Saturday, February 13, 2010

Being a reader-focused writer

As part of my varied professional life, I teach writing improvement classes to graduate students in business and management. All of our work starts from one premise: that the reader is more important than the writer. The assumption is that written business materials, whether they be for marketing or production or design, all have one thing in common: they want to communicate information to the reader.

This may seem self-evident but in my teaching and coaching, I’ve discovered that many writers are only concerned with what they think of the piece they’re working on; they’re only concerned with whether they like it and whether they understand it, not with how it will be received. So we talk about “reader-focused writing,” from word choices to clear and varied sentence structure to thinking about punctuation as a signal of upcoming meaning).

Creative writers interested in placing or selling their work tend to have more of a focus on writing for readers. They want to be entertaining, informative, inspiring enough that an editor or agent or publisher will take their work and send it out to audiences. But they often don’t think beyond that initial reader.

Most native speakers of a language have an excellent internal grammar, allowing them to generate grammatically correct sentences one after the other. They have little need for a deep understanding of the structure of the language. That is, until they become writers and want to reach their readers.

Having a good knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure can go a long way into turning okay writers into good ones.

Looking for a place to start? I recommend The Least You Should Know about English (in any of its various workbook versions) by Wilson and Glazier, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Style by Joseph M. Williams.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A poem for my father

April 2007

Light dappled my hands.
The shears held firmly, I stretched and stretched,
grasping the branch by a thin patch of leaves,
pulling it towards my heart.

A diagonal cut. Then another. And another.

The perfume rose in a single wave to greet me,
Whispering of spring,
of awkward romance, of my first cologne.

Moving towards the kitchen,
I buried my nose in the deep amethyst blooms.

The vase, striped green on the diagonal, held waiting water.
No fancy arrangement, just branch ends immersed.

I turned then to feed the orange cat,
its whiskers tickling my ankle in anticipation.
One scoop. Then another. And another.

When I turned back, my father, five years dead, stood before me.
I smiled.

The lilac scent he loved so much filled the room
and my heart stretched and stretched,
in greeting, in memory.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing Retreats and Writing Fridays

Writing Retreats and Writing Fridays

In 2002, I went to my first writing workshop/retreat on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. I’d long been a fan of Christina Baldwin’s Life’s Companion: Journal Writing for the Spiritual Quest, a book that had been influential in getting me journaling after I go sober. When I learned that Baldwin lived five hours from me and offered retreats, I signed up!

Lots of wonderful things happened to me at that first retreat. I discovered the beauty of Aldermarsh, the lovely retreat center where we stayed, and I got started as a serious writer. But equally important was my learning about writing in community. Each day we worked in silence in our own spaces, all the while “holding the container” for each other. Each day we met for lunch and dinner and laughed and talked. Each day we met in sacred circle and read our work or talked about our joys and frustrations. It was magical.

I went home determined to write every day, to become a writer. But it didn’t happen even though I’m a person with a lot of discipline and determination. It was just too lonely. And that’s a fundamental truth about writing. It’s a lonely business. So I signed up for another workshop with Christina and wrote a lot.

The same magic of community happened and I realized I needed to create some community at home for myself. So I did two things: I figured out some other retreats I could arrange (like borrowing my friend Diane’s beach cabin for five days or house sitting for my sister and inviting a writer friend along).

And I started doing Writing Fridays.

On certain Fridays, I invite 4-5 writers to join me from 10 to 4. We have a brief opening circle, where we state our intention for the day. Then we work in silence on our writing until 12:30, when we meet for our brown-bag lunch. Then we start writing again about 1:15 and write until 3. From 3 to 4, we talk about how it went, encourage those who need it, and read what we’ve been working on. It’s a wonderful peaceful day and always productive.

Some of the same writers come regularly and we’ve even held our own retreats at Aldermarsh Retreat Center. So if you're struggling to get writing done alone, try finding or creating some community.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ways to get started writing

As a writing coach and teacher, I’m always looking for good prompts and writing ideas that will serve me and my clients. I start my writing support groups with a 10-minute warm-up that’s often based on something that’s happened in my life or something I’ve overheard. The recent workshop I took with Kim Stafford afforded me many ideas. Here is some of what I heard and thought of during those two days. Write about:

Something you don’t know
A foray into the unknown
Spirits most restless and crude
Do what you’re doing
Clicking my ruby slippers
I don’t fish.
Pay attention with all you have.
Sleep sets in
Acceptance is as necessary as oxygen
And so it was
How true you are
Deep ocean loneliness
Occasionally, a storm
I want to be yours again
I owe you three poems
The next paradigm
The library of consolations
Too proud and defended
He strayed into coherence
A place in yourself that is tight, dark, forgotten

Kim also shared some of the advice that his father, poet William Stafford, shared with his students and with his son. I liked some of these a lot. They bear keeping in mind.

To get started, accept anything that occurs to you.
Write when it’s least possible to write
Do something every day to advance the human project.
Writing stimulates the fountain; it does not deplete the reservoir.

And perhaps most importantly, don’t compare yourself to your expectations.