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! Continue reading
Lately John F. Kennedy’s death has been coming up.
On House of Cards the character Claire Underwood talked about how visiting the site where Kennedy was shot with her father influenced her decision to go into “public service” (a term I feel compelled to put into quotes because if you know the show and the character, the only person she is serving is herself and maybe her husband–but a discussion of that character and how the writers have developed her is for another post).
My friend Cindy Sylvester read a story, “Stairway to Heaven” at our DimeStories 4th Year Anniversary Showcase celebration last Sunday. One of the main characters was born on the day Kennedy was shot.
My friend Marisa’s mother went into labor the day Kennedy was shot. (Though she was actually born 5 days later.)
~ ~ ~
Judith Barrington includes an exercise in her book, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art that I recommend (here’s a pdf of pages 148 and 149):
Think of an event of historical or cultural importance that you remember (assassination of President Kennedy; the first moon landing; the end of the Berlin Wall; John Lennon’s death; an outstanding sporting event; the March on Washington; the Roe v. Wade decision; the AIDS epidemic; the Gulf War; etc). Write personally about how you witnessed or heard about that event and how it impacted you.
I haven’t gotten around to writing this exercise yet, but I did make a list of Big Events from my lifetime. Make your own list or feel free to pick one from my list (or one of the ones Barrington mentions) and start writing. Even if you’re not writing memoir, think about how a character you’re working with experienced these events:
- Elvis’ death
- The day Reagan was shot
- The day the Pope was shot
- John Lennon’s death
- Mt. St. Helen’s eruption
- Ghandi’s assassination
- Break up of the Soviet Union
- Rodney King beating
- World Trade Center bombing (the first one)
- Air Florida Flight 90 crashes into the Potomac
- September 11
- Largest shopping mall in America opens (on 78 acres in Minnesota)
- Civil War in Rwanda and subsequent genocide of 800,000
- Kurt Cobain suicide
- Nicole Simpson / Ron Goldman murders, police chase of OJ Simpson, and subsequent trial
- Oklahoma City bombing
- Unibomber arrested
- Heaven’s Gate mass suicide
- Matthew Shepard’s murder
- Yitzhak Rabin’s murder
- Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
- Princess Diana’s death
That’s just a handful of the disasters and tragedies I came up with (with a little help from my friend The Internet).
And that, my friends, is it for my March madness, aka “Fridays with Jenn”. Hope your March was fruitful!
“We see things not as they are, but as we are.”
Last summer I had the opportunity to attend the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference as the official videographer and was able to take a class. I signed up for Beginning Fiction with Demetria Martinez, mostly because the class was described as primarily generative–more writing, less reading and critiquing. In other words, it was an opportunity to do a lot of writing, and enjoying of Taos.
One of the best writing exercises Demetria offered was this:
Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is grieving. Do not use the word “grief” (or any of its forms).
Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is in love. Do not use the word “love” (or any of its forms).
I don’t know about you, but I tend to write too much in my head, and these exercises, even for a nonfiction memoir writer like myself, are very useful.
And if these don’t work, go take a walk! Here in Albuquerque it’s a beautiful Spring day!
I was supposed to do a post yesterday, you know, “Fridays with Jenn”. Only I forgot, got busy writing (revising), working on DimeStories projects, web projects for clients, more revising, cleaning the kitchen. I was in workhorse mode, not create mode. And I didn’t feel inspired.
And then Sam did a post and I was off the hook.
This morning Sam told me that she didn’t feel like doing anything. She was having a case of the I-Don’t-Wannas: I don’t wanna do laundry, I don’t wanna clean my room, I don’t wanna write… She asked if I would write a blog post for Writers’ March. I said “Sure,” but mostly out of guilt since I hadn’t done my duty yesterday. I still wasn’t feeling inspired. Because isn’t that what we need to write? Inspiration?
With Sam’s case of the I-Don’t-Wannas I could see clearly what her problem was. She needed a break. And it’s fine to take breaks. Just like our bodies must sleep, sometimes we need a day (or two or more) where we don’t “have to” DO anything.
Jill Badonsky addresses this need (and many others) in her book about optimizing our creative selves THE NINE MODERN DAY MUSES AND A BODY GUARD. The nine muses represent a different aspect of our creative process, and Lull is the muse that Sam was summoning without realizing it.
