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.