Absence Makes the Writer Stronger

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It’s the last night of my Writeaways adventures in France and Italy, and after walking five or six miles throughout Rome, I’m ready to curl up in my armchair and rest my feet on my own footstool at home, pen in hand, and write.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder; it also makes a writer stronger. I’m returning home a better writer and teacher, more knowledgeable not only about the world, but also about how writing works. There’s something about getting away from the familiar that allows you to see everything you thought you knew more clearly – and there’s something about taking risks abroad that makes it possible to take risks in your own writing.

I saw that adventurousness in each of the writers who joined us at Chateau du Pin for our Writeaway in France, and at Villa Cini for our Writeaway in Italy. Some arrived with no idea of what they’d write about. Others found themselves on unfamiliar journeys through places and experiences they’d thought they knew well.

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A Texas writer put away 20 chapters of a murder mystery he’d written to start again from a different angle. A writer from Florida discovered a depth of feeling in her writing that she didn’t know she had, a depth that fueled the delightful characters she’d created over the past year, and gave balance not only to her writing but to the way she saw herself. A writer from Singapore wrote a complete short story – her first since graduating college – and stayed up until 1 a.m. on our last night in Italy, submitting her story to some of the most respected literary journals around. Another, from Victoria, British Columbia, invented an older brother and created for him such a vivid picture of a family that I kept expecting to hear their dog scratching at the door of our villa to come inside (along with the cat who lived there, who seemed mysteriously able to enter the villa through locked doors and closed windows).

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A Pennsylvania writer in France found herself recalling previously unreachable memories about her family as she worked on her memoir. A returning writer from Texas used writing and revision of a long poem to deal with a deep and longstanding pain—weaving imagery with a new understanding. A North Carolina writer finished the children’s book about Manfred (a very vain and valiant mouse) that she’d begun five years previously at her first Writeaway while another North Carolina writer began a children’s book about a cloud named Miranda and her friend Sirocco the osprey, a book which deftly wove scientific facts with fiction to make weather concepts accessible to children and the parents who might someday read her book.

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Our workshops each day were astonishing journeys, too. All the writers, both in France and in Italy, were able to help each other’s writing be—as we often say—“what it wants to be when it grows up.” We talked about imagery and plot, about “speed bumps” that wake the reader from “the fictional dream” described by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction, and about crafting characters and ideas that would remain with readers long after they finished reading. After each workshop, our writers delved again into their work, discovering anew what they wanted to say in this journey not only to the countries of our chateau and villa but to the countries created in their imaginations, each with its own customs and language.

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And me, I wrote too, and revised, not my usual practice when we hold our Writeaways. But I had a book of poetry to complete, and a deadline by which it needed to be finished. I found myself looking at my own poems, some written several years ago, to see what they “wanted to be when they grew up.”

The distance from home allowed me to become closer to my own writing, as it does. This is something I wish for all writers, the chance to leave the home where you live to discover the home you create.

Photographs by John Yewell, Gayle Goh and Jean O’Neill, with permission by the photographers.

Writing in a French Chateau

IMG_4021.jpgThis week I’m leading la vie dure: living in a fifteenth-century French chateau surrounded by topiary, eating four-course dinners prepared by a French chef (Did I mention the three local cheeses each night?) and drinking fabulous wines.

Every year, I get to spend a week with my partner John at Chateau du Pin in the Loire Valley, teaching writers from British Columbia, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other exotic places. Some of our students are brand new writers, while others have been writing for years and have MFAs and a long list of publications.

We begin the week with conferences with each of our students to help them design the writing projects of their dreams. Some write poetry, some memoir, some fiction. In the five years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had a book about how money works; a charming children’s story about a vain French mouse with his own exercise equipment and a mirror where he can admire his muscles, a collection of poems written from the point of view of the poet’s grandmother, and an outrageous bodice-ripper set in our very own chateau, to describe a few.

Each morning, we begin with fresh croissants (always an inspiration) and coffee (definitely an necessity), plus an assortment of yogurts that make American yogurts taste like Elmer’s glue. We spend our mornings in the petit salon, sharing what each person has written the day before, and discussing what’s working and how that person’s writing can become even more effective. Afternoons are for writing, relaxing, visiting nearby wineries and touring the Cointreau distillery, a surprisingly small place from which Cointreau flows throughout the world.

