Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Many Lives of Meow

After a family dinner last night, I went to the Raven to have another glass of wine, listen to blues music, and talk to my ghosts. I had a dozen pictures with me that our family friends had brought from North Carolina. Pictures of me with large circular glasses. Pictures of my sister when her bones still poked through her clothing. Halloween pictures, my father even then a ghost in the background between my sister and me. Pictures of my mother with long hair, turned up at the ends, wearing cat's eye glasses. My beloved first cat, Charley.

The friends who joined us for dinner have known my sister and me since our births. They carried with them the easy conversation that comes from longevity and tradition. Their Southern accents hit a primal center in me. We would fall asleep to the sounds of Mom and Dad talking with these two people. They are part of the soundtrack of home.

It had been many years since I had seen them. Only one person lives in Arizona who has known me since I was born. Only one. Only two knew me before high school. There is a comfort among people who watched you learn to walk, spell, ride a bike. But even more than that, there is a comfort among people who knew you in the beginning. Perhaps this is why Arizona can never be home. That Southern question, "Who are your people?" has no answer here for me under this big sky.

When people know who you used to be, they can help illuminate who you are. I am not who I was when I lived in North Carolina. I am not who I was twenty years ago. Ten years ago. I have shouted and screamed and attacked everything I felt was unjust, only to find myself more angry, more alone, and more isolated. I wrote venomous plays that preached to the choir, but made no attempt to reach anyone else. My writing stalled as I stalled, underneath armor I meticulously built. I wrote in my diary in high school: If I didn't know you before we moved, I'll never fully let you in. I lived by this for decades, until it became exhausting and unhealthy to divide everyone into two camps. Until I realized the certainty of being unable to change anyone or anything except myself.

All I could do was soften. All I could to was release the armor, stop the ranting, the categorizing, the venom. Only when I stopped using my writing as a vehicle for an agenda did my writing begin to find its way into the world. Only when I stopped meeting everyone with steel did I find the ability to move. When I turned my exploration inward rather than outward, my writing expanded. When I changed the answer to the question "What am I writing this for" from to tear down X to to connect with X, I have found no shortage of stories, essays, and books.

The friends we had dinner with knew me best when I was angriest. I once thought the only fuel for an artist was anger. I couldn't write, I thought, without it. But it turned out, I couldn't write with it. It was eating my heart, and once it finished chewing, what would be left? Fire, I have learned, comes from many places besides anger. It doesn't have to be an uncontrolled blaze that destroys indiscriminantly. It can be consciously cultivated as part of our internal alchemy. It can be a consistent bubbling in the belly that helps us direct our next steps. Fire, uncontrolled, will also destroy the person who set the fire.

I love these people who came to visit. I loved talking with them and listening to them and watching the ghosts of who I used to be circling around the table. This is exactly what home is to me: The place where all our ghosts can gather without fear of exorcism. The place where all the lives of all of us can sit down, have a meal, and then disappear into the ring around the moon. And last night was the first time I have ever felt home here in the desert.

What a beautiful Thanksgiving.

I took digital pictures of a few of the photos they brought:

This is me and Charley at the side door of our house, circa 1980


This is my sister, Melanie (the blonde) and I in 1973.


Halloween, circa 1978-9. Dad is in the center. 
The flash above his head was from the original photo. 
Makes the picture a bit more ghosty! 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Questions for self-evaluation of work

Here is the handout I give my advanced students for revising. This is geared toward fiction, but I use a similar version for creative non-fiction classes. I thought this might be beneficial to some of you. Please feel free to use it in your own classes and on your own work.


View your own work with the same level of trust, respect, and compassion as you would view the work of another student. One of the most important skills you can learn as a writer is the ability to look at your work with detachment and clarity. The workshop process -- both of your own work and the work of other students -- is the key to learning these skills. Remember that this, like writing, is a process. You will get better over time.

Writing is a process. The beginning drafts (notice the plural) show the many directions a piece can go in. As you proceed through the re-vision-ing process, you let go of things that no longer stick. Recognize that you needed everything in the beginning to get to the heart of the piece. Some pieces are simply teaching tools for you. Some are stepping stones. And every once in awhile, you get one with teeth. It takes all the stepping stones to find the treasure. The sooner you can be OK with that, the easier your path as a writer will be. Trust me on that.

1) Reread the piece objectively. Read slowly and carefully. Reread it without a pen to mark anything up BEFORE answering the questions.

