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?


  1. I wrote a poem the other day. I never do that. I can't write poetry, but it made sense to me.

  2. Hi Pat...just a quickie hello from one of your esalen students! I truly enjoyed both of your workshops last weekend. Check out my lately ignored blog Something's Burning...we have some similar history. Thanks for the writing exercise. I need someone to tell me what to do! ~Leslie