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: