Lessons from the Writing Workshop #16 — A Continuum from the Imagined to the Real

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #16 — A Continuum from the Imagined to the Real

Some people talk about fiction and creative nonfiction as if those were different and separate categories, the former encompassing works of pure imagination, the latter the whole truth and nothing but.

I don’t find this construct to be that useful. I view writing that is primarily invented and writing that is primarily drawn from lived experience as existing, not as polar opposites, but on a continuum. Something that is entirely invented and does not in some way reference familiar life would be almost impossible to write and likely disorienting to read. Something that is utterly documentary and includes no element of imagination would not seem like a story at all.

We might be making up a story, but set it in a real place and time period. Belinda Vidaurri’s novel is set in Paris in 1968 and on the island of New Caledonia in 1988. Even though the characters are invented, she’s had to research those times and places to make sure she is describing them accurately. When Matt Knight was working on a speculative thriller about genetic engineering, he had to draw from existing real science in order to project where the technology would be in the near future. A writer might invent a character, but endow her with the qualities or habits of his favorite aunt. The fiction writer is always investing their imaginative work with true elements.

Dawn Akemi uses the tension between real and imagined as the premise for her novel set in Hawaii, where she grew up. Part of the story reflects realism, but she is also weaving in myths from traditional culture to give her protagonist entrée into a fantastical spirit world, parallel to the human world.

It’s no different for those who start from lived experience. Kathleen Brady is writing a novel that is primarily drawn from an experience she had when she was younger; she went to study the Chinese language in Beijing and fell in love. But life doesn’t always follow the dictates of plot. In order to shape the meaning of the story, she’s found she has to alter some details, heighten conflicts, accentuate some events and leave out others altogether. She now sees her work as fiction.

Angela Brinskele started her book as a work of non-fiction, but found the material was “too close” and hard to write. When she began adding elements of fiction, she found it much easier to tell the story, because she felt she had more distance, and therefore more control of the material.

Sometimes we want to tell a story from our lives, but don’t want to expose our friends and family to readers’ scrutiny. This is the case with Pat Alderete, who has shaped stories of her growing up in East L.A. into a form she calls “Authentic Fiction.”

When I sat down to write Embers, a novel in poems based on the life of my grandmother, she was already deceased, as were her children. There was no way to verify details about her life, and she was known to have lied about some of those details. I had to speculate about some things, and therefore called it fiction.

When we write memoir, we may not remember every detail. Do we recall the exact words someone said, or just the feeling they conveyed? Do we remember the color of the drapes? And does it matter?

There’s been a lot of controversy over the veracity of memoir, based on a few authors blatantly making up stuff that was not remotely like their lives but calling it memoir because they thought it would sell better. This breaking of trust with the reader has resulted in a kind of fundamentalism that asserts that everything in a memoir has to be 100% “true.”

Wendy Fontaine, a journalist I worked with in the Antioch University MFA program, conducted research into brain science and discovered that memory is never 100% accurate, because every time we recall a memory, it changes. Memoir is not documentary; the term “creative nonfiction” implies that some degree of selection and emphasis, as well as imagination, is at work. Yes, memoirists have to keep faith with readers that the experiences we are asking them to invest in emotionally are true, but readers need to understand that we are presenting an interpretation of those experiences.

What we are ultimately after is emotional truth, the careful rendering of experience in a way that resonates with our readers and helps reflect their own lives and feelings. It is often said, the facts are not the truth. Whether we start in invention or draw from lived experience, whether our characters are from the future or the past, it is the emotional veracity that readers seek. It’s what keeps them reading.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #15 — Cultivating Our Readers

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #15 — Cultivating Our Readers

As much attention as we might lavish on our work, we know—unless we are journaling or doing other writing just for ourselves—a piece of writing is not complete until it is received by a reader. Communication is an important part of what we do, and we not only want to speak; we want to be heard.

This is why rejection from a publisher or a journal can feel so devastating. We are trying to send out our message but it isn’t being received.

We might fantasize that there is a large pool of voracious but undifferentiated readers just waiting to gobble up our latest poem or story or essay. The truth is somewhat different; most authors these days have to do the hard work of identifying their potential readers, figuring out how to reach them, engage their attention, and satisfy them enough that they will want to read your next work too.

