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.