At the end of this week, we’ll bid a fond adieu to the chateau, and travel to Italy by overnight train, sharing a sleeping compartment with two of our students, for what we call The Grand Tour: a week in France followed by a week in Italy. We’ll spend a night in Florence, gather up more students (including one from Singapore), and drive to our villa, where we’ll spend a similar week (fabulous breakfasts, writing projects, afternoon adventures, and four-course dinners)–only in Italian.

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We also do something similar in North Carolina. I know: France, Italy…North Carolina? Trust me. It’s lovely, and has the added bonus of having a river in the backyard, and kayaks in which to explore that river. So we never feel particularly deprived.

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These are our Writeaways, adventures we invented to help writers discover themselves far from the responsibilities that so often get in the way of writing. We wanted people to be able to come to irresistibly beautiful places they didn’t have to maintain, to eat fabulous food they didn’t have to cook, where we could offer them the guidance that would help them leap forward as writers.

When we started Writeaways, I thought I was doing this for other people–sort of a big, fabulous writing party that would give people a vacation to become the writers they always wanted to be. But over the past five years, I’ve discovered that these Writeaways are a gift to me, too. I teach writing year-round, to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as teachers and administrators. Though I love what I do, much of it seems to fall in the category of persuading people to do something they’ve always hated, to find that spoonful of sugar that helps the poetry go down.

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But on a Writeaway, I get to teach at the highest level I know. Our workshops and one-on-one conferences force me to think about how writing works. The process of pondering my students’ challenges helps me to figure out how to make my own writing better. For these weeks, I get to stretch myself to understand the craft of writing in ways I’ve never considered before, in the company of strangers who become friends, and friends who become family.

And the fresh croissants and wine don’t hurt either.

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How to Break through Your Writer’s Block

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Getting Rid of Your Internal Critic

So you’ve got this voice in your head. The voice says, “You’re stupid. Nobody wants to read anything you write. You can’t write. You have nothing to say, and even if you think you do, you’ll say it badly. Plus you’re fat and your breath stinks.”

Sound familiar?

Relax. Most of us have a voice like this. I call it The Critic. It’s uncanny how these voices know how to say exactly the right thing to make us so hopelessly miserable that we don’t even want to attempt anything because, of course, we’ll fail.

Here’s what I want you to do:

Imagine that you’re walking down a long hall with your critic. Really picture your critic, who may look a lot like someone from your life or may be some monster fabricated out of spare parts from your subconscious. See your critic. Smell your critic. Hear your critic’s footsteps in the hallway.

As you walk, distract your critic.Find something innocuous to discuss. Talk naturally—or as naturally as you can. Try not to get overwhelmed by the disturbing smell of your critic or the clomp of footsteps.

At the end of the hall is a big door.

Open the door, push your critic inside, slam the door and lock it. Bolt it. Take that big metal bar from the floor next to the wall and slide it into the slots on the door.

Now that your critic is locked away, you can do one of several things:

  • Walk away and leave the critic there. Let someone else be in charge of the feeding and exercising of your critic. It’s not your job.
  • Slide a one-way ticket to a Greek island under the door. Perhaps your critic just needs to spend some time in a relaxing environment to get over being so cranky and mean. Have the customs inspector check for cell phones and computers before letting the critic out of airport. Your critic should have no way to reach you. Change your phone number, if you must.
  • Create a comfortable room for your critic, with all the things that will make her or him feel appreciated and cared for. Clearly your critic is acting out of some deep childhood insecurity and needs a more nurturing environment to recover.
  • Write a letter to your critic, detailing all the ways your critic is wrong about you.
  • Leave your critic locked up until she or he agrees to be helpful, and then only on second or third drafts. A first draft is hard enough to create, without someone looming over your shoulder, telling you everything you write is dreck. In later drafts, your critic can say things like, “That looks really good. Do you mind if I make a few suggestions?” or “Great work. I could check it for typos, if you like.”
  • Decide that the critic came into your life in the first place to help you. Figure out what the critic was supposed to do, and whether you need that help any more. If not, thank the critic graciously and walk away. If your critic’s help is still useful, write down all the things you’d like the critic to do in a job description. In your own job description, write down all the things you’re going to take care of yourself.

So now that you’ve taken care of your critic, it should be easy enough to write, right?

Wrong.

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If you’re like most of us, you suffer from the Blank Page Disease.

There’s a blank page sitting in front of you. A number of people—loggers, papermakers, stationers—worked overtime to get that page to you. And you have absolutely no idea what to do with it. If you write on a computer, it’s even worse. Do you know how many people it took to build your computer and get it to you? And how hard they had to work? Go ahead, feel guilty.

You done yet? Good. Then let’s begin.