Of course you have friends and family and colleagues, and ideally they are a core part of your readership. At their best, they cheer you on, read your work, give you constructive feedback, buy your books and tell others to do the same. They might even throw you a party and invite their friends to introduce you to new readers. To make this happen, you need to train them by talking about your work (what you’re excited about, not just your neurotic doubts), telling them what you need and letting them know how they can help.

But even if every single person you know is perfect in their support of you, you probably don’t know enough people. Publishers want not dozens or even a few hundred people to buy and read your work, they wants many thousands of people to do so. So you need to start building additional support among—gasp!—strangers. It’s part of the process many writers, who by nature may be introverted, don’t relish. But even for the shyest person, there are techniques that can help. Let’s take these one at a time.

Identify: Frequently when I ask a newer writer who they imagine their readership to be, they will tell me “Everyone.” Then I get to explain to them that there is no “everyone” anymore, that capitalism has segmented us into niche markets and interest sectors, and that you would need an impossibly large budget to reach “everyone.” Even Ford or Apple, who have bigger marketing budgets than you or I will ever have, don’t try to reach “everyone.”

We are always making decisions in our writing that are either based in an idea (conscious or unconscious) of who we want to reach or that determine who we are going to reach. As my mother said to me (and I choose to believe she was trying to be helpful), “If you want heterosexuals to read your work, honey, then you need to start writing about heterosexuals.” The decision to write in English gears your work to people literate in that language. The kind of diction you choose—writing in a particular vernacular, or using really elevated language—creates parameters of audience.

We might be primarily speaking to women, or a specific cultural community, or intellectuals, or young people. Even among these broad categories, there may be further specifying: African-American women aged 18-25 who attend college, for example.

Having a solid sense of who you want to speak to may help you in the crafting of your work—if you are primarily intending to communicate with a bilingual audience, for example, you can use Spanish freely and not worry about translating, something you might need to do if you imagine your audience as primarily English-speaking.

Reach: Knowing whom you want to reach will save you a lot of time in your efforts to connect with and grow your audience. Ways to get on your selected readers’ radar include: publishing in literary journals (both print and online), give public readings of your work, use social media to increase the visibility of your work, and use real world networks of groups and organizations connected to your topics. No matter which strategy you pursue you want to choose the appropriate venues to reach your intended audience. When Sage Bennet published her book Wisdom Walk, she used the network of New Thought churches throughout the U.S. to set up speaking engagements and workshops. Kim Dower set up readings all across the country to promote her poetry book Slice of Moon, and arranged to be interviewed on broadcast media about caring for someone with dementia, one of the themes in her book. Cara Chow conducted a blog tour to promote her novel, Bitter Melon, penning content for other writing blogs to reach new audience. Yvonne Estrada’s chapbook, My Name on Top of Yours, also included photographs, and she arranged for an exhibition of those photographs in a gallery which serves the community about which she is writing; she even arranged to participate in a reading at the gallery. The exhibition helped spur sales of her chapbook.

Engage: But you don’t want to wait until you have a book to start thinking about reaching and engaging your audience. You want to start right now. Anytime you meet someone, let them know what you’re writing. Again, talk about it in a positive way, not about how you are suffering over it. What’s interesting to you about it? What are you learning from it? If you are enthusiastic, that will spark their enthusiasm. Chances are, when you see them again, they’ll ask you about your progress, and you’ll tell them. They become invested in what you are doing and are potential readers when the work is finished.

Find opportunities to read your work in public, and get good at doing that. Many independent bookstores and coffeehouses host open readings, at which anyone can get up a read for 5 minutes. Sometimes you have to show up early to sign up for a limited number of slots. Make sure your work is strong, and practice with a friend to make sure your reading of your work is powerful. If you live in a community that doesn’t have a bookstore or coffeehouse, you can have a house party and ask your friends to invite their friends; your reading will be part of the entertainment. Or, if your work is appropriate, you could volunteer to read at a senior center, the local chamber of commerce, or in a bar (you can open for the band.)

