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.