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 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.