Tuesday, May 1, 2012


This blog has become terrible. No breaks in my text! Thanks for the improvements, blogger. I am now posting at: http://theartoftransformativewriting.com/ Please join me there.

To die for

I am sitting on a tree stump about 7 inches off the ground. Far in the distance I hear electronic church bells. Closer in I hear the steady beep beep of an industrial truck backing up. Closer still, birds -- robins and mockingbirds -- invisible in the thick camouflage of trees. I am in a cemetery with my poetry students. Before they dispersed to fulfill their assignments, I read a Rumi to them. Now they’ll play with persona a la Edgar Lee Masters and the Spoon River Anthology. I remember the first time I heard the Spoon River Anthology. My brother was an actor in FSU’s theater department and they put on a reading of the poems, voices telling the stories of the people under the headstones. It was one more nail in my coffin -- a love of poetry to die for. The sunlight is diffused this morning by a thin scrim of cloud vapor. Cemeteries are sacred places to me. The ultimate transformation -- dust to dust. Being in this cemetery reminds me of scenes from a documentary film I recently saw. The filmmaker was my friend Therese Bartholomew, who had transformed the murder of her beloved brother into a testament of love and forgiveness. Her grief at his death was torrential. It was a monstrous thing that grabbed her by the throat and tried to drown her. Writing was the oxygen line that kept her alive. One time she asked me in despair, “What do I do with it all? How do I put it together?” “Just keep going,” I answered. “You can worry about putting it together later.” Then one night she woke up about 2 a.m. and told her husband she was going to make a movie. She began to keep a video diary. Then one time at our biweekly writing workshop she met some filmmakers at the coffee shop. They were in our space, but we were willing to share. Serendipity. Within a few years she had a book and a movie. Now she’s a spokesperson for restorative justice. Both of her works are incredibly transformative for one simple reason: the raw stripped to the bone honesty of her telling of the story. When Therese looks into the camera, debilitated by depression, puffy eyed and red-nosed, you know that it’s taken all of her willpower to articulate the pain, and you cannot help but be opened up to explore your own humanity. She transforms that pain into love, into art literally before your eyes. So now my students are wandering back. Two of the young women were resistant to coming here. They hate cemeteries they told me. Cemeteries are creepy, they said. And there’s too much nature out here. At first I wonder if this visit has changed their attitudes, but then I have to laugh at myself: as if everyone has to love what I love, as if a teacher dragging them out at 7:45 in the morning to wander among headstones is going to suddenly break through that iron shell and transform them. And also I know you don’t have to love a situation to write about it. In fact, sometimes getting uncomfortable is the most inspiring thing of all. Here is Merritt’s poem: Outdoors again, Starting to think My teacher is torturing me. Birds are chirping, The bugs are biting, And I am uncomfortably Centered in the Midst Of a thousand spirits. Not my personal place of Peace and relaxation, unaware of the spirits I'm encountering, Praying none of them Leave here with me! Merritt C. Ryan-Jones Ideas to write by: 1. Go to a cemetery. I’ve been inspired to write a story about dead people for a couple of years. One of these days I might even get around to it. At least steal some character names of the headstones. 2. Be honest about something that maybe you haven’t been able to be honest about before. You don’t have to share the writing with anyone else. Just dredge it up, write it, maybe it will turn into a piece of fiction or a poem. 3. Try keeping a video diary. See how that influences your writing voice. 4. Go to Therese’s website. Support a fellow writer. Buy a book, buy a CD. You won’t regret it. http://www.thefinalgiftfilm.com/

Friday, April 20, 2012

Transformation at Work

I have been letting this blog slide a little because I am on a mission to upgrade and sell my house. So I’m writing for money every single day that I’m not teaching. When I am working on a project, I do so in a mole-burrowing-through-the-earth kind of way. Not to mention that my time frame is ridiculously short. I rarely come up for air.

The money writing is not transformative, per se, not by my definition anyway. It’s just some online course development, but I like the fact that it is the engine by which I am transforming my house. A week ago the bonus room of this house was covered by a pathogen-ridden, blue-paint-stained, even blood-stained carpet that had been there for thirty years. The blood came from a poor little dead bunny that the cat dragged in. The blue paint came from our dog who knocked over a can on the carpet and then proceeded to step in it and leave retriever-sized blue paw prints. Now the green chalk-covered walls have been painted a soft neutral color and wood laminate covers the floor.

As my house transforms, so do I. For several years now I have been wrestling with the aching emptiness of the sudden absence of daughter (grown up and gone off to college) and husband (got mad and left one day) and dog (died young). But my house is becoming new and beautiful. I am becoming new, too. Happier and more fulfilled.

For one thing, I’m enjoying my teaching job more. Last week, one of the students asked me to give a poetry workshop for a few interested kids. Since I was already at school and not in my burrow, I said, sure. As soon as we were in the room with the rolling chairs and we were writing, I was like a fish that had been caught and then dropped back into its pond. I gleefully breathed in the delicious words. I even wrote a poem that I don’t hate.

Transformative Writing is like a shot of tequila. It warms your blood. It changes everything in an instant.

Here is my poem:

For our dead, beat daddies

And what has happened to us, the children
of the angel-headed hipsters? You who drank
and raged in your never-ending youth. You
freed us from the conformity of the 50s,
taught us that black was cool even before
it was beautiful, and we took your tea,
decided to make a buck, put it in cans for sale
at Walmart – or almost. We would have sold
our souls if we’d found any buyers, but we
were beaten.
You were beatific. We were beaten disillusioned gave up
the fight, bought Barbies for our babies, bought
shiny shoes, bought Mercedes Benz, bought
houses and then lost ‘em to a Hong Kong pirate
in a silver suit. We dropped that dream into a nightmare
poison cup of never good enough, never got enough – and all
the toothpaste ads came to life, pushed right past us, and we
went down without a whimper. We wrapped up our anger,
moved to the suburbs, voted Republican, bought handguns.
And we stopped being we and became
me and me and me. But not

Write, howl, sing:

1. I got the inspiration for this poem from reading portions of "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg out loud to my students. There is something about reading poetry out loud that short circuits the censors in your brain -- especially a poem like "Howl." So my suggestion to you is to pick a poem you love and read it out loud, really out loud, howl if that works for you. Then immediately pick up your pen and roll with it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

First Impressions

Recently my college roommate came to speak to students at the college where I am now a professor. We showed a video featuring her on various TV shows by way of introduction. After that, I said a few words and then turned the crowd over to her. She almost leapt out of her seat and in a loud voice she exhorted the auditorium full of people to get up and greet someone else in the room as if that person was a long lost friend. Within seconds the place was noisy with laughter and chatter. Then she quieted us down and began to explain the importance of the greeting.

When meeting someone new, the first impression carries enormous weight, according to my friend, the body language expert. Her entire talk was on first impressions and she’d made an indelible one. After her session, the students didn’t want to leave. They formed a semi-circle around her and peppered her with questions until I was finally able to drag her away.

I thought of that beginning, that first impression this morning as I was remembering some of the manuscripts I’d read for a contest last year. What my friend had said about first impressions was also true for writing. Your writing should leap off the page from the very beginning. Just as you are looking for “cues” when you first meet another person, your reader is looking for cues to figure out whether or not she wants to commit to you.

