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Writing practice

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Getting Back into Writing Practice

It’s been a while since I posted here. It’s been too long. I am rereading Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg, where she shares her life and her insights about the practice of writing. I’ve long been familiar with her other book Writing Down the Bones, which gives some good insight and prompts. Though I read it a long time ago, Long Quiet Highway was what I needed this week. I felt prompted to get back into practice. This is what I wrote down:

I need to make a regular practice with writing. I can take at least 15 minutes a day to write down something in my notebook. That is 15 minutes more than if I didn’t write at all. I can wake up a bit earlier to do this. My mind is fresh then. I can do this after I arrive to work from my commute.

I resolve to be as honest and as candid as I can be in my writing practice. I may not always share this writing with others, but I resolve to get to that scary place where I am afraid to articulate that story. It’s often sexual or something I’m not proud of. There are also things that may be somewhere in between, that I’m afraid I’ll be judged. I have been holding back on my stories and I resolve not to hold back anymore.

To write this stuff down is like getting naked and that’s always been scary. It’s easier in where it’s a naked space like the locker room of a gym or the sauna. It’s a little more like Black’s Beach, but more people are more often clothed than not. It’s a lot more like being on a stage with no clothes on or being an artist’s model. All is out there to see. Writing is exposing and that is scary.

Writing is more interesting when there are those details that show you’re letting the reader in. I’ve always been afraid of that. I worried about what personal detail would be out in the open. I’ve also worried about who I would hurt in the telling of the story.

I take this risk by putting all this down, to write them down in a notebook.I put those first thoughts down as well.

I want to say everything and freeze up when it comes time to. Or, I say everything at once. Here, I can take the time to say one thing at a time. I can always unpack as I go along. I can always revisit it later.

This is taking the time to write a bit every day, to get the first thoughts down.

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This was 361 words in 15 minutes. Kevin Welan resolved to write 250 words a day in his resolution, which I got from Joanne Meschery, a wonderful visiting creative writing professor I studied with in the MFA program. In any case, the word count can sound daunting on its own, but this is about writing regularly. I may post some of this pages. I also reserve the right not to share some if I’m not comfortable sharing. But it is my hope that even being honest and candid in those entries will help me in telling my stories. When I finished the first reread of Long Quiet Highway, I cried. Natalie Goldberg’s story about Katagiri Roshi was indeed moving. However, her discussion of the practice and getting to the energy of those first thoughts spoke to me about how I held back my stories and there was a lot of untapped energy there.

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Being Present with First Thoughts

Yesterday morning, I took a cue from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones in the “First Thoughts” chapter and wrote in my notebook, pen and paper, in five minute bursts. I used the timer on my iPhone and I started it up two times more. I spent a total of seventeen minutes more or less, which doesn't seem like too much time. However, five minutes or a group of five minutes is more than none writing.

Goldberg offers these guidelines for any timed writing session:

  1. Keep your hand moving.
  2. Don't cross out.
  3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular.

I used a pen and notebook because it kept my hand moving. I figured this would be a good way to start on some fiction I've been meaning to write. If I try to start on Microsoft Word, I freeze up. There's something about how it gives you a virtual page layout that makes it daunting to even start and helps reinforce the terror of the blank page. Even sitting down with a notebook with pen in hand can induce this anxiety, so having the timer on pushed me to get my hand moving.

As much as I like using the Notes app to write things out, it doesn't get my hand moving the same way. It does get my thumbs moving and the predictive text adds an element that's not present when I sit down with pen and paper, which brings me to editing issues.

I have to admit I still crossed out words in my brief morning writing session. It's a hard habit to kick. Most of the time it was the wrong form of the word or even one that was misspelled. And yes, I worried about writing down the wrong word and spelling.

I usually don't have much problems with punctuation. However, I do get fixated on sentence structure and worry about how elegant or inelegant they come out. When I am writing more quickly, my sentences do run on more. They can be long and unwieldy, which is the opposite of being in control.

It's not just spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure regarding control. It's scary to reveal things in writing, especially when it's deeply personal. Even when it's not so personal, it's easy to get caught up o in what someone might think about me based on what I say, what I present about myself. Also, style and execution at this stage can stop the process altogether.

