Category Archives: The Writing Practice

On Writing and Writing Classes

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Today’s guest  is Noel Robinson, a recent addition to Autobiographical Writing in the Napa Valley. Noel’s essay presents  the cunundrum of incorporating craft into your authentic writer’s voice and the challenges of writing for yourself versus writing for an audience.  Is writing worth it?  Find out Noel’s conclusion. . . .

 

Writing

 

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by Noel Robinson

I want to write, however I am always struggling with deadlines, arcs, and two pages, double-spaced limits.  I can’t always stop myself from self-editing as I write.  Too many adverbs, that’s a weak verb – use an active verb that describes fully the moment, change it up – your audience needs variety.

I accept the challenge of writing.  It makes me feel alive.  I am doing something important.  I am having my voice documented if not heard.  I hear it.

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But! The problems with writing—when is a piece ready to be examined?  Does there have to be an arc every time?   Can I quit stressing and feeling pressured by getting my story out?

I want to express myself.  I love being creative.  Maybe I am in an advanced level class and need to wait, start simpler, and enter the writing world of critique when I have a backlog of pieces.  I started writing in a journal seven months ago without any thought to taking a writing class.   A book inspired me to explore the topic – this would be fun to do in retirement.  I do not have a plethora of essays to draw on for revision.  Everything is “square-one” fresh with me.

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I love the class—the instructor is an editor that is devoted to her writers. This is gold.  The writers are supportive of each other.  This is a precious meld of people, strangers really, which comes together to support me and each other (can’t use that word again – I just used it in the previous sentence.  Oh no, don’t use the word “just” it’s an empty word.  I am sure I used the word “waste” in a previous paragraph…no – I don’t see that I did.)

I need gestalt applied; I use the rules and guidance, however it’s never enough for me. I need to know why I am using that rule and where that guidance is coming from.  I have to process and walk around the entire project to know where I am.

008_036_arc_building_2-128I struggle with the “arc.”  I know what it is (yet I feel there are many ways to approach it.) I have two weeks to write my piece that needs to be two pages, double-spaced.  I feel the pressure to get it right, to nail the feelings and insights; to dig deep and express the nectar of truth. Yes, I am a perfectionist.  I have been placed in a situation where I want to show I learned the craft and respond to all critique on my next piece.  This is a stress to me and in the future may quell my appetite to write.  I may go back to journaling and keep to myself.images-18

I have experienced the journals, memoirs, and autobiographies of others and been deeply touched—responded to their voices with emotion, understanding, and growth.  Writing is powerful.  I am empowered by the writing of other authors, and I am in awe of the things I produce.  I have things to say that surprise me.  I have a plethora of ideas, thoughts, new truths (screw the repeated word.)  Words have given me insights into my own life.

I am interested in continuing this venture.

images-13I can tell a story.  So what? Is that enough?  I respond in the negative; everything has to have a purpose, a reason to exist—really? If I gain pleasure out of writing, that is good.  If I never share it with others—that is good, too. However it feels selfish to deny others the things I enjoyed. (Catholic guilt!)  I can tell the story out loud to friends, family, and acquaintances.  I can write my thoughts in my journal. Reading my written words to others for the purpose of gaining skills in the craft of writing is terrifying.  This is what I signed up for—I wrestle with why I did this to myself.

I am joyous when I write something that tells my story and acknowledges my experience. Why?  I don’t have an answer. . . .

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I change a piece of my writing, remove dialog and see how this changes the story. Oh, it helps to rein it in at two pages. Is this the only way to learn about the craft of writing: to do the assignment and worry about figuring out the arc or meaning later?

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I need to stop arcing!  Just write the story and let the reader find his or her own arc.  That is valid, however I don’t get anything out of it.  I want to be prompted to surprises, new insights; to me this is the joy and importance of writing.  I guess I just answered my previous question.

Do I write a story, make it interesting? Leave out the feelings, emotions, relationships, analyzing…?  Do I write like a scientist: present the facts in such a way that the reader can’t help but draw conclusions?

