The Joy of Writing

We are in our final week of the Joy of Writing workshop here on Sanibel. I’ve appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of this group of writers as we explored the similarities between cooking and writing. Along the way, we definitely cooked up a good stew of writing.

Remember Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—that classic cookbook from the 1930s?joy_stack_web

During the class, we talked about how this same joy can be found in writing. We’ve tried to counter the doubts, the fears, the negative emotions that sometimes creep into our writing lives. This is not to say that the writing itself need always focus on happy topics, but that even writing about pain and difficulty can lead to moments of joy.

We’ve talked about ingredients (telling details), recipes (structure/shape/form), heat (suspense, emotional sub-context, characters). One participant asked, “So if we have broth, soup, and stew, as a sort of continuum of complexity, when do we know to be happy with the simple broth?” When does a simple poem (that one delicious creme brulee), say all that needs to be said? Another writer asked, “How do we keep writing when no one is reading what we write?” Why do we cook when no one is there to eat the meals? Jan, who admitted she didn’t like to cook, responded, “I write for myself. I enjoy it. Besides, we never know who will read what we write.” Emily Dickinson comes to mind–or my mother, who along with her paintings, left me a huge stack of her journals.

We can always invite people over for a meal–which is what we will do on March 2 when some of us will read at the Sanibel Library and invite family and friends. Or maybe we write a letter to a person in our past, present, or future–the way we take soup and fresh bread to a neighbor.

We studied a short story, several poems, and an essay to see how other writers have cooked up a sort of meal or dish for us the readers. We talked about the opening or beginning of a piece of writing as the first taste we give our readers; and how as writers, we may have made that special sauce (the opening) much later in the preparation. We looked at the final arrival of the guests (our readers) when we put the meal on the table and remembered how the people at a dinner party are happy to enjoy the meal even if it’s not perfect.

Writing, like cooking, can be messy and creative. The meals we cook don’t always turn out the way we thought they would. Yet there is often pleasure and surprise in the process and the chance that a truly great dinner or that one amazing dish will make it worth all the effort.

And when all the work of cooking is over and the guests have gone home, we can sit back and enjoy a taste of coffee or a little brandy and reflect on what a good time we all had. What a relief that with writing, unlike cooking, we don’t have lots of dishes to wash!

In my next blog, I’ll share a recipe.

___________________________________

Good news!  Red Bird Chapbooks has published my little book of poems, What Can Be front coverSaved. I’m so grateful to Dana Hoeschen and all the folks at Red Bird. This is a limited edition (100 copies. 44 pages, 8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature with hand sewn binding. End Paper and Cover Images reproductions of paintings by Vicky’s mother, Ruth Bethea Hodges).

Go to the Red Bird’s website to order and to see all the delicious chapbooks created by the amazing Red Bird press. If you’d like a signed copy, contact me.

Stop by Red Bird’s booth if you’re at the AWP conference in Minneapolis (April 8-11). I plan to be there some of the time.

 

Here is a sample poem from the chapbook:

My Mother

So many doors to walk through
each a little smaller
than the one before,
each asking that she leave
something behind.

First her coat
then the suitcase
finally her shoes.

_________________________________________

Writing Idea: Do you have a cooking story? Does it relate in any way to writing?  Stir it up for ten minutes and see what you can make. For another take on writing and cooking, check out this blog entry from Ploughshares.

__________________________________________

“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, “Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  “…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

_________________________________

The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

____________________________

“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Jumpstart, Anyone?

imgres It’s that time of year again when I begin my Sanibel writing workshop. I’ve been leading this workshop for several years now and call it “Jumpstart Your Writing.” It’s for writers, beginner to advanced, who need a jolt to rev up their writing lives, the way a car needs a jumpstart when the battery is weak. Actually for those of us who write or who aspire to write, the battery is never really dead; it just needs a little juice to get it going again.

 

jump´start`

v. t. 

To start (the engine of a motor vehicle) using a temporary connection to supply electrical power from another vehicle or another source of current; – an emergency procedure used when a vehicle’s own battery has insufficient power to start the vehicle normally.

2.

To provide a speedy start to (an activity) using the assistance of some external impetus; to re-energize (an activity proceeding sluggishly); – accomplished by application of a stimulus not normally used in the activity.