2) What is the driving question? It's OK if you don't have one yet. That's usually the case for beginning drafts. Write down a list of possible driving questions. You might ask yourself -- what does this story want? Early drafts are generally filled with the possibility of many driving questions. It's up to you to determine which one you want to run with.

3) What does the protagonist want? What is the yearning/desire within the context of the text? (This is not the same as the driving question, though it is often related.) Again, it's OK if you don't know this yet. It's just part of what needs to be uncovered in the piece.

4) What is in the way of the protagonist achieving what s/he wants? How can you make the obstacles more challenging?

5) What is the central conflict? If you can't find it, make some notes around what it could be as you look toward revision.

6) Is there a change or a movement toward a change in the character's arc? If not, examine where this could occur.

7) Read just the dialogue aloud. How does it sound in your mouth? Do you stumble anywhere? Is the dialogue serving multiple purposes within the story?

8) Take a highlighter and highlight parts of your story that are SUMMARY (telling). Take a look at the ratio of scenes to summary. Are you showing what you should be showing? Telling what you should be telling? Are you showing the key moments of change? Does the piece have a good balance? (There's no formula for this.)

9) Does the story have adequate sensory detail? (Are all five senses represented somewhere, somehow?) Where can you add more specific detail?

10) Do the details you have included add something to the story, or are they generic details (height/weight, etc) Make each detail you choose to include unique to the character or setting.

11) Examine the chronology and structure. Are there unexplained gaps in time? Do we have a clear place and time?

12) Are there characters introduced without explanation? Do all the characters included in the piece have a significant role? What would the piece lose if a character were removed?

13) Are there extraneous scenes that provide backstory that is not needed to understand the focus of the exploration of the story?

14) Is this piece a story yet? (Does it have a clear protagonist, a driving question, a conflict, a climax, a resolution of some sort?) Or, is it an event or a series of events? If it is the latter, what do you need to do to ensure that you have a story?

15) What POV are you using? Are you consistent with your choice throughout the story? What is gained by your POV choice? What is lost? Consider what would happen if you changed the POV.

16) What is still interesting to you about the story? Another way to think about this is where is the energy? The answer to this question will help you find a doorway into your next draft.

Suggested Next Steps:

1) Make a list of scenes you can include. Start the prewriting process.

2) Journal for awhile around your potential driving questions. See what you discover. Don't predetermine where you should go or what you should do. FOLLOW the writing. Don't direct it.

3) Ask your protagonist what s/he wants. Be open to the answer being different from what you think it is.

4) Don't be attached to what you have already written. Don't be afraid to let go of what you no longer need. You're not 'fixing' what's currently on the page. You're finding the next level of evolution in the story. The beginning is only the beginning. Nothing more and nothing less.

5) When you find your driving question, what scenes need to occur to meet the needs of the driving question?

The Lonesome Road of Revision

'Tis the season for revisions. I just got all my edits back from Shambhala. My students are in the throes of revising their work. I adore revision, but most of the time, my classes do not. Yesterday, in my advanced fiction class, we did an in-class self-evaluation on their current revisions. (Yes, these revisions weren't really the final ones... psych!)  After about an hour, we had a chat. I thought the conversation might be helpful for some of you. 

Two primary questions came up.

How do you know when you're done?

This is as obscure as how do you know when you're in love (or out of love!) The answer is different for different people and different circumstances.  You may be noticing that the longer you study writing the fewer "answers" there are to anything. You're not imagining it. To commit to the life of a writer, you have to be able to look at yourself with honesty and objectivity. You have to be able to discern when YOU'RE bored compared to when the story has run its course. No one can know that for you. You have to be vigilant with yourself so that you don't fall into patterns of laziness or "good enough". This is hard. I'll never tell you it isn't. That's why people take classes, find writer's groups, stay in school, etc -- we seem to need other people to help us keep growing.

Some stories are just learning tools. They won't blossom into anything, no matter how much you want it. Some stories do arrive in better shape than others (but I assure you, the more you practice, the better chance you have of this occurring). Each draft teaches craft. Each draft increases the level of sophistication of your thinking about a work.

You might think about this in terms of a story's question(s). When the story has exhausted its questions for you, it's time to shape it and start sending it out. As long as there are still significant questions for you, it's likely still time to work on it.

Writing takes time. The semester format is a false one. All you can do in a semester is stick your toe in. If any of you go on to graduate school, you'll spend most of your two years rewriting the same book. This isn't so much to get a great book, as much as it's to instill the length, depth, and breadth of a true revision process into the student. It's to teach the level of thinking and detachment required to really shape and sculpt a piece of writing. It takes a long time.