Is writing for the audience?  Can it be for me?  Why do I pressure myself by participating in a writing group?  When I tell a story verbally, it is just the facts.  The listener knows by my non-verbal cues, expressions, and tone of voice what the story means to me.  They enjoy the stories I tell out loud. They “get” the nuances, absurdities, and comedy.

I take my writing a step further on purpose.  I tell the reader how I feel, how I was changed, why this experience was important to me.  Am I just drilling in a point that is obvious?

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I have come close to quitting this class on a weekly basis.  This is too challenging, my writing isn’t at the level of the class, and it is too hard.  Then I read something or hear someone else’s story I think, Oh my, this is huge.  Stories need to be shared with others no matter how hard or challenging or scary.  I read a few sentences in a memoir recently and was crying—sobbing—at one point, at the description of the Father’s interactions with his daughter.  I have had a different experience than this daughter and I notice the contrast.  I feel the deprivation of being raised by my Father instead of by hers.  It is important to me to recognize this difference. It is my experience and it was different from the writer.  I needed to hear that there are differences in order to make connections to my own life story.

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Patsy Ann Taylor Reviews: Week by Week–A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations

Week by Week, A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations by Amber Lea Starfire is filled with just the kind of information needed to help beginning journal writers get started and will fuel the imaginations of more experienced writers. The quotes that open each section are worth the purchase. But Amber Lea Starfire offers much more in this inspiring, well-structured book. She provides prompts and exercises that even fiction writers will find helpful in creating the interior lives of characters. This book is a gift to anyone who wishes to step into the world of self-expression through journaling or memoir writing.

Reviewed by Patsy Ann Taylor

Amber Lea Starfire and Patsy Ann Taylor

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How to Keep a Journal

First, let’s establish some guidelines:

1) Natalie Goldberg says to get a fast writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your pen.

2) Everyone says a cheap notebook is a better choice than a beautiful blank book. Why? You’re going to feel compelled to write something good in that fancy journal—and if you can’t think of anything, you’re not going to write. I currently have 16 beautiful blank books of varying sizes in a drawer. And how many started, messed up, ink blotted, crossed out and never finished because they’re spoiled? And size does matter. That tiny pocket-sized notebook is probably too small for the big thoughts you’re going to have.

3) Julie Cameron says write three pages first thing every morning. Ruth, my meditation teacher says meditate first. I say, have a cup of coffee before you do anything and pick a time and place that is comfortable for you—after all, we’re grownups, aren’t we? Just write in your notebook every day!

I write in a wide ruled, 100 sheet, Composition Book—three pages, thirty minutes with my cup of coffee (well, that’s two cups) every day except Sunday.
I follow Natalie Goldberg’s rules presented in chapter one of Writing Down the Bones:
1. Keep your hand moving
2. Don’t cross out (I’m not very good at following directions—I do cross out)
3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar (I’m getting better at this)
4. Lose control (Local author, Janell Moon in her book, Stirring the Waters—Writing to find your Spirit, says Through the process of letting go of control we become more a part of things.)
5. Don’t think, don’t get logical
6. Go for the jugular

Natalie says, It’s important to adhere to them because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel…. Give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.

But does this mean you only free write and can’t use a prompt? Heck no! I’m all for prompts. Currently, I’m exploring my relationship with my sister in my journal. I want to explore its evolution, come to terms with it, write about it, and perhaps find it within my heart to forgive. My prompt was a comment made in a class about how memory can throw us right back into the mental and physical states of the event remembered.

