you play the field. You’re allowed.

WIY: Poet Kim Garcia suggests writing your timeline thus: three events per decade and one concrete sensory detail for each event. For example, for me having a baby was one event. My infant's tiny soft foot is my sensory detail. Make your timeline and choose one of the events. Spend however long you need to write that event as it happened (creative nonfiction). Now write about the same event from the point of view of a different person or from a close third person and throw in something that didn’t happen but that might have! Then you might choose the most vivid images from your first piece and turn it into poem. Finally, how could you “show” the event as a play or movie?

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I call this type of writing transformative because it opens us up in so many surprising ways. This morning I received an email from a woman who had been reading my blogs about my mother. Our situations were so similar. She was facing the grief and the guilt and the sense of isolation I knew too well. But through the blogs we connected -- two strangers no longer isolated.

By the simple act of writing about what I was dealing with, I was able to take certain aspects of my life that made me feel like a raving lunatic and deposit them on the page. It’s freeing. And in the process of digging through that dirt, I always seem to uncover some little glint of gold or silver, a precious gem here or there -- something unexpected.

At the Sevenoaks Retreat, Cali captured this process in her writing:

What happened was that I came with a question – “how can I find more peace with my mother?” And what I’m finding is that writing may be the tool for that. I get that I can tell a story, and that I’ve got all kinds of dramatic ones to tell. The thing I didn’t get is that in reaching inside for the story, I may grab something else, something worth having. I get that the question of “Where is my mother?” will help me see the ways she showed up true and strong as well as the over-reviewed stories about her drug -induced, man-driven absences. So here I am on Sunday afternoon and what happened is my mother only left 2 messages today, and I only listened to one of them. I feel peaceful that I am living my own life. I wish she had been the kind of mother who would have asked what the workshop was, not so narcissistic. And most of all, I wish her well.

The key idea, I think, in transformative writing is that sense of surprise -- “reaching inside for the story” and grabbing something else instead. Our unconscious has gifts for us, and it is through writing that we are able to receive them.

WIY: With whom do you need to find peace? Maybe it’s a parent, a lover, a child, or even yourself. Write about it for ten minutes. Then write their side of the story for another ten. What surprised you?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A truly transformative writers retreat

A transformative writers retreat is just that: transformative. I held my first Transformative Writers Retreat this past weekend (Oct. 15 & 16) at Sevenoaks Retreat Center. I have given day-long workshops before, but this was my first overnight retreat. Poet Kim Garcia joined me to help lead seven writers in exercises of exploration and discovery. We explored language, we explored process and craft, we explored nature, and we explored the depths of the heart. We laughed a lot. And we cried some, too.

At the end we wrote about what happened. We began with a prompt that I have borrowed from Genie Zeigler, who introduced it to me at the end of a Sun Magazine Writers Conference. Genie has since died, but she was one of the warmest teachers I ever knew, and every time I do this exercise I am grateful for her gift.

Here are a couple of the responses to the prompt "What happened was . . .":

From Marianne:

What happened was kinda scary. I have pretended most of my life that all was fine and good and wonderful and normal. Well, maybe it was normal but there parts that were not fine and good and wonderful and you made me see them.

What happened was a bond, a kindred spirit, a safety net, a fellowship, a contentedness.

What happened was mind & body were fed with really good pure ingredients fresh from the heart and the garden.

What happened was kinda scary.

From Tom:

What happened was that Pat had this friend, see, a poet lady with a flare for the unexpected. And Pat, she’s got this way of drilling down to the core of things, too, and putting simple things into fiery coloratura, and see, they’re teachers, spreaders of the immortal word, as it were, and they know people who know people who know about this ashram kind of place in the Virginia foothills, a powerful place that the Indians used to know about where giant oak trees grow like water lilies and shamans and people with strong medicine come to talk about how things really are and someone like me whose been telling lies all his life can maybe -- even now, even after all this time -- can maybe get a little whiff of the truth of things.