In some of the stories I read for the contest I had to plod through paragraphs that became pages before I finally felt connected to the story. It was all expository material, telling, telling, and more telling. When you send a story to a magazine or to an editor in hopes of publication, you need to catch them from the first sentence. You’ve probably heard this and wondered, but how? Why does one story’s beginning make such a good first impression, and another is just ho-hum.

Part of the answer to that is personal taste. Some readers like stories about kittens. Some readers want a bloody axe murder. That part you can't control. However, you can control how quickly you bring your reader into the story. For my money, the quicker the better. To make a good first impression, you need voice, imagery, and a singular perspective.

Here is the first paragraph from a chapter in Tamara Titus’s work in progress, a novel about a 20th-Century leper colony in Louisiana:

Chen glanced up when the door to the canteen opened. The tables had been slow all morning—just a few poker players and a Mexican who came in once a week to shoot dice—and all the dealers were hungry. He sank his hand into the fan-tan bowl, allowing the beads to sift through his fingers. The man who had opened the door was well known to him: Early Wilson lived in House Twenty-Six, and normally he was a good loser, quick to laugh and shrug off misfortune. But a year of positive tests had stolen his smile, leaving swelling and lesions in its place. Yes, Chen thought, the disease was gaining ground. Luck had abandoned Early Wilson, and now he was bad for business.

Immediately we are in a point of view. Immediately we are in a place. And by sentence three we are being given sensory details to ground us into the setting. By the end of the paragraph we’ve been given some internal monologue as well so we are firmly in this character’s perspective. And let’s not forget the tension -- the hungry dealers, the bad luck, the disappearance of the man’s smile. This writer has given us every reason to keep reading.

But let’s suppose you are not writing fiction. You’re writing memoir, and you want to explain things to the reader. You feel you need her to understand the backstory first, give her some context, right? Well . . . not necessarily. Let’s look at a passage by Natalie Stewart, a student writer at Queens University. It’s either memoir or written like memoir.

Her name was Dareth, which I found incredibly androgynous and unique. She was no taller than 5’2 and had the tiny body of a child tennis-pro-hopeful. The summer had intensified the tiny brown freckles that covered her from hair line to toe nail and lightened her gold hair in perfect lines to the bun at the crown of her head. I was 18 years old; she was 27. We didn’t exactly have the same hobbies, so we would never have met if we didn’t work in the same restaurant. I was a hostess at Village Tavern, an upscale casual neighborhood place where the hillbillies could feel fancy and the lawyers let their hair down over a decent cosmopolitan. From my post behind the podium at the front door, I could see into the open doorway of the dark bar past the tie-back black curtains where she stood center stage.

So this doesn’t exactly start in the middle of a scene, but it has the same immediacy. The story shows a distinct perspective, a voice that is willing to assert itself in the first sentence. Then that opening is followed by a wonderful cascade of visual details. The setting is visceral and summed up by someone with a sharp eye. The end of the paragraph circles back to the beginning, to Dareth. Whatever the backstory is, it will come later. As a reader I am not worried. I’m willing to simply follow the writer and her obsession. Right now, I want to learn more about this woman and this situation.

You know this already. You know how important the beginning is. But sometimes we forget. We need reminding that first impressions really do matter. If you’ve got a piece that you think isn’t working as well as you’d like it to work, look carefully at your first paragraph. Is this the strongest place you can begin? Is there a powerful moment buried somewhere in the story that needs to be dredged up to the surface? Pull it out. Start there and move forward.

Two simple exercises:

1. Go through your favorite books, stories, or essays -- at least ten of them. Look at beginnings. What made you want to keep reading? Do they start in the heat of a moment? Is there something intriguing about the voice that pulls you into the narrative? What visual, tactile, and aural details help create a sense of thereness?
2. Think of at least three dramatic events in your life. Write the first sentence of a narrative about each of those events. Then choose the one that has the most life to it and write a paragraph. Don’t write backstory. Don’t give us exposition. Be right there in the moment. What were you seeing, feeling, and thinking? Hmm. It’s good, isn’t it? Well, keep going.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On Literary Fathers and Mothers, On Harry

Today I am in Jacksonville, Florida, the city where I grew up. I am here because I was invited to go to my old high school, Robert E. Lee, and speak to students who have been reading my novel, Picara. I had just finished breakfast and I picked up a copy of the Florida Times Union. As I glanced over it on the elevator on the way up to my room, my heart lurched. One of the teasers on the front page of Section C said that Harry Crews had died. My literary father was gone.

I’m sure most writers have a literary father or mother or both. My literary mother is the artist and short story writer examplar, Lynda Schor. She was the teacher who gave me permission to use my voice and to own my writing. We are still friends to this day. I still feel supported by her, encouraged by her to eschew the mundane, and reminded by her about what makes the writer’s life worth living.

Harry Crews was my literary father. I will never forget my first fiction writing workshop with him. We were all undergraduates, and he was drunk for nearly every class. Most of the other students were terrified. Having grown up around alcoholics, I was right at home. The first story I turned in was about a girl who works in a liquor store and decides to run off with a guy who comes in to rob the place. He accused me of playing fast and loose with point of view and he spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the sex scene which he called “the rut,” but he took the work seriously, and that made a difference. It was the first time in my life I had been taken seriously as a writer.

When I went in to have a conference with him about my next story, he pulled a tall boy out of the bottom drawer of his desk and asked me, “Ms. MacEnulty, did you really write this story?” I told him that I had. It was based on my experience at the prison farm where I had been housed a few years earlier after an unpleasant run-in with the law. I guess I didn’t look like someone who would be able to write about that topic. But then he said, “Well, it was so good I thought you might have stole it.” And let me tell you -- that was the highest compliment I’ve ever had in my life.

Harry Crews schooled me in the basics. He excoriated me for putting a comma before a prepositional phrase. He made me adhere to the rules for point of view, which I still religiously obey, and he exhorted me to let fiction be fictional, an idea to which I have not been so faithful. I took as many classes as I could take with Harry. I got drunk with him just once. When I reached for a glass of water that turned out to be vodka, I realized I'd never keep up with him.

But it wasn’t in the classroom or even in the barroom where I learned the most important lessons that Harry had to impart. That lesson I learned from his writing. I recently re-read a few sections of his autobiography that were publishedin the Georgia Review, in which he talked about a time during his childhood spent in the (at that time) gritty Northside area of Jacksonville in a rooming house on Main Street. From his writing and from his take-no-prisoners style of teaching, I learned the first tenet of transformative writing: brutal, naked honesty.

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told,” he told one interviewer.

“To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get to where the blood is, where the bone is,” he told another.

I only saw Harry a couple of times after I graduated. I always wanted to go back and find him, get him to sign a book for me because I was too stupid to do that while I was a student. But I didn’t. Yesterday, for some reason I was singing an old James Taylor song with a lyric that goes like this, “I always thought I’d see you one more time again.”

Today I did my power of voice exercise with the students at Lee. You never know what’s going to come out. That’s why I like these exercises. What you need to say arrives just like that. Today I started writing about my “Down Home Jacksonville Self”:

“Me, driving the highways for hours, going through the grime, soaking in the overwhelming sadness, the stagnation, and how you captured it so well when you wrote about living on Main Street. You opened it up like a ripe cantaloupe and the seeds spilled and the meat was sweet and full of juice. This is my mourning self, my sad self. Sad that I didn’t come back to you or say thank you over and over again or let you know every word I write is a love letter to you.”