On her guidelines for a timed writing session, regarding “Go for the jugular,” Natalie Goldberg adds the note “If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.” This where giving control comes in. In avoiding what's scary or naked in my writing, I avoid what's awkward or uncomfortable, but I also avoid material that can later on be what lets the reader in. This is the type of thing that makes personal essays compelling, but it can also add deeply to fiction. I should not avoid the things that may be difficult to discuss or things I'm ashamed of in these writing sessions. Emotions too as they can be very scary, especially in naked form.

I've often use emotion to put off writing. Most of the time, it's that I might be feeling drained or sad, so I tell myself that I will write when I'm in a better state of mind. Then I'm in a better state of mind later and I still don't get around to writing.

For this and just sitting through the writing, Natalie Goldberg discusses Zen discipline and then applies it to writing: “...you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don't stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penerrate to the heart of them.”

In my desire for stability and control, I found it easy to stagnate and not move. There isn't room for the energy of first thoughts, so letting go of what she describes as the ego, “that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent, logical, enduring, and logical,” helps. Then there is room for the energy of the first thoughts.

I can go into my timed writing exercises knowing the value of first thoughts. I can also approach untimed writing in the same way. And being present compared to living in the past helps. This makes writing active.

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Writer’s Guides: The Artist’s Way

Once upon a time, I took an Artist’s Way workshop. This was post-MFA with me having taught for a couple of years and feeling frustrated about not really getting any writing done. Meanwhile, a friend who is a self-taught poet was inspired by Interview with a Vampire and went down the rabbit hole of vampire literature and films and movies in teaching himself how to write his own vampire novel. This same friend told me about the Artist Way Workshop that was facilitated by a friend of his.

I knew about Julia Cameron’s book for many years, but shied away from it. It sounded New Agey, like drum circles. But there are times in one's life when one needs something like that, so I decided to give it a try.

It's hard to get away from the spiritual component of The Artist's Way. Cameron isn't the only one to advance this idea of creativity being a spiritual thing as there's the Zen connection in Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and the Christianity that guides Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. Cameron doesn't come from a specific faith or tradition in her approach, though invites the reader who's picked up her book to see themselves as being made in the image of the image of the Creator to be creators themselves.

While a theme of this book is following your creative passion, it's not about getting caught up in a vague spirituality. Julia Cameron gives a prescription for self-care long before it became a term while walking the reader through practice with plenty of activities and prompts, like morning pages, artist dates, and assignments to tap into one's creativity.

Through it all, it is about pursuing art safely in the safe space you make for yourself. A term that stuck out for me is crazy maker, that person who obstructs or details you from own creative journey. While we need other people, especially those who encourage us as creatives, we don't need the self-serving, abusive people who keep us from moving forward.

All of us can identify crazy makers in our lives and something that becomes clear in this book is that we are not to be crazy makers ourselves, but people who also support other creatives.

This is where the workshop comes in. I met some wonderful people in those sessions, some of whom I still keep in touch with in some way. Some people took what they were doing already further, while others made different creative decisions. I didn't pick up on my writing, but I did decide to learn how to sew. This was something I always wanted to do. Also, my lacking this skill was something that held me back when I was a high school senior applying to get into a fashion school. I wanted to do fashion design, but got shunted into visual presentation. I was still pursuing my visual art passion at the time, but I had also limited myself from what I actually wanted to do. I suppose it's not too late. I don't think I'd want to now. I can still make fabulous clothes for myself, but I digress.

The workshop followed the 14 week structure given in the book. The facilitator in my group stuck largely to the script, but he also added his own shamanism and his framework of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy's journey and the symbols from the book and film added greatly to the his lessons. For him, creativity was about the magic and he would even wave his fingers at me or someone else to transmit it.

It had been years since then that I had picked up the book. I don't think I even had it anymore, so last week, I went to Bookofff with the purpose of buying it and I managed to find it. It's no small feat to find a book you're specifically looking for in a used bookstore, so this was synchronicity.

The workshop's facilitator died a couple of years ago, so I also see it as his magic lives on and that it was no accident that I found it. I've been going through it and remembering his lessons, but also seeing what Julia Cameron has to say with fresh eyes.

