Saturday, February 20, 2010

Writing retreat--Day 1

This morning my friend Isabelle and I left Portland about 9:30 for the glories of Tillamook County and a writing retreat in Netarts, a tiny village to the west of Tillamook proper. Our friend Susan had found a house for us there, very affordable when six artists share the space for a week. It was a glorious morning to start out on an adventure, as we're having a false spring, not uncommon for Oregon in February.

I do writing retreats often. I like writing in the company of others who are also at work at the craft. There's a synergy, a hum of creativity that is very conducive to my own work. And we usually agree in an opening circle to keep silence through most or part of the day.

Over the years, the retreats I lead have evolved into a certain loose structure: breakfast whenever we want (sleeping our fill is one of the nicest retreat luxuries), silence then for folks to work or think or dream or walk or write. In our current group, we are five writers and one painter. Lunch too is on our own though one person each day is in charge of providing fixings, putting them out, and cleaning up after. Then there is silence all the long afternoon: more writing, more walking, more dreaming.

At the end of the day (sometimes afternoon, sometimes evening), there is a circle. It's slightly ritualized with a different object chosen each day as a talking "stick" be it a shell, personal momento, feather, talisman. We check in with each other as to the day's progress--most of the check-in is emotional rather than literary. How we felt about our work, how long it took the muse to show up, what the inner critic had to say. We celebrate pages written, ideas explored, fallow times of just reading and thinking. Then in a second round, people read what they've been working on for a few minutes. It's always okay to pass if you don't want to read.

After dinner, there is usually a certain amount of hilarity as we play canasta, scrabble, quiddler. Sometimes we do collage together or other art work. Not everyone wants to play. If the muse is still around, people will disappear back to their rooms for more writing but most of us are ready to be social after a long day alone and enmeshed in our work.

Each day is a bit like the one before although the stories being written evolve as do the friendships of those in such close creative communion. The writing intensifies when it is given such lavish attention and so do our creative spirits. I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Getting started with writing personal stories

I got an email this morning from a woman wanting to know how to get started writing personal memoirs. She had met some people over her life who had had a big influence on her and she wanted to write their stories.

First, there are two possibilities here. One is writing the personal story of another. A recent editing client, Bill Bacon, sent me a wonderful manuscript about the amazing story of how his parents met and fell in love. He had filled the short volume with wonderful photos and was going to publish it himself. While he is a bit player in the story (he mentions how his mother told him some of the details), this is not Bill's memoir.

There are several things to do as you prepare to write a personal story. One is to interview any persons involved in the story, especially those with major roles to play or those who knew the person who is the subject of the story. Then you gather any written documents (letters, diaries, emails, publications if they created any) and you read those and take notes of pertinent information. You also gather photos if that is helpful to you or part of the finished work.

When you write a memoir, you tell your own story and include as characters those you have met or have influenced your life. The research can be similar to personal story research except that most of the written documentation is your own: your correspondence, your journals, your photos--anything that will help you remember.

It is always extremely helpful before you begin writing to immerse yourself in the genre by reading a variety of kinds of personal stories or memoirs. Both are very elastic forms of literature and you'll get good ideas by seeing what others have done. It's also helpful to be well-grounded in story-telling by reading lots of short stories and fiction so that you can handle dialog, description, and narration.

Like most non-fiction, memoirs and personal stories can be organized by chronology or theme, but in neither case, do you need to start at the beginning. I began my memoir, Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman, by writing stories about significant events in my life in a rather random order and after I'd written about 60 of those, I began to piece them together with themes and chronology.

All that said, if your goal is much simpler, to write a story about a friend so you don't forget, then just go for it! Your friend will treasure whatever you have to say.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Becoming a Better Writer

No one is born a great writer, just like no one is born a great tennis player or a great musician. Even the supremely talented Mozart had to learn to play the piano. This is good news, for each of us can become a good writer, and even a great writer, if we're willing to put in the time. Here are some suggestions for moving towards greatness.

1. Write! I know, I know. How can that be the secret? It's so obvious. Writers write. Good writers write a lot. Great writers write even more. Write a daily journal entry. Write poems. Write stories. Write from prompts. Write down what you see, what you hear, what you taste, smell, feel. Writing is a skill and to get good at any skill, you have to practice. Write whether anybody reads your work or critiques it. Write every day and you'll get better.

2. Read! Read everything: newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, potboilers, essays, Internet postings. But focus as much of your reading as you can on the greats--the great essayists, the great poets, the great novelists. Human beings imitate language. That's how we learn to speak. We have an innate ability for language and we hear and absorb it and speak it. Similarly, we read great prose and in a mysterious process, we absorb the patterns of sentence structure and phrasing. If you read great stuff, your own writing will improve.

3. Read some things twice. Read a bad novel for the plot and then reread it and figure out why it isn't good. Why is the dialog corny? Why are the characters flat or unbelievable? Why is the plot thin? Similarly read great writing twice. Why is it beautiful? Why is it original? Why is it great? How does it work?

4. Keep at it. There's room in our world for many more beautiful books, stories, poems, essays, meditations. Few novelists publish their first novel. Often what is called "first" is first published. In a drawer or computer file sit two or three or eight other books that were all part of the learning process. No athlete would expect to win an award for his first Little League game; no painter would expect to sell his first-ever painting.