When you do read in front of people, definitely stay for and meet the other readers, and take the time to hang out with the audience. If appropriate, collect contact info from people who seem to respond to the work. Start building a list of emails or mailing addresses. One thing I do is send out an annual holiday poem, designed in a postcard format, to my list. People like receiving work from me and it signals that I am engaged with them as well.

You can also engage through social media—Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. This method can be easier for the introverted than those face-to-face encounters. Build your list by connecting with friends of friends. Some writers build their networks by writing a blog and inviting comments so that you begin a dialogue. Retain info for everyone you make contact with, and find ways to communicate on a regular basis. It’s important that you post content that is of value to those that follow you, and not only self-promoting messages. Engagement is about building relationships, and that is of course a two-way street.

Satisfaction: We’d like our readers to find satisfaction in what we produce; we can control some factors but not all. We can write with as much skill as we can muster; we can work to deliver clarity and interesting characters and significance in the themes of our work. We can consider the reader’s experience as we write, and make sure they’re given what they need to understand and enjoy the journey. We can intelligently select the appropriate audience for the work, and we can communicate accurately about it up front, so that readers have a good idea what to expect.

Still, we have to accept that not everybody is going to love everything we produce. Even then, we hope we have given them enough that they will be willing to continue to check us out next time.

In the writing workshop, talking about getting your work to its readership is an important part of the process. Brainstorming with other writers about techniques that work for them, venues for reading, which publications are looking for work, and how people are using social media can provide vital support on your journey to cultivating readers. Although writing can appear to be solitary, it is ultimately about communicating with others, and the experience of your writing being received by readers will bring new richness to your writing life.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #14: Ego

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #14: Ego

We want our writing to reflect our brilliance, our depth, our wisdom, our poetic souls, the very best of who we are. Sometimes we achieve that. Usually after a lot of hard work and self-doubt and not knowing and feelings of failure. And that process is tough on the ego.

The ego is the part of the psyche that is most connected to external reality. It allows us to regard ourselves through the eyes of others. But too much external focus can take us far away from the source of our creativity—our intuition, our inner guidance.

This can be tricky in a writing workshop. I was reminded of this truth recently when a student said he was often surprised by the feedback he received, and wished he could learn to better anticipate it. He said, “Sometimes it makes me doubt my own instincts.” This concerned me. Although I believe that respectful, constructive feedback is vital for writers, I never want it to undermine a writer’s inner guidance. At its best, the feedback process can invite new possibilities, open up new ways of exploring the work. I suggested to him that feedback is only information, other perspectives; it can never supplant one’s own instincts and intentions for the work.

But the ego wants to feel gratified, wants to feel we have done well, wants others to acknowledge we have done well. The ego wants to feel it has accomplished something, that the task is complete. Feedback may reflect things in the writing that are already satisfying, but it is also likely to suggest we still have more work to do.

The ego is not in love with process. And so much of writing is process. Another student reported that she was growing discouraged with her work, because she just couldn’t find a way to make it come together. She was thinking of abandoning her project, which concerned me, because I really believe in her book. She did give me this opening, “There are parts of it that I like…” I suggested to her that she spend additional time working on those parts, expanding them, writing more in that arena. She returned the following week to say she’d gone back to that section of her project and had made progress. Her ego had needed a boost; she needed to experience some satisfaction with her effort in order to continue. We all do.

Writing is hard. It is ego-bruising. It is stumbling around, taking lots of wrong turns, not knowing where we are going, finding our skills lacking, confronting our imperfect wisdom, falling short of our desires. All this is not because we are bad writers. It’s because all this is required to make something out of nothing.

The truth is that literary writers are not just wordsmiths or documentarians. We are inventors. Whether our initial inspiration is a real event or a product of pure imagination, it is our job to build a world with words through which our readers can journey and in which they will find meaning. Inventors in science or technology know that failure is part of the learning process; when one solution doesn’t work, you try another and each brings your closer to the result you’re seeking. But words seem so personal; our egos have an especially hard time when words don’t do what we intend them to do.

The ego is an important companion as we go through our lives. It helps us to be aware of ourselves with others, it gives us the drive to achieve and to accomplish. It’s not that we want to vanquish the ego, and it’s useful to understand that the ego needs rewards.