I’ll share more from this retreat in future blogs. In the meantime, I’ve got to pack up because I’m heading to Esalen this weekend for a Sun Magazine Writers Conference. More exploring. The cool thing is that it never gets old; there’s always something new to be discovered following the wordpath.

WIY: Join us for a transformative writing retreat some time. The Sun Magazine Conferences are wonderful, or you can sign up for one of my smaller retreats. In the meantime, meet with a few fellow writers and try out some of the exercises from other blog entries.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Messy Writing

I was reading a literary magazine called Burnside Review and came across a story called “Subterranean Lovesick Blues” by a writer named Nick Ekkizogloy. The first sentence goes like this: “I asked permission to bury my broke-down Ford Taurus by kneeling at Sandy's grave and laughing like a maniac.” I was immediately captivated, not least because I had to read it a couple of times.

Sometimes I worry that teaching English composition is going to destroy my writing. There’s almost always a “right” way to write a composition. Grammatical rules need to be followed. Strange syntax should be avoided. Subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents should all be in agreement. And I’m a believer in those guidelines and rules because students should learn basic communication.

This kind of writing is informative. It’s communicative. But it’s rarely transformative. It serves a purpose in the world and it needs to do so efficiently and effectively.

Fiction, on the other hand, (or creative nonfiction for that matter) does not need to be efficient. It can be messy, confusing, idiosyncratic. When we read this messy writing, we wonder, now who is Sandy? What grave? And how is laughing like a maniac asking permission? I’m going to keep reading to try to find the answers. If I don’t find the answers, I don’t worry much because the writing surprises me. Somewhere in those surprising turns of language there is meaning that may not be easily articulated but that gets absorbed into the blood.

When we do transformative writing workshops, the writing usually has a raw power that you don’t find in a piece of writing that’s been burnished and had all its edges scraped off. That’s because we write in ten to fifteen minutes spurts. The words tumble out on top of each other. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the rewrite and the revision, but there’s usually something in that original chaos that’s worth saving, something that gives life to the whole piece.

Writing that is alive is transformative. It can’t help but be.

WIY: For your next piece of writing, embrace the absurd. Eschew the rules of grammar. Purposely scramble the words. (But not too purposefully.) Make up words. (Remember “The Jabberwocky”?) Let verbs be nouns and nouns be verbs. You’re just playing. Don’t worry. You can go back and “fix” it later, but in the meantime surprise yourself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

This is Your Brain on Ibuprofen

What are your ideal writing conditions? Virginia Woolf advocated for having a room of one’s own. Some people prefer writing in a coffee shop. Other writers have an office in their home. Some people like to go to a residency away from the distractions of their day-to-day lives. I know a woman who rents a hotel room. Ideally, we would feel rested and refreshed as we sat down with our laptops or our notebooks. Nothing would interfere with the free flowing of the muse. But life so rarely gives us the ideal.

My ideal writing situation would be two or three hours of writing by hand in the morning after a good 8-hours of sleep, and then the afternoon would be spent rewriting what I’d written that morning as I typed it into my computer. But it’s been a few years since I’ve had the ideal. Between teaching full time, traveling to give workshops or readings, working on my house, and having something resembling a social life, I have discovered that if I want to write, I better not wait around for the ideal conditions.

In fact, writing sometimes happens for me when I’m sick, when I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, when it feels as if my brain is that frying egg from the anti-drug commercial a few years back. I’ll wake up tired and feeling wretched, dismayed that what I had planned to be a productive day will be wasted lying around, trying to recover from whatever bug has attacked me this time, or from my latest bout of insomnia, or from the sheer exhaustion of the life I lead.

And yet somehow these periods of forced inactivity give my mind just enough room to latch onto an idea and wrestle with it for a while. Finally, I’ll whip open the laptop and lurch through a few paragraphs. Then I have to shut it and rest for a while. But the idea bubbles in the swamp of virus and antibodies or sleep-deprived reverie, and soon I’m back on the computer wrestling again with the thoughts that come stumbling out of the murk. Much to my own surprise, quite often what I write in these anti-ideal conditions turns out to be something worthwhile, something I needed to write.