Who is your literary father? Your literary mother? Have you thanked them lately?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome Back to the Age of Jive

Back when we had these quaint things called newspapers, I used to cut out the column on writing by James J. Kilpatrick.(I know newspapers do still exist but they get thinner every day and there are newsrooms like ghost towns all over the country.)

How wonderful that people were interested enough in the art of writing that there was a weekly column called “The Writer’s Art” in a general publication. As I was cleaning out my old files, I came across one of his columns on yellowing newsprint titled “Catching wind in a net.” It was about style.

Let me quote the last paragraph for you: “A good many writers have insisted that style can be neither taught nor learned. Like tears or sweat, they say, it is something that springs from within. You either have the gift or you don’t. This is probably true, but only to a point. The good stylists work at their craft. Consciously or unconsciously, they master the little dog tricks of euphony and cadence. Little by little we learn what works for us -- bare and bony sentences, or china dogs with pouting eyes.”

We writers tend to have a way of writing that we prefer. We may like long, elaborate sentences with multisyllabic words. Or perhaps we are more comfortable with a sparer style -- a few stark images and then time to move on. Some writers have an arch tone; some writers seem to be just sittin’ on the porch, talkin’ ‘bout life. Some will take you on a long stroll; others will drag you into the ocean and try to drown you. Sometimes we don’t even know what our style is. We’re just trying to get the words to stay on the page and make some sense, hoping they won’t fall off their bar stools and slobber all over themselves. The first time a reviewer compared my work to Hemingway I was shocked. I’m not a minimalist, I thought. I wanted to be thought as a lyrical writer. And yet there’s no doubt, I like to get in and out of a scene as cleanly as I can. I may have picked that up from American Lit’s quintessential hard-drinking tough guy.

I like Kilpatrick’s words: euphony and cadence. Those two ideas are, I believe, all about the rewriting. What words need to be excised? What words need to be pulled out of the ether and nestled into the sentence? How can you say something differently from anyone else? Do your characters sound like they are speaking in an English comp class? Or do they sound true, weird, and wonderful?

One of my favorite stories of all time was written by my friend Ron Wiginton. It’s called “The Blood-Rushing Face Thing.” In it Ron invents a slang-language that is spoken by violent and yet wonderfully inventive high school gangsters. When the leader gets mad, he feels a “blood-rushing face thing.” Anthony Burgess did that, as well, in A Clockwork Orange, the story of the ultra-violent Alex and his droogs. At one point Alex says, “Appy-polly-loggies. I had something of a pain in the gulliver so had to sleep. I was not awakened when I gave orders for wakening.”

In our winter workshop at Sevenoaks, my co-leader Angela Winter, gave us certain voice exercises. One of them was an exercise in “glossolalia” -- essentially speaking in tongues. It was fun, it loosened up our tongues and loosened up our minds. I think our writing was freer afterwards.

And just when I thought I’d said enough on this subject, I came across this in the NY Times in a column by Jhumpa Lahiri:

“Only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.”


Maybe that's what we're really looking for -- writing with a live current. Speaking of which, here is an example of writer Benjamin Haag’s style from an writing exercise we did at the Sevenoaks Retreat. It’s a dialogue with a body part, in this case the belly.

A Heartbreaking Gullet of Staggering Genuis



No, dammit!  What did we just talk about?

BEER.  Beer is what we talked about.  A nice, hoppy IPA.  A sweet, dark porter.  BEER.  STOUT.  I deserve it.  You know I deserve it.  Especially after you made me digest that shit...what was it, again?  Saw grass?

It was bean sprouts.  And, it was a date.  With a vegan.  You know how it goes.

Yeah, I know exactly how it goes.  You go on a monthly dietary guilt trip after inundating me with beef, bacon, beer, cheese, and deep-fried damn near everything, and then discover Vegetarian Jesus and decide to "cleanse."  Well, you know how "cleanse" translates in my world?  WITHDRAWAL.  I'm like a junkie with the sweats down here!  Beer.  NOW.  You bastard.

You're not the boss of me.

Really?  Keep believing that, fatass.  What size jeans are you wearing now, again?  How far did that button fly off your khakis the other morning?  BOSS of you?  I OWN you.  I rule your sad, jiggly, flabby little kingdom.  I am your boss, I am your dictator, I AM YOUR KING.  And what do you give a king?  Tribute.  And the tribute I demand is BEER.  ALE.  STOUT.  A pint of Guinness, black as the darkest night, graced with foam as light and pure as new-fallen snow, or whipped topping.  An IPA with so many hops that it makes your tongue curl up inside your mouth.  A weissbier that makes your palate seig heil...

OK...not cool.

Go to hell.  You're torturing me!  

Stop being dramatic.  It's not going to happen.

You're not going to break me, you know.

Shut up.

You'll cave.  You'll collapse like a FEMA trailer.  Just like you always do...

SHUT.  UP.  You're not winning this one.

Yes, I am.  So you're going to keep your ample rump planted on that bar stool, push away that sissy club soda, and order me a BEER.

 Fine.  If I order ONE, will you leave me in peace?

And some potato skins...

Here are some writing games for you this week:

1. Write your own dialogue with a body part. Give it its own unique voice.
2. Write a poem in the style of Dr. Seuss or Jabberwocky. Bend and break the language!
3. Go through one of your favorite books and copy down the sentences that have that live current. I'm reading a James Hall mystery right now called Rough Draft. Hall's style is understated and classic, and yet there's a fine buzzing in that crackling prose of his. Certain sentences that kill softly with his words.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What We Don’t Always Talk About When We Talk About Transformative Writing

My definition of transformative writing is writing that seeks to connect, understand, and illuminate. Although transformative writing is therapeutic, it’s not just that. Transformative writing strives for a level of artistry that, to borrow from Faulkner, uplifts our souls. Transformative writing may inform, it may entertain, and it may heal, but it also does something more. It connects to and transmits something of our human/divine nature.

Writer Moira Notargiacomo said it beautifully in a recent workshop:

Writing is what speaks to my soul, what cries out from my soul. Writing gives me sustenance, a raison d’etre. When I am sad or lonely, I write it down and the feelings pour out of me and onto the page. When I am joyful, I write. I write about what inspires me. Writing is a pathway to the divine and from the divine. Writing is the blessing that was given to me. I find out who I am by what I write. I find out what I care about by writing. I transform my soul. Rather the words and images transform my soul. I expand and grow from writing. I communicate my thoughts and feelings to others. Writing allows me to communicate with the silence, with that which cannot be seen or even be known. Writing is as necessary as life, as breath, as love. With writing I have everything.

I realized when I first led a writing workshop in a women’s prison that we were doing something different from ordinary workshops. This work was not about getting published in The New Yorker. It was not about fame or fortune. Rather It was about unlocking something within ourselves that had been locked up. It was about freeing these women (and myself) from our internal prisons.

And so I began approaching workshops differently. I realized that helping people become better writers was actually a side effect, not so much the purpose. But of course I never said this out loud. By introducing participants to the principles that would make their work more artistic, these workshops also became laboratories in spiritual transformation. For years I couldn’t exactly articulate what was happening, but I knew it was profound.