The word can be a noun or a verb, but it is the verb that I like best. I also like the idea that some “external impetus” is needed “to re-energize an activity proceeding sluggishly.” What that external impetus is will vary from writer to writer, but for me, one battery charger is the company of other writers–not just any writers, but writers who believe in “the practice school of writing.” (See Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Writing as Practice” in Writing Down the Bones.)

For several years now, I’ve been a part of a group of poets. We meet every Monday morning in the home of the gifted poet and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Without her gentle guidance, her selection of wonderful poems and poets and the writing suggestions she nudges out of the poems, as well as the inspiration of  the others in the group, I would have a very low writing battery. Bringing my poems to this group has nourished and enhanced my writing life, which was almost extinguished after the completion of my MFA. (That’s another story.)  I enjoy these opportunities to create and craft my poems. Somehow the ego washes away, and the little bubbles of writing that emerge in my notebooks become poems.

So as we start these next few weeks, here on Sanibel with this group of writers, I hope to re-create a little of the same spirit. We’ll use writing from others as models and inspiration and also create our own envelopes of writing jumpstarts. I’ll be bringing some of what we do to these blogs. So those of you not on Sanibel can take the workshop along with us.

There is always the question: Can writing be taught? Maybe, maybe not, but it can be practiced–the way one practices the piano or yoga.  And through practice in the company of others engaged in a similar practice, it is my hope that the writing becomes better–as the practice itself remains enjoyable and always challenging.

__________________

IMG_6241I like to re-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I start a new workshop. Way back in 1985 or ’86, I took a workshop in Minnesota with Natalie. She had just sent the galleys of Writing Down the Bones back to her publisher. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. “What are your deep dreams?” she asks in one chapter. This will be the way I’ll start the class on Monday.  “What are your deep dreams?” One of mine was to write a novel. So maybe it is time to go back to it and see what I still have to say. It’s never too late.

___________________

Writing Jumpstart:   What are your deep dreams? Go for ten minutes. What is that spark that ignited your desire to write? Ten more minutes.

___________________

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”

imagesAs I prepare for a writing workshop here at BIG Arts in Sanibel, I’ve been looking for poems to use as inspiration and a source for writing ideas. “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee seems like a good choice, especially for focusing on writing about family.

Here’s the poem and a video of Li-Young Lee reading and discussing the poem. If you’re looking for writing ideas today, try a line or two from the poem and go for ten minutes.

The class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) will meet for the next five weeks. I’ll be posting some of our readings and writings. If you write something (poem, short nonfiction, fiction) inspired by the readings, send your work my way (vlettmann@mac.com).  I’d love to hear what you’re doing and will post some of the writing on this site.

Click the link below to hear Li-Young Lee reading “The Gift.”

http://vimeo.com/36988030

“The Gift” by LI-YOUNG LEE

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

_________________

Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose.  Copyright ©1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

Source: Rose (BOA Editions Ltd., 1986)

Does It Work?

One of the questions that frequently arises in a writing workshop is “Does it work?”

When applied to writing, the question (“Does it work?”) is a general one; and the writer is often left wondering: does the story stop working because of a point of view shift on the third page or because of a point of view shift and a botched ending and a lack of clarity concerning what the story was about?  And if it doesn’t work for all the reasons discussed by the group, what then? How can the writing be improved?

It takes quite a mechanic to analyze all the ways a story (or poem) can go wrong. Besides who is to say for sure that the piece has gone wrong in all those ways? The stories and novels of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would never have made it out of our workshops. Faulkner’s sentences would have been trimmed, and Woolf’s point-of-view shifts corrected.

Would their writing have been better for such suggestions? Andre Dubus, in his collection of essays Meditations from a Movable Chair, includes a letter he wrote to his own workshop group. In “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop,” he says, “ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ would not have survived us without a stubborn author.” He goes on to say that what is important is “that Hemingway wrote it and we can read it, and if he made mistakes, if he left things unclear, well, that’s better than scurrying home to revise and revise and revise and make it clear to everyone.”

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a workshop where things got completely out of hand. An inexperienced writer had offered his piece to a group, led by Lamott, at a large, prestigious conference. His story was experimental, used bad dialect, and wasn’t very good. The other students mentioned things they liked, things they thought worked. Lamott offered a few suggestions for changing certain passages. The author raised some questions. It was all very polite.

