Friday, June 26, 2009
As the answers flowed from my heart into my fingers, I discovered the reason. I’ve been trying to force my writing and even more so my workshop content into conformance with the examples of others. Not the expectations of others, but my own expectations of what people want to read and how they want to learn, and those expectations have been based on how other successful people are doing things. I also admit there was a tad bit of competition in there, and fear of being left in the dust. These emotions spring from my Inner Critic do not foster creativity and growth!
Before I write another word, I must emphasize that as Herm pointed out in a recent post, learning from Other People’s Examples and Experience is a brilliant way to avoid traps yourself. It’s well worth the effort to study what others have done and analyze what makes it work (or not), applying the results to your own work. However, beware lest you fall into the trap of imitation, the sincerest form of flattery, but a most insincere way of writing.
Posing questions and then beginning to write without thought or predetermination is a powerful way of gaining insight, and the technique came through for me like a magic wand. I quickly reconnected with my core identity of Explorer, one I’ve been aware of for years. I am an adventurer. I delight in discovering new places and ways of thinking and making connections between people and ideas from various sources. I take joy in finding new ways of doing things and overcoming obstacles. I love writing reports of my findings. I enjoy pushing my own limits and helping others do the same.
Formulas and detailed maps don’t work for Explorers. We must find our own way, sometimes using the latest technology and other times falling back on the basics, (like walking, chopping wood for a fire, or writing with pencil and paper). We read the situation and do what’s called for. We shun routine maintenance. We focus on climbing the current hill.
This thought-full re-vision rekindled my passion for the memoir I’m working on, and reminded me that I must avoid the trap of hammering my course content into someone else’s mold. That’s the surest way to bore students and stifle real learning.
So, I discovered that I do dare to be ME — my own unique, juicy, creative self . I don’t want to be responsible for running an empire with all the schedule anchors and promotion that involves; I want to travel light and write and teach footloose and fancy free. I invite you to learn from my experience, and dare to be YOU! Live and write your life your way.
Write now: pick up your journal or a handful of blank paper and write a burning question at the top. This question can be about your writing or anything else that’s puzzling you. Then free your mind of preconceptions and expectations and let the answer flow from your heart into your fingers.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I recently spent a few days on retreat at a friend's house in southern California. Something about the mellow gold and ocher hills and spare landscape of the Golden State strikes me as magical, profoundly relaxing and invigorating. In the stillness of the coastal hills, without the distractions of daily life, I’m able to get in touch with the essentials of life more deeply than usual.
One morning I walked up the steep hill above the house. I went alone, with no agenda and no planned destination, just wandering along a road lined with magnificent mansions scattered among simpler California classics dating back fifty years or more. I went early enough in the morning to avoid the full heat of the day and intense sun exposure, but late enough for the slight chill and haze to burn off.
Warm sunlight activated all sorts of fragrances, and I began to “come to my senses.” Sights, sounds and smells took on unexpected intensity. I delighted in a sudden burst of fresh, moistly cool fragrance as I stepped beneath an ancient pine tree shading a variety of blooming lilies and other garden plants set in a moist mixture of mulch and dry needles. The scent was intoxicating.
Further along, I noticed a small daisy-like flower that looked like drops of vivid paint splashed on an otherwise bare canvas of muted adobe-colored dirt. I became aware of a multitude of birds chirping a lively chorus in the tree tops, and the churning of an earth mover in a nearby canyon. Houses loomed like mysteries, evoking a sense of pleasantly cool darkness within their thick walls. From the condition of the exterior and landscaping I could sense distinct personality imprints of their owner, imagining the nature of accumulated belongs inside.
My awareness alternately focused within my body. I noticed how my breathing strained as I walked up the hill. I felt the pull of muscles not often called so intensely into play. I felt my heart pound as it pumped extra blood to oxygen-starved tissue.
I wondered as I wandered. I wondered at the sights and sounds around me. I wondered at the sensations within, at the memories this all evoked, and I wondered what to do with all this awareness. How can I work some of these intensely personal observations into my writing? Here are a few ideas I came up with to anchor such treasure on the page:
- Turn the walk into a story or essay. If all I do is report on the walk itself, it will be as dry as the dirt under my feet. But if I use the walk as a thread for stringing memory snips triggered by the sensory input, a story will emerge.
