Yet Another Meditation on Why We Write

As a past creative writing major and Writer’s March guest blogger and participant, the last few years have been a fascinating, vexing, and many times defeating redefinition of my relationship with writing.   When I was an undergraduate and asked why I write, the reasons were somewhat self-centered. They had to do with my own parsing of the world, my own relationships, my introversion and anxiety, my penchant for escapism. Somewhere in there, I had an understanding that other people might want to read my stories and that this might contribute to some sort of universal empathy and understanding of others, but ultimately, it was just about me. I enjoyed writing, I was good at it, and it made me feel slightly less crazy than not writing did.

As I matured (I guess…or something like that…) those reasons just didn’t hold enough water for me to keep writing consistently, and without being conscious of it, I began to reframe the act of writing as something that had a lot less to do with me as an individual and more about the collective stories and ideas that writing could manifest throughout the world.

Last year, I started a master’s program in special education, and this year I began teaching high school students with learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and behavioral difficulties. There is a high level of poverty and trauma at my school. Most of my students read at an early elementary grade level and struggle to write more than a few sentences at a time. Their academic skill deficit is a challenge, and lots of time and energy goes into the basics of reading fluency and writing mechanics, but what is heart-breaking and what is least likely to be mediated, is that they hate it. They absolutely hate reading and writing. And they are convinced that these are worthless skills that they will never have to use after they get out of school.

In one of my master’s classes this semester, we are reading a short book called “Faking It” by Christopher Lee, someone who has severe oral and written language deficits. For one of “us”, people who have studied the syntax and semantics of beautiful prose, the writing is pretty awful, but the story is so important. We almost never get to hear from people with learning disabilities because don’t write down their stories. Lee describes writing when he was younger as feeling like a never-ending, horizontal spelling test. It wasn’t until his freshman year of college that he realized that writing was about communication, not just spelling and mechanics. “Writing is beautiful,” he says. “It can express the depths of a person’s soul. It is a way of talking without opening the mouth. Students with learning disabilities need to experience this.”

Why are we so bad at teaching that it takes some students decades to realize that reading and writing are about communicating with one another?

In my class, writing prompts are always fairly open ended and almost always ask for personal opinion, response, and experience. Little by little, the students can be coaxed to write half a page or so, to tell a small piece of their stories, stories that we all need to know. For these writing exercises, I never correct mechanics or spelling, I only respond to the content, and it is mostly through these bits and pieces that I feel I know any of my students at all.

I won’t go into any detail about good educational pedagogy, how reading and writing fiction builds empathy, how important it is for people who are disabled, low-income, minority, or marginalized to tell their stories and how this can be a revolutionary act, or how our current political climate demands this more than ever, but imagine all these things floating before you and the shape of the constellation they make. This is why we write.

The Hats We Wear

Guest Blog by Melanie Unruh

 

2012-05-12 08.45.32.jpgAt my college graduation, my Spanish professor told my family that I am someone who grabs hold of an idea and refuses to let it go until I’ve seen it through to the end. At the time, I thought this was just an amusing anecdote, but the more I live, the more I know it’s true: I hate to be interrupted.  Inspiration is such a fleeting, fickle thing that when it comes my way, especially when it relates to writing, I don’t want to lose my flow of ideas.

Fast-forward to eleven years after that graduation ceremony. Uninterrupted work of any kind is a luxury, a miracle, even. On a given day, I am a teacher, a student, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, and yes, a writer. These are only the major titles. There is no such thing as continuity.

I love my life, but sometimes I think I’m half-assing every single thing I do. How can I call myself a writer when I have to force myself to carve out time for it? After my son goes to bed in the evening, I usually have a pile of dishes and a mountain of essays that need attention. I can’t remember the last time I changed the cat litter, but they’re not shittting on the floor yet, so that’s okay, right? The winter has been long and full of late night snacks, so I really need to start working out again. But what about writing?

I can’t say that I have all the answers when it comes to juggling the various hats, but I try to plan creatively and look for ways to move writer up on that list more. One trick I found recently was to enroll in an undergraduate creative nonfiction class. Sometimes I feel a little silly sitting there because the course is taught by one of my colleagues and a number of my peers are still in high school. But I’m killing two birds with one stone. By enrolling in classes, I can defer my student loans. At the same time, I am committing myself to writing consistently for at least four months. Oh, and I’m forcing myself to write more in a genre that is a bit outside my wheelhouse.

ohi0288-squirrelwritertherapy-v3-600Another way I sneak writing into my everyday life is to use it as therapy. If in between sessions, all I did was try to think about life and process issues in my head, I would probably return to my counselor having forgotten everything we said before and having made no progress whatsoever. Besides helping me commit my thought process to paper (or screen, as it were), writing has always been my go-to tool for healing.  My mom gave me my first journal when I was 12 years old, and that was the first time I understood—call it cheesy if you must—the power of writing.  My parents were in the middle of a drawn-out divorce, and when my mother realized the insipid children’s divorce workbook wasn’t of any use to me, she gave me paper instead to create my own road map to the other side.

After my son was a newborn I thought I would never sleep again (To be fair, several people told me this and when you’re constantly sleep-deprived, you’ll believe anything). I was desperate to write, but all I had was a lizard brain. The only thing on my mind was sleep, and so I wrote about my lifelong war with naps.  I literally wrote things like, “I am an owl and not a lark in terms of my circadian rhythm” and “How vivid is a baby’s sleeping mind?”.  It wasn’t my finest writing by any stretch of the imagination, but the point is, I was still getting words down, still internalizing the message I am a writer.

What I mean to say by all of this is that you have to make writing work for you. Life will get in the way, no matter who you are or what responsibilities you have. But if you grab hold of it and refuse to let it slip through your fingers, writing can remain an integral, essential part of your identity.

 

Exercises

Think of at least one way to squeeze extra writing (or writing-related activities) into your daily routine. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Listen to a writing podcast (See Randi’s 3/12 post for great suggestions!) while doing dishes, driving, jogging, or even taking a bath.
  • Take a notebook to the grocery store (or have your Notes phone app handy). Jot down weird things people say. In my experience, people always say weird shit…especially at Target, for some reason. Sometimes these odd non-sequiturs can serve as inspiration for a story or simply a line of dialogue.
  • If you’re politically-minded (Is anyone not these days?!) and in the mood to write to your representatives, tell them a story. Don’t just use the stock message that XYZ organization has given you. How can you make your words sing and stand out in a sea of rants and requests?
  • When all else fails, if you work, play hooky. Take a sick day, don’t tell anyone else you’re doing it—not your significant other, your coworkers, your friends, your cat—and go to a café or a library, turn off your phone, and write your ass off.

 

 

Dive In!: Actions Speak Louder Than Thoughts

by Marisa PC

One day about twelve years ago, I met with Sarah, a then-MFA student in poetry, to talk about her first attempt at writing a short story. It was a good story, a good discussion, and a strong stride toward friendship. I wasn’t Sarah’s fiction teacher, but as her friend, I had the pleasure of reading each of her stories and hearing her ideas for fiction. I distinctly remember when she ran one of those ideas by me: “I imagine my point-of-view character as a man who has a large aquarium with tropical fish. He likes to sit in front of the aquarium and think.”

“Good,” I said, “but he can’t sit and think in front of his aquarium during the story.”

Sarah wrote the story. The POV character was too busy juggling his duties as the husband of a dying woman with his affair with another woman to sit in front of his aquarium and think. But the aquarium was there, filled with tropical fish who also needed caring for, and now merely a feature of the story’s setting. Sarah knew of her character that spending time contemplating his fish calmed him. She also understood, after our conversation, that letting him sit and think on the page would create a lull in the action, a lull from which the story might not be able to recover.