As I write this, it’s 4:25 in the morning. I’ve had some sort of virus for two days, and I’m not feeling that great right now. But I did manage to get an essay about my mother written in between naps yesterday. So while I would much prefer to write in a nice little cabin in the mountains with time stretching before me so that I could walk after a writing session and ponder the great ideas, my reality is that I’m gonna need to somehow squeeze in a little sleep before I take some ibuprofen and go teach a class full of freshman who aren’t always sure where a sentence should end. But at least I’ve written something today.

WIY: Don’t wait for the ideal conditions to write. Write when you can, write what you can. Maybe you can’t get to that novel right now. That’s okay. Write a poem, write a page, write anything. Write now. Give yourself ten minutes. You might surprise yourself.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Directions to Carnegie Hall

One recent Saturday night, a friend and I went to see the Charlotte Symphony perform. We went because I wanted to hear “Pictures at an Exhibition,” one of my favorite pieces, but the Mussorgsky composition was not the only music on the program. In the first half a pianist named Martina Filjak was scheduled to play Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” I don’t follow the classical musical world that much though it is quite often on my car stereo, and I had never heard of Filjak. I didn’t know what we were in for as she glided onto the stage in an emerald-green gown.

Filjak was phenomenal. It felt as if she had reached into me and was pounding my heart with her fingers. I instantly recognized the piece but watching her play and seeing the concentration on her face and the way her hands rose and fell as she waded into the music was like walking into a palace that I had only passed by -- blindfolded.

Aside from the fact that she possessed astounding technique combined with heart-rending musicality, I was also thinking about my recently deceased mother. I remembered watching my mother in her glittering red and gold dress as she sat at a big black Steinway grand on stage and tore up the keys. And I was also thinking about myself because since my mother’s death I have begun to teach myself to play.

The distance between the way I haltingly play the pieces from my daughter’s leftover piano lesson books and the way Filjak soars over the keyboard is probably equal to the distance between the moon and the sun. But I have discovered that playing the piano offers almost immediate rewards if I take the time to practice every day. And so I do. I play scales. I play a short piece by Beethoven, entitled “Rage Over a Lost Penny,” over and over again. My poor roommate probably hears it in her dreams. I fumble through “House of the Rising Sun.” And I get better little by little.

I don’t think anyone listening to me play the piano would call it a transformative experience. And they probably never will. And yet it is transforming me. Now I listen with a different, keener ear when I hear music. I am sure that neurons are digging new trenches in my brain. My ennui gives way to something like happiness.

There’s an old joke that poses the question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer, of course, is “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

And it is similar with writing. If you want to write work that is transformative, you must practice. You must journal, you must experiment with poems, scenes, reflections, and whatever else comes to your mind, and you must do it often. You must train your writing muscles, and you must advertise your availability to the muse.

I can only imagine how many hours a day Martina Filjak must practice in order to gleam diamond-like on the stage for that half hour. Six? More? I don’t know. But practice she must, and so must we.

WIY: If you aren’t writing daily, start. Spend at least ten to fifteen minutes every day playing with language. Try writing down scraps of conversations you’ve overheard. Look out your window and describe what you see. Listen to some classical music and let it take you to an alternate reality. Don’t worry about whether or not your writing is any good. You’re just practicing.

To see a video of Martina Filjak, go to this link on youtube:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Writer's Retreat in the Virginia Mountains!

Come join me and poet Kim Garcia at Sevenoaks Retreat for a Transformative Writing Retreat in the Virginia Mountains Oct. 15-16.
Register here:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Getting Naked in Class

I teach writing at a career university where English isn’t offered as a major, but all the students must have some English composition courses in order to graduate. A lot of them don’t really like to write. They haven’t read a lot. When they do write, it is often in “text-speak.” And yet most of them understand that writing well is important for their future careers so they come to class with their writing utensils and notebooks.

One of the things I do is give them in-class writing assignments to give them a little writing practice and sometimes to help them create a personal connection to the reading assignments. So they write for ten minutes and then everyone shares what they wrote. They are allowed one pass so that if they have written something they don’t want to share, they don’t have to. On the other hand, I don’t encourage not sharing. Most of them, it turns out, are more than willing to read aloud what they’ve written. And this is where they always blow my mind, taking my preconceptions and turning them inside out. And I do the same to them. We engage in a little transformative writing.

Last week, the in-class writing assignment I gave them was this: write about something (or someone) in your life who shaped the person you are now -- or the person you are in the process of becoming. A simple assignment really. Innocuous even. But the stories, one after the other, of betrayal by parents, or sacrifice by parents, or friends who have destroyed their own lives poured out. And as they did so, they transformed in front of my eyes. I knew their names. I knew where they were from. But I had no idea who they really were. Until they stood up and told just a small piece of their story.

Will was the first one to volunteer to read his in-class writing assignment. He told us that when he was in middle school his mother got breast cancer. He described how she had told him about her diagnosis and how devastated he had been when he learned he might lose his mother. He had to go to school on the day of her surgery. When he asked his Spanish teacher if he could leave the class to find out if she’d come out of it okay, the teacher told him no. “I got up and left anyway. No Spanish test was more important than my mom.” His mother had survived the surgery and in fact survived the cancer, but he told us that this event had taught him to cherish the people he loved and had changed his life.

It’s easy to feel superior to your students when you are a teacher. You know a whole lot about your topic and they know very little. But when you hear about the hardships they have overcome just to come to college or when you learn about the love they have for a family member or a friend, when they tell you about the rejection, the anger, the pain, the joy in their lives, then you can no longer feel superior to them. Instead, I look on them with awe and admiration.

Because I don’t think it’s fair to ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do myself, I write my own response to the assignment in the ten minutes, and I stand up and share with them. I told one class about being abandoned by the father of my child when I was three months pregnant, and how that led to my going to graduate school to get a Ph.D. I told another class about how I partied too much instead of going to college right after high school and didn’t get serious about my education until I was 25. I talked about how my teachers (even the one who came to class drunk) helped shape me. So just as I saw them as more like me, they saw me as more like them or like people they knew. We took off our masks and momentarily transformed into our authentic selves -- our naked selves.

WIY (write it yourself): What is something that happened in your life that shaped who you are or who you are in the process of becoming? Take ten minutes. It’s easy. Then share it with someone else.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Writing About What Is

One of the most helpful books I ever read is Loving What Is by Byron Katie. Katie says that what “should be” is “what is.” Accept that and you will have a happier life. That doesn’t mean you simply smile at injustice and shrug your shoulders at misfortune. You still have the ability to respond to the world around you. I think what she means (at least part of what she means) is that when we stop judging everything as good or bad, we stop wasting our energies. We can use the energies in more productive ways.

I had to remind myself of that one day as I walked through the airport (I spent a lot of time walking through airports this summer), and I looked at the people around me. Some were hurrying past. Some were staring bored from their cushioned seats in the gate areas. Some were talking with exaggerated importance on their cell phones. Some were reading. Some were chatting among themselves. I noticed their clothes, their sizes, their ages, their hairstyles, their behavior. We tend to want to judge other people and there’s nothing like being surrounded by strangers to trigger the judging reflex.

Our prehistoric mind trained us to make snap judgments to keep us out of danger. The danger has mostly disappeared but the snap judgments haven’t. And so often our judgments come from our own insecurities. I’ve been worrying about my weight lately so my eye tends to look for overweight people as a way to comfort myself that it’s okay to be overweight or that there are fatter people than me out there.

But this day I realized the pointlessness of judging. When we are writing, we are better off not judging. The writer’s job is accepting, describing, and recording what is. It’s a more honest way of writing. So as I looked at the people milling around me, I simply made catalog notes: six foot-tall with a beard, jeans, and a Metallica t-shirt, an unhurried gait; five-foot-two, about 150 pounds, frizzy red hair and a wide smile; three foot one, head covered with beaded braids, hanging on to Mommy’s hand.