- Use fragments as freewriting triggers.
- Take an existing story set in similar surroundings and use this experience to polish descriptions.
This list could be much longer, and serves as tiny preview of the type of material we’ll cover in the Make Your Stories Sparkle teleclass I am teaching for members and friends of the National Association of Memoir Writers next month. Please join me on June 30 for a free* preview conference call to learn more about the class. Those who sign up for the call will receive a link to download a recording the phone call, so you can listen later even if you are unable to participate in the live call.
Write now: go on your own mini-retreat by going for a walk in a park, the country-side, or even the sidewalks around your neighborhood. Location matters less than awareness. When you return, sit down right away and record your observations in a journal or anything you have at hand.
* There is no charge for the call, but normal toll charges will apply to dial in.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Before I give you tips on how to turn your reading time into your own personal writer’s workshop, please heed this caution: Reading the polished prose of successful writers can put your Inner Critic on steroids. “I can never write that well,” it screams into your brain, hiding behind the first person pronoun as a disguise. “Why bother? My life is so dull, and my writing plain as dirt. I don’t know grammar and forget to run spellcheck. Nobody cares anyway. Why should I bother?”
Here’s what you shout back to that Inner Critic, out loud if nobody’s listening or you’re holding a cellphone to your ear: “I’m a student. I’m learning. I write better today than I did last (year, month), and next year I’ll be even better. If you look at the details, my life is amazing, and I’ll use this book to find a way to show that to other people.”
You don’t have to stick to reading memoir. Well-written novels, mysteries, travelogues, and other topical non-fiction books are also useful. Here are tips to make them do double duty for you:
- Take notes. Since I generally read library books, I don’t make notes on the page, but I do stick in Post-It flags when I find an especially delectable description or a section that lights my fire. Right now I’m reading Christina Baldwin’s amazing book Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. This book is like rich chocolate to me, so I’m taking my time with it. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, and it already looks like a porcupine, with pink quills sticking out the edges. Later I’ll sit at my computer as I go back through and transcribe notes from those sections. That works better for me than taking notes longhand on paper, but you’ll find your own system.
- Analyze. When you find those glowing sections, ask yourself what grabs your attention? What makes this section work especially well for you? Jot down the answers and create your own text or checklist to use when you are writing.
Ask the same question about the book as a whole. What did you like? What didn’t work as well? What questions are you left with? Why would you or would you not recommend this book to a friend?
- Review it. Write a review of the book. This may be a long and detailed or a few sentences. Post your review on Amazon if you feel brave and have an account. The process of writing the review helps you hone your writing skills and practice putting random thoughts in logical order.
- Discuss it. Join a book discussion group, at your library or bookstore, or start your own. You can also find online book discussion groups. You can learn even more from hearing how other people experienced the book.
Books are indeed a powerful workshop, but I also encourage you to sign up for occasional classes, workshops and writing groups. Books can inspire your ideas and help you craft your content, but they will never supplant the value of feedback from compassionate and insightful readers. You’ll also benefit from reading books about writing, participating in teleseminars and listening to podcasts about writing. For further guidance and inspiration, get involved with the Life Writer's Forum (see box in left column to join) or the National Association of Memoir Writers.
Write now: write a short review of the last book you read. If it’s been awhile, visit the library and check out a few. Bring home several. You don’t have to read them all, but it’s helpful to browse through them and you’ll help the library by keeping circulation stats high.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Marlene Clark wrote:
Interesting dilemma, that man with the lazy, no good son of a ....Marlene’s astute and timely message is a variation on the theme of “Show, don’t tell.” If I were coaching that man, I’d suggest that rather than using that trite phrase, he include a paragraph describing Bumble Boy along the lines of:
Aside from the obvious harm that statement does, this actually falls in the same category as writing "Mother was wonderful."
I tell my students that generalities or grand pronouncements are vague, and we want to be perfectly clear when we write. It also is a lazy way of writing because they didn't think about what they actually meant. My mantra is, "prove it:" use examples that back up their statements.
This doesn't solve the problem of this man having bad feelings about his son, but it allows the reader to determine for himself that the son was lazy. But if the aim was revenge or vindictiveness, no number of examples will make the writer seem anything other than mean spirited.