It’s worth noting that the central syllable of the word “character” is “act” (even though I can’t find an etymological relationship between the two words). And this part of my advice is nothing new. Characters must act; action propels narratives.

“Dive in!” my first fiction-writing teacher used to say. “If you hesitate, you lose.” She was speaking about our characters. She didn’t want to have time to think—or at least she didn’t want to see their thinking represented on the page. How much more interesting it would be, she encouraged us, to make our characters act on their impulses or do things we ourselves might never do in similar circumstances.

Now I’m going to shift direction a bit. I teach undergraduates: freshman composition and upper-division creative writing classes. And whenever the students have a research paper or short story or essay coming due, I always ask them what sort of progress they’re making. Do they have words and pages, or is everything still stuck up there in their heads? Usually, a handful have already produced pages—or possibly a draft of the entire assignment—while most students are still generating ideas and intend to wait till the night before the work is due to write it.

I confess that most of my writing is done in my head. In other words, I think about writing. I think up ideas for stories and essays. I think and I think and I think. And this is fine when, for example, I’m walking the dogs or pulling weeds—that is, doing something else. But too often, I have thought rather than acted. I have thought about writing, I have thought about what I’ve wanted to write, and I haven’t taken the action necessary to get it written. Admittedly, I’ve done a lot of that as part of my Writer’s March. (Most days, mine could be called Thinker’s Standstill.)

So today, I have two pieces of advice for you. One is to make sure your characters are acting and not merely thinking. Two is to make sure you’re writing and not merely thinking about writing.

And I’m going to do the same. I don’t want to get caught staring at a metaphorical aquarium of tropical fish. I’m going to dive in—to the writing—and see what happens.

Sunday Sound-bites: The Week 3 Edition

By Guest Blogger Randi Beck

Think of today’s offerings as two tapas of the podcast world. Each is a very listenable 25-35 minutes and gives you just enough to think about but not so much that your head will explode.

Here they are:

why I writeWhy I Write

This one is brought to you by the National Council for Teachers of English and consists of 30 minute interviews with writers of all sorts.  The writers are delightful & inspiring. The host sounds like a morning radio disc jockey. The intermittent sounds of traffic, birds, and shuffling papers gives away the fact that all or most of these interviews are done over the phone…in other words, sound quality is not always top notch, but it doesn’t really interrupt the experience.  It’s still very new as it started up late last year, but episodes are released every two weeks.

LoreLore

Yes, if you are a frequenter checker-upper of what’s new and hip in podcasts, you’ve seen this name before. You’ll be entertained and (if you’re a good listener) you can learn some things about story-telling or gather some sci-fi/mystery/horror inspiration from these creepy, suspense tales based on true stories and legends around the world.  If you like being creeped out, listen before bed. If you don’t…don’t.  And here’s a fun bonus writing exercise: After listening to the tale in the 3rd person, try writing a short-short story in 1st person from the POV of a character living through one of these little nightmares. Go ahead and be a little crazy if you feel so inspired, taking on the point of view of the werewolf, murderous child, or disturbed elderly woman choking someone to death.

Cheers!

How to Write When You Have a 8-5 Gig

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Life before a full-time gig:  writing and latte

Ever since I started a full-time 8-5 gig this past December I’ve been falling behind on everything from laundry and house cleaning to keeping in touch with friends (except for the scanning of Facebook which mostly just depresses me).  And of course writing.  Which makes me feel like I have no business writing this post.  It has been hard. So damn hard.  I can’t even imagine what my friends go through to work on writing, many even have written books!   And these are friends with spouses and children along with their full-time jobs and writing aspirations.  Some of them even manage to get exercise routines into their regular daily schedule!

The only way I’ve managed to do any writing at all is to host a drop-in writing group.  I started this group in August of 2013 inspired by two different groups led by two of my early mentors:  Jill Badonsky and Judy Reeves.  It’s an opportunity to gather with writer friends on a weekly basis to write, for one hour.  I offer writing prompts and set the timer and we write. Sometimes we write junk but sometimes we get the start of a great story, work on a scene from a novel, craft a poem, or develop a character. And we share if we want to.  It’s amazing how well you get to know a person when you share writing.  It inspires me, and I know for sure that I will write for one hour a week.