So here’s what you do. Just start writing. Whatever enters your head, let it flow down your neck, over your shoulder, through your arm, into your hand, and down onto the paper or keyboard. If you really have gut-stabbing doubts about your ability to write anything of value, you have a couple of choices: find a really good therapist and work on your self-esteem, or use recycled paper for your first drafts. If you’re using a computer, let your monitor get dusty so you don’t feel like the words have to be so sharp and precise. Do not, I repeat, do not take this time to clean your screen. Or worse yet, to go to the nearest office supply store and purchase that special stuff intended only for the polishing of computer monitors. We’ll discuss creative procrastination later.

Hey, wait a minute. I’m doing all this talking and you’re doing all this listening. Enough already. Start writing.

 

Credits:
“Locked,” Phong6698, flicker, Creative Commons, 2016
“Vintage Memo Notebook,” Calsidyrose, flicker, Creative Commons, 2009

 

Planners and Wingers

 

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I love dichotomies. I don’t completely believe in them, of course, but they’re fun to play with.

So here’s one for you.

There are two kinds of people in the world: planners and wingers. The minute I say this to a group of people, everyone starts nodding. They may not be precisely sure of what I mean, but they have a pretty good idea.

A planner, I tell them, knows what she’s going to wear the next day before she goes to bed the night before. More nods. The motto of a winger, on the other hand, is, “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?” Laughter and more nods.

I ask for a show of hands from the people who think they’re planners. Their friends tend to look pointedly at them if their hands don’t shoot up quickly enough. Everyone knows who the planners are. They’re the ones who sit around tapping their fingers at 3:00 pm when you said you’d be ready. The planners are a little embarrassed to be called out like this, and say things like “I know I’m a bit anal, but I just like to do things right.” On the inside, though, they’re pretty proud that everyone actually recognizes how organized they are.

Planners like lists. They’re irresistibly drawn to outlines. They want to know the rules in advance so they can be sure to follow them. Neatness counts for planners, and they’re likely to be as hard on themselves for lack of neatness as they are for less than stellar content.

Then I ask the wingers to raise their hands. A number of slow hands go up, accompanied by sheepish smiles. In our world, it’s not thought of too highly to be a winger, even though many of us are. We may secretly prefer to be planners, but we’re just not built that way.

The minute wingers sit down to write, the gates are up and they’re sprinting for the finish line—wherever and whatever that might happen to be. The best wingers know they’re wingers and are willing to make improvements using a very handy process we call revision. But often wingers feel that whatever they’ve created in a moment of passion can’t be changed, because they can never reconstruct that precise recipe of emotions and environmental factors. That moment was that moment and shall never return.

Most of us tend to land on one side of the fence or the other. The well-seeded and watered, neatly mowed side of the planners, or the wingers’ side, which is a bit overgrown but has all sorts of unexpected wildflowers popping up in it, and a lot of birds diving down to nibble on the tall grasses. Planners can wear white all day without smudging. Wingers could stain a clean shirt in a sterile operating room—before the patient is brought in. Wingers are prone to run-on sentences. Planners could probably diagram theirs.

But the truth is that most of us have are both planners and wingers, depending on the situation and what we need to accomplish. Planners can venture into the unknown; wingers can organize their thoughts. This is why dichotomies are tricky. We’re rarely all one thing or another.

And a good writer is usually both.

 

 

Photo Credits:

Grass: https://alpineservices.com

Wildflowers: Detail from “Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isles of Shoals, Maine,” Childe Hassam
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/14930?sortBy=Relevance&ao=on&ft=wildflowers&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=2

Flirting with Your Reader

“Flirtation, attention without intention.” Max O’Rell

Mimi and Spoon-cropped, lightened 1500

Fill Her Up

You fill me up like a Pop-tart fills the toaster,
Sweet and hot.
You’re every recipe my grandmother made
And I forgot.
You’re all my lost relatives
Come home again.
You’re my old address, my old dress—the one I wore
To the ninth grade prom.
You’re my virginity come back to haunt me.
You’re new rains, old pains, cinquains I wrote
In the fourth grade. You’re every note
I ever passed.

You are a branch bank opening in my neighborhood
With free lifetime incomes to the first 100 customers.
You’re a high like exercise (if exercise behaved as advertised).
Like hitting butter halfway down the popcorn bucket,
Like staying in the movie for a double feature
I didn’t even pay for.

You’re a microscope that sees through my skin,
A telescope that lets me keep my distance.