 

Here is the list of writing books:

  1. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones
  2. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
  3. Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way
  4. Rachel Simon, The Writer's Survival Guide
  5. Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
  6. Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction
  7. Jessica Page Morrell, The Writer's I Ching (with card deck)
  8. Naomi Epel, The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers (cards and guide)
  9. Jamie Cat Callan, The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the “Write” of Your Brain (game kit)

 

There are more titles I can name, maybe later.

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Writer's Guides: Writing Down the Bones

Ever since I resolved to get myself back into writing, I reached into my bookshelf for the books on writing* I've bought over the years. Some I have read and used and came back to over and over while there is a lot that simply became my writer's reference section. Suddenly, they all seem very useful.

The now classic Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a good place to start and I have referenced this wonderful book in my entries from the past few days.

I was a young man taking a poetry writing class when I bought the first of several copies I've bought over the years. The professor had us use it as a guide and I remember reading it and being completely blown away with what Goldberg had to say.

Natalie Goldberg doesn't offer technical advice. There isn't anything about how to plot or how to structure. Instead, she teaches the reader about practice, trusting one's own mind, and letting go. It is Zen for writers.

Additionally, there are prompts and discussions of process and Goldberg's stories about teaching and her own practice. As a teacher and a writer starting back into my practice, I appreciate them, but I'm also opening the book and looking at it fresh.

It's coming back to that beginner's mind and letting go of those previous readings and getting something new out of it. It's not just about the reading, but the practice, whether it is putting pen to paper or using some other tool. Creating the space and being present are very basic yet essential no matter how far I go into this practice.

 

*Here is the list of writing books:

  1. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones
  2. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
  3. Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way
  4. Rachel Simon, The Writer's Survival Guide
  5. Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
  6. Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction
  7. Jessica Page Morrell, The Writer's I Ching (with card deck)
  8. Naomi Epel, The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers (cards and guide)
  9. Jamie Cat Callan, The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the “Write” of Your Brain (game kit)

There are more titles I can name, maybe later.

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Beginner's Mind

In the first chapter of Writing Down the Bones, “Beginner's Mind, Pen, and Paper,” Natalie Goldbergtells the writer who picks this book up, "In a sense, the beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write." It's easy to think about how profound this sounds. However, its a reminder of no matter how much you've written or what you have achieved, it's always a starting over when one writes. As I haven't really written in a while, this is a good place to come back to.

It's also very challenging. In my case, I've taken many creative writing workshops in my youth and thought getting into an MFA program would validate me as a writer and then I could step my way into breaking out into the literary world. Sometime later. I got a portfolio together and applied for to program and got the MFA. It didn't make me a literary star, but I did get work as an adjunct instructor teaching community college English courses. I also taught English as a foreign language. In these jobs, I've reached people in their beginner minds. It's easy to as a teacher. However, with experience and even some measure of authority, it can be difficult to get into this mindset.

With all the experience and education I can discuss, there is baggage that comes with it, whether it's the times I had a case of the Dunning-Kruger (being too confident of my abilities) or the complete opposite where I felt completely destroyed in workshops. Also, I've been frustrated with feeling that I wasn't understood by my peers from an artistic standpoint. This is all stuff that can be let go.

I can let go of my pride and my fear and my frustration. I can also let go of the experiences, good or bad. I can let go of the bad teacher who built me up until he decided to destroy me. I can let go of that student who thought she could teach my class when I was a TA. I can let go of the guy who liked nothing better than to tear his classmates down. I can let go of everything from those times.

I can check these inhibiting factors and others as I become aware of them.

Having a beginner's mind gives me the permission to fail, to make mistakes, to have what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."

I can also check whatever writer fetishes that I may have picked over the years like Moleskines and fountain pens and any other trappings and do away with them. I once had the perfect writerly apartment and it was a struggle to work in, just like those nicely bound notebooks.

I have to admit I find the Notes app on my iPhone very good for getting thoughts out similar to how Natalie Goldberg suggest cheap spiral bound notebooks. It's not an app I take too seriously as a writing tool. I can also experiment with the cheap notebooks too. Overall, whatever tools I use, it's important to have the beginner's mindset.

In conclusion, I can look at any start to writing as starting again. I may knock it out of the park, but there will be false starts and things that don't work and things I still need to learn. And if I have to learn something again or learn something I feel I should know, but don't, that is OK.

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