Then one woman who had remained silent all along raised her hand: “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I the only person who doesn’t think it worked at all? Did anyone actually think there was one believable character, one meaningful image. . . .” And she continued. Everyone’s nightmare workshop. Lamott goes on to explain that what the woman had said was true on a certain level—the story wasn’t very good—yet the commentator was a better, more experienced writer than the author of the story being discussed. Of course the critic was being honest, and what she said had taken a certain amount of courage, but had she really helped the writer?

Some teachers, students, or group members will always feel that they must be honest. The story stinks and, by golly, the writer needs to know this. Some writers seem to want this brand of honesty—or at least they say they do, and they say they’re better for it. Don’t writers need to know when their writing doesn’t work? Isn’t that what we’re asking for? Yes and no.

Yes, we do want honest feedback; no, we don’t want mild sadism. Workshops, writing classes, and writing groups are often composed of writers at many different levels, with many different goals, as well as different styles and voices. We aren’t all trying to be published in The New Yorker.

So why not ask the writer what she or he wants from you, the reader, the person giving feedback. Maybe the writer isn’t ready for the heavy hand. Maybe this is an early draft, and the writer wants to give the piece some air. He or she could pose a couple of questions—like “I’m not happy with the ending. What do you think?” or “Any ideas for a better way to start the piece?” Maybe the writer is near the end of the revision process and wants close editing of a certain part. The main thing is to ask what the writer wants or needs and then direct feedback to addressing that question. Then move on.

The workshop or group could encourage the writer to continue writing more stories or poems or whatever rather than trying to mold one piece into greatness. I’ll never forget a welder, a Vietnam vet, who took a writing class at the community college where I taught. He showed up in our college writing group one afternoon. Would we take a look at a poem he had written? He took out his billfold and drew out a piece of paper that had been folded and refolded hundreds of times. The edges were frayed; the paper had been creased so many times that it almost floated into the room in fourths. Then he read us a poem full of clichés and generalities. It was the only poem he had ever written. He looked up. “What do you think? Is it good enough for the college magazine? Be honest.”

It was the poem of his life, a poem that said everything about lost love that had ever been said or ever would be said. We could have told him that the poem was hopeless. It was full of abstractions without a single clear image. Instead we said, “Write more. In one, tell us exactly how she looked; in another, about the day you met; in another, about the way her mouth felt on yours.” Better to have written twenty poems about a lost love than one.

Instead of spending all of the group time workshopping each other’s writing, the group could focus on a certain element of craft. Spend time talking about point of view in several stories, then throw in one or two from Chekhov or Alice Munro. Then do some exercises on point of view. Or spend time rewriting a section of a story from a different point of view. In other words, don’t just talk about writing all the time. Write when you’re together. Rather than talking about the last stanza of a poem for twenty minutes, stop and have everyone write the last stanza of their own poem and then read it to each other. The same with the last paragraph of a story. This would give the writer some psychic support as he or she struggles with the ending.

Be careful about writing comments on the piece of writing. Teachers of writing spend years learning how to give comments–what’s too much, what’s just right, what will be helpful. Many writers in workshops repeat the red-pencil punishment of their own experiences with English teachers. These writers will make harsh red-ink comments on the story; they will slash through entire pages of writing. Maybe their comments have value, but it is the exceptional writer who can see many of these red marks and still have faith in the core value of the story, poem, or essay. Many of the marks might be simple editing suggestions, so be sure that the writer wants the fine-tuning that comes at the end of the revision process. There is nothing wrong with editing. Yet while attention to the word-level of a piece of writing can improve it, often this is still surface work and doesn’t get to deeper levels of structure, voice, theme, or characterization.

Coming together as a group can be a strong motivating force. We set a deadline; we bring in our work. We talk to others about the problems of writing. At times we love and cherish the company. We value the help of fellow writers who will ask questions and give us the courage to return to our writing and work on a piece until it sings with truth.

Yet we need also to free ourselves from a method of criticism that often can become harsh or tell us more than we can assimilate, one that frequently gives the leader’s word the greatest power, that may encourage a red-pencil, judgmental approach sending us back to some primal state from which we can never graduate.

Our goal is help each other become the best writer possible–to keep each other writing with the faith to revise and to value our own way of saying things. In his letter to his workshop, Dubus writes, “What is art if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something with the little we have, the little we see?”  And then to call what we have made beautiful with mysterious imperfections.

The Writing Workshop: Does It Work?

