Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gestation is a Necessary Part of the Process

I went a couple of weeks without writing a post for this blog -- or writing anything else, for that matter. I was tired and there were some personal issues that were on my mind. I didn't even write in my journal.

Writers tend to beat themselves up if they aren't writing, but I have learned (finally after many years) to give myself a break and to have faith that the creative urge hasn't gone anywhere. I also comfort myself with the knowledge that my favorite writer Toni Morrison says you should never force the writing. She says she can always tell when a writer is pushing the writing out instead of letting it evolve organically. So when it's not there, I let the fields remain fallow.

I don't know exactly what is happening in the brain during those fallow periods, but I do know that eventually the words come pouring out in a torrent. That's what happened this time. I hadn't touched my notebook in a couple of weeks. And then that first line started dancing around my brainpan. The narrator in my head started explaining things to me. It was my story but it was really happening to someone else. All the things that were going on in my life fell into some kind of pattern and over a period of two days I wrote and rewrote. It seems like I wrote the story in a couple of days but it was really working itself out over the weeks. The story was like one of those children who wait to begin talking for so long that the parents become worried, but when the kid does finally start talking, she does so in full sentences.

That's how it worked this time. Other times it may be different. You may need to prime the pump by writing in a journal or going to a writing retreat. Sometimes spending time with a friend in a coffee shop where you both commit to writing for 15 minutes can get you going again. The thing I'm trying to say is trust your instincts. If you need to stop writing for a week, a month or even two or three months, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Relax. Find some quiet time. Give the narrator in your head a chance to find the story. When it's time you'll hear it, and you'll be ready to start taking dictation.

WIY: Winter is a time for the busy natural activity of the planet to slow down. You may need to slow down a little too. Take some time to relax. In mid-February (just before you go stir-crazy) my friend Angela, whose last name happens to be Winter!, and I will be offering a Winter Writing Retreat. We'll be engaging in exercises that will help free up those trapped ideas. Think of it as a chance to play, to discover, and to deepen your writing process.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Things Tell Us

We live in a material world. We wear clothes, we own things, we make art and hang it on our walls. We are constantly in contact with things. Right now I am sitting on a couch that is covered with a large piece of light brown cloth with a black mandala design to hide the torn cushions. My fingers are tapping the keys of my computer while my wrists rest on the flat area below the keys -- an area I don't even have a name for. I am wearing a T-shirt a friend gave me when I threw away all the ones I used to sleep in that had once belonged to my ex-husband. I am wearing the slippers the same ex-husband and my daughter gave me for Christmas one year. And I'm wearing a black fleece jacket that used to belong to my now dead mother. Everything I'm wearing (except my sweat pants) has a story attached to it.

Objects help us to concretize abstract ideas. Whether you are writing memoir, fiction, or poetry, tangible items will help to make your writing more real to your readers. My friend Robin Edgar often has people write the story behind a pair of shoes that they own. For women, this is an easy assignment, but I have found that men's shoes have stories to tell as well.

Jane Hardwidge, who attended one of my workshops in Esalen, wrote an entire autobiography in just a few sentences based on a coat:

I found my Betsey Johnson faux zebra, velvet coat when I was shopping with an old friend of mine from London. She lives here now but she remembers me when I was wild. Before I started dating my husband, before I had children.

“You’ve got to get it,” she said. “It’s so you.”

And that reference to me was not to the happy but constantly exhausted and inadequate wife and mother. The ‘you’ Alison meant was the woman who she spent evenings drinking fruit-flavored vodka shots in the Dog House bar in Soho, who took a fancy to a car’s wing mirror and had to be restrained from snapping it off the vehicle. The ‘you’ who tried to throw an apple at a miserable-looking line of late-night commuters standing at a bus stop on Whitehall to liven them up.

I couldn’t fit into my well-loved leather pants any more but the Betsey Johnson coat fitted me like a dream.

The pictures that she puts in my mind when I read this piece delight and intrigue me. This is someone with many stories to tell. And they are stories I want to read.

Sometimes when I am teaching poetry, I will bring in my shell collection. I ask the participants to choose a shell and write about it, describing it and telling its story. These are always fun poems to write and they help participants understand the importance of concrete reality in the symbolic realm of language.

WIY: Think of an object that is meaningful to you (or to one of your characters). Describe the object. What is the history of the object? Where did the object come from? Who are the people associated with the object? What has happened to them?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where is the love?

I had the good fortune to speak to a room full of women from various book clubs the other day. During the question and answer period, a woman asked me if I ever wrote romance fiction?

“Well,” I answered. “I don’t write romance novels but there is a lot of romance in the books I write. In fact, I think all of my books are love stories in one way or another.”

As I thought about it later, I realized that was true. Not just for my books but for every book I have ever loved. In one way or another they were love stories. And it starts early. For instance, Harry Potter is a love story. Not just Harry and Ginny or Ron and Hermione, but think about the long-lasting love between Dumbledore and Harry that drives the story. Huck Finn is a love story about a runaway slave and a vagabond boy. Black Beauty -- a girl and a horse.

You ever notice in mysteries and thrillers how often the hero’s love interest gets in harm’s way? The suspense is greater if his or her personal feelings are involved. Even the macho, macho man Hemingway wrote beautiful love stories.

Great stories are filled with love lost, love gained, love yearned for. From the ancient Greek myths to today’s sitcoms, love in its infinite permutations seems to be the point of it all. If you really want to engage your readers, let your story (no matter what “kind” of story it is) be a love story.

WIY: Think about a time you were in love. How did you meet? What were the obstacles that had to be overcome? How did you fall? Slowly? This can be any kind of love -- from love for a child to love for God to romantic love. Write about the physical feelings. Write about the moment you knew.