Sometimes in the creative process, the next right step is to let go, pause, and give time for our vast resources to connect and spring into new ideas. Surrender to the natural cycle of creativity. Fill with new sensations. Meditate. Turn your attention to mind-stimulating activities. Let go of trying to control things. Trust in the process. Celebrate the creative rejuvenation of rest and pause. Say thanks. ~Jill Badonsky
Finding inspiration, however, was a little harder. Until I started looking at some TED talks this morning and ran across a video my friend Cynthia posted on her blog by Gavin Pretor-Pinney who runs the Cloud Appreciation Society
“Cloud spotting” he says, “legitimizes doing nothing.” He reminds us (well me at least) that inspiration can be found in the every day, that looking up at the clouds is about being present and letting your imagination wander.
May you find inspiration in your every day life! and if you need a break, need time for your ideas to percolate and need to quiet the stimulation caused by our busy busy lives, well then call upon Lull.
I came to writing not through academic study (my undergraduate degree is in Spanish linguistics), but by taking classes in my San Diego community. I attended drop-in writing groups hosted by Jill Badonsky, and day-long workshops taught by Judy Reeves. I even took a few month-long classes in the community. It was fun.
Since Sam posted her letter launching the Writers March I’ve been thinking about the JOY of writing. While I do not at all regret getting an MFA (I learned a ton about craft and made many friends for life) at the end of it I was exhausted. Yes, writing is work, but it can be FUN too–something I feel the MFA programs forget. I found myself missing my community of writers in San Diego… and missing the silly word play at drop-in writing groups, not to mention the opportunity to get to know people at a very deep level through their writing. So I created my own drop-in writing group here in Albuquerque.
The inspiration (and the format) for my Monday Writers drop-in session comes from Judy Reeves and her Brown Bag sessions and Thursday Writers group in San Diego. Many of the prompts I use are inspired by (or outright stolen from) A Writer’s Book of Days (buy this book, it contains tons of writerly wisdom and a writing prompt for EVERY DAY of the year) or The Writer’s Retreat Kit. I’m forever grateful to Judy, from whom I took my first ever writing workshop.
While I’d love to have you all attend my Monday Writers group, what I’d really like is for you to try this at home. I’ve found that writing in this way, with a prompt and a timer, really gets the inner critic and the censor off the page and out of your head. It allows you to dig deep into your subconscious and get at the heart of things. Prompts can be found anywhere (including the two books mentioned): lines from favorite books, newspaper headlines, or a myriad of websites–heck there’s probably even an app for prompts!
I set the timer for 11 minutes. Sometimes 13 minutes. There is something poetic about the odd numbers, the way they tilt to one side or the other. A timer puts an added element to the exercise, a part of tricking your brain, letting the critique in you worry about the clock, so you can WRITE!
RULES FOR WRITING PROMPTS:
1) Change pronouns to fit a character you’re working on
2) Change point of view to fit your story
3) Take one word from the prompt and run with that
4) Ignore the prompt all together! JUST WRITE
5) It’s okay to write CRAP! write messy sentences lush with grammar errors and spelling mistakes
The point is to get the pen moving, get the mind working, and get the creative juices flowing!!
6) There really are no rules– just WRITE
I like to write words on paint chips (see image above) a trick I learned from Judy…. those words make good prompts too. At the last Monday Writers, we each selected a word that we were drawn to. Then I made everyone pass the word to the person on his/her right. I gave up the word “FRONT PORCH” and received the word “OFFER” and here’s what I came up with:
It was an offering.
An offer she couldn’t refuse
The offer was on the table.
How many cliches can I think of that include the word “offer” ?
An offering, a sacrifice. She’d wished she’d offered him more. Maybe he would have stayed.
There it was. The offer. How strange is it that “offal” has two Fs like “offer” but animal innards, no matter how deliciously prepared, would never be something she would offer anyone.
I wish I kept the word “front porch”. I could write about sitting on the front port, watching the world go by–even if technically it was a balcony and I was on the 2nd floor, which assured I’d not make eye contact with passers by. I’d keep myself removed from city life.
I could write about that weird bald guy who often wore a pink shirt and sat on the front porch of our Chicago apartment building even if technically it was a low wall and not a porch and he would say “Got a match?” then add “How ’bout a toothpick?” a phrase I would later learn was some kind of Midwestern joke. And no matter how many Midwesterners tried to explain it to me….well, just because I didn’t laugh didn’t mean I didn’t get it. It wasn’t funny.
With the word “front porch” I could have written about the farm with its front porch that was technically a wrap-around porch and was far from the main road but was a good place to set a spell on a hot summer day to drink sweet tea and snap peas, take in the view of the garden….
I chose this example from my journal because I think it shows how to keep writing even when you’re stuck, how you can start out rough and end up with something in the end. You’ll notice how I kept trying to find a way IN to the word “offer” and then switched to the word “front porch” which I guess you could say was “cheating” but I would say see rule number 6.
