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.

 

March Poem of the Month — Georgia Jones-Davis

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DID YOU WAVE AT THE TRAIN?

Did you wave at the train
with its shrill keen,
as it went its own creaking way
into the distance of money?
Did you wave at the train
with its grim, receding aria?
The men who work trains
come from the borderline  —
Needles, Winslow, Modesto;
pine for the wild flesh of Alaska,
Seattle with its bracelet
of green islands,
anywhere tracks will take them.
They ride the rails
into the black tunnels
of  broken imaginations.
Some will never look up
where you, cold-eyed as a bird,
speed through clouds
in the silent altitude of years,
miles above the engineer’s
aging ranchera music,
the burnt grids of track-worn cities,
skinny Vegas nudity of the tourist desert,
miles above a snaking, lovelorn train’s
fading whistle.

Georgia Jones-Davis is the author of a chapbook, Blue Poodle (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including West Wind,  The Bicycle Review,  Nebo, Ascent Aspirations, Brevities and South Bank Poetry, London. New work will appear in the fall 2013 issue of Eclipse.

April 2012 Poem of the Month — Victoria Dym

Bird Song

for Sydney

Waiting out winter like
waiting for a phone call,
half past February…

like a ring tone
in the name of Spring,
we hear this warbling.

That one, you say,
that’s my fave…
and instantly, I hear

the bird song, as I see
you, sitting on the couch,
eyes closed, listening,

teacup in hand, smiling…
a thin break in the eggshell:
beak behind your lips.

Victoria Dym is a graduate of Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Clown College, has earned a BA, in Philosophy, from Pitt, and her MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry at Carlow University.

March Poem of the Month — Karen Marie Christa Minns

Image

RISING

 

The evening rides a

Sapphic sky:  Venus

And Diana  rising

Side

By Side.

O cupped silver, keeper of my anger

In these angry days;

I am sick of Light!

The snow-fed glare,

Tremble

Of roaring stars!

Give me

Removed moon, pale night and

Let me

Rise.

Karen Marie Christa Minns is a Gemini writer flying between jobs, family, friends and destiny. (So far, she hasn’t landed.)  Contact info: karenminns@yahoo.com. blog: STREETRAP  http://karenmariechristaminns.blogspot.com

February Poem of the Month — Sarah Maclay

Instructions for Wooing

I don’t want to wear rocks on my hands—
or metal, or anything dug from the earth.
I want my hands naked, I want my nails short,
I want nothing between us—no symbol, no law,

no metal, or anything dug from the earth.
No backbreaking labor, no three-carat deals—
I want nothing between us—no symbol, no law,
no grand proclamations, no bells, no expense,

no backbreaking labor, no three-carat deals,
no flowers, not anything torn from its roots,
no grand proclamations, no bells, no expense,
just this, just this: your skin, my skin.

No flowers! Not anything torn from its roots!
I want us unpolished, unvarnished, undone.
Just this, just this: your skin, my skin.
I’ll wear your hands instead of a gown.

I want us unpolished. Unvarnish! Undo!
I want your hands naked. I want your nails short.
Oh! Your hands! Instead of a gown.
I don’t want to wear rocks on my hands.

Sarah Maclay’s newest release is Music for the Black Room (UT Press). Her poems appear in APR, Ploughshares, FIELD, Poetry Daily, VerseDaily, The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800 to the Present, Poetry International and elsewhere. She teaches at LMU. www.sarahmaclay.com

January Poem of the Month – Dylan C. Gailey

Afternoon Walks in Winter

Was it because the days are short
and meaningful and the nights will
be spent fitful with the scent
of burnt pallets that I am reminded
of your christening?

Or was it when I realized the breathe I held
would never pass between yours lips in time
and because the riverbed cannot
remember the cooling crush of rain
that I was left hesitant to ask.

Do the winds from the south speak more slowly to you?
Are birds aware they migrate in symbols of lesser or
greater degrees? How does the sparrow let you
touch her in death? I wasn’t certain I should ask;
you are after all only three.

Dylan C. Gailey‘s “Afternoon Walks in Winter” is her
second poem featured through WAW’s Poem of the Month.
She is also a student and teacher of Kundalini Yoga.