My first thoughts:
Time marches (cliché!), slides, glides, walks, runs, ticks, slips, inches, passes on inexorably—a man-made concept…to guilt trip us when we haven’t done what we think we should…Time, that yoke, that feckless lover, that raptor flying ever forward into the mythical land of yet to come. Maybe my peace is here now and now and now and—walking my path with me. Maybe in this moment I can forgive those who have trespassed against me. Maybe my sister doesn’t matter, or maybe she is the lesson in letting go that I must learn anew in each moment. It’s the grasping, the saying: I am naught unless you say so, the: I have naught unless I have your blessing. This grasping is the pain that dogs my heels, a village cur, half-wolf, half-dog, lapping up scraps from my middens. He nips at my ankles, my outstretched fingers, and growls—how his tiny sharp teeth gleam in the dull morning light as he jealously guards his prize. And me? I cajole him, entice him with scraps of food; I open my heart and say never leave me.
I hear the pack howl in the distance.

Was I remembering an event? I don’t think so. Did I get to something meaningful for me? Yes. Have I made a step toward my goal of deeper understanding of my relationship with my sister? You bet. And I have images I can use later in a poem, a memoir, or even a novel. How lucky is that?

Class Prompt: from Room to Write by Bonnie Goldberg: Memory is Imagination

Begin with the phrase “I remember” and start writing. It doesn’t matter whether you stick with one memory or list several. You can retrieve memories from as far back as childhood (or past lives!) to as recently as yesterday. If you get stuck just keep repeating the phrase “I remember,” in writing, until something else forms in your consciousness. Don’t even be concerned with authenticity of memory. Just record whatever comes to you. Don’t stop until you have filled [your] pages.

Class assignment:

Look over your list of memories. Which ones stand out? Which ones give you a sense of energy or excitement? Those are the memories to consider for expansion. Pick the memory that resonates the most deeply and expand it into a story with a beginning, middle and end. Your story may be fiction or creative non-fiction, a narrative poem, or you may shape your memory into a scene for your novel.

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Outgrowing your Guru

I am a long time fan of Natalie Goldberg. But I fear I have outgrown her. As I review my favorite of her books, Wild Mind, I realize that focusing on drinking a glass of water or on Zen breathing is not only tedious but doesn’t help my work at all.

One of the things I admire most about Natalie is she not afraid to change. From her complete embrace of Zen practice in Writing Down the Bones to the discovery that her Zen instructor was not all she thought him to be, revealed in The Great Failure, she writes with truth and clarity. But I actually have advanced beyond her advice.

It is possible to outgrow our Gurus. We learn everything we can, then move onto to another person, another message or a new author who is just a few steps ahead of us in enlightenment or skill. And we follow her.

How do you know you’ve moved on? Pull out your favorite books and read those original pieces that encouraged you to try writing or trapeze or accounting. Is the advice still relevant? Then great, read it and get a jolt of your original mojo. If the advice and language seems dated, then you know you’ve moved on, congratulations on your growth!

I am still a fan of Goldberg’s. What now inspires me is not her advice for writing practice but her complete willingness to live out loud and share her wild mind, great failures, and all with the rest of us.

~Catharine Bramkamp

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Expose Yourself for Art

This morning I awoke from a disturbing dream: I had left my MAC with some friends in a computer lab in Mexico City and needed to communicate. When I finally made it across the city, I found my equipment disconnected and not where I left it. The attendant of the computer room turned out to be Fernando, one of my Spanish teachers from the language school I’d attended in Mexico City. Fernando had been a sweet, easy-going fellow. In my dream, he had turned manipulative and controlling. He spoke politely, I had committed some error and I was not going to use a computer, and no way was I going to collect and carry away my own equipment. In fact, he planned to take it—he wanted to suppress my voice. I woke up frustrated and feeling very vulnerable. I haven’t thought of Fernando in eighteen years. What could this possibly mean?

I turned to my journal, wrote down everything I could remember about the dream and assessed everything I was feeling. As Julia Cameron says, “Writing it out, I stepped back to safety. Writing it out, I experienced my vulnerability and used it to find strength.” As I wrote something shifted. I left my morning pages feeling positive and ready to face the day.

But that isn’t all. I began to uncover meaning. I’m not in Mexico, and I don’t have connection to people from my school anymore except through my memory and my writing, but I’ve got the right to speak! Don’t I? I used Amber Lea Starfire’s prompt #6 under the chapter, Authenticity, in Week by Week to explore my feelings: Free write for ten minutes about the fears you have about doing what you think you’d love to do. What might happen? Is it okay to be happy? Why or why not? Write about the worst and best that could happen….

In my memoir, Saints and Skeletons, I’m talking about some things that some people, including me, may not want to share with the world. I’m writing about things that make me vulnerable, but that’s good. If I write from a place of vulnerability, I’ll be speaking honestly. I will practice in my journal. The journal will allow me to break out of my patterns and create myself in a new way, using the vulnerability and honest talk as a tool to describe my life and direct it. I’ll clear out some of the brush that hides the truth about me and my life—in this case, about my life in Mexico. I’ll use the journal to make myself brave enough to stand up to the Fernandos of the world, and tell it like it was, openly and compassionately when I get to the ‘for publication’ pages.

I’m discovering that as I write to my vulnerabilities, I make myself more transparent—to myself—and more open to what it is to be human on earth now. In a way, I’m developing a greater depth of compassion for myself through journaling, a compassion that spills over to my fellow humans (I never lacked animal compassion!) Julia claims that if she writes it, she begins to practice it, and ‘it’ is more empathy for people—a fine skill for a writer to embrace.

The idea of writing from a place of vulnerability can be frightening. It can leave the writer exposed and uncomfortable. I’m no different but I’ve noticed that once I write about something and let it go, I don’t own it any more, or maybe in the writing, I’ve dialed down my vulnerability and I don’t feel so uncomfortable. Maybe it’s easier when I remember that I want to express myself, and to do that I must poke around inside to find out what I feel and why. Practicing in my journal is my first step to creating the art I want Saints and Skeletons to be. I can embarrass myself, contradict myself, and change my mind in long hand until I find my authentic, honest voice. Then I can take it to the computer, yes, the confiscated MAC, and imbue my work with my tender, vulnerable heart. Fernando won’t be able to take that away.

Class prompt: Julia Cameron’s Honesty Initiation Tool from The Right to Write

I call this tool the “Flashlight.” Putting things in black and white gives us a flashlight to find our way through the gray. We begin by honestly asking questions. We answer until we arrive at honest answers. The writing itself is the clue to when we are on the right trail. When we are writing honestly, the writing heats up and we can feel that. When we get cold feet about the truth, our prose goes cold as well. The we need to pry the icy surface and see what we can dig up. We can try sentences like:
“If I let myself admit it, I…”
“If it weren’t so risky, I’d…”
“If it didn’t scare me, I…”
“If it weren’t so stupid, I’d…”
Under the surface we find our conflicting feelings, the “yes” and “no,” the “I love him but…” specificity of emotional honesty. We can trick ourselves by word games into self-disclosure when we are stymied:
What animal is he?
What season is it?
What kind of music?
What food?
Using language, there are a hundred different ways to excavate our buried truths, to arrive at our difficult knowings.
“If it weren’t so threatening, I’d admit…”
“If I let myself know it I feel…”
“If I let myself feel it I should…”
“If I let myself entertain the thought, I should…”
“I’m not ready yet, but eventually I need to…”
Any of these gentle prods moves us closer to honesty. When we arrive at internal honesty, internal clarity, it becomes far easier to take external actions. It is a matter of breaking down actions into very small, do-able increments. The page is an ideal place for lists, for brainstorming, for venting and inventing.

Assignment for class: Work with Julia’s prompt. Focus on some unresolved anger. After you’ve asked and answered your questions and feel you have a grasp of this anger, write a rant! It may be a song, poem, short fiction, personal memoir, or a scene in you current project. How much energy, honesty, and vulnerability can you pack into your rant? Bring it to class and let us hear your vulnerable, honest voice.

