Let the Real Work Begin

I once told my teacher Harry Crews that I liked to write, but I didn’t like to rewrite. I’d never had anything published other than a few articles in a school newspaper. I was a naked little hatchling when it came to creative writing. Harry scowled at me, took a sip of his tall boy, and then put the can back in the bottom drawer of his desk.

“Ms. MacEnulty, the real writing only happens after the first draft,” he said.  Because Harry was God, I changed my attitude about revising and rewriting that moment.

In an interview in the 1956 issue of the The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway had the following conversation:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Novelist Elisabeth Hyde, author of the wonderful book Crazy as Chocolate as well as several others, once told me, “Beginning a new novel is daunting because if it’s going to be anything like my others, the story line will evolve as I write. And if this means throwing out 10 pages or 1000 pages, so be it, if that’s what it takes to help me figure things out. I guess after going through this four other times (that includes the novel in the back of my file drawer), I’m comfortable – if resigned – to the fact that this is all part of the normal process of writing a novel.”

Generally,  your first draft is usually where you’re just finding out what it is you’re writing about. Anne Lamott advises writers to go ahead and write a “shitty first draft.” Give yourself permission in that first draft not to get it right. It may be that you know exactly what happens next and next and next. Great. Keep writing.

Don’t worry about the descriptions or the metaphors or even your spelling—especially your spelling. In fact, I suggest that you turn off your spellcheck and your grammar check. If there’s any way that you can permanently disable the grammar check on your computer, do so. It is an evil idiot that will lead you terribly astray. As for spelling, wait until you are completely done with the piece and then do a spell check.  But spell checking never replaces a good eyeball-proofing.

After the first draft, then the real work begins. Even though I actually enjoy revision now, I still have to trick myself into doing it sometimes. I will usually write the first draft of an essay or a story by hand. Then I revise it as I type it into the computer. Of course, there will be more revision after that, but a good chunk happens in that first typing. When I am writing a book, I will print a draft once I’m fairly happy with it, and then retype the entire thing to force myself to consider every word and every scene. When I wrote my screenplay, I had a couple of people read an early version. It wasn’t even quite finished. After listening to their feedback, I changed some things and finished the first draft. Then I printed up the first draft and had two friends read the entire script aloud with me. This step allowed me to hear the script and identify the things I didn’t like. And my readers gave me valuable feedback.

So revision is a process of getting feedback, of letting ideas simmer, and of looking at each sentence until you “get the words right.”

Practice

  1. Get feedback from two to three people on something you’ve written. Choose one suggestion or question from each of them to address.
  2. Take a piece you have written and retype it, changing words where appropriate.
  3. If you don’t usually write by hand, try it sometime. It doesn’t work for everyone, but those of us who do it, swear by it.
  4. Make a list of 20 of your favorite words. Use at least ten of them in a 250 to 300-word piece of writing.

Mirror, Mirror

One of the least popular exercises I do in my workshops is the Self-Portrait. I bring in hand mirrors (or sometimes we troop into the nearest bathroom and use the mirrors in there) and we write our self portraits. Nobody likes looking in the mirror for an extended period of time and really examining themselves. I know I don’t. And yet if we can’t examine our images, how can we examine our lives, our inner workings, our fears, our shadows? And if we can’t access those areas of ourselves, then vast territories of the human experience simply won’t be available to us. 

You’ve heard the expression, “the personal is political.” Sometimes we write because we feel strongly about what’s going on in the world. In fact, the most powerful writing, I believe, manages to be about larger ideas or issues as experienced on the microcosmic level. Charles Dickens wrote about poverty and class. But he did so through the experiences of individuals. 

The mirror exercise is the personal part of the equation. Who are we? Where are our scars? What are our flaws? What lies beneath our skin? What do our eyes tell the world? 

In a recent workshop, we first wrote our self-portraits. Then we wrote a rant about an issue that bothered us. Then we discussed the intersection between our personal lives and the larger issues we confront. This is a process, I believe: Finding the aspects of our stories that contain larger truths. It may take years. 