“My son BB has chosen to ignore my advice on how to live his life. Rather than finish high school, he chose to move out to the country and live with a group of self-styled radicals on a farm. That lasted until Federal Agents shut the place down after confiscating dozens of bales of marijuana and other illegal substances from the barn. From there BB moved to (city name) where he lived with a series of roommates in sordid roach-infested squalor that made my skin crawl the two times I visited him. Through the years he has been in and out of prison for various misdeeds and has only contacted me to ask for money. He was eager for the money, but not my advice. I have come to the conclusion that although I dearly loved the young boy he was, I am appalled at the person he has become. Until he is able to clean up his act and become a responsible citizen, paying taxes and contributing to society for a minimum of seven years, he will receive no further assistance from me. Therefore I remove him from any distributions from my estate.”Who could question the motivation behind that statement or the father's intention? The writer has stuck to the facts. He has not engaged in theatrics or blaming by telling how BB “broke his mother’s heart” or “lived a life of sin and desecration.” As sad as the situation is, we can understand both the message and the father’s rejection. Surely other family members will also be less appalled that they would be if they read that single sentence.
There are any number of variations on this theme. The writer could include more of his own feelings. He could expand the paragraph to include more detail. It sounds as if there is enough material to fill a full volume. But whatever length and level of detail, it will be most effective in conveying the father’s reasoned conclusions if it sticks to facts and personal perceptions or reactions rather than simplistic name-calling.
As a side note, writing an explanation of this nature may not come easily. It may take several drafts to knead out the toxic emotional waste and focus on the essence of things. But as you work on your drafts, you may experience a bonus dividend: you may feel your heart lighten and a burden lift from your shoulders. You may finally feel a modicum of peace around the issue. Exercises like this are heartily recommended by many psychologists and physicians as a strategy for dealing with stress.
Note: the descriptive paragraph above is totally fictitious. I know nothing whatsoever about the circumstances of the actual situation, nor do I know any of the people involved. Furthermore, my own two sons and daughter are happy, healthy, tax-paying members of their communities, parents of two amazing children each, and a source of great joy and satisfaction.
Write now: think of a person you might be inclined to dismiss with a single sentence of disdain and write a paragraph or more explaining why you feel such anger, disgust, betrayal, or other negative feeling. You can use your journal for free writing or write a draft of a longer story about the situation. Just write it. For the health of it. It doesn't need to be included or attached to a legal document to be worth doing.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Any life story you write is better than writing nothing.Today I’m adding a caveat from the Hypocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”I’ve written numerous posts about how to decide whether to share your stories, but I had not connected those dots with the advice above. That connection was formed by a recent question from a person who was helping someone else write his lifestory. The result was disturbing. The client insisted on including a section that described one of of his sons as a lazy, no-good, son-of-a-gun — or something to that effect.
Without going into the details of the matter, something became crystal clear to me: Anything you write is better than writing nothing, but ...
no writing you share with others should intentionally cause harm or exacerbate harm that’s already occurred!I’ve discussed this point many times. But not until this situation came up did I realize that my core values have progressed to the point that I must say, loud and clear, that it is simply not okay to use your words, whether spoken or written, for the intentional purpose of demeaning, belittling, scorning, or worse. Writing for revenge pours oil on a fire rather than quenching it, and you will never find personal peace by going down that road.
So what do you do if you feel angry, hate-full, or abused? Am I saying you have to burn or lock up those words?
No. That is not my intent. Truth is important, and sharing your writing can unlock shackles of pain, bringing healing to at least the author. There is a difference between writing for the purpose of revenge and writing to document or “witness.” You can describe what happened and how it affected you. Pour the unfiltered content of your heart and soul onto paper or the keyboard. But it won’t be helpful or healthy to share your stories until you can write them without blame or attributing motives to others.
Heather Summerhayes Cariou does a fine job of this in Sixtyfive Roses when she tells how her maternal grandmother disowned Heather’s family. She tells of the circumstances and the resulting pain and loss she felt, but she writes objectively, without blame, making it clear she understands her grandmother's decision.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Heather wrote several drafts of her memoir before seeking publication. The first three or four drafts served the purpose of settling and healing her own spirit. Only then could and did she begin to share with others. Take a lesson from her example. Write those dark stories and thoughts, but don’t share them (outside a confidential writing group) until they have had time to mellow and you’ve thoroughly explored the consequences.