Now that the days are getting longer I’m imagining ways I can get back to my writing.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Make the time.

Take a notebook to lunch and write.  (Note to self:  take a lunch break.) Stop somewhere after work, before coming home, and write.  Go to your neighborhood cafe on Saturday morning, and write.  Write standing in line at the grocery. Write before you go to sleep.  Get up early and write….   see a theme here?

Make writing a priority.

Choose writing over Netflix. Choose writing over lunch. Choose writing writing over rushing home. Choose writing over Facebook. Choose writing over phone calls. Choose.

Find support.

There are groups everywhere: My writing group is a drop-in group on Mondays,  Judy Reeve’s (in San Diego) has been hosting Thursday writers group for 20 years! and Jill Badonsky’s hosts fun and invigorating creativity workshops in San Diego and many other places.  There are lots of MeetUp groups for writers…. and books. So many books!  (feel free to share your favorite in the comments section)

Remember you love writing.

If you don’t “love” writing, remind yourself why you do it.  Remember that you need it. Remember that it fills your soul. You have a gift. Use it.

And if you  have any tips for me on how to get more writing into my life, please share.

 

 

‘Earth Magic’ Magic: More Inspiration from the Divine

As I did with Bibliophilia, for today’s post, I sought inspiration from the cards, one for each genre.  This time, I went to an actual oracle deck, Earth Magic:

Earth Magic Cover

These cards are accompanied by a guidebook, so I excerpted some of the card’s advice as well.  Use the cards and/or their messages as encouragement, advice, writing prompts, or whatever else seems to fit.

Okay, here we go!
Continue reading

TBT: A Writing Prompt on Lost Objects Plus a Writing Prompt from a Lost Post

In honor of Throw Back Thursday, I offer writing prompts from two different posts.  The first was  originally published March 6, 2012.  The second was a post that I NEVER finished writing (but has been sitting in “draft” form for many years!)

Writing Prompt on Lost Objects

I can hardly think about my favorite jacket without remembering (still bitterly), the roommate who threw it away in anger.  When I see a balloon floating into the sky, I think of an old friend who threatened to attach his wedding band to one end of a string and let the helium guide it away.  Sometimes I wonder if I fell in love with Randi after reading an essay she wrote for Marisa’s class (years ago) about the objects that she had lost (as a way of rendering the passing of time and the loss of her house).  And so between my own memories and Marisa’s post, I bring you this writing prompt:

If you haven’t written about an object yet (or even if you have), try its afterimage: the object(s) you have lost.

Writing Prompt from A Lost Post

The lost file had little more than the following: a link to an NPR article, the words “Asylum Suitcases,” and the question: What stories do residual objects leave behind?

You may have seen this article when it was passed around the FB.  A photographer named Jon Crispin found over 400 suitcases left behind in the attic of an asylum: “The suitcases contain letters that were never mailed, diaphanous cigarette papers, a glass bottle of glycerin left behind by a craftswoman — tiny parts of a forgotten whole.”  You can view a slideshow of the suitcases HERE.  (Felt wrong to try to include them in this post)

Your prompt:  Use the images to inspire a poem or scene.  OR,

Alternative Prompt:  Consider other objects you have found.  Our own instinct is often to take a picture.  You might flip through your phone and find those random moments.  Use one or all of them in a story or poem.

Here are some surprising found objects from my own recent camera files…

If At First You Don’t Succeed: How Writing Resembles Dating

By Guest Blogger Cynthia Patton

You might not believe this, but writing and online dating have a lot in common. How do I know this? I’ve been writing (and sadly, dating) for a considerable period of time. Admittedly, I’ve been writing far longer, but after a decade spent using multiple apps and sites, I’m practically a certified dating expert. (Although my lack of success with said dating might undercut this claim.) In any case, I think I’m qualified to make a few comparisons.

