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

Writing Tip by Felice Picano

In the past few years I’ve begun to tune in to the wavelengths of the world — like a radio receiver — and now strangers tell me their lives.  I don’t know who they are until I’ve let them use me to narrate.  I think it began with my discovery of the unsolved murder in 1923 of a child, an uncle I never knew existed.  I searched but I never learned who killed him or why.  Yet. . . telling his story may have settled his spirit . . . a bit.  Since Vincenzo, I’ve heard other lives.  I always know it’s them because the story “writes itself,” often in a few days:  a woman who died of cancer in the Midwest married to a closeted man; an elderly writer stricken in a freak accident; a psychic boy in Northern Florida illness-bound to a wheelchair; a Venezuelan scientist facing the utterly unknown; a Victorian noblewoman in England, seduced, abandoned, and self liberated.  I called one story “Gift.”  They all are! . . . Learn to listen.

Biography of Felice Picano: Author of numerous novels, memoirs, nonfiction works and poetry, Mr. Picano has much of his work collected in references and collections including The Cambridge History of American Literature: Vol. 7Prose Writing, 1940-1990, A Concise Companion to American Literature & Culture since World World II, Eyewitness To America: 500 Years of American History: In the Words Of Those Who Saw It, The Readers Catalog: An Annotated Listing of the 40,000 Best Books in PrintContemporary Authors: Autobiographies: Felice PicanoContemporary Authors: Volume 20, Contemporary Gay Male Novelists; A Bio-Bibliographical Criitical SourcebookThe Post Modern Short Story: Froms & Issues, Gay Fiction Speaks: Interviews with 12 Authors, Vol 1, and The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill Club and the Making of Gay Culture.

Writing Prompt by Steven Reigns

I love how poetry (and most types of writing) can illuminate actions, items, and feelings that we might not normally explore or question.

For the past five years I’ve solely taught autobiographical poetry workshops.  The work generated from these workshops is the perfect mixture of poetry, my lifelong love, and my inherent fascination with others. I think autobiographical work helps the writer and reader see their lives in another way.

One of my favorite writing prompts with my students is to have them write a poem about their pillow.  Though scary scientific data suggests after a couple of years our pillows are weightier due to dust mite excrement, most of us don’t discard them often.  Think about how many dreams you’ve had on the pillow, when you first got it, how many lovers have rested their head on it, how many times you’ve cried on it, stayed awake with worry, been bedridden with illness, how it held your propped up head as you read of Scout and Jem’s adventures.  What about the times you’ve woken up with drool on your pillow? Or on hot July evenings flipping it over to feel the coolness of the other side? How many pillows are on your bed? Do you hug the pillow at night like one would a lover or does it get pushed aside in your sleep—maybe like a lover as well.  How many decorative pillows are ceremoniously placed on the bed only when guests are expected?

How does this compare with other pillows in your life?  When I was younger my father still used his Marine issued pillow and  I still remember how it smelled of him.  What about those throw pillows on your grandmother’s couch you used to take naps on?

If you’re interested in writing fiction, think of the pillow of your character.  It’s an interesting way to get into a story.

Biography of Steven Reigns: Steven Reigns’ newest collection of poetry, Inheritance, is being released in May of 2010.  A two-time recipient of The Los Angeles County’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ Artist-in-Residency Grant, Reigns organized and taught the first-ever autobiography poetry workshop for GLBT seniors and edited an anthology of their writings, My Life is Poetry. Visit him at www.stevenreigns.com.

Writing Tip by Sholeh Wolpe

Five nails to hammer into your writing desk:

–A poem is a sauce you simmer and simmer until your reach its potent and aromatic essence.  This you do with editing.  Learn to edit your work.  It’s an art.  It’s a skill.

–Use metaphors to render the most ordinary into extraordinary.

–Jack Gilbert in his poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” (The Great Fires Poems, Knopf, 1984) writes about the simple Sumerian tablets that are assumed to be simple business transactions, as love poems:

…When the thousands

of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,

they seemed to be business records. But what if they

are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve

Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.

O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,

as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.

–Give your readers something to recognize or relate to, then surprise them by nudging them into a different direction.