Recently I found a book that had been sent to me by a publicist several years ago. At the time I had no interest in the book and it sat untouched on my book shelf. Then the right moment came and I plucked the book off the shelf. The title is Alchemy of Light, and the author is a Sufi teacher named Llewelllyn Vaughn-Lee. He writes, “Through our human consciousness, new forms, images, and ideas can come into being; through us the intelligence of the world can be more creative.”

Aha! I thought when I read that. This is what it is going on when we write from our deepest selves. We are, as Vaughn-Lee points out, connecting to a light deep inside us, and this light is God. To get to that light though we must first travel through darkness. In transformative writing, we confront the shadow. We embrace it, dance with it, and sometimes make love to it.

Another book I have picked up recently is Fear No Evil by Eva Pierrakos and Donovan Thesenga. This book contains lectures that Eva channeled in the 1970s. I remember reading some of those lecture around 1985 and being launched on a spiritual journey that continues to this day.

The lectures are filled with great wisdom. In one lecture, the guide says, “To face life’s reality means to be able to face yourself as you are with all your imperfections.” Life tends to numb us. We are constantly distracted by our work, our entertainments, and our addictions. But writing, especially transformative writing, requires that we un-numb ourselves, that we focus, that we face our imperfections because that’s where the gold is. If we want to create an interesting, compelling, three-dimensional character, we look to our own imperfections. If we want to write an honest memoir, we unveil the dark parts of our hearts. If we want to wake up the world, we sift through the collective unconscious to find the fears and prejudices that keep it entranced.

Vaughn-Lee says in his book that we must transform ourselves and then the light of the divine will be able to enter the world. We cannot change the external structures. They are too entrenched. But we can go deep within ourselves and connect to that light within us. He connects this to writing and art when he says, “Through the mediating power of symbols, we can reawaken to the mystery of life as a continual relationship with the divine, a constant communion.”

Symbols, shadows, light. Creation. Becoming a better writer is a by-product.

This week’s inspirations:

1.Write your own answer to the prompt: Writing is . . .

2. Think of the most meaningful symbols in your life. What does your house symbolize to you? What about nature? What are your current personal struggles? What “thing” symbolizes those struggles, and conversely what do your outward obstacles tell us about your inner struggles?

3. Kill your ego. Write a scene where your alter-ego dies. What is left behind?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What’s So Transformative About Transformative Writing Anyway?

I had tea with a poet yesterday afternoon at a local coffee shop, and he wanted to know what I meant when I spoke of “transformative writing.” He assumed it meant writing that would have a transformative effect on our society. I explained that was exactly what I meant -- and more.

To me the transformation is multi-layered. The first layer is transforming experience itself into art. When we write, we are not writing in a vacuum. We base our work on the material we have at hand. And we transform that material -- just as coal is transformed into fuel or pieces of highly-organized carbon are transformed into shiny diamonds -- into something else. We dig the material out of life, or we find it abandoned by the roadside, or someone drops it in our laps. We put the various elements we have together in our own unique way, and voila we create a work of art.

Secondly, the writer is transformed. When we investigate the raw materials of our art through the lens of a character, we see it differently. Even when we are writing memoir or personal essays or in our journal, we take the substance of life and hold it up to the light. We learn something. We explore, we discover. We may simply have a greater understanding about ourselves or our situations, or we may change at some very deep level within ourselves. For example, when I wrote about my father’s memorial service, I was still bitter about the way he had treated me and my brothers. I wrote about the details of the service, about the conversations I had with my brothers, about the walk along the beach that I took that morning with them. By the time I got to the end of the story, I understood that I may not have had much of a father but I had something better: I had these two wonderful older brothers who knew me and loved me and who shared my life. My bitterness was transformed into gratitude.

Third, the reader or listener is transformed. Stories shape us. They help us to know the world outside of our limited perspectives. We work our empathy muscles. Here is a piece that Jennifer Huang wrote at the Winter Writers’ Retreat at Sevenoaks:

Writing is telling Tommy my hellish weekdays and my rides to the park, sometimes to run and sometimes just to sit and stare; and anyways, running and staring usually leads to writing. Writing is telling him how I like the feeling of velvet beneath my fingers and the pressing of pianos. Writing is him telling me that his parents don’t pay attention at all. He speaks of his car rides to school, his friends endlessly talking about nothing at all. Writing is him telling me that he wishes for something more but cannot describe it. Writing is our friendship, meshed and tidied into a bundle of letters, some turning yellow and others crisp and white. It is the box beneath my bed, exploding with laughter and tears and frustration that can somehow be heard even as I try to avoid them.”

As they write to each other, Tommy and Jennifer deepen the friendship between them. They are transformed with every letter they write and every letter they read.

The fourth, but not the final, layer of transformation is societal. It is the third level writ large. I meet so many people in my workshops who are working in the trenches of our society. They are the ones who witness. They work in Washington D.C. and travel through the labyrinth of a system designed to defeat the underfunded; they do environmental work and confront the daily destructions of the greed machine; they spend their days with autistic children and explore the effects of our toxic world; they know what it’s like to be abducted, to lose children, to be widowed, to care so much they bleed. In writing, they have a tool to educate, to transform others, to open our eyes and maybe crack open a heart here and there.

What would Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath have been without the final scene? That example of compassion in the face of desperation is one of the most moving scenes in literature. And I believe that the final scene where Rose of Sharon performs her act of kindness is the one that enabled this work of art to transform a country. The rest of the book opened our eyes. The final scene opened our hearts.

The way we can get to that fourth level of transformation is to search our own lives for the intersections between the personal and the societal (or political). My friend, the poet I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is interested in writing a book about what it means to be masculine. This is an important question in our culture as we evolve and as gender roles bend, stretch, and sometimes bounce back. For him, it’s also a personal question -- one that he grapples with in his work as a therapist and in his own interactions with other men.

There is one more layer of transformation that I believe is important -- the spiritual level, which I will write more about next time.

In the meantime, here are some things to think about:

1. Make a list of the books, poems, essays, stories, etc. that you have found transformative. How did they change you? How did they affect your world view? What were the words, the lines, the passages, or the scenes that opened your heart?

2. Try the “Writing About What Matters” exercise. Where in your life does the personal intersect with the societal? This question was the impetus for me to write about taking care of my elderly mother. My personal situation was reflected in some of the questions I had about our society: How do we treat our elderly? What happens when someone no longer “contributes” to society in a tangible way? What resources are there for caregivers? How do we juggle all the demands on our time and attention? So take a look at your own life. What are your pressing personal concerns? Are these concerns that others have to face in some way? And how do our national policies and/or our society mores affect those concerns?

3. Interview someone! I interviewed Ina May Gaskin, the mother of modern midwifery. I had no idea how the medicalization of the birth process has affected the birth experience in such a negative way -- even to the point of sometimes causing maternal deaths. You can read the interview in the January 2012 issue of The Sun Magazine. I later turned that information into an essay about that intersection of personal and public:


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Back to Basics

One of the first things you learn in writing workshops is that characters should change (or the reader’s perception should somehow be changed by something that is revealed in the story). Rules are meant to be challenged, but sometimes if your writing isn’t connecting at the level you want it to, it helps to get back to basics.