Writers write and read. Keep at it until you're as good as you can be and then keep going.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 50-Question/16-Solutions Writing Tools

Years ago, when I began teaching research writing, I realized that most of my students had little idea how to begin. I told them one of my favorite tricks, which is to make a big list of questions, 50 if you can, that you would like to answer for the reader. These could be factual questions (e.g., how many teenagers a year get pregnant) or questions that lead to in-depth discussion of ideas (e.g., what are the main reasons teenagers choose to keep their infants).

Once they had the list of questions, the writer could use it to guide research (find the answers) and then to begin writing (write the answers in full sentences and in context). By the time, she'd finished writing from the list, she'd have most of a rough draft although perhaps not in the final order. The idea works whether you're writing a term paper for a college class, an article for a magazine, or a non-fiction book. And you can keep a running list as you work on the document, crossing off answered questions and adding new ones you think of.

When I coach fiction writers, I often suggest a variation on the 50 questions called "16 solutions." If the writer is stuck on a plot point, I'll suggest he write out a list of 16 solutions: 16 things the character could do next, 16 things that could happen next, 16 people the character could meet. You get the idea. It breaks open the creativity.

Why 16/50 and not 20/45 or 12/55? I'm not sure if there's any magic in the number, other than that they are big. Our first few answers are always obvious. It's only when we get goofy, get creative, start thinking out of that box, that new ideas can come. My best solutions are often #12, 13, or 14.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Writing My Memoir

Around 2001, I began writing stories about my past for a writing group that a friend and I had put together. We used a wonderful book from Frederick and Maryann Brussat called Spiritual Rx as our springboard, taking each of their topics (silence, kindness, generosity, etc.) and telling of a memorable experience we’d had. These initial pieces of mine, about 30 of them, were three pages long. For Christmas 2005 I printed up a dozen copies of the stories with a piece of my art work on the cover and gave it to family and friends as a gift. I felt done with it.

Shortly after that, I was taking a workshop from writer Christina Baldwin, and I submitted some of the pieces as a potential project. Christina loved them but felt they were incomplete, needing dialog and detail in ways I hadn’t yet created. I had no thought yet of publishing but I decided to learn what I could as a writer by tripling the content of each of the 30 small stories. Eventually I added another dozen stories.

Successive workshops with Christina and memoirist Judith Barrington helped me see that I could create something that would be a clear expression of my journey and that might offer inspiration to others, not only those who have struggled with addiction in its many forms but also those interested in re-inventing their lives। So in 2006-2007 I began a process of rewriting, editing, polishing, and shaping the stories into a book। A major breakthrough came in mid-2007 when I saw that the underlying themes were about honesty: how I learned to be dishonest in my family and how I learned to be honest in sobriety। Knowing the theme helped me create the final version, which was published in late December 2007 as Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman (available at

Monday, February 15, 2010

From a recent prompt

Four-handed piano

Carol had heard all she wanted to hear. The music from the four pianists had moved from melodic and romantic to some new-fangled atonal piece and it grated on her nerves. Those nerves had been to begin with. A week of poor sleep—thanks, menopause!—a fight with her boss that afternoon, and an overturned latte with extra syrup all over the cloth car seat had worn her out.

She glanced around the room of friends and family who’d come to the recital. Those in the front somehow managed to look attentive but she noticed others rolling their eyes and shaking their heads off to her left and behind her a man was urging his wife to leave.

Her friend Maura caught her eye at that moment and beamed. Maura had organized the event for Pachyderms without Partners, her latest pet charity. In support of her friend, Carol had corralled four of her own friends to pony up $25 and show up in black dresses and glitzy jewelry.
Now Carol felt nervous. Did they feel as she did about the screeching noises the quartet was yanking out of the twin Steinways? And was that a serving fork being dragged across the strings of the piano on the left?

Suddenly the music stopped—all four musicians picked their fingers up off the keyboards and looked expectantly at the double doors at the room’s end. The audience too all turned to look at once, as if on cue. Then the red-headed woman on the left at the second piano began to play a lumbering tune, the doors opened, and two small elephants swayed into the room. They wore bow ties and top hats and were led by a small monkey in a tutu.

The pianists turned back to their instruments, struck up the Emperor’s Waltz, and the elephants danced. By this point, Carol had fallen off her chair.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Writing every day

I'm taking a class with creativity guru Eric Maisel on creativity coaching. As part of our class, we each commit to a project of our own that will stretch our creativity. My project is to blog every day on my two blogs, The Writing Wheel and Sober Truths, and to learn more about blogging both as a creative medium and as a promotional medium for me and for my creative clients.

Writing every day is something I've been doing for a long time. I started journaling in earnest a few years into sobriety as I tried to make sense of my old life and make sense of all the changes that were happening to me. I still journal each morning, mostly in the Julia Cameron "Morning Pages" vein--three pages of what happened the day before and how I'm feeling and what's up with me. Cameron calls it a form of active meditation and I think of it that way, a kind of clearing of my mind and heart for the next day. On the rare occasions that I don't get to journal, I feel crankier, out of sorts, so it's become an important practice for me.

Then for 20 months in 2003-2004, I wrote a 10-minute story every day. Mostly I wrote in the morning but sometimes late at night, I'd remember I hadn't done it and I was keen on keeping up the momentum. I've gotten a lot of stories out of those 600 writings and the starts of both the novel I finished in November and the one I'm writing now.

Blogging is a bit different. It's an essay on a topic, or it's a personal exploration, or it's a journal entry to friends and strangers alike. It can be a private record or a public statement. I'm excited to see what happens to my writing now that I'm blogging every day.