— And finally, feel fully authorized to recreate language.

Biography of Sholeh Wolpé: Sholeh Wolpé is the author of Rooftops of Tehran, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, and The Scar Saloon. She is the associate editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (Norton, 2010), and the editor of the 2010 Iran issue of Atlanta Review. Her poems, translations, essays and reviews have appeared in scores of literary journals, periodicals and anthologies worldwide.  Sholeh was born in Iran and presently lives in Los Angeles.  For more info: www.sholehwolpe.com.

Writing Tip by Sarah Maclay

That Hemingway Thing

“Just write one true thing . . .” I can’t tell you how many times this has gotten me out of a jam.  And that’s “true” with a small t.  Try a Big T truth and this will have the opposite effect:  it’ll shut you down.  Plus it will probably be abstract, which is the opposite of where you want to go.  Usually, the “true thing” is something I see—“A bell in a window. Verdigris.  Still.  How the roses tatter in heat. ” It doesn’t seem to matter how small it is, if it registers precisely on the senses.  For some reason it unlocks the next line, and the next.  What becomes important: don’t jimmy it.  Stay true.  This can be odder than you’d think, but embrace that oddness.  As Charlie Murrow says, only the strange is luminous.  I once started a poem while driving across town in the late afternoon among wet vines, block after block, lining the boulevard: they smelled like cat piss.  This “smell image” started a poem that ended in an apartment, with a sweeping of shattered glass.  The cat piss, by the way, did not stay in the poem.  But without it, the poem would not have begun.

Biography of Sarah Maclay: Sarah Maclay is the award-winning author of The White Bride and Whore (University of Tampa Press). Her poems, reviews and essays have appeared in APR, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Writers’ Chronicle, Verse Daily, The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800 to the Present and Poetry International.  She teaches creative writing and literature at Loyola Marymount University.

Writing Tip by Janet Sternburg

This is about the old chestnut: “Do you write every day?”

And if you answer, “yes,” then chances are you’ll hear another old chestnut: “What discipline you must have!”

Nope. It’s not discipline. I always think of discipline as beating yourself on the shoulders with a stick. It’s actually a writer’s “trick.” Let yourself fall in love with what you’re writing — so much so that you can’t stay away from it. I don’t mean infatuation. I don’t mean bliss. I mean letting yourself become so absorbed in the story you’re telling, the words you’re honing, the structural problems you are trying to solve, that it’s the most interesting thing you know to do. So you do it.

Biography of Janet Sternburg: Janet Sternburg’s books include The Writer on Her Work, Volumes 1 & 2, (W. W. Norton); Phantom Limb: A Memoir, American Lives Series, (Univ. of Nebraska); and Optic Nerve: Photopoems, (Red Hen). She is also a photographer and has exhibited in solo shows at galleries and museums in Korea, Mexico, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles.

Writing Tip by Lisa Teasley

Photo by Rex Wilson

Take Notes

When it comes to fiction, my primary discipline, I’m brought to the page by character: his or her peculiarities, vulnerabilities, self-perceived shortcomings, and conflicts with others.   If I’m stuck in any way with narrative flow, I’ll take notes on the character’s history, whims, scuffles, crises, and then come back to the page fresh with understanding.   When reading poetry, the newspaper, or even the ending film credits, I jot down a word or name that pops out alien and seductive, emphasizing the art of language.   Working in the yard, dancing, and going to see art are also juicers to get me back to the computer, feeling less enslaved by the editor in my head and more newly motivated to create.

Biography of Lisa Teasley: Lisa Teasley is the author of acclaimed novels HEAT SIGNATURE (Bloomsbury, 2006) and DIVE (Bloomsbury, 2004), and the award-winning story collection, GLOW IN THE DARK (Cune Press, 2002 and Bloomsbury, 2006).   Teasley is writer and presenter of the BBC Television documentary “High School Prom”; her stories and essays have been much anthologized, appearing in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times and Essence magazine.   She has taught in the Cal Arts and Antioch MFA writing programs, as well as the UCLA Writers Program.   Her website is www.lisateasley.com.