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.