In this blog, I’d like to continue the conversation about how we give and receive feedback on our writing by discussing one of the most common methods out there: the workshop. Here’s how it often goes:

Each week one or two members of a writing group hand out copies of a story or poem to be workshopped (we even have a new verb) at the next meeting. During the week, members of the group read the writing, make comments and prepare to give suggestions for revision. At the following meeting, the writer remains silent, listening and jotting down notes on the group’s reactions. Usually the leader/teacher of the workshop (if the group is a class) adds comments, guides the discussion and tries to pull together the threads of the reactions so the writer has some clear direction for revision. Then the writer supposedly hurries home to revise the piece. At this point, the familiar scene breaks down because a successful revision, or even the desire to work on a revision, doesn’t always follow the workshop process. At least for me.

The workshop method is appealing because, according to its proponents, it allows for multiple responses to a piece. Yet workshop members often give their attention primarily to the comments of the teacher, who is usually the most experienced, or extensively published, writer among them. Or sometimes one member of the group takes the lead and dominates the conversation, while the others follow and add their comments to that one voice. Sometimes there is a disagreement over what should be done to make the piece better.

The little comedy sketch I posted by Mitchell and Webb condenses the workshop method into a two-person scene.  (See “Write This: Mitchell and Webb.” http://youtu.be/sifESist1KY. Posted on 10/30/12.) Webb, the critiquer, expresses multiple takes on a single piece of writing while the writer, Mitchell, sits silently (or almost, he tries to make a few comments but is over-whelmed by the power of Webb, the person behind the desk.)

So while her piece is being discussed, the writer is supposed to be silent, not say a word. Again proponents of the method say this is the way it is in the real world when the writer is not available to the reader to explain or respond.  Yet the readers of a piece in a workshop are not the same as the readers of a published piece. After a few cursory comments about the strengths of a writing, these workshop readers are usually given the task of finding what is wrong with the piece and are rarely as accepting as those who read a published story or poem. One time I took a short essay that had already been published to a workshop, by the time I left I wondered how it was ever published—there were too many things to be fixed! Also the whole method creates an adversarial framework, so that if the writer is allowed to speak she could become defensive trying to explain why she wrote the story the way she did.

We also tell ourselves that if we’re able to see the flaws in another piece of writing, we can better spot our own. But does it work this way? Am I becoming a better writer or simply better at critiquing someone else’s writing? Most of us (even those who lead the workshops) are not taught how to give helpful feedback to others. While we may have good intentions and spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the workshop, our comments are not always helpful to the writer.

In “Toward a More Democratic Workshop” (Poets and Writers, March/April 1998), Lex Williford tells how his story was shredded by a famous young writer leading a workshop. The young writer had opened the discussion by saying to the group: “This story’s awfully derivative, don’t you think?”  By the end of the workshop, Williford says, “My face burning, I looked down at my story, a thing I’d struggled on and off with for over a year, and turned it over on the seminar table. The famous young writer spent the rest of the workshop doing what he’d come there to do: to talk about himself and his stories and to sign copies of his book.”  In Williford’s copy, he wrote: “In honor of the beating we give and take. Thrive.”

In her essay,  “Mild Sadism in Writing Workshops,” Carol Bly tells of a time when one class member started the discussion of a fellow writer’s work by saying, “I may as well get this over with,” in a tone of pronounced disdain. Bly says, “The rest of the participants took this same tone when they spoke. No doubt they were experiencing what psychologists call moral drift, or the bystander effect: That is, you have various, slightly conflicting opinions on a subject, but when you hear others speaking in a single tone or with a single judgment, you let your thoughts slide over to that judgment the way iron filings nudge loose and then nearly fly to a magnet.”

Bly’s emphasis on judgment is a crucial one. I believe one of the main flaws of the workshop method is the rush to judge (this is good, this is bad) before a piece has fully evolved. We can’t seem to talk about art anymore without immediately judging it. We walk out of a movie and ask, “Well, what did you think? Did you like it?” The same comments are often asked of fellow readers before we read a book. Maybe we don’t want to waste our time on something that is not good.

There is danger in this rush to judge: it automatically stops conversation. People move into a defensive mode, an argumentative position. I remember Natalie Goldberg saying about a piece of writing, “Good. Good that you wrote that. Now continue. Write more.”  Certainly revision is necessary, but a specific judgment from someone else doesn’t necessarily lead us to a sound revision.

Okay. I’m going to pause here and continue my thoughts on the workshop method in my next blog. In the meantime, send us your thoughts, experiences, ideas. Onward!