Character change can be obvious. Your character can be alive at the beginning of the story and dead by the end. But that’s not the type of change we really mean. We are looking for internal change. Master teacher Jerry Stern used to refer to a story where nothing changes as a “zero-to-zero” story. But, but, we would complain, there are plenty of changes. Look at the body count! Body count? You can get that in any newspaper. He meant a deeper and more profound change.

In terms of pure entertainment, you will not always see change. Lucy and Ricky are Lucy and Ricky from beginning to end. But in transformative writing, change of some kind comes with the territory. We look for it in novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs. What did you or the character learn? What did you overcome? How did you find the strength to overcome it? If it’s too easy, we won’t be interested. We want characters who face real challenges. Sometimes we writers like to protect our characters. We don’t want to put them in harm’s way. We’re like overprotective parents who won’t let our children ride a bicycle for fear they’ll skin a knee.

Harry Potter is a classic example of a character that is required to face challenges and to overcome them. Think of how he grows in strength, power, and maturity over the course of those seven books and the enormous obstacles both external and internal that he must overcome. Look at any short story or essay you love, and you’ll most likely find a turning point somewhere in the narrative -- a shift, a light shining where before there had been darkness. It may be quite subtle but it will be there.

We read for insight into the human condition. If our characters (or ourselves) start out as all-wise, all-knowing, all-loving, then where can they go from there? Well, you can disabuse them of their naive notions and turn them into raving cynics, which isn’t a bad way to go. At least it’s some sort of change.

In transformative writing, we go into the dark places. We linger in them. You cannot perform real alchemy without doing so. In fiction, we do this exploration through a character. We must allow our characters to have a shadow side. Integration of the shadow, facing the shadow, embracing the shadow: these are all ways our characters (and ourselves, by extension) grow. In my memoir, I had to show the parts of me that weren’t so pretty. If there is no crime, there can be no redemption.

Even Mahatma Gandhi had a less than savory side. He apparently liked to sleep naked with very young women (a grandniece in one case) to test his willpower. Of course, those involuntary emissions he experienced were cause for concern.

One of my favorite exercises to do in a workshop is one I call “Confessional Booth” or “The Trial.” First, make a list of your various selves. Then choose a self that you don’t often let come out of the closet and let it speak to us, let it tell it’s side of the story.

Here’s an example from that exercise by writer Roberta Burton:

You say I'm crazy. You tell me I did not see you beat the child who stands before you. You tell me I did not have welts on my legs from the switchings. You tell me I did not see you throw out the burning pot. You tell me I did not feel sad, angry or sick. You tell me you never experienced anger. You tell me I do not want the down comforter I requested for Christmas. You tell me I have always wanted the moon; that if you gave me a car, I would want a credit card for gas. You tell me I cannot have an education because my brothers will use theirs instead. Then you tell me never to talk about what goes on in our house. I am not crazy. I will show you. I will become a therapist so I can talk about what goes on in families. I will become a therapist so I can recognize your neuroses and even your addiction that I didn't see as a child. I am not crazy. I am the one holding the keys.

Now that’s taking a look into the shadow. And there’s a foundation for a story in that little exercise.

So try the exercise above if you’re exploring ways to create character change. Here are a few other exercises to try:

1. Of course, we draw on life for our writing. So write about a time of change in your life. But don’t just skim it. Get into the very moment and bring in every detail. What did you see, hear, feel, etc? If you can’t remember it, make it up. Linger in that pivotal moment and use images to help us get it.

2. Look closely at a short story or essay that you especially admire. Was there an internal change? Can you identify it? What concrete details were used to symbolize the change?

3. Write a story about a first. First kiss, first date, first fight, first time you realized your parents were flawed -- or conversely the first time you realized your parents were somehow noble.

Always, always take your time. Write slowly, let the details fall into place.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Love Me Do

A colleague of mine was telling me about her daughter’s body issues. Those of us with girls know how that little demon likes to pop up in our faces with an evil grin. Her daughter had hit puberty and decided she no longer liked her body.

“Do you like any part of your body?” the mother asked.

“My arms,” the girl said. “I have great arms.”

So, my colleague continued, she had asked a group of women friends which part of their body they liked the most. To her surprise, most of them said there was no part of their body they liked. One of the women had had a boob job, and those were the only thing about her body that she liked.

When I heard that story, I was astonished. How could they not love their hands, I wondered. Or their feet? Where would you be (literally) without your feet? Forget the fake boobs, how could anyone not love her lungs -- those two faithful cartons for the life-breath? And the heart, that’s a pretty lovable little drummer. Do I need to mention that pleasure factory between the legs? Personally, I’m fond of my colon and whole lower digestive tract for making sure I’m not always full of shit. And the skin! It may not be as soft and pretty as it once was but, good grief, we’d be a mess without it.

The body is where it’s at, man. It’s where it all happens, the roiling emotions, the love making, the wine drinking, the fried pickles on the tongue, the dancing, the laughing, the tears, and most importantly, the spiritual awakening. The mystics remind us that being present in the body is key to recognizing the divine light within us.

So this weekend in our winter writing retreat I decided to bring in a new exercise: writing a love letter to the body. I had no idea what a chord that simple assignment would strike, but strike it did. Our group of 20 people brought a range of responses, confronting disease, aging, and abuse, and also expressing gratitude for the healthful habits that their bodies now seemed to expect. There was plenty of laughter as well. Leave it to Phoenix to honor her natural breasts in spite of the scar between them. She’s letting her incision flag fly. And B. wrote an entire dialogue between his mind and his beer-demanding belly. I apologized to my body for getting mad at it for lingering in childhood a little longer than my peers’ bodies did. Other women forgave theirs for leaving childhood too soon.

Interestingly that morning, I had managed to cut the top of my index finger, and though I wrapped my finger in gauze, the wound would not heal. I had damaged my body, injured it, sliced through the skin with a tiny broken bottle. It didn’t hurt, but the triangular cut left a flap of skin that would not seal. The bandaid looked rather nasty as blood intermittently leaked out of the wound. An injury is a kind of shock to the system -- even a small one such as this. The general ease with which you live your life is suddenly front and center. I am not bothered much by blood, but I found the rush of adrenaline took something out of me and I wanted desperately to slip into sleep that the morning. A nap during lunch time took me to the happy place and revived me for the afternoon.

That night we found the drums in the closet, and I started banging away, loving the way the beat entered my chest. Fresh blood appeared on the bandaid. I imagined what my life might be like if I lost my finger. I would have to stop being stupid and pay attention to my hands, protect them, love them. I would have to do more than pay lip service to all this business about the body. So I put the drum away, and I didn’t subject my finger to any down dogs in Diana’s yoga class the next morning.

The workshop ended early because of a snowstorm to the south. I wasn’t worried. My friend who was originally a northerner would be driving us back home. We hadn’t counted on the ferocity of this storm though. A couple of hours into the trip my car began to skid as snow piled onto my wipers in big white heaps. My muscles wrapped tight around my bones as I reminded myself to breathe.

“Easy,” I said. “Easy.” I guess I was talking to myself the way I have talked to my nervous cat at the vet. We skidded from one side of the road to the next and back again. It felt like a long time without any traction; the rocky hillside loomed close. Finally the tires found some purchase, and an advertisement for a Days Inn 2.5 miles away beckoned. When we finally stopped the car in front of the motel office, my friend’s hands were shaking on the wheel. My own heart was doing a soft shoe dance. Adrenaline had pinged along our nervous systems, and we were giddily coming down.