In the workshops, we write our responses in ten minutes. They’re not meant to be finished products, but it’s amazing what can come out in ten minutes.  

This is a 10-minute self portrait by writer Corie Dulkin:

To look straight ahead is a challenge

eyes stare at me with watery fatigue 

hair pulled back, begging for attention,

a cut, a color, or perhaps a wash

my skin tight against sharp bones

a meal or four forgotten — missed for time 

lips dry, split, and scarred from peeling

away the skin — a busy habit

the steady pulse beneath my neck is

beautiful — I am alive — I am life

my shoulder still damp from the sweet

toothy kiss of my littlest love 

my heart full from the warm good-bye 

of a man who holds me to the ground.

Practice:

  1. You know what to do. Go look in the mirror. Really look at your face. What do the mouth, nose, skin, eyes, and bones tell the world about you? What do you see in your face? Who are you?
  2. Write a ten-minute rant about anything that bothers you. It can be anything from road rage to world politics. Let it out. 
  3. Look at your life. What challenges are you facing? Make a list. Explore each challenge to see if there are larger issues involved. When I wrote my memoir, part of the impetus of my writing was to explore how we treat the elderly in this country and how my generation should engage in discussions about aging and end-of-life concerns. 
  4. Write yourself as a villain, using all your “bad” qualities. Then write yourself as a hero, using all your good qualities. Now let those two go at it. 

 

August Writing Retreat with Alice Osborn

Wanted to let you all know about an upcoming writers retreat!

Dream It, Do it: Women’s Writing Retreat with Alice Osborn
Location: Bend of Ivy Lodge, Marshall, NC outside of Asheville, NC
3717 Bend of Ivy Rd. Marshall, NC 28753   www.bendofivylodge.com
Fri-Sun   August  23-25, 2013    Tuition: (Early Bird till April 30) $495, Reg $695, 
***Ask about the installment plan!—$125 per month for 5 months—***
Register Here: http://events.constantcontact.com/register/event?llr=wzy8uocab&oeidk=a07e6cpvied549bb69c   
Immerse yourself in a weekend of writing without interruption in the mountains of Western Carolina. This is your answer to, “I’ll write when I can find the time!” and fulfilling your purpose. Empowered women are powerful writers—grab your power so you can dream and accomplish your dreams of writing your story! Together over the course of this weekend, we’ll delve into our stories of defining moments, healing and self discovery. This is called “Living the Writing Life!”

Celebrating Transformation (repost)

Today is Easter Sunday. Easter is my favorite holiday. (Well, I love Halloween almost as much.) My childhood memories of Easter come shrouded in mist: sleepy mornings waking up while it was still dark to hunt for eggs in the house and then the thrill of finding the huge cellophane-wrapped basket full of untold treasures. I’d fill up on chocolate eggs and peeps. Then wearing a brand new dress complete with patent leather shoes and Easter hat, I’d go to church for the sunrise service with my mother. My mother was the organist at our large Episcopal church. Up in the balcony stood the towering state trumpet pipes, and at the end of the service, she’d wail on that organ and the state trumpets would triumphantly announce the resurrection of Christ. Outside, the church courtyard burst with purple, orange, and yellow flowers. After the service, we’d gather with all those other people for scrambled eggs and biscuits in the fellowship hall like one giant family.IMG_0438

Later when I was in my early 20s, I had the most significant spiritual experience of my life in a Baptist church in Ocala, Florida on an Easter Sunday. I am not a Baptist, but that moment shaped the rest of my life and put me on a quest for transformation. In a sense I was resurrected out of my own darkness into a new life.

The idea of resurrection and rebirth has deep roots in the human psyche. How can it not when we witness it in nature every year? And Easter, of course, is more than a Christian holiday. The name derives, according to an 8th century Christian scholar, from the Northern European goddess Ostara or Eostre (whence we get the name for the hormone estrogen). She was the great Mother Goddess, goddess of fertility, goddess of spring, and the goddess of dawn.