As writers we are constant observers of other people. We want to be one on whom nothing is lost, as Henry James said of Isabel Archer. It’s important to know our own prejudices and put them aside as we study our fellow inhabiters of the planet. We are all permutations of consciousness. We’re all playing our roles.

David Denby wrote a review of the film The Help. It was a mostly positive review, and I’ve heard many people say they absolutely love the movie. But Denby made one comment that made me think about this idea of judgment. He said that the writer neglected to make the point that the oppressors in that particularly oppressive social system were also victims of that system. Whether that’s an accurate statement about the film or not, I do not know. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but it raises an interesting problem -- getting at the truth of a situation.

And that leads me to the crucial step in the process of transformative writing: when we can create characters without judging them; when our characters reveal the complexity of their situations, and when we can identify even with our most misguided characters, then our writing can be transformative in exciting and important ways.

This summer I heard Tayari Jones speak at the American Libraries Association. She said she couldn’t get a handle on the character of the father (a bigamist) in her book Silver Sparrow until she realized this about him -- he had never not offered to marry a woman who came to him and said she was carrying his child. Understanding our characters at that level is transformative writing. That’s alchemy.

DIY: Find a public spot. Write descriptions of the people you see without using judgment words (pretty, ugly, etc.). Then choose one of them and write a monologue for that person. Turn him or her into a character. Discover the back story.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Travel Broadens the Heart

“My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.”
-- Jorge Luis Borges

I am writing this entry from a school classroom set on the outskirts of a squatters' camp near Cape Town, South Africa. The children in this school come from the most dire circumstances. The headmistress of the school, Mrs. Hassen, explained to me that these children who look so joyful, playing in the school yard, often live in a one-room shack no bigger than her office, and they may have no food, electricity, or supervision.

I saw the long rows of shacks, the lines of locked port-a-johns, and the people stranded on the corners without work and without much in the way of hope. The children however, still have hope. Their voices ring out in sing-song cadence as jump ropes slap the sidewalk. They argue, they laugh, they screech. They remind me of chirping birds. Right now I can see the reflection of a little girl behind me, eating a sandwich. She is peeking over my shoulder through the window at the screen of my computer and pretending to type against the glass. Her head bounces as she mimics my actions. Life is a riot in her small body.

Transformative writing is sometimes about writing our stories, wringing the pain and the joy from our ordinary lives and pouring it onto the page. But it can also be about the stories of others. Sometimes we want to look outside of our own little worlds (as intricate and fascinating as they are) and immerse ourselves in the dramas unfolding around us.

One of the most transformative books in American literature is Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck talked to the “Oakies” he saw in the camps near his hometown. Then he told a story that changed how America operated. Laws changed because of that book. Harriet Beecher Stowe told the story of a slave family and was a catalyst for abolitionists. You can probably name others.

Spending time among these children has opened my eyes to a world of extreme joy and extreme despair. While the poverty around me is stark, the sense of community is absent from the developed world where I live. My essential humanity comes to the surface as I walk along the streets and stop to chat with a woman washing her clothes in a big bucket while chickens and dogs hunt for food.

In my day-to-day life, I can get caught up in the sport of comparison. I’m never good enough, never smart enough, never talented enough. But when I leave that world, those notions evaporate. Virginia Woolf exhorted us to find a room of our own if we want to be writers. Sometimes, though, it’s best to abandon that comfortable room and listen to the stories of people who don’t have a laptop at their fingertips, and find the commonalities among us.

A little girl I had never met before came up and hugged me yesterday. I’m sure there’s a poem in there somewhere. If not, it sure felt good anyway.

Write about it: You don’t have to go to some exotic land to find inspiration. Get on a city bus and go to a coffee shop in a different part of the city. Or volunteer at a local school. Be an adventurer. Talk to a stranger. Ask them what is the best thing that ever happened to them. Find out what they’re afraid of. Make no judgments. Just write.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A couple of weekends ago I spent two blissful days with five guys and assorted other friends and family members at a beach house in Alligator Point. The five guys were members of a writing workshop I was in during grad school. I’ve been in a number of writing groups over the past thirty or so years. Each one has its own personality. Each one has its own history. But in those writing groups I have found my deepest moments of intimacy -- while still being fully clothed.