Only you can determine what is arrogance and laziness (it's good enough, it's better than X's, it's just fine, etc) and what is the end of the story's arc. In my experience, it's rare for a story to work in under a year. My books take 3-5 years apiece. And I work on them A LOT.

How do you keep showing up?

If I had the answer to this, I'd be rich. I just know that you show up if it matters to you, and you don't show up if it doesn't, and you're not a good person or a bad person regardless of which choice you make. Writer's block comes from you, not from the writing, so examine what might be going on inside yourself that is keeping you from showing up for the work. The answer is always there. Then, you can determine if it really is the right thing to do not to show up (sometimes life really does get in the way), or if you can kick yourself in the butt, laugh, and start again.

You will ask these questions your whole writing life. Every time you ask, the answer will change. Practice not attaching to needing to know everything. Practice listening with an open heart to the story, rather than to the director in your mind. Follow one word as it leads to the next. You aren't creating the path. You're following it. When that mindset shifts, a lot of opening can occur for people. 

Revising is where the fun is. It's where you get to peel away what isn't your story. It's where you get to test out your knowledge of craft. It's where your curiosity gets to play and where your real reasons for writing the piece start to speak. Revising your work is not a sign of failure. It's proof of discipline, dedication, and perseverance, qualities without which you will not be a writer. It's proof of your stamina and courage, and above all else, it's proof that you respect your art.  

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Writing Warrior

The Way of the Writing Warrior

If true freedom is going to survive within you, you have to be willing to fight for it. You have to have a sword in each hand at all times. One sword is for your own mind and the other sword is for everyone else's mind. You must be ready to use them. Anyone who wants to be truly free must be willing to stand alone in the truth.
-    Andrew Cohen

The beginning always starts off easy. “I want to write a book,” you say. So, maybe you take a class or two. Maybe you buy a book on writing. Maybe you join a critique group. In the beginning, you are filled with possibilities, burning with potential and promise. In the beginning, you really believe that in one semester you can learn all there is to learn about writing and be on your way to the Great American Novel. And then the beginning, with its sweet kisses and daily flower deliveries, turns into the middle. What was once svelte and flexible and able to party until 3 am and still go to work the next day, turns into the same old stories, the same old morning routine, the same old conversation over and over and over.
“This is no longer love!” you exclaim, and toss your idea, once burning with fire and promise, onto the pyre of self-loathing and vow to start anew with something fresher, more exciting, more flexible and inspiring than ever before. These new kisses are even sweeter, the flowers ever more fragrant. This is the one. And then this beginning becomes a middle. And this middle has a spare tire around its belly. And this middle lost its job. And this middle’s eyesight is failing. What to do? This one was the one! Obviously, you don’t know how to pick ‘em. After all, how could something so right turn out so wrong? Next time you’ll pick one even younger. Stronger. With a faster car.
Anyone can fall in love. Not just anyone can stay in love.
The path of the writing warrior is about staying in love. The path of the writing warrior is about ruthless self-study. It is about looking in the mirror and noticing, without judgment, what you see. It is also about recognizing what you don’t see. It is about accepting that you cannot see it all. It is acknowledging that you see the world through lenses, and acknowledging that each lens provides a distortion. It is having the courage to remove the lenses as you become aware of them. It is having the courage to know when you still need a lens. It is standing back and watching, with more than a little smile, the chatter of your mind.
A writing warrior stands steady in the center of his work, not reaching too far into the past or too far into the present. He is rooted to the earth and his spine is reaching toward heaven. She identifies and acknowledges the distractions and illusions in her path, and with compassion and clarity, strikes them down. She is aware of her patterns and tendencies to get in her own way, and she can laugh at herself, openly and with wide lips. He knows his time on earth is finite and wants to live it fully. He knows he has essays to write, stories to share, poems to create, and he knows it is his responsibility to write them. She knows that writing is sacred, that it carries great power, and that it takes work. She knows that though the stories and poems appear as gifts, they require her diligence, her patience, and her discipline to realize their full potential. He must be alert. She must be faithful.
The writing warrior’s pen is a sword used both to slice away the illusions of her own mind and the illusions of the world around her. The writing warrior does not pick up the pen lightly. He respects its power, its magic, and its teachings. He knows it carries responsibilities. She steps up to the page, the battlefield of the morning, bows to the pen, the page, and to herself. She is ready to cut away what does not serve. He is ready to carve out a new landscape. The pen is also ready, and bows to the warrior, offering its ink as a sacred covenant.
Welcome to the path. We have been waiting for you.

The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice 
Available Summer 2010 from Shambhala Publications