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Honesty in Memoir–Start by Journaling

Who am I, what do I believe, and what is it I want to do? These and similar questions are top of mind these days, in part because I had the privilege to proofread newly released Week by Week, A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts and Meditations written by Amber Lea Starfire. The book is a collection of writing prompts and musings by the author that are designed to encourage and enhance self-awareness and healing through journaling. The book is arranged into weekly themes with daily prompts to inspire journal writers to deeply explore themselves and their relationship with the world. The themes include: Spirituality, Family & Relationships, Authenticity, Obstacles & Opportunities and more.

My opportunity to read Week by Week came right after I’d finished Julia Cameron’s The Writing Diet: Write yourself Right-Size and was beginning to enjoy writing my “morning pages.” Digging down into my mind with a pen had at first seemed self-indulgent, but by the time I’d worked through that first book, I’d begun to feel more comfortable with the process, and I had begun to see how I could use my insight into my motivations and behavior as tools to help me deepen my fictional characters. Then I was rear-ended, and it was no fender bender. Only by the mysterious movement of the Universe was I not seriously injured. That got me really thinking! And along came Week by Week.

I’ve learned another use for journaling—calming the mind. Writing on the topics in the book kept me going. I wrote about my physical experience, my luck. I wrote myself out of a big case of the jitters. A friend called it PTSD. I agree, I was traumatized by being hit by a car hurtling along at 50 mph. I’m still clenching the steering wheel and thinking don’t hit me, don’t hit me everytime I slow don, but I’m back in the saddle. I meditated on Amber Lea Starfire’s meditations. I started to heal my trauma, and I noticed I started to heal old wounds, too. Everyone said journaling is a great thing to do, and now I’m a convert!

It’s synchronicity how things that are on my mind crop up in one or both of my books of prompts. (I’m also using Julia Cameron’s The Right to
Write, An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life,
Penguin Putnam Inc. 1998) My current writing project, a memoir of the time I lived in Mexico, has me stymied. The writing is getting tricky now, because I’m going to have to reveal my “dark side”—my bad behavior, my insecurities—I’m going to have to expose my inner secrets. I’ve noticed that I’m working hard to avoid revealing myself and my writing is taking on a false tone. I might as well quit writing the book if I can’t be honest—or write a novel!

So the topic of honesty in memoir (and in life in general) has been coming up for me in my journaling. Today I randomly opened Week by Week to “Honesty.” The prompts got me thinking about my time in Mexico, and I realize that I may not know myself, or my motivation from that time. I may be hiding the truth even from myself. Amber Lea calls this pockets of deceit and I feel like that’s all my pockets are filled with. She posits that the truth is getting to an absence of deceit. Truth, she claims is simple and unpretentious— an attitude not just a standard.

My journal entry today: To write Saints and Skeletons I have to be unpretentious. It’s the only way. I must say, “I engineered the entire fiasco because I was so empty inside, so insecure, that I needed to manipulate this guy to be with me. I hooked him in with the glamour of adventure and romance. I bought his attention. It was easy. He was weak, lacking in moral fiber, greedy and lost and like a jerky, exaggerated Mambo, we each knew our steps and we danced it down and dirty in perfect syncopation. I lured, he followed. He pulled back, I manipulated….” This memoir is going to require that I assess my own honesty, emotional, intellectual and moral.

Lucky for me I’ve got Week by Week to prompt and guide me past the shadows obscuring my emotions. In my journal, I’ll find the truth, admit to it and when I get to those difficult chapters in Saints and Skeletons, I’ll be able to adhere to the facts. I’ll be able to (metaphorically) stand up and claim myself. No excuses. No regrets. “Here I am, Readers. I dare you not to love me!”

Here’s prompt #4 under Honesty in Week by Week : Write about the facade or mask you wear in the world—your public face. If the public could really know you, what would they know about you? If you’re in my classyour assignment is to keep a journal for the duration of the session. Write each day. Start by writing to Amber Lea Starfire’s prompt. When you have exhausted your thoughts on your “public face,” take what you learned about yourself and write a poem, essay, short story, or use your understanding to create a short scene in your novel. Plan on reading your piece at the next class.

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