Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3

I sometimes provoke students with this statement: “You can’t be a better writer than you are a person.” What I mean is that those issues that are unresolved in our lives will show up as weaknesses in our writing. A tendency toward impatience can result in writing that feels rushed or underdeveloped. A thirst for revenge can produce writing that is hurtful. We may find ourselves avoiding topics that scare us, creating worlds with less complexity than actually exists, or failing to render certain characters dimensionally because we haven’t found compassion for them.

Although this notion that we need to improve ourselves to strengthen our writing can be daunting, the good news is that writing offers writers endless opportunities for us to progress as people—to learn more, to empathize more deeply, to grow beyond our limitations and ignorance.

One of the things we learn as writers is that no character can be all good or all bad; a character presented in this way will be unconvincing and flat. The most heinous villain was once a child; the most noble protagonist hides some secret transgression. It is sometimes as big a challenge to push the hero off their pedestal as to the find that one good quality in the evil-doer. But humans are complex and contradictory, and finding the fullness of a character makes them come to life.

When it comes to telling stories from our own lives, we need to tap into our biggest, wisest selves to write in a balanced way about people who have hurt or harmed us. How can we empathize with what they were feeling, understand the forces that shaped them and their behavior? This can be the hardest work because it means shifting our ideas about ourselves as well as that other person. It can take some time to get there. But it is also where the growth and healing take place.

I’m not saying writers should approve of bad behavior or soft-peddle it. I am saying that even someone who commits a terrible act still has humanity in them, and the writer becomes better the more they can reveal it.

In his play, Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams gives a line to a character, a nun, who is speaking to a defrocked and dissolute priest. He is anticipating her judgement, her condemnation of who he has become. Instead, she says to him, “Nothing human disgusts me.” This is the stance that best serves the literary writer. It’s our job to reveal as fully and deeply as we can the human condition, and in the process, we grow and deepen as well.


Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2

When I delivered the first draft of my memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building, to my editor, Elaine Katzenberg, at City Lights Publishers, she responded with this astute comment: “Sometimes there is a difference between what a writer needs to say and what a reader needs to hear.” As a teacher, I’ve passed along this wisdom to scores of students, not only memoirists but poets and fiction writers as well.

The impulse to write often arises from a profound need—to express something about which we feel deeply, to share an experience that has been imprinted on our psyche, to make sense of something that has troubled us, to communicate something we want others to understand. We often struggle to find the words to capture these powerful ideas and sentiments, and when we’ve finally gotten it down on paper, we may feel our job is done. After all, the driving need that ignited the process for us has been fulfilled.

But as much as we may have labored to produce that initial draft, our work is not complete. Unless our intention is to write a journal, for which the audience is no one but ourselves, the next step is to figure out how to bring the work alive for the reader. The reader, who starts out as a stranger to the work and is drawn into intimacy with the work by encountering characters who come alive on the page, action that is riveting, themes that expand one’s ideas about the world, settings that one can enter and experience palpably.

I have great respect for journal keeping; it is a potent tool for self-discovery and self-comfort. When you write in your journal, everything you write is perfect, a perfect expression of yourself to yourself. But if you are wanting to engage other readers, you have to take them into consideration.

The reader doesn’t know what you know. They may not care about what you care about. They may not share your experience or your worldview. The reader wants to know what’s in it for them: what are they going to learn or gain or experience if they invest their time in your work? What will they find out about themselves from reading you?

One of the values of the writing workshop is that you get to find out what other people are getting from your work. Do they perceive the same meaning you want them to? Are there things that confuse them? Have you explained too much or too little? Have you enlisted their attention and have you managed to keep it? Have you gotten them to care?

We have to write that first draft that gratifies all our personal needs. But then we have to write the drafts that open up the work and allow the readers in.

When I submitted the first draft of my memoir to my editor at City Lights, her response let me know I had not yet managed to build the bridge to my reader. In subsequent drafts, I was able to pare away those things that were so personal only I cared about them, and to expand on things that would be of interest to someone who hadn’t lived the experience. Gently, she taught me the difference between what I needed to say and what a reader needed to hear, the difference between expression and communication.


Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada.


Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1

I’ve been teaching creative writing in various settings since 1977, and in that time I have worked with all kinds of students—those with a lot of experience and those just starting to think they might have something to say.

One of the most common things I see that stops us (and I include myself as a writer) is that we think the writing is supposed to be good, fully realized, maybe even brilliant, right away. We look to our fledging effort, our first sentence or our first draft, hoping that our ego will be gratified. If we find fault with this tentative beginning, many give up.

The truth is, it is the job of our first draft to be insufficient. Ideas need to figure themselves out, the music in the work needs to hear itself, we dig down and then need to dig deeper. Writing is a process and it gets better every time we return to it.

When an infant is just born, we don’t expect it to have perfect manners or mastery. The baby needs to stumble around, try things out, learn things and over time develop into a person.=

A work of writing too needs to be given time to grow, to change, to find itself. Let your writing be as “bad” as it needs to be to get born (sometimes I have to tell myself, “I’m going to write the shittiest first draft* anyone has ever seen”) and then you have something to work on.


* Anne Lamott talks about the “shitty first draft” in her book about writing, Bird by Bird.

Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada