Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #7: Blocks

It happens to all creative people at one time or another: We turn on the faucet and nothing pours out. We hear the wind blowing across the arid desert. We feel empty. Disconnected. Blocked.

We may feel we have no ideas. We may feel that what we’re producing is terrible. We may feel bored. Or terrified.

If we have a flair for the dramatic (and most creative people do) we may panic, think our creativity has deserted us and is Never. Coming. Back.

As a writing teacher, I have heard (and sometimes uttered) these laments more times that I can count, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about some different kinds of blocks and how to work with them.

  1. Disturbances in the Field — Life does sometimes get in the way. If you are physically ill or emotionally upset, if you have a heavy deadline at work, if you are moving or giving birth, you may find this interferes with your ability to be creative.
  • If the interruption is finite, a few days or a couple of weeks, you might just give yourself a break and take some time away from your creative practice, or decide to just devote a small amount of time each day to doing exercises without an expectation of producing a product.
  • If the interruption is of a long or uncertain duration, it’s worth it to figure out how you can navigate your circumstances so that you can maintain a creative practice. Sometimes this is a matter of devoting a limited amount of time (I once wrote the first draft of a novel in increments of half an hour a day) or finding a space outside your environment to work in (libraries, coffee shops, public gardens are a few ideas).
  • If I’m really busy, it can be hard to connect immediately to my own creativity, so engaging in meditation or creative play (dancing around my living room, sculpting a ball of Play-Doh into the form of a cat) can help shift me into a different part of my brain.
  • If you find that something is always going on that disrupts your creativity, then it might be worth looking at whether there is fear involved (see #4 below).
  1. Perfectionism — We think what we write is supposed to be “good” as soon as it comes onto the page or screen. But as soon as I start trying to be “good,” I freeze.
    Sometimes I have to tell myself that I am going to write the worst first draft anyone has ever seen (knowing that I can always make it better during the revision process) in order to free myself up to write something. Putting aside the ego and writing badly is a great way around a block.

 

  1. Lack of information — You’re inspired to write a story set in Iceland one hundred years ago. But you don’t know anything about Iceland one hundred years ago.
    It is reasonable to conduct research and make that part of your creative process. Go to your local library and ask the librarian to help you find resources. You don’t have to know everything before you start writing. Even a little research can get you started, then you can alternate between research and writing.
  1. Fear — Fear is the biggest block. We fear the content of what we are writing about. We fear the ambition of our writing projects. We fear the power of the work that wants to come through us. We fear falling short of our expectations. Fear has many manifestations. If you think it’s boredom, it’s probably fear that is masking itself as boredom.
    The first strategy is to name it, to look it in the eye, acknowledge it
    • The second strategy is to figure out just who is afraid—is it you now, or is it some younger version of yourself (“my sixth grade teacher told me I would never be able to write anything people would want to read”)?
    • If it’s you right now that is afraid, ponder this saying from 12-Step meetings: F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. Where might you be buying in to false evidence? One way we do this is to get ahead of ourselves (“What if I write this, and it becomes a bestseller, and my mom’s friends tell her what I said about her?”) In the present, your only concern is to write the work; everything else is an imagined future that might not play out that way at all.
    • If it’s your younger self who is afraid, find out what they need from you to feel more secure. Just as you would comfort a child who had a nightmare, you can soothe the younger being who is in you, reassuring them that the monster is not real and you are there to protect them. Ask that younger self to help you with the project; enlist them to cooperate with you instead of resisting.

 

  1. My favorite quote about blocks comes from the poet Judy Grahn (if you don’t know her, you’ll want to), who said, “When the apple tree isn’t bearing apples, no one says that tree has a fruit block.” She was referring to the fact that, like plants, humans have seasons, a time to be creative and a time to go fallow. The expectation that we are like factories and will churn out product 365 days a year is a distortion of natural cycles. We all need time to restore our energies, refuel our imaginations. Sometimes we need to be taking in the beauty of nature, new experiences, new places, reading books or engaging with art/music/performance by others. It might not be a block at all; you might just be in need of rest or nourishment.

 

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 #6: Conflict

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #6: Conflict

As writers, we talk a lot about conflict when we’re crafting our stories. Your protagonist wants something, but obstacles prevent them (or delay them) from attaining it or achieving their goal. Then they have to take action to try to overcome those obstacles.

In the work of emerging writers, I will sometimes see protagonists who have no goal. Or protagonists who face no opposition. Or protagonists who take no action. The stories are often beautifully written but they have little momentum and little for the reader to wonder about.

Why conflict? A lot of writers tell me they don’t really like conflict and don’t want to bring it into their work. However, it is through facing challenges and figuring out how to surmount them that we grow and change. We can see it in our own lives; when everything is just humming along, you might grow a little complacent. But then a relationship change occurs, or we move, or lose our job, or get ill, and we have to find the resources within ourselves to meet that challenge.

Story is a record of change. We tell story to learn how to initiate, respond to or manage change. If everything is fine, you don’t really need a story about it. “How was your day?” someone might ask. “Oh, pretty good, I guess.” We have nothing to say. But if there’s been conflict, we have a story to tell, “I was standing in line at the bank, and this guy came in with a gun and tried to rob it!”

Even in the natural world, stresses in the environment spur evolution in plants and animals and ecosystems. So, too, we want our characters to evolve in our stories.

The four classic conflicts are:

Person vs. Person

Somebody doesn’t want your protagonist to get what they want. This antagonist may be well-meaning (a parent who fears if their kid goes to art school instead of law school, the kid won’t be able to earn a living) or of ill intent (the rival who wants the job your protagonist is up for.)

Person vs. Society

Your protagonist is an outsider in some way, not accepted by the family, the community, or the culture. This alienation stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their quest.

Person vs. Nature

There are forces you can’t argue with and Nature is one of them. The storm is going to come, the fire is spreading, the earth shakes open beneath your feet. How is your protagonist going to survive, and will they save others?

Person vs. Self

Many stories, including many memoirs, revolve around this conflict: how am I going to get over myself or get out of my own way? It may be defensive patterns, ignorance, or unhealed emotional wounds that are the obstacles to the protagonist getting what they want. In the course of the story they will either overcome this, or they will resign themselves to not achieving their goal.

In many cases, such internal conflict can be generated in the difference between what the protagonist expected and what actually happens. I was sure they were going to agree to publish my book but they didn’t. Or I thought I could get across town in 20 minutes but it took me 45 and I missed my court date. Some writers fear that conflict means they have to add fights or big action scenes, but not every story requires that. Internal tension can provide the conflict some stories need.

Even poetry can benefit from tension or conflict. These might come through a narrative element similar to those described above, but might also come from other techniques:
• putting words together that seem to conflict: “a harsh tenderness,” “the arid lake”;
• using words with dissonant sounds, a combination of soft and hard—“janky sweetness”;
• combining long lines and short lines or disrupting rhythmic patterns.
A reader may not be consciously aware of your use of these kind of non-narrative techniques, but it will lend the poem the friction you seek.

When conflict arises, we never quite know what’s going to happen, and this serves to engage the reading in wanting to find out.

Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing 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 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 #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5: Writing Emotion

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #5

In a workshop the other day we were talking about the best ways to convey strong emotion in your written work. “The goal,” I said to a student, “is to evoke emotion in the reader, not to tell the reader that the writer or the character felt emotional.”

Emotion is difficult to write about. Words like “sad, mad, happy” are abstract; they convey information but not experience. It’s important to remember that the word “Feeling” can refer to either emotion or sensation, and one very effective way to describe emotion is through the physical sensations produced.

If I write, “As if by its own volition, her fist began to curl and clench. Her face grew hot and her arm cocked back, readying itself to punch; she willed it to remain at her side,” a reader will understand palpably the character’s anger because they will have an experience of it.

If I write, “A wounded bird is trapped in the cavern of my chest,” a reader will have a more vivid experience than if I just said, “I feel sad.” The former offers a particularity of sadness that, while not literal, a reader can imagine. Figurative language (metaphor, simile, things not literally true) can be a powerful technique to convey emotion: “It always seemed to be raining outside his bedroom window.”

While we want the character or poetic persona to be emotional, and the writing to evoke emotions in the reader, the author should try to keep their emotions out of it. A rule of thumb is that the more an author’s emotions are present in the work, the less room there is for the reader’s emotions. Part of the reason for this is that the author may be doing all the work for the reader, telling them how to feel, which leaves no space for the reader’s engagement in the work.