A friend of mine got interested in the origin of the Easter Bunny and shared the story she found with our study group. According to legend, Ostara, the Germanic Goddess of Dawn, found a little bird with frozen wings who was dying. Ostara saved his life and turned him into a snow hare. Since it had once been a bird, the hare was able to lay eggs, which it would decorate as gifts for the goddess.

This time of year can inspire us in our transformative writing practice. Here are some prompts to consider:

1. We cannot have rebirth without death. Perhaps this would be a good time to reflect on any one you have lost in the past few months — or any aspects of yourself you may have shed.

2. One of my students recently wrote about the giant Easter egg hunt on her grandparents’ land, attended by hundreds of friends and family. What rituals were a part of your childhood? Did your family celebrate Easter or Passover? Maybe not. There’s a story there as well.

3. Write a myth of your own. Have fun with it. Create new creatures with strange powers. Write the story of your transformation as a legend.

4. Be reborn. Give yourself a pseudonym and write a poem or a short prose piece in a completely different style from the way you usually write. Or write about an incident or a topic you would never share under your real name.

5. Have you ever had a powerful spiritual experience? Or maybe just an inkling that there was more to this life than the reality we know with our five sense. Describe the experience. No need to explain it.

Knowing Your Shadow

At the Sun Magazine Wildacres Retreat next month, I’ll be giving a workshop entitled “The Writer’s Shadow.” The shadow is the area that Carl Jung identified as the part of the unconscious where we put the desires and urges that we have been taught to hide. Among my collection of books that I’ve had forever is one called “Your Golden Shadow” by William A. Miller. Miller explains that our persona (the face we present to the rest of the world) is shaped, molded, modified and adjusted into “something quite other than its natural disposition.” He goes on to say, for example, that we’re all born with the disposition to express our feelings. All babies cry! But as children we’re often to taught to hide those feelings. Don’t get angry. Don’t be a cry baby. Don’t be so curious.

Although the shadow can create all kinds of problems for us, we probably do need to repress some things in order to have a functional society. And yet the shadow is a rich resource for writers. Great writing grapples with the ideas and feelings that we don’t want to acknowledge — or the things we fear. And great villains (think Hannibal Lector) come directly from our shadow.

The other morning I had some time to write, but nothing was coming. So I looked into the deep dark closet where I keep the qualities I wish I didn’t have, and I saw the hair shirt I sometimes don when I’m feeling envious. Then I personified Envy and soon the words came pouring out. I’d turned on a faucet. Too often we want to present ourselves (or our characters) as flawless, but the flaws make us (and our characters) human.

In a recent workshop, Becky Aijala expressed the idea of the shadow beautifully:

Repression: If it wants to come up, don’t let it. Never let ‘em see you sweat, the saying goes. But you go beyond that – far, far beyond that. You say, never let them see you angry or you will be shamed. Never let them see you joyful or you will be mocked. Never let them see you confused, confident, enthusiastic.

Enthusiasm is the enemy and must be watched for and stomped out. No, that is too active a role for you, Repression. What you would do is get ten feet from the fire and start saturating the ground with gallons of water until the fire would start to smolder and eventually forget what it was doing and disappear.

Repression as assumption: Of course you can’t tour Europe. Of course you can’t own a decent set of silverware. Of course you can’t be pissed off without a chaser of guilt. You got in there on the ground floor and now there is very little work you have to do. You just sit by your pool behind your mansion while the money flows in. I do all the dirty work for you.

This week’s prompts:

1. Write a list of qualities that you don’t like about yourself. Take one and personify it. Give it a personality, a lifestyle, a voice. Give a car to drive, clothes to wear. Write a page or two about that quality.

2. Record your dreams. Take an especially vivid one and write about it as if it were true.

3. Think of someone you really dislike. Write a short passage from that person’s point of view. (Some people say the reason you intensely dislike someone is that that person embodies certain qualities that you possess but don’t admit to.)

4. Recall a time when someone made you feel bad about something. What was that like?

5. Not all shadow qualities are bad ones. Sometimes we repress that our magnificent dreams. Write a piece in which you have superpowers. What would your superpowers be? What would you do with them?

Spring, Sprang, Sprung

We had a dreaded day of meetings at my school recently. For some reason, my colleague Bill and I sat in the back and started exhorting each other to live in the moment. The past doesn’t exist! we insisted. The future will never exist! There is only here and now. We were riffing on that old cliche about being in the now. But cliches become cliches because there’s usually some truth to them. No getting around it: There is only here and now because it’s always here and now. As Ram Dass told us in the 60’s: Be here now.

So what does that mean for writers? Without the past, what would we have to write about? And without imagining our future readers, for whom would we write? [Does that sound ridiculously clunky?] And yet “be here now” is crucial advice for writers. Writers are those on whom, as Henry James put it, nothing is lost. Writers pay attention to the here and now so that they can write about it later.

Some of my students and I went to see a play reading Friday night at the Light Factory. The Light Factory is a wonderful gallery in Uptown Charlotte that features photographs. Their current exhibit is about social media. The play that the actors were reading was called The Social Networth by Stacey Rose.

Before the reading began, I wandered around and looked at the pictures. One set of pictures showed women doing their exhibitionist best to look naughty and ragged and somehow interesting. Another set had no people in the pictures. They were pictures of places where people had tweeted something. The photographer had used geo-location to find these places. The tweets were anonymous.

I found myself captivated by a photo of an old motel about ten steps down from Days Inn, painted turquoise with an old red car in front. The tweet read: “Should I wait for you? Is it worth it.” Now, there’s a story there, I thought. The past enriches the present. Or you could say that through art one person’s past becomes another person’s present.

And then there was the play. We were encouraged to tweet during the play, which was about people who had no real lives only virtual lives and people who had no souls (bullies). It was about how we’ve become more and less connected through this strange and fascinating pastime of Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The playwright explored the strange manifestations of old themes: heartbreak and loneliness, our hunger for friendship and acceptance. One of my students wrote some interesting tweets — about snuggies.

After the play, I walked home through the city. The night was balmy. People were out enjoying the beginning of spring. The sky was a velvety-blue, and Charlotte’s buildings glowed in reds, oranges, and purples. Every step I took filled me with gratitude. Finally, the winter gloves were off, and I was more than happy to be here now.

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This week’s prompts:

1. Enjoy the weather! Go outside and take a walk. Write about what you see, what you hear, how the air feels on your skin. Be one on whom nothing is lost.
2. Find a natural object. I recently took my shell collection to a workshop and we spent ten minutes writing about our shells. It’s amazing how much you can write if you just pay attention.
3. Write about the past. Recreate it. Begin with the words: I remember . . .
4. Write about your life online. Tell a story about a friendship made or lost over the Internet.
5. Be here now. Look around you. Record everything you see, pay careful attention to sounds and smells. Eavesdrop! What are people saying?

Talent is a fine thing

A while back, I was reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Fascinating stuff. One of the takeaways from the book is that success in almost any endeavor is the result of performing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. For example, The Beatles’ incredible “overnight” success” didn’t take place until they had worked together night after night for several years.

Now, in another book titled Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, I came across a similar  idea: if you want to get really good at something you must engage in “deliberate practice” of that activity. Colvin writes, “the evidence seems strong that the right kind of practice can turn someone of unremarkable endowments into a much better, even exceptional performer.” This is probably the idea behind Julia Cameron’s concept of morning pages that she espouses in The Artist’s Way. Write every morning in longhand for three pages, she advises.

I generally write in my journal every morning. I record my dreams, write about things that are going on in my life, and usually jot down some goals for the day. I’ve read that people who write down their goals are more likely to accomplish said goals than people who don’t. I can’t speak for other people but it’s certainly true for me. But I’m not sure that kind of writing is really effective as writing practice.

Colvin identifies five elements of deliberate practice:

  • the practice is designed to improve performance
  • it can be repeated a lot
  • feedback is important
  • it’s mentally demanding
  • it isn’t much fun

It’s obvious that my kind of journaling doesn’t meet those requirements. It’s not designed to improve performance. I never get feedback on it, and it’s certainly not mentally demanding.

However, the writing exercises that we do in transformative writing workshops (and which can be done every day) do meet at least the first four of the above criteria. I don’t think they meet the final one because they are fun — at least I think they are. There are probably those who disagree. In fact, I started a new workshop recently, and I’m pretty sure that the participants didn’t think it was all fun. In fact, a couple of exercises may have even been excruciating. And yet, they did them anyway because they want to get better at this thing they love.

My literary father, Harry Crews, once said, “Ah, talent. Talent is a fine thing, but to be a writer, you’ve got to have guts.”

Whether you find writing practice fun or not, the fact is that writing practice will exercise your memory, develop imagination, and hone your abilities to organize, to reflect, and to communicate. Many of my students hate to write. I think that’s because they think they aren’t very good at it. But to get good at something, at anything, as we have seen, takes practice. And once you are good at something, at anything, you will find it is more enjoyable.

I’ve asked my students to write at least ten minutes a day. That’s not very much, but it’s a start. Following are five prompts for this week. Even if you’re not one of my students, you might find them useful.

Prompt 1: Think of a piece of music that you like. Now try to describe the music. What instruments are used? What are the lyrics if any? When was the first time you heard this piece of music? What did it make you think of? What did it make you feel? What time period in your life was this music important to you? Why?

Prompt 2: Think of a “big ideas” question. For example, why are we here? Do you think we have a purpose in life? What is your purpose? Spend a little time with this. What are some of the big mysteries in life that you wonder about? Do you have any theories — even if you don’t have answers?

Prompt 3: Who is your hero? Why?

Prompt 4: Describe your room. Use concrete details — what can we see? hear? smell? Be exact. What will we know about you after reading about your room?

Prompt 5: There’s an old saying that you can’t know a person until you’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes. Pick a pair of shoes that you own now or owned in the past. What stories could those shoes share if they could speak? Describe the shoes. Tell us what makes them special? Where have you been in those shoes?

You’ve Got to Live a Little

I was visiting my friend Laurie in Washington, D.C. this past weekend. Even if you had no idea who Laurie was, you’d be able to guess from the contents of her apartment that she’s a writer. Magazines (The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc.) lie within easy reach. Books spill out of bookshelves, and she’s taped literary cartoons to her door. DSCN2191

One of the cartoons that struck me showed a youngish woman talking to someone sitting a desk. The caption read: “I’m supposed to write what I know, but all I know is writing programs.” Well, there’s the rub, isn’t it? We need to learn how to write, but we also need to have a life so we can have something to write about. Laurie is lucky. She spent 20 years in Paris and how can you not have a life in Paris? And now she’s living in D.C. She’ll never lack for material. I’ve noticed over the years that some of my favorite writers have really impressive resumes. Not because of their writing experience, but because of the other things they’ve done with their lives. Noir writer Vicki Hendricks is a sky diver. Poe Ballantine has traveled the country working as a short order cook or doing whatever work he could find.

Some writers such as Emily Dickinson and Eudora Welty find everything they need to write about in their own backyard. But others of us need adventures. We need to sample everything the universe offers us. My own need for a variety of experiences can sometimes frustrate the other people in my life whether I’m getting a wild hair and hopping on a plane to India or insisting on staying in a strange, stink-bug infested B&B.

I wrote about my Adventure Girl self in a recent workshop:

Look, I’ve always loved adventure. When I was a baby, I climbed up the living room bookshelves (to my mother’s horror). As a kid I’d climb trees, get on rooftops, take off for hours on my bicycle. Anything, anyone suggested I was willing to try. At a certain point this lust for adventure got me into trouble. I said, yes, yes, yes, and finally the law said no, no, no. 

Then I grew up and I stopped climbing trees. I left my reckless ways behind. I had responsibilities and I didn’t have a lot of money and I put everyone else ahead of me. And I died. Adventure girl — the one who once ate rattlesnake meat — crawled into a coffin and smothered her heart.  

But now I’m back. And I don’t want to do anything the way other people  do it. I must do what is different. Maybe I’m not going on Safari, maybe I’m just taking a road trip to Richmond, but I’ll find adventure where I can, and all I’m saying is don’t put me back in that coffin. I don’t want to go there. I want to live.

These days I make sure my adventures are legal ones. Honestly, I sometimes wish I didn’t always say yes. It’s so much more comfortable at home. And certainly many writers find adventure in their spiritual lives or their sex lives or their food lives. But I think if you want to write you must find your adventure somewhere.

Another friend that I saw while I was in DC is a great adventurer. Rollo writes for an organization that provides information to international aid organizations. In this capacity he gets to travel the world. I joined Rollo and his parents for brunch Sunday morning. Rollo wanted to try out a Korean place for brunch because as he said, they serve unusual foods and you should try new foods when you can. Unfortunately the Korean place was closed so we went to a diner, where his mother (another adventurous soul) got to try something new for her: GRITS! Rollo mentioned a country in the Himalayan mountains he planned to visit where the standard of living is judged by people’s level of happiness. “Will you write about it?” I asked. “I think you’d have to,” he said.

Well, not all of us can travel to Asia. Sometimes we have to follow Emily D’s example and look for adventure in our backyards. But adventure will offer itself to us if we’re open. Just say yes.

Practice prompts:

  1. Talk to strangers! Find out their stories. Write one down.
  2. Take the road less traveled. Next time you go somewhere, take a different route. Get lost. Then stop in a coffee shop or a diner where you’ve never been and write about what you saw. Describe the sights in detail.
  3. Eat something different!! Try a brand new cuisine. A friend of mine went to an Ethiopian restaurant recently. He described the way the food felt in his hands because they don’t use forks. Describe the smells and tastes and tactile sensations.

Do this! Don’t do that!

IMG_0841My friend and mentor Lynda Schor and I were in Mexico for a writers conference a few years ago. I can’t remember who the keynote speaker was — someone who wrote bestsellers. The ballroom was crowded with a few hundred people who had plunked down their money to come gather pearls of wisdom from accomplished writers.  At the final luncheon, the keynote speaker stood before them and began to share her wisdom, which was this: “Don’t use adverbs.”

“What’s wrong with adverbs?” Lynda asked.

I shrugged.

“From now on I’m only going to write with adverbs,” Lynda declared. If anyone could do that and make it work, it would be Lynda. What I have always loved about her work is that she doesn’t play by the rules. Her stories surprise. They delight. Reading her stories means going into the unknown. Apartments sprout new rooms. Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimp, has a grudge. The history of lipstick becomes a plot line.

I only took one class with Lynda, and while she may have had suggestions or questions about my work, I don’t think she gave me a single rule for writing. It was the best writing class I ever had. Maybe it’s why I don’t like to dole out rules much myself. I mean, what if James Joyce came to my class, and I told him he’d written gibberish. Where would all those scholars who’ve made a livelihood analyzing his work be today?

The reason I’m thinking about this and why that song “Signs, signs everywhere a sign” is revolving in my brain pan is that I’ve been using this thing called “Turn It In” for my students’ papers. The neat thing about Turn It In is that the program identifies plagiarized passages, so you don’t have to bother looking up sentences from student papers on Google to find out where they cribbed them from. (Why is it so friggin’ difficult to just put some quote marks around the offending passages and name the source??)

Most of my assignments aren’t really plagiarizable. But at my school, we’re encouraged to use Turn it In anyway.  Other advantages include you can save paper, and student assignments don’t get lost or eaten by your dog. (My dog really did eat my student’s paper once.)

In addition, this program has what seems like a wonderful tool. It marks up the students’ grammatical mistakes so you don’t have to. I mean, it’s what we all dread: marking the comma splices and the sentence fragments and the spelling errors. Of course, it doesn’t catch them all. In fact, it’s often wrong about the ones it does catch. If a student starts a sentence with “if” or “when” and forgets to put a comma after the long introductory  phrase (and they never put a comma there no matter how many times you tell them to) the program thinks the sentence is a fragment. And it finds “article errors” everywhere.

The thing that bugs me the most is that it points out every instance of the passive voice. Seriously, what is a student supposed to do with that information? Now, don’t get me wrong. I teach students about the passive voice. I teach them to listen for it. The passive voice can hide important information. Such as when the government does something wrong and their response is “Mistakes were made.” (OMG a sentence fragment!) On the other hand, do they really need to write every single sentence in the active voice? Reading over their papers, I’d have to say “No!” It’s just not a big deal. In fact, it’s not even a small deal.

I’ve come to think that many of the things we’ve been teaching these kids all these years about what is or isn’t good writing are an asinine waste of their time. If they can get their ideas across, I don’t really care if they use a cliche or the passive voice. I once got into a serious argument with another professor who said that a student had written a sentence fragment when she used the word “although” in place of “however.” My contention was that the mistake was word confusion which is a lesser evil than a sentence fragment. And the difference meant failing or passing this particular test.

Of course, my students are not intending to be “writers,” per se. But even writers need to be willing to kick it out once in a while. Currently I’m re-reading Patricia Foster’s book Just Beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery. I came across this passage:

Today I stand at my window and watch the storekeepers and restaurateurs sweep the sand from their entryways and patios. Tipped-over chairs are set right. Tables brushed off. Clean tablecloths put on. Yesterday the mistral winds — winds from the north — blew in and the sea was all whitecaps, the palm trees bent and ragged from such force. I was depressed. It took effort to walk from the parking lot to my class, to push against all that fierceness. But today it’s sunny, warm, the wind tamed and gentle. Fishing boats are coming in with the day’s catch. (Page 6, btw)

What a lovely, evocative piece of writing. The passive voice, when she uses it, is perfect.

One time when I was teaching at a nearby college, a composition teacher told one of her students, “Don’t write from your heart.” Agh! I thought. Why not? Why not write from your bleeding, beating heart. Why not write with life? Why, why, why write in that awful, predictable, boring, plodding, academic style? Even academic papers can have life in them, can’t they?

Look, I’m not proposing anarchy. It can be fun to write according to rules. Sonnets, for example. Have you written a sonnet lately? It’s a wonderful game. I guess my point is that sometimes rules homogenize writing. There’s no voice behind this rule-laden writing. Some things must be said in the passive voice. Sometimes there’s nothing more perfect than an adverb, perfectly placed.

Write it yourself: Rules? Break ‘em. See what happens. Now, write a sonnet. Rules don’t have to be broken. They can be bent, played with, or followed religiously. They’re a tool for your use. You are not their slave.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inspiration

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” — Pablo Picasso

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I’ve spent the past six months moving. It feels like I’ve been cannibalizing one house in order to feed another. The things I find hard to part with: floppy disks (real actual five inch floppies) that contain stories written 25 years ago; scraps of papers with inspirational quotes that I’m not sure provide any inspiration at all; earrings with no match; cords and cables that go to God-only-knows what; little booklets on natural medicine that I wrote 20 years ago under another name; every thing my daughter every wrote or drew for me; and all the books I may or may not someday read.

Last night I was looking at an essay I’d written. I’d just sent it off to an editor and immediately regretted it. What possible reason could anyone besides me have to read this? Am I enlightening anyone? Why would someone care about the story of my divorce? Everyone gets divorced. Then I reread an essay I wrote about my mother’s death. Again, I had the same question. Mothers die. Fathers die. What makes my experience special? And yet I wrote it anyway. I guess every once in a while we should reevaluate our writing. What is the point of it? The voice in these pieces felt so familiar as if I’d created a verbal rut for myself. I realized it was time to turn to fiction again, get out of the “Pat” voice, shake it up a little.

This morning I had a dream: I was just a kid but I had killed some other kids. I felt really bad about it, full of regret. But it happened and there was nothing I could do except pray for forgiveness, and even that wasn’t working. Maybe murder is necessary when you’re a writer. Kill your darlings? Slay yourself. Be reborn. If you look at Picasso’s work you can see how he killed himself several times and came back as a new artist each time.

Back to my earlier question: why was I writing these stories about my life that didn’t seem to be offering the world anything new? Answer: because if I want inspiration to find me, I’d better be working on something.

Write it yourself: What life experiences are you not writing about because no one else would be interested? What will inspiration find you doing today?