You fill me up like premium gas at Costco
Caught before the cost goes up,
All that power in my tank—and at such a savings.
You fill me up like the first snow
Fills the junkyards clean again.
A million flakes to cover one defunct Caddy
And suddenly it’s young again,
It runs again.

Mimi Herman

Princess Leia copies Mimi
As a child, I was so shy and self-conscious that when the school photographer said, “Smile,” tears leapt to my eyes. So in every elementary school photo, I look like I’m about to cry.

As writers, we’re often stuck with those glossy-eyed photos in our albums—and a sense that we’ve never been socially “ept,” as opposed to inept. A lot of us grew up thinking we weren’t attractive or suave or charming enough to flirt. We say to ourselves, “Right, as soon as I get my self-esteem whipped into shape, I’ll be able to flirt.”

So here’s the secret. You don’t have to be perfect to flirt. You don’t have to be good-looking, though, of course, you happen to be stunningly gorgeous. You don’t need a perfectly healthy well-balanced self-esteem. You don’t need zenlike ease, a rapier wit, a stockpile of clever rejoinders. That stuff, by the way, will come with time and practice, as a useful byproduct of flirting. All you need is situational confidence, which is something you can put on at whenever you choose to do so.

Now what does all this have to do with writing? Well, I think we run the risk as writers of serious poetry and fiction, work meant to do more than “just entertain,” of leaving our best selves off the page—our witty, charming, devious, delightful, intriguing, entrancing, and enticing selves—when we write. These are the selves you play with, the ones that are available to you when you have a little extra ease and comfort, and you trust your reader to want to get to know you.

Flirting is always about balancing opposites in delicious tension:

  • generosity and reserve
  • mystery and openness
  • rapid-fire and lingering
  • desire and self-sufficiency
  • intimacy and distance
  • inviting and holding back
  • secrets and surprise revelations

Flirting is a gift, a way of sharing your best self, your most delicious and delightful self, with someone whose attention you desire. And isn’t that exactly what writing is?

 

 

Sonnetize Yourself

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All right, fearless readers and writers. We’ve now explored sound and meter in poetry, so we’re ready to put them together to start creating formal poems. If you create something you really like, please share it with the rest of us. We’d love to see what you’re writing.

With every kind of formal poetry, you can follow the rules precisely and create strictly formal poems, or you can relax a little, put on those jeans with the holes in the knees, and create a looser version. Either way, it’s not about proving how good a rule-follower you are. It’s about using these forms and techniques to write the poems that matter to you and your readers.

Let’s start with that classic: sonnets. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us. And besides, it’s only fourteen lines long.

There are two types of sonnets, each with two names, the Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet and the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet. English is, unfortunately, a very rhyme-impoverished language, particularly as opposed to Italian, so the Italian sonnet has a lot more words that rhyme with each other. We’re going to go for the Elizabethan version, since if you’re reading this, I’m guessing your command of English is fairly strong.

All sonnets are written in iambic pentameter: ten syllables that alternate light and heavy stresses like this: ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM. If you want to know what this feels like, try limping around the room, coming down heavily every second step.

An Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains (four-line stanzas) often without a break in between, with alternating rhyme, followed by a rhyming couplet (two-line stanza). So the rhyme scheme for this sonnet looks like this:

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a
b
c
d
c
d
e
f
e
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g
g

To learn more about rhyme, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 1. To learn more about rhythm, go to Playing with Sound in Poetry, Part 2.

Here’s one of my favorite Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnets:

If I Should Learn      

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again –
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man, who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed –
I should not cry aloud – I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place –
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Try reading it while you limp around the room.* Maybe do it several times to get the rhythm in your body.  Now try writing one, just as an experiment. About anything. I wrote one about yeast once and another about apnea, so you can see the world of sonnet subjects is vast.

Remember, you can follow the rules strictly, or play with the form. If you’re just starting out, I recommend aiming for about 10 syllables per line (allowing yourself to have 9 or 11, as needed), in 14 lines, rhyming ababcdcdefefgg as above, and giving yourself the freedom to use as many slant rhymes as you want. The form is not nearly as important as taking the chance to play with different techniques, so you’ll have new ways to write the poems you want to write.

*If you want a real treat, go here to hear a Youtube version of Edna reading another of her famous poems, “Recuerdo.” I can’t get enough of her voice!

Shakespeare Portrait from http://www.cobbecollection.co.uk/art/william-shakespeare/
Edna St. Vincent Millay photograph by Arnold Genthe, Mamaroneck, NY, 1914
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edna_St._Vincent_Millay