As to what I’ll do with this? Maybe nothing. Or maybe that guy on the low wall outside our Chicago high-rise will make it into my memoir, maybe he’ll add some color, some comedic relief, some setting of the stage. Maybe I’ll turn him into a metaphor for how out of place I felt. Maybe the farm will represent a family home that I long for but that only exists in my grandma’s memory… maybe I’ll make a poem of it. The point is to have fun with words. Revision comes later.
And all that to say, set the timer for 13 minutes and use this prompt:
On the road to Nebraska….
Last week was a good week. I made progress on a chapter that was giving me problems, and while I’m not sure I fixed the problems, I know I took a chapter that was once seven pages long and doubled it. I’m still not sure what this chapter is about but I have a lot more to work with and I’m much closer to heart of it. I’m finding my way through. And I had a coffee date that went well, followed by a flurry of flirty text messages…
This week was not so good. I have been trying to work on two very messy early draft chapters that have a lot of overlap. Each chapter needs to do something different, say something different, propel the narrative forward and instead I feel like I’m repeating myself. I don’t know which scenes need to be there, which ones should go or if I need to write different scenes.
So I did what I do: I made a list of all my chapters. I noted the scenes in each chapter and I noted themes. When I realized I had 13 chapters I thought it was so poetic because my mother died when I was 13 so in my mind it made sense, but I still have no idea how to fix these chapters except to combine them into one chapter.
This morning when a friend posted on Facebook an announcement of a success, instead of being happy, I felt this incredible stab of jealousy then a wave of self-doubt overcame me. I did an inventory of everything I didn’t have, every award I didn’t win, and every rejection letter I’ve received.
I stared at the pages strewn across my desk and I stared at the blank document on my computer. It didn’t help that the flirty text messages stopped two days ago. I was left feeling not good enough.
Somehow I found myself reading the Dear Sugar column where Cheryl Strayed advised a young writer to “write like a motherfucker.” And while that phrase has become an anthem for writers, there was lot more to that column that resonated with me. Strayed wrote of her own struggles with writing:
I’d finally been able to give it [everything] because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing…. I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.
And some advice:
How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
I was reminded that I need to let go of my grandiose ideas about my book. I need to stop comparing myself to other writers, those published ones I admire so much, my friends who are experiencing their own successes, and I just needed to write, to dig deep.
Yesterday my friend Elizabeth tagged me on an internet meme that’s going around: The Next Big Thing. This afternoon, after wallowing in my insecurity I started my own response and began to write. While I wasn’t working on my memoir, one of the questions is “Who or what inspired you to write this book?” Answering the question reminded WHY I also need to write like a motherfucker.
I can tell you I’m writing to memorialize my mother, to memorialize my father, to tell someone what I know about grief and loss, to hopefully let one person know they are not alone in their grief….. but the bottom line is that even though it’s hard, I need to write this book because it’s harder to not write this book.
And I need to remind myself everyday that I am good enough–and so are you.
I really wanted to title this post “There’s No Crying in Writing” but that would be just wrong. Maybe crying while writing is more of a memoir thing, especially when you’re writing a memoir about death and cancer. Or maybe it’s a female thing. Crying is a natural, biologically driven response for women. Women actually have more of a protein called prolactin (more as in 60 percent more!) than men, which triggers crying (and also lactation, but that’s another blog post). Crying is good for you, keeping your eyes healthy, releasing stress, ridding the body of toxins and of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Maybe this blog post is just me justifying my propensity for tears. (Read about the times I cried at work on this blog article titled “There’s No Crying in Welding.” (Hey, the title worked there.)
I don’t actually weld, but when I write I cry. All the time. It’s annoying. It slows me down. It makes it hard to write certain scenes, scenes where I have to access the tough emotions (this is probably where fiction writers and poets can relate).
And there is a part of me that thinks that if I don’t feel deep emotion when I’m writing there is no way any reader is going to feel emotion either.
The January/February issue of Poets & Writers included a great article, “The Heart and the Eye: How Description Can Access Emotion,” by J.T. Bushnell. Unfortunately it is not available online, else I’d offer up a link, but I am going to quote from it:
“By description I mean the concrete, the things we can observe with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. I do not mean simple adjectives. I do not mean descriptions such as ‘The weather was glorious.’ Glory is an abstraction, a category of word that George Orwell calls meaningless. By itself, the word glorious is useless because it can’t show us anything concrete. It can’t show a white-hot sun perched overhead, or a sky so hard and blue that a fly ball might shatter it. It can’t show a pitcher’s shadow puddled under his cleats, or heat rising from the ground in shimmering corrugation. It can’t produce the smell of hot aluminum bleachers, or the lubricated slide of a sweaty armpit, or a sunburn tightening the skin on the back of your neck. It can’t let you taste the sweat on your lip when you go too long between slugs of cold beer. Only concrete description can do that. ”
So your challenge for this week: look at whatever you’re working on and remove words like “pretty” and “glorious” and any other concept word and replace it with detailed descriptions. Thus, “Autumn was pretty.” becomes “Autumn was tall and thin with long straight brown hair, her brown eyes catlike, her face heart-shaped, her cheekbones high….” (or something like that)
Then have a good cry!