On the other hand, we can’t become exclusively identified with the ego, because its consciousness does not include our spiritual growth, our inner journey. If the ego is in control, we’ll do easy things for short-term gain and never tackle the hard work of a demanding project that challenges our deficiencies and forces us to grow in order to fulfill its promise.

As writers we need to find ways to experience enough reward to keep the ego from balking, and at the same time become more comfortable with the humbling experience of working toward the virtuosity we seek. Keeping this balance is a vital part of our writing practice, and a vital part of a writing workshop.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #13 —Layers of Meaning

Poet Kim Dower (a former participant in Poets At Work and now the Poet Laureate of West Hollywood) came back from a week-long workshop with poet Robert Wrigley and couldn’t wait to tell the group about it. Slightly giddy with inspiration, she quoted him saying, “Every poem is about a thing and another thing. It’s the other thing that takes the poem into all the complexities — emotional, moral, etc.”

Poems work on more than one level. The apparent subject of a poem is only one layer of what the poem is really talking about. Ann Pibel, a member of Poets At Work, wrote a poem that begins to describe a garden setting, a house with its windows open to the outside. When suddenly she describes the blossoming orange trees as “lonely brides” we start to understand that the poem is also talking about the domestic relationships of those who occupy this house. This metaphor signals a deeper layer of meaning that underlies the description. That’s the other thing in her poem.

Some poets juxtapose more than one event to layer meaning. In his poem “At Risk,” from his book, City of God, the late Gil Cuadros describes the waiting room of a doctor’s office; the speaker is there to receive his AIDS diagnosis. Also waiting are a mother and young son, the mother brutal in her efforts to get the boy to behave. This puts the speaker in mind of his own mother’s brutal discipline, adding yet a third layer to the poem. These layers fuse and deliver a power to the conclusion {“I didn’t dare ask how long I’ve got, / palm over my mouth, / I say mother / softer than I ever did before.”) that could not have been achieved by any one of the layers alone.

If you’re reading along thinking, “I don’t write poems, I’ll just skip this post,” hold on. Wrigley’s wisdom applies to all literary writing. In the language of the prose writer, he is talking about the difference between plot and theme.

My first published novel, Bailey’s Beads, is about a woman, Bryn Redding, in a coma after a car accident. The central question is Will she awaken? On the surface, that sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie, but I wove in a conflict between Bryn’s mother and lover over who gets to define Bryn while she is unable to represent herself. I also added Bryn’s writing, which reveals yet another aspect of her. Through the use of subplots, the reader is asked to contemplate whether any of us knows the people we claim to love, or if we just invent them for our own purposes. The plot is necessary to keep the reader moving through the story, but the theme is what rewards them for making the journey.

Setting is another powerful tool writers use to invoke theme. In her story, “Bobby Kennedy Comes to Town,” longtime workshop participant Pat Alderete explores the sexual mores of a group of young women in the late 1960s; you might have sex with your boyfriend in a moment of passion if you really love him, but if you take birth control you’re seen as a whore. Alderete sets this story at the moment of Bobby Kennedy’s visit to East Los Angeles, a moment of hope and pride for the community that ends the next night in Kennedy’s assassination. At this place and time, so much in the United States was about to change, and the girls’ dilemma takes on an even greater significance.

Essays also offer powerful opportunities to develop theme. The reflective nature of the form provides occasion to contemplate the meaning of events. Nina Rota, a former workshop member who works with me privately, is writing an ambitious book of linked essays. A recent essay, “The Wedding at Cana,” makes frequent use of allusions (referencing work by other artists) to create universality to the narrator’s search for some connection to the father who never acknowledged his paternity. Among other things, she invokes the train ride across the sea from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to describe the displacement felt by the speaker lacking this root to family, and The Wedding at Cana, a painting by Paolo Veronese stolen from Italy by Napoleon and returned to Venice as a reproduction, to talk about how we may feel connected to someone through their art, even a facsimile of their art.

Since hearing Wrigley’s quote, I often find myself asking students and myself, “Okay, but what’s the other thing?” It’s a great reminder to build those deeper layers of meaning into our work.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.