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.