Do no harm. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with you.
Write now: jot down some thoughts on a situation that has pained you and consider the perspective of the source of your grief. Do you think that person was intentionally hurtful? Do you honestly believe the person knew a better way to handle the situation? Why or why not? How do you suppose the situation made the other person feel? What do you anticipate the outcome would be of sharing your story with that person? In the overall scheme of things, did the situation affect your life for better, worse, or both?
Friday, June 05, 2009
Last week I was pulled into a discussion of Morning Pages with a couple of other writers. One had not found them helpful and wanted to know our thoughts on the matter. This evolved into a conversation about the relative merits of writing by hand or on the keyboard.
This morning as I began writing in my hard-bound paper journal, I began feeling restless. It would be faster to write on the keyboard. I could use cut and paste and ... I began listing all the relative merits and demerits of each form and came up with the following list:
Digital journals are
- Faster to write
- Searchable for nuggets of wisdom that flow forth
- Easily copied into other documents
- Less likely to be found lying around
- Password protectable for security
- Subject to file corruption
- Potentially inaccessible as technology advances
- Satisfying to write in
- Potentially risky places to keep sensitive insights
- Possibly making use of hand-heart-brain connection in unique way
I’m going to stick with my paper journal as an adventure, because I’m never sure where it will take me, and I’m going to spend more time on journal-type writing on the computer, especially for things I’m uncertain about sharing. It’s easy to password a folder, and easy to delete words after they are written. Short of destroying the volume or tearing out pages, that’s hard to do with a paper journal, and that realization is enough to deter (me) from writing with utter abandon in a bound volume. I'll use loose sheets, perhaps the back of junk mail, for that!
Although the debate about keyboard versus paper was not conclusive during that conversation I mention, conclusions we did agree on incuded:
- Writing a journal, any journal, is better than not writing a journal.
- No matter how you do it, journals are a great legacy, for yourself now and future generations later.
- Sooner or later, keeping a journal will lead to insight, personal growth, and probably healing.
Write now: spend (at least) fifteen minutes doing freewriting — the basis of power journaling. Do it by hand, in a paper journal, on scrap paper, whatever; or do it on the computer. It doesn’t matter how you do it. It matters that you do it! If it doesn’t lead you to instant inner wisdom and deep soul healing, don’t fret. If you keep at it, sooner or later it will.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Heather Summerhayes Carriou, the author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir, sheds light on that question in the guest blog she wrote for the Women’s Memoirs website. (Hey fellows, don’t let the name deter you. This post will be equally valuable to you.)
In the post she explains that over the course of twenty years, she wrote several drafts of the story. She combined bits and pieces and into larger stories. She wrote at home, standing in line, on the bus, in the air, everywhere. For months at a time, she didn’t write at all.
Heather had no thought of publishing the story until she was working on her final draft. Through all the preliminary drafts she wrote for herself, to heal her anger and broken heart, to understand and make sense of the life she shared with her sister Pam, who survived over twenty years after being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, or “sixtyfive roses” as it sounded to her preschool ears. Reading the account in Heather's blog post of the process of writing all those drafts to get to her final, polished purpose and product, I’m reminded of a set of Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, with a twist. The smallest doll in the center of this set is neither small (the book fills 436 pages) nor painted. It’s solid gold. To get to the golden doll, Heather had to write through all those layers of painted wooden ones, without even knowing the golden one might be there.
I read Sixtyfive Rose once for the story, and I keep going back to study the structure, how she used detail to move the story along, and other elements that make it so successful at achieving consistent five-star ratings in reviews. I’ve posted my own review on Amazon with more detail , and hope it helps you decide to read the book for your own growth as a writer and a person.
Heather’s post goes beyond the book to address the writing process, and I encourage you to read it. While you’re at the Women’s Memoirs site, you may notice that the blog post was a preview for one of the monthly Author Interviews Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonet conduct via live conference calls. They record these calls so people who are unable to join the call can listen later online. I encourage you to take the time to listen to their interview with Heather. It will be an hour well-spent.
Matilda and Kendra conduct Auther Interviews each month, and they are always worth a listen, so I encourage you to join their mailing list and tune in. If you can’t join the call live, they e-mail the link when the call is posted on the website.
Write now: try the writing prompt Heather shared at the end of her post to help as you write through the layers of your experience.