Your Thursday post by Jennifer Simpson
I’ve been mulling this post for a week. I had all kinds of (preconceived) ideas about structure, about how you have to let the story be what it needs to be, tell the story in the way it needs to be said… and then I read this great article in the New York Times:
I’ve been trying to lie about this story for years. As a fiction writer, I feel an almost righteous obligation to the untruth. Fabrication is my livelihood, and so telling something straight, for me, is the mark of failure. Yet in many attempts over the years I’ve not been able to make out of this tiny — but weirdly soul-defining — episode in my life anything more than a plain recounting of the facts, as best as I can remember them. Dressing them up into fiction, in this case, wrecked what is essentially a long overdue confession.
Here’s the nonfiction version.
Not so much about structure but sometimes you just have to let the blog post be what it wants to be… or else it won’t feel authentic.
I am in no way suggesting that all you fiction writers and poets write creative nonfiction, but what I am suggesting is that sometimes the real-life “truth” doesn’t fly as fiction (and vice versa). Experiment. Take one of of your fiction pieces that is really a true experience from your life heavily disguised and write it as nonfiction! And that nonfiction piece that’s not working, write it 3rd person as fiction, change the gender of the main character–have fun with it! What you just may find is that even if it doesn’t work, you may learn something about the story that you didn’t know before, gather some insight into the characters, a greater understanding of why, and your fiction/nonfiction piece will be richer for that knowledge.
UNRELATED WRITING PROMPT: find a photo of yourself or someone in your story– if you’re writing fiction, use a found photo (google image search can be fun for that) or deeply imagine a photo of a person in your story.
Describe the person in the photo, the physical details like hair and eye color, face shape, height, body type, stature, mannerisms. Where and when was the photo taken? What does this photo mean to you? What does the photo NOT tell you about this person? What does this person want? What is in his/her way? What do you NOT know about this person? Then go beyond the photo itself: what was happening before or after this photo was taken, outside the edges of the frame….
Hopefully a little of both…
Before you dig in too deep with your Writer’s March goals, I’m going to suggest starting with writing about why you write…
Last summer I had the pleasure of attending the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference as a graduate student intern–the last time I will be able to do that since I’ve now graduated. At The Conference I signed up for Seattle-based writer Priscilla Long‘s week-long class, “The Art of the Sentence, the Art of the Paragraph.” (PS there are still spots left in Priscilla’s class for the summer 2013 Conference)
Two great things were sparked by in-class writing exercises: one, an essay that while it has not yet found a home (rejected by 6 of the 12 journals I’ve sent it to) was a finalist for the A Room Of Her Own Orlando Prize for creative non fiction and two, the I WRITE BECAUSE project.
In class, Priscilla had us write to the prompt, “I write because….” Twelve of us sat around the table and furiously wrote for 12 minutes. What amazed me was the commonality, that 12 people from different walks of life, different life histories, living in different parts of the country, at different ages, could connect on so many of the basics about why we are driven to do this writing thing. And how many of us like the sound of pencil on paper.
Maybe more importantly the exercise reminded me of why I’m doing this thing that is so often seemingly unrewarding.
Goals are good. Measurable goals even better. But understanding the why: why is it important to you, what is your mission, what part of your soul does attaining this goal feed? those are the things that will keep you going.
(and for a twist, if you’re curious, I wrote tongue-in-cheek “Why I DON’T write” post.)
And so, I invite you all to read about the exercise, then set your timer and go!
PS: did you know that you can get these blog posts delivered as emails right into your inbox.. on the sidebar you’ll see a tab that says “Write with us!” and you enter your email and we’ll send you prompts and inspiration every day throughout March.
Jenn has been working on turning her dissertation into an agent-ready manuscript. She has been slowly trudging through revisions, has a writing partner and deadlines, and even regular skype meetings set up… but the Writers’ March is her favorite time of year.
“There’s something about knowing that there are so many of us inspiring each other, that we can set our own goals, and that together, we can achieve them, that makes this March so productive.”