Another pitfall is sentimentality, which I would describe as “received emotion.” That is, as writers, we lapse into the expected feeling. Grandma has died and everyone is sad. This is nothing against Grandma, but life is more complex than that. Grandma has died and I feel guilty that I didn’t bring her groceries every week like I promised I would. Or Grandma has died and I never had the courage to come out to her. Or Grandma has died and I’m so relieved I won’t have to smell the liver and onions she cooked anymore. Or I never really liked Grandma all that much anyway. The reader has nothing to learn from the easy sentiment, but much to learn from the complex truth of human emotions.

An additional technique writers use is the “objective correlative.” First identified by T.S. Eliot (though he was not the first to use it), this is the strategy of describing an object as a way of conveying the emotion of a scene: A couple is in trouble, their relationship is coming apart. Rather than offering an analysis of their dynamics, the author sends them out for dinner and one of them orders a steak. But the meat is over-cooked, it is dry and can barely be chewed, indigestible. The steak correlates to the feeling about the failing relationship, but the author keeps us focused on the inedible steak. The reader feels the character’s disappointment, frustration, hunger unsated, all without resorting to interpretive language that tells rather than shows. So much can happen with that steak: the character can eat it until they feel sick; they can throw it on the floor; they can use it to provoke an argument with the waitress.

In Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, she argues that literature both requires us to use our emotions in order to understand it, and at the same time literature educates and improves our emotions as well as our ability to cope with them. Readers of poetry and literary prose are looking to have their emotions aroused; it is one of the great benefits of literature to provide a mirror of one’s inner life and a safe place to externalize it. Writers cultivate the skills to facilitate this emotional experience for the reader.

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 manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #4: The Senses

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #4: The Senses

Everything we know, we first know through our senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. The mind processes those sensory inputs and draws conclusions. We deduce what time it is or what season by the angle of light in the sky. We understand our partner’s mood by their tone of voice. We recognize danger when the hairs on the back of our neck stand up.

As literary writers and poets, we know that readers seek to have an experience, to immerse themselves in a world not their own. Using sensory description is one of the best ways to provide the reader a rich experience of our work.

I sometimes give students an exercise to go out into the streets and look for something to write about. Once a student came back and reported that he’d seen a man who was depressed. “Whoa,” I said, “How could you tell that? Was it his posture? The state of his clothing? The look in his eyes or the shape of his mouth? Don’t give me the conclusion,” I told him, “Give me the evidence.”

If you only present the reader with the conclusion, they will take in the information and that’s the end of it. If you give the reader the sensory evidence, they will have an experience and will draw the conclusion themselves. Having done so, the reader is actively working with the text to create meaning and is that much more engaged in the work.

There’s an exercise I often give that is designed to heighten your awareness of the senses. It’s as effective with beginners as it is with seasoned writers. You can use it if you’re just getting started writing something or anytime you need help in bringing a moment to life. There are 7 parts; you’ll need about 30 minutes total to do the whole thing.

Write about the celebration of a holiday. It could be a remembered occasion or something made up. It needs to be a specific event (not “the way my family always celebrated my birthday” but “that year Uncle Fred got drunk and put the turkey on his head.”) For each segment below, you can write a list or in paragraph form. Don’t worry too much about the writing, we’re just compiling a pool of data.

  1. Set a timer and spend 3 minutes writing about the event just from the visual perspective; what can be seen?
  2. Then, describing the same event, take 3 minutes to write about it from an aural perspective; what can be heard?
  3. Next, still working on the same event, spend 3 minutes describing it from a tactile perspective; what do we feel with our skin?
  4. Continuing with this same event, take 3 minutes to describe its smells and tastes. You may have to use associations to describe these senses, since we have fewer words for these two senses (“her neck smelled like the beach on a summer day.”)
  5. Take an additional 3 minutes and just write the action of the event; what are people doing?
  6. Then take a few moments to reflect on what you’ve written. Which senses were easy and which were harder? I’ve known students to discover that there are senses they never pay attention to. What was the most surprising thing you wrote?
  7. Finally, give yourself another 10-15 minutes to go back and write a scene about the event. You don’t need to incorporate every sensory detail you wrote down before, just choose the best ones. You can also add new ones you didn’t think of the first time. Incorporate elements of all five senses with the action, and see what you get.

Working with the senses allows us to go more deeply into our writing; it gets us out of the mind and into the body. And it allows the reader to do the same.

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 manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3: How writing changes us

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #3: How writing changes us

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.

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 manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2: Writing for ourselves/ writing for the reader

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #2: Writing for ourselves/ writing for the reader

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.

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 manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.

 

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1: Writing badly

Lessons from the Writing Workshop #1: Writing badly

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.

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 manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.