I hate to admit it but before we left for the drive home, I made a point of calling my daughter so that if for some reason I didn’t survive the car ride home, she would have at least heard me tell her that I loved her one last time. The imagination will have its ways during times like these.

All this trauma and drama gave me lots to think about: reasons to love our bodies, ways to write about life through the body, how the body and what happens to it makes all the difference.

Some exercises for writing to, about and for the body:

1. Write a love letter to your body.

2. Write a dialogue with a body part. (I recommend reading Lynda Schor’s short story “Lips” from her collection The Body Parts Shop if you can.)

3. Write about a wound, an injury, or a frightening moment. How did your body react?

4. Give one of your characters a wound or take away a body part. How does that change the game?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Picture Can Inspire a Thousand Words

This past weekend I attended the Lilly Conference on College & University Teaching in Greensboro, NC. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of presentations and panels on incorporating meditative techniques into traditional learning environments. One session centered on building a labyrinth with students. Another gave a demonstration of guided and non-guided meditation along with a reflective writing assignment. These reflective writing components incorporated the kinds of ideas we talk about in transformative writing. In fact, Bill, the presenter for the meditation/reflective writing sessions, attended my TW session, and we realized soon how complementary the two sessions were.

One of the techniques that Bill used in his session is one that I used to do with my poetry students. Each participant was to choose a picture that seemed to say something about how the person was feeling at that particular moment. We were able to choose from about 125 glossy 8 x 10s covering a range of subjects. I chose one with meerkats. Something about the meerkats made me think of myself in reference to the conference. There was one group of four meerkats with their backs to us on one side of the picture. Another meerkat stood sentinel off to herself and in the distance another meerkat stood with its back to the camera and its head in profile. I thought of myself as the middle meerkat. I was at the conference with a lot of other people but mostly doing my own thing.

I began my “freewrite” on the picture by describing it, the proximity of each meerkat to the others, the sun light creating a golden halo around their upright bodies, the barren sun-burned landscape where they stood. I wrote about how I related myself at this conference to the meerkat but then my writing took me in a different direction. I thought about the future as I face a transition in my life. Some of my subconscious feelings began to surface as I realized what I wanted from this unknown future. I knew that the meerkat was not going to stay in the vicinity of the other four but had other plans.

I shouldn’t have been but I was startled at the result. Contemplating this picture opened doors in my mind. It was also a profound reminder of the power of image. I think it’s why the tarot has had such a hold on our imaginations for so many years. It’s not that the cards tell us the future but that what we see in the cards tell us about ourselves, our hopes and our fears.

In addition to giving poetry students a similar assignment, I have taken students to art museums. Museums are temples, places where we can commune with images. The images can conjure stories or feelings. They are pathways into the imagination of another and into our own imaginations.

This is a poem I wrote years ago on a trip to the Mint Museum in Charlotte:

Upon Going to the Museum: Sappho, Kleis and Alcaeus (for my daughter)

It is always the pictures of girls
that draw my goddess-worshipping eyes,
or more, they tug the mother in me
or more, they sing to the girl I was and am.
That thick blue is the color of water
I know in my veins, my bones,
the corpuscles of my body,
but it is your gentle hand on my shoulder
blade that (more than the beautiful young
man with his lyre) holds the promise of
our inseparable unity.

I feel the cool marble on my bare feet
and the warm air, the soft sunlight.
Later we will swim and laugh,
your flowered wreath tossed upon a rock,
my friend, the one behind me in this painting,
reciting her poems of love and lust
from the branches of this tree
and into your girl’s heart this music,
those words will find fertile soil,
tilled by me—mother farmer lover
of the moon.

Just as the image can inspire the writer, the writer relies on the image to pull her reader into her world. The following passage is from a story called “The Baby Tooth” by Carole Rosenthal. At first it reads like a description of a painting. Then the backstory is revealed:

“There was a dark wet spot on the rug. A half-sewn glare-white dress sat stiff as a shell on the hassock. Jammed into a corner on the kitchen table was a jar of pickles packed in brine, which Mrs. Rand had taken with her everywhere as camouflage, to smash on the ground in case her water broke, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed in drugstores or on the street.”

This passage wouldn't have the same punch without the picture it paints in the reader's mind.

A few ideas for finding your inspiration in images:

1. Take a trip to a museum. Wander slowly. Find the painting, the sculpture, or the installation that speaks to you. Write about it. Describe it. Tell its story. Tell the story from your life that it brings to your mind.

2. Go to a park. Sit on a bench. Describe everything around you. Imagine you are a movie camera.

3. Look in the mirror. Write a poem or a paragraph-portrait about the person you see there. What do the eyes tell you? Imagine that is merely the picture of a character you are writing about.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Get Your Rhythm On

I have been working with a fellow writer on her novel. It’s a gorgeous piece of work with compelling characters and a deep sense of place. But I had one suggestion: balance the point of view chapters so that the pattern has a rhythm.

We humans are rhythmic beings. We have a little drummer inside us that never stops beating until we’re dead. We have cycles. We are attuned to seasons. When writing has rhythm, it satisfies something primal in the reader’s psyche. We feel at home with the words. This rhythm can be achieved on the macro-level where the chapters move from one point of view to the next at a steady, logical pace or on a micro level -- the level of syllables.

We find the foundation for rhythm in poetry. Haven’t you noticed that poets tend to write wonderful prose? Think Mary Karr, for instance. Or Heather Sellers. Or any of the many poets who have turned their hand to memoir. It’s because even when they are writing prose, a pulse beats in the syllables they choose. They’ve brought the music of their poetry with them.

At a recent workshop, writer Rebecca Wallace wrote about inheriting a trunk from her grandmother. She writes about the various items in the trunk and then she turns her attention to a glass bowl. Notice the balancing act. The long descriptive sentence with the two pauses followed by the short punchy sentence. The contrast of hot and cold. The similarity of sounds: chest and choke. And then the repetition. There is a sense of balance and a feeling of rhythm in this short passage:

My most cherished possession is a small glazed bowl, brown on the outside with a baby blue interior. In the summer when Granny made ice cream in her big churn, this was one of the bowls that – if we were lucky – we would eat our ice cream from. I have the only remaining bowl.

As I run my fingers along the edge, I can feel the coolness of the thick vanilla ice cream against the sultry heat of a July evening in Missouri. The coolness radiates from the bowl in an almost protective layer from the brutality of the humidity rising from the river bottoms to sit upon your chest and choke your breath.

It is in this simple bowl that the best memories of my childhood are kept. Here is my carefree childhood, here are the moments of unconditional love, and here is the nurturing and safety that my own parents did not give me. Here in this tiny bowl, holding no more than five bitefuls of thick vanilla ice cream, wrapped in tissue paper, tucked in my Grandmother’s trunk.

When I was writing my memoir and I needed to describe a particular time I remembered that I had written a poem about it. I took the line breaks out of the poem and voila, I had a lyrical passage:

This Christmas is different. This Christmas we linger nearby. The shopping is less frenzied, the dinners more subdued. This Christmas as we sit in the family room, 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.

Rhythm implies balance. When working on a longer piece, a memoir or a novel, consider bringing balance to the different elements. Are dark scenes balanced by lighter ones? Is action balanced by reflection. If you switch points of view, is there a logic to the changes that will feel natural to the reader?

Some exercises to get you in the rhythm:

1. Read your work aloud. Read it slowly. Listen closely. Record yourself if you can. Where are the natural rhythms? Where does it fall a little flat?

2. Take a piece of prose that you have written and create line breaks as if it were a poem. What words do you need to change to turn it into a poem? What words do you need to lose?

3. Put on some drumming music. Dance before you write. Or write while you’re listening to the drumming.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Turn on Your Flashlight

My friend Becky recently said to me, “The thing about writing is that all the things you don’t know about yourself come out.” This is one of the reasons I think of writing as spiritual exploration. We are like spelunkers going into caves with our flashlights piercing the depths as we gaze in astonishment. We discover our fears, our secret joys, our hidden longings, our obsessions, and a host of forgotten moments. This sense of the unexpected is also why I enjoy our transformative writing workshops so much: because even though I have done all the exercises I am going to be presenting, I have no idea what will come out when I do them. Every time it is something different.

This weekend my daughter accidentally set our house on fire. She’d left a candle burning by the bathtub. By six a.m. the fiberglass bathtub was in flames and we were standing outside in the cold, waiting for the fire department to arrive. So I knew what I was going to write about when I went to my TW workshop that day. I had to write about the fire. But I didn’t know I was going to write about my house and how I had fallen in love with it the first time I saw it. I didn’t know I was going to write a love letter to my house.

I have lived in this house for nearly thirteen years, longer than I have ever lived in one place. Now I am getting ready to put it on the market. In the piece I wrote during the workshop I focused on the memory of the pack of neighborhood girls tromping through on a snowy day with a fire in the fireplace as I poured hot chocolate and marshmallows into ceramic cups. In all my preparations for moving on to the next phase of my life, I had not stopped to think about everything living in this house had meant for me: the sense of family, the sense of normality, the love.

So that was the gift my explorations brought me that day, or one of them. Through the explorations of the other writers I experienced the strangeness of a panic attack, the joy of discovering you’re pregnant, the fear and rage you feel when you’re attacked in a dark parking lot by four men for your sexuality, the satisfaction of taking your life back and deciding to live for yourself. And underneath those feelings was a pervasive sense of strength. We were conquerors recounting our battles.

Here are some prompts to help you in your explorations this week:

What is home to you? Where do you feel a sense of home? What are the physical manifestations of home? Conversely, are you still looking for home?

What is the very first place you can remember? What details stand out to you? What is an incident that happened there? Draw a map or a blueprint of the place. What happened there that still somehow affects you today?

Have you ever felt fear or panic? What did it feel like inside the body, in your bones, your organs, your muscles?

What about joy or even contentment? Describe a time you felt either. Use as many metaphors as you can.

P.S. We'll be having a Winter Writing Retreat on Feb. 18 & 19 at Sevenoaks Retreat Center near Charlottesville VA. Email me at pat@patmacenulty.com for details.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What if no one cares?

I just watched a documentary about the artist Alice Neel on Netflix. I had been introduced to Neel when I was writing an art history course, and I’d found her paintings gripping -- and that wasn’t even in person but on a computer. So I was eager to learn her story and see more of her work. It turned out to be as inspirational as it was informative.

Alice Neel was born in January 1900. She grew up in a time when (with rare exceptions) women simply weren’t artists, especially poor women. She did manage to go to a design school for women, where she noted that the students were women but the deans were always men. Neel made more than one bad choice when it came to relationships, but probably for a woman of her talents, a good relationship was hard to find. Women couldn’t even vote when she was born. A woman with dreams of her own would have been a nuisance.

She lost one baby to disease, and her artist husband took off with her next child (a daughter); the impoverished Neel had no recourse but to let her go. Later she had two sons whom she raised on her own. Throughout her trials, Alice Neel painted. She poured her own pain onto the canvas, but she also looked outside herself to record the lives around her. She painted portraits with a psychological intensity.

Alice Neel’s work was ignored by the artistic world for most of her lifetime. She painted portraits at a time when abstract painting was considered de rigueur for serious artists. She wasn’t politically astute when it came to rubbing shoulders with the “right” people, and she didn’t seem to give a damn about trends. She was as true to her art as an artist can be. She believed that “man is the measure of all things” and she believed in what she was doing. She felt it important to capture the individuality of a person, not to typecast her subjects. She captured something of their essence and put it on the canvas.

In 1974 (ten years before her death) Neel’s work was shown in a retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum. In her 70s, she had finally begun to get the recognition she deserved. Yet her faith in herself never seemed to waver.

As I watched the unfolding of her story as documented by her grandson Andrew, I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to the writing world. So often students and writers in my workshops want to know if what they’re doing is any good. They yearn for some sort of confirmation from the larger world. I am not immune to this desire. None of us wants to struggle in anonymity. We’d like to believe that what we’re doing has some value. But we should remember that we may not always get that recognition when we want it.

Some writers are one hit wonders. Some start getting accolades at a young age and go on to have wonderful careers. Some, like the brilliant Zora Neale Hurston, get a few good breaks and then wind up dying penniless, buried in an unmarked grave, only to be rediscovered years later. Others don’t hit their stride until later in life. E. Annie Proulx was almost 60 when she won a Pulitzer for The Shipping News. And there are probably some great writers whose talents will never be known outside their own families.

You can try to manipulate the course of your career. You can befriend the right people, use the power of positive thinking, and consult an astrologer. Those things might work. If they don’t, however, you can follow Neel’s example. Stay true to your art. Do whatever task the universe hands you. The truth is you have to be willing to “fail” -- you have to be willing never to make it. You have the desire to write because you have something to say. If no one responds, it’s frustrating -- sometimes heartbreaking -- but you keep going. It’s not your job to judge the merit of your work. You just do it to the best of your ability. You keep learning, you keep practicing, you make a commitment. If Alice Neel had decided to believe the cognescenti, if she had abandoned her vision, we would not have the incredible body of work that she has left us.

Here are some prompts to help you stay true to your art this week:

Write a blurb for yourself! Be effusive. What makes your work (even if you haven’t finished it yet) unique, outstanding, worthy of the critics’ notice?

What are your obsessions? What do they stem from? What is your gift to the world?

Who is a writer or artist you admire? What was their path to success? Was their journey smooth? What did they sacrifice? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Who is your ideal audience? Find one or two people who will be that audience.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Delicious Writing

One of the luckiest things to happen to me is landing a job at a university with an outstanding culinary program. I have never been much of a cook. I make things like burritos, pancakes, and oatmeal, and I make those things very well. But when it comes to actual cooking, that’s another story. So my creative and passionate students have influenced my way of thinking about food. They have shown me the poetry in a beautifully plated appetizer and the transformative power of mixing two things I’d never have imagined in the same bowl (orange sherbert infused with basil). They even inspire me to try real cooking once in a while.

Tonight, I made lentil soup. Lentil soup is one of the few things I do make fairly often. I like it when I make it, but it’s not something I’d serve to anyone else. Tonight, however, I tried to do things a little differently. First I cut up some leeks and added them to my vegetable broth. I never buy leeks (or parsnips!) but I’d seen a recipe for parsnip soup and so getting a little venturesome in the grocery store produce section, I hunted down the parsnips (not even sure what they looked like) and bought a handful along with a couple of leeks. So I chopped the leeks with my handy Pampered Chef chopper and shredded one of the parsnips and combined with the broth. Then I poured in the lentils and decided that celery would also be nice.