This writing group was called the Wings Workshop because we met every Thursday night at a restaurant called Wings N Things. We had our own table that the waitress kept clear for us on Thursday nights. The guys would drink beer and eat wings. I would drink a near-beer (since I’d damaged my liver in my misguided youth) and eat the carrot sticks (since I’m a vegetarian). We would laugh, tell stories, talk about writing and sometimes get into heated debates. Sometimes we’d argue about politics but we only got mad when the arguing was about writing. We were ferocious in our opinions.

Each summer we’d rent a beach house for a couple of days and play guitars and drums and sing old Neil Young songs. Spouses and children would come along. Substances might have been consumed in the wee hours. We’d laugh ourselves silly. On Friday nights one of our group would often have a pool party. Again, the tequila and the guitars and the drums were present.

The spouses weren't always comfortable around us. We had a reputation for being elitist, insular, a clique. We couldn’t help ourselves. We were a band of brothers (in spite of the fact that I’m a female). We had our in-jokes and our shared heartaches. We all had friends and lives outside the group but when we were together we were like those twins who grow up speaking a separate language.

Part of it was because we had been through so much together. One of our more athletic members (a man who loved to sail and to hunt) developed Guillian-Barre disease and was effectively paralyzed for six months. It took him another six months to recover. A beloved writing professor we had all studied with died of cancer. Then a terrible blow struck when our Harley-riding golden boy died of heart failure at the age of 39. We were devastated by the loss and clung to each other for weeks.

My ex-husband used to call us “the body” after a Star Trek episode in which a particular society is so in tune with each other that they are almost one person and they refer to themselves collectively as the body. There was a certain accuracy to his observation. It wasn’t just the things we’d all been through together that bound us. What really tightened the knots that have not been loosened to this day was the fact we knew each other through our writing. We had read our worst stories and our best stories. We had revealed ourselves through our words in ways we could not do otherwise.

A writing group is more than just some people who critique your work. They are your source of inspiration and encouragement. They become your community. They are your comrades-in-words. And they are your audience. You will never have a better one.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Write From the Heart

Last night I went to a book club meeting in High Point, North Carolina, to talk with some readers about my book From May to December. The book has been out for a couple of years, and it was a pleasure to remember the events and the emotions that inspired it.

The writing of this particular book had been driven by my love for my dear friend, Kitty Gretsch, who died in December, 2001, of breast cancer. She was only 32 years old. I based the character Lolly on Kitty and found the story flowed easily as I described Lolly’s battle with cancer and her compassion for others. One of the members of the book club said that if Lolly hadn’t had to go through so many hardships, she would not have been a believable character because she was so good. I tend to write about troubled characters who have difficulty doing the right thing (and there are several of those in this book) but I enjoyed writing about someone of integrity and kindness. Kitty gave me the inspiration -- and the permission -- to do so.

Whenever our writing is fueled by strong emotions whether those emotions are of love or grief or anger, the writing comes easier. Those emotions help us bypass the inner censors and get to the core of what we want to write. (Most of us have written at least one love poem in our lives!) But of course, when writing about emotions that is when we most need to adhere to that old injunction of showing rather than telling. Images and other sensory details help bring those emotions out of us and onto the page.

Here are a couple exercises that will help you get an emotional jumpstart to your writing:

Journal Exercise 1: Choose an emotion (love, hate, fear, etc) and write a prose poem that conveys that emotion without ever using the word for the emotion or using a synonym. For example, if you are writing about anger, don’t switch up and use the word “mad.” Use images, sounds, smells, actions, colors, bodily sensations and whatever else you can think of so that your reader will not just understand the emotion but also feel it.

Journal Exercise 2: Take a sniff of cinnamon or bite a strawberry. Write about the memories and associations that come with the scent and/or taste.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Alchemy of Writing

Perhaps, I should back up and explain what I mean by "transformative writing." To me, writing is like alchemy. It's taking the dull leaden pieces of life and turning them into gold -- or art. Whether I am writing a poem, a novel, or memoir, I am endeavoring to use the strange and wondrous chemistry of language to turn experience, thought and emotion into communication, expression, connection.

