Last summer, I had the honor of taking a writing workship with Dorothy Allison (author of Bastard of Carolina, and others) at the Taos Summer Writers’ Workshop. Dorothy was a phenomenal, no-nonsense kind of a teacher. If you ever get a chance to take a class with her, do it. Not only did she help me with my writing, she was also incredibly inspiring. She was just as interested in teaching us craft a as discussing what it means to BE a writer. Here is one piece of advice that I will share with you today:
No one becomes a better writer without suffering.
I take my job as a writer quite seriously. Last night, I had a minor freak out. Another moment of questioning myself and this task I’ve set before me. A novel. Why, I wondered, didn’t I do a short story collection? Wouldn’t that have been easier? As lay miserably in bed, I asked in my most melodramatic voice, “Why, oh why do I even want to do this?” And then, of course, I burst into tears.
It should come to no surprise to any of us, that writing is hard. And so, lately, I’ve been full of the serious. I sit down to write with my “serious” writer face on, this determined grimace that says, “Here I am. At my task. You cannot stand up for another three hours.”
And then, the other day, the cat came into the room. The cat, by the way, is my sister’s. We’re housing him while she makes her way back from Japan and he is the best kind of brat. The kind of cat who will knock over a cup of water simply because he finds it funny. His name: Natto (stands for “stinky tofu” which, often enough, makes us call him, “Stinker.”) Let’s just say that you cannot be too serious when he is around. He took one look at my serious face and jumped onto my desk. He sprawled his entire body over my notebook and remained there. A very heavy rag doll. All I could do was laugh because the cat seemed to be reminding me something.
Sure writing involves suffering, but can’t that suffering also involve a little bit of fun??
As Greg Martin once told me, if you don’t have fun writing your book, no one will have fun reading it. That in mind, today, my sole task is to enjoy myself, and I invite you do do the same. To inspire you, here is a writing exercise I particularly loved from Julie Shigekuni, my dissertation director at the University of New Mexico:
1. Take a page from your work (novel, memoir, short story, or a past poem). Choose a page you particularly like. But one page only.
2. Read the page and identify 3-5 things from that page that you consider important. People, objects, words, themes, etc. Julie called these your ingredients.
3. Write a scene (or a new poem) using those ingredients.
I’ll just add that I usually will set a timer (anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour). Also, I strongly suggest writing by hand so you don’t worry too much about the sentences and allow yourself to build some forward momentum.