But what about spices? I’m not good with spices. I never know what spices work best with which dishes besides the obvious ones, i.e. oregano works well in spaghetti sauce. So I sniffed my various spices and I sniffed the soup. And I got on the Internet and looked up spices for lentil soup. Cumin, one of my favorite spices, was suggested in one recipe. Well, why not, I thought. But I only added a bit. Cumin can be pretty strong. Then I crushed sea salt between my fingers and added ground pepper. Now it is cooking. It smells heavenly.

Injecting recipes into our stories is all the rage now. One of my favorites of the “foodoir” genre is Diana Abu-Jaber’s memoir The Language of Baklava. In her hands the recipes become meaningful. They are like characters in and of themselves. Combined with the stories of her fascinating family (a father who yearns for his homeland and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and grandmothers all with their own magic recipes that serve as answers to Diana’s life questions) the food shows us and Diana how life should be lived and devoured.

You don’t have to insert recipes into your writing, however, to make use of the most primal of our needs. Bringing food to the page can help us develop our characters. What we eat says so much about who we are. For example, while I’m no gourmand, I refuse to eat margarine or fake maple syrup. Has to be real butter and real maple syrup. I have a friend who never heard of hummus. I have friends who are vegetarians like me and other friends who will shamelessly scarf down a slice of veal. The foods we choose, the foods we love, the foods of our culture tell something about us.

The spices of our kitchens can also simply add to the flavor of our writing. One of my favorite exercises for poetry classes is to bring in some cinnamon and some vanilla extract and pass them around. The poems that come out of this exercise are sensational, literally.

So try writing about food this week. Food can mean many things -- power, need, status, spiritual aspirations, love, lust, comfort, home, and so on. Explore its meaning in your life, and then if you’re writing fiction, show your readers the meaning of food in your character’s lives.

WIY -- Prompts for the week:

This is an exercise I do with my students and they love it. First I have them close their eyes. Then I ask them to remember a meal that was meaningful. They need to imagine their hand on the table. What kind of table is it? Wood? Glass? Metal? What about the place settings? Who is at the table? What sounds can be heard? What are the smells? What is being said? More importantly, what is not being said? Can you describe the taste of the food? Now, for fun, make something happen at this meal that did not happen.

Make a playlist of all your favorite restaurants from every place you’ve ever been. What makes each one special?

Write about comfort food. What was your comfort food growing up? Do you still eat it? When? Write a food scene from your childhood.

Write about hunger. When were you hungry? What does hunger represent? What were you hungry for? (For a wonderful short story about hunger turn to Joseph Bathanti’s collection The High Heart.)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Yoga of Transformative Writing

I can easily remember the date of my first yoga class here in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was Sept. 11, 2001. I had taken a few classes here and there in the 1990’s back in Florida, and I’d been wanting to start taking it on a more regular basis, but there were no classes nearby until a YMCA opened up near my house. Of course I’ll never forget that day. I was so happy that I’d found a class near me, and I immediately liked the teacher. And yet the day that I started my journey with yoga, our collective journey as a nation “at war with terrorism” also began. The juxtaposition of my individual peace-filled morning practice with a nation’s unexplainable horror made everything seem surreal and uncertain. But two days later I went back to yoga. It sustained me through many a difficult time.

The other night, I watched a documentary on Netflix called Ashtanga, NY about a yoga class taking place in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attack. It was interesting to see how the yoga practice helped the participants absorb the terrible news and cope with the tragic sense of loss. Yoga helped them internalize and process external events.

Yoga means union. I have studied both the spiritual side of yoga through Isha yoga and the physical aspects of it through my local YMCA. The physical practice of yoga has grown enormously in popularity. According to an article in the New York Times, “the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011.” The article was actually about the negative effects of yoga. No doubt people can injure themselves doing yoga, just as you can injure yourself any time you get up off the couch.

But there’s a reason for its popularity. When you are doing yoga you are fully present. I rarely think about anything else when I am doing yoga. My family worries disappear, the latest drama with my students is of no importance, and I’m not wondering what I’m going to eat next! I’m completely there on the mat. I’m in my body, fully aware of the steadiness of my breath, that tautening of my muscles, and even the expression on my face.

So how does this relate to transformative writing you may be wondering? It relates because the greatest gift we can give to our writing is to be fully present, to be in the moment, absorbing each detail, recording the sounds we hear, and noticing our thoughts and bodily reactions.

I think there are other connections as well. Yoga is a practice, and as it grounds us in the now, it becomes a spiritual practice. The now moment is where we meet the Divine. Transformative writing is also a practice. We do it regularly. Sometimes we have rituals associated with our writing practice: a hot cup of tea, a special place where we like to sit, or some other routine. When we engage in transformative writing, we are accessing the Creator within. It is our creativity that makes us divine. When we are in the creative flow we enter a blissful state. We are more alive.

When you are in your yoga class practicing with other yoginis, you are in communion with others. Transformative writing is also about communion. It is the connections we make with others that make the writing truly transformative. Yoga and transformative writing bring us together and sustain us through tough times.

I am certainly not saying that you have to take yoga in order to write well. I could just as easily say you should become an alcoholic to write well! (We have plenty of examples to back up that statement.) No, I’m simply making a connection between two activities that are meaningful to me.

The thing I love about both yoga and about writing is that I will never be perfect at either one. I will always be a student, always learning, always trying to get a little better. The mat and the page will always challenge me. They remind me not just of my divinity but of my fallible humanity as well.

WIY: Here are a few prompts to play with this week:
What do you do that is physical? What are the rewards and challenges? Describe it. Get into the body.
What is writing like for you? By that I mean, what other thing can you compare it to?
What is your spiritual practice? How does it feed your writing? And how does your writing feed your spirituality?
Create a character who has an obsession. Show that character doing what he or she loves to do, needs to do.
Finally, put a character or a community in a situation of crisis or tragedy. How does the character/community cope with it? Show us what enables them to move forward.

Monday, January 2, 2012

I Pledge Allegiance to My Writing

A new year has begun -- time to think about beginnings.

I attended a church service on New Year’s Day at a rather non-traditional church. The minister is a good friend of mine. She’s also a writer. She said in her lesson that day that she’s never been able to keep a New Year’s resolution. (My New Year’s resolution is always that I’m going to stop cussing. Like my friend, Renee, I have never been able to keep my New Year’s resolution either.) So Renee suggested that we make a pledge to ourselves instead. She even offered a sheet of paper with eleven pledges that focus on spiritual development. This got me to thinking about how this tool could be handy for writers as well.

My pledges to myself:

This year I write a transformative writing blog once a week. (If I miss one week, then I’ll blog twice the next week.)

This spring I put together my book on transformative writing.

This summer I write a draft of a novel.

That’s probably enough. I could get all grandiose and make a lot of promises that I couldn’t keep, but this is a good start.

WIY: What are your intentions for your writing this year? Will you write a set amount of words each day? Each week? Do you have a specific project you want to start? How long will it take you to complete the project? Write your goals, your intentions, your pledges down on a sheet of paper. Then sign your name and date it.