For starters, writing and dating both require a proactive approach and a thick skin. Think rhino hide. They also demand that one embrace rejection as part of the process. If you are a writer of any genre, you know the drill. You send out work, it gets rejected. You brush yourself off and submit again.

Dating is more or less the same. For example, a couple years ago I was seeing a therapist. He experienced an unexpected personal crisis and cancelled our fourth date. He explained his reasons, which made sense. Nevertheless, I was disappointed and sad.

The therapist wasn’t sure when he’d be ready to resume dating, so he didn’t want me to hang around, waiting. He wanted me to get back online and “explore new possibilities.” A girlfriend later quipped that’s maybe what he wanted, but I think he needed time to process what had happened. In any case, it didn’t really matter what was or wasn’t going on. For whatever reason, the therapist wasn’t ready to date me.

I accepted his position as graciously as I could and wished him well. Then I spent several weeks feeling sorry for myself. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I find a decent boyfriend? I’d been in a relationship that lasted much of 2010, but since then it had been a steady stream of coffee dates and guys who couldn’t commit. Sure I’d remained friends with most of them, but after eight years of single life, I wanted something long-term. I was tired of making small talk over coffee or a glass of wine.

Dating hasn’t been as easy or as simple as I once thought. Guess what? Publishing isn’t either. The trick is to not take it personally. (No small task, I know.) Accept the result and move on. It’s not about you. Trust me, it’s never about you.

It’s true that sometimes people get lucky. Really lucky. Don’t get me started on my friends and family members who met their current significant other while in the midst of a divorce. I’ve put in way more time and effort and I’m still very much single. Not fair!

Life isn’t always fair. Neither is writing. So I let the therapist go and went back online. Within days I had five men pursuing me. Four asked me out. Three never made it to the second date, but one asked me out again the very next day and we dated for two years. Dating and writing are both about timing.

The therapist is back online and dating again—but not with me. I can see now that the relationship wasn’t a good fit. More and more I’m accepting the therapist’s assertion that dating, like writing, is a numbers games. As he put it, you try on a lot of different shoes and see what fits best. Did I mention he was Italian?

Bottom line: if I want to see my writing in print, I have to send it out over and over despite rejections that sting. If I want to have a man in my life, I need to keep dating—despite all the weirdness, uncomfortable situations, and yes, rejection. I need to remind myself, again and again, that rejection isn’t personal, it’s not a measure of my worth. It’s a simple matter of taste and timing. Nothing more.

When you eventually find an editor or agent who loves your words or a guy who finds you beautiful despite your flaws—and you will, I promise; stick with it and you will—oh is it ever worth the wait.

Now get out there and write.

Or date.

Or both.

What I Learned From Thinking About Teams: A Midpoint Check in!

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A glimpse of UC Merced

You may not know this about me, but I teach professional writing at the University level, and I love it!  There is a practicality to this writing style that aligns with daily aesthetic, a sense of order and audience awareness that, in the vast openness that is the creative path, offers my brain relief.  Not sure where to start?  Consider your audience.  Identify your purpose.  Find a way to deliver information that is quick and easy to digest (and use headings and lists because that often helps!).  In this way, professional writing realm really can resemble that plug and chug formula that (yes, I admit) I sometimes  crave.   (So, before you get all huffy, dude, I know…the prof writing forms can still have style and personality, but you and I both know that we can churn out, oh, say a blog post, in a matter of hours (or days if we are being a bit picky) while a story or essay or poem can take us years upon years  to complete…and then more years to have someone decide to publish it…)

Anyway, this is all to say that my two worlds – the professional writing world and the creative writing world – rarely intersect.  And yet, the practical professional writing approach CAN help us creative types approach our own work better.

And so, today, I want to offer advice I learned from my course readings about working in teams. Continue reading

On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

by Marisa PC

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Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.

In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.

Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.

Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.

Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!

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In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.