Why do you write? What is the urge that first prompted you to pick up a pen or turn to your laptop in the middle of the night? Was it for money? Fame? Love? Those are all nice things to have, and some writers actually get them somewhere along the way. But your desire to write probably has a different origin. Something inside you suspects that writing can change your life or that it can change someone else’s life to some degree. I'm not saying this was a conscious decision. You may have simply enjoyed playing around with words and that's what prompted you to begin writing. But you have an innate knowledge that words matter, that how you say something can utterly transform what you say. You know this because it has happened to you. At some point in your life (probably at many points) you read something -- a book, a poem, an essay, a story -- that opened a door in your mind, enabled your soul to expand, or changed your perception. Now, you want to do the same thing for yourself and possibly for others with your own words and ideas. You want to transform the awful, the mundane or even the transitory into something lasting and beautiful. You want to create art out of life.

I see this process happen in writing workshops all the time. Given ten minutes and a topic, the writers will reach into their subconscious and draw out something they never even suspected was there. When they share their findings with the group in the form of writing, we are all transformed in some small way.

So the transformation takes place on many levels. I was a drug addict for several years in my youth. I transformed that period of shame into my first novel, Sweet Fire, which was something I was not ashamed of. Readers have told me that reading that book changed the way they looked at addiction. The experience was transformed, I was transformed, and readers were transformed.

I can think of a long list of books, poems and stories that I have found transformative. They have changed my way of thinking, added to my understanding, or enriched my imagination. One poem that stands out is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot. I had no idea the hypnotic power of language until I read that poem. I was only in the eighth grade and yet now I had some understanding of despair and survival in the adult world.

What book, poem, essay or short story have you found transformative?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Play: The Ultimate Block Dissolver

A lot of writers wonder what to do about "writer's block." Some people think there's no such thing. Others swear that it's their own personal demon, sitting on their chest like a sumo wrestler and laughing at their helplessness. "What do I do when I'm staring at a blank screen and nothing comes out?" they wail.

Well, my first piece of advice is turn off the computer. The computer is a tool for -- profanity alert! -- work!! How often do you use that four-letter word "work" when you're talking about writing? A lot, probably. You tell people that you're working on a novel, a short story, a blog, whatever. You might refer to a piece of writing as "a work of literature." And the truth is that there is a lot of work involved in writing. (Not to mention all the stuff that comes after it -- submitting, publishing, promoting, etc.) But if you're feeling blocked, then it's time to reframe the activity. Don't think of your writing as work. Think of it as play!

When you were a kid, did you ever get "play block"? No, of course not. You went outside and you made up a game. You didn't care if it was stupid or if it wouldn't satisfy the critics. You just played. You didn't even need fancy toys. A couple of sticks and you were ready to do battle. A tree became a house. Your little sister became the customer at the store where you sold snails for pebbles. There was no internal censor telling you: "No one will like this game. It's not very original. What are you thinking?"

See, that's why you get writer's block. There's a snooty little censor in your head, looking down her nose at you and telling you that you're not good, so why do you bother. Or else she's saying, everyone will hate you if you write that. Or else she's telling you that you're a bad husband, wife, mother, father or whatever because you're indulging in this selfish activity. She knows your weakness. But the censor doesn't have anything much to say if you're just playing.

So turn off your computer. Pick up a colored marker and some blank sheets of paper. Draw, color, write a ridiculous poem. Come up with the most absurd metaphors you can think of. Write a rap. Write haiku. Give yourself a prompt and write for ten minutes. For example, for the next ten minutes I will write about insects, couches, my garden -- let it be anything. Write with a friend. Trade lines of poetry. Playing gets you up on the carousel horse. Before you know it, the horse will become real and take off with you. The censor will have become bored, put her head down on her desk and be quietly snoring while you're doing what you love: writing.