Go Deep or Go Home

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One writes out of only one thing – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. ~ James Baldwin

Because I read a lot of memoirs, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. In the hands of a skillful writer like Baldwin, the personal experience the author conveys has to be squeezed dry for every ounce of meaning, otherwise it’s nothing but litany of events, good or bad. The memoirist or personal essayist simply must mine those experiences for the way they’ve impacted his life and his being, otherwise they are meaningless to the reader.

Does it matter if your father favored you over all your siblings, bought you everything you wanted while the others went without, praised your every accomplishment while criticizing them mercilessly? It only matters if that experience changed you or molded you into the person you are today. And how about your siblings? To what extent did your father’s favoritism change them or your relationship to them?

Describing all the ways your father treated you better than the rest of the children in the family doesn’t matter if you can’t give the reader a reason to care. And they will only care if they can relate your experience – and what you’ve learned from it – to their own life. To do that, you have  reflect  honestly and thoughtfully on these experiences. You have to go deep into your emotional memory, not just your incidental memory.

Memoir writing has gotten something of  a bad rap recently. Most likely that’s because memoirs often focus on negative circumstances in the writers life. Abuse, addiction, lost love, physical or mental impairments  – these undoubtedly have a profound effect on a human life, and thus become the subject of many books. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that “The current memoir craze has fostered the belief that confession is therapeutic, that therapy is redemptive and that redemption equals art, and it has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.”

I’m a fan of memoir, and I believe in it’s power, but I agree with Kakutani on this point: It’s worthless to expose your life experiences on the page without first examining them in your heart to determine how they might be meaningful to others. Of course that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Examining all those experiences in the light of day, doing the soul searching it takes to make sense of them?

But nobody said this writing thing would be easy.

Go deep.

Or go home.

Free Writing

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Most of the time we take this writing gig for granted.

We can pick up a pencil, sit down at our computers, and write whatever our little hearts desire.

Maybe it’s poetry that inspires thoughtful reflection. Or fiction that takes readers deep into a story and away from their own worries and cares for a while. Perhaps it’s prose that incites action or changes thinking.

Words are powerful tools, and yet we give them away so freely, especially now when we can toss words onto the internet and send them speeding around the world in a manner of seconds.

Of course it hasn’t always been that way, not even here in America where we celebrate free speech and a free press, both hard won by the men who framed our most famous piece of writing, The Declaration of Independence.  Imagine the hours of thought and feather pen scratching that went into that document before it was presented to the world.

Now, 236 years later, we enjoy the fruit of their labor – the ability to write and read freely, without fear of  legal recrimination. What a mighty opportunity that is, to share the written word with others.

Celebrate your freedom to write this Wednesday.

Use  your words thoughtfully, carefully, and then proudly set them free.

 

Write On Wednesday:

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The personal essayist takes a topic – virtually any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all of the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write. Dinty Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I’m a huge fan of the personal essay.

Love to read them. Love to write them.

Like a good short story, they examine ideas and experiences in a unique way, condensing them into one scrumptious bite like a finely detailed miniature portrait.

Though I’m no artist, it seems to me that the painter and the  personal essayist have much in common. As Moore says, they take an topic (or an object) and “hold it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective…in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant.”

My favorite personal essays – those that take slices of ordinary life and experience and reflect them back through the writers particular lens – offer that fresh perspective on universal situations which make them significant. Anna Quindlan, Joyce Maynard, Anne Lamott…some of writer’s I’ve counted on over the years to do that for me.

And of course, Nora Ephron (who died last night) with her wry wit and slightly edgy humor, could make me laugh out loud about things as mundane as reading glasses and double chins.

But in today’s information soaked world, does it matter what one solitary essayist has to say about life in general?

I think it does.

A well crafted personal essay opens a window into the mind of another human being, encouraging a deeper personal connection than a 140-character Tweet or three sentence Facebook status. Those are the kinds of connections that make us more empathetic people and draw us closer together in our human experience.

That always matters.

A Penny for Your Thoughts

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One of my very worst writing habits is failure to think.

An idea pops into my head and I sit down at the keyboard and start writing, letting the words take me where they will.

Sometimes I sit at the blank screen and start typing something, anything, again letting the words take me down one path after another until I stumble upon a makeshift destination.

While I believe there are times this kind of writing is valuable, I also believe I rely on it too much, that I write too casually without taking the time to think through my ideas or turn them carefully around in my mind as I would an interesting rock or seashell found on the beach.

I believe real writers must think as much as they write – maybe more. Louise Penny, one of my favorite mystery writers, keeps a lovely blog where she talks about the intersection of daily life and writing. The other day, she wrote these words:

Wrote more than 2,000 words today, but not happy. I think it’s close, but slightly off. Perhaps just too much detail….need to streamline it. But I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think, and came to the conclusion that it needs tightening, sharpening, and I need to really pin down what I want this section to say and do. The purpose.

“I walked a few times around the pond and stopped at the bench to think…” Good writing needs that mulling over time, both before and after the words appear on the page. Time to consider what’s about to be said or to reconsider what has been set down in black and white.

Brenda Ueland also touches on this idea, a concept she calls “moodling” and defines as “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” This is how we open the door for our imagination, allow ideas to wander in and make themselves comfortable.

The pace of modern life doesn’t always allow for the kind of deep thoughtfulness I’ve decided is so important to a writer. Blogging and Facebooking and Twittering encourage us to throw ideas out there willy-nilly, to say whatever pops into our head at a given moment. After all, there is always the opportunity to post something else tomorrow, or even in 15 minutes if you so choose. Our attention is fragmented by cell phones and texts and e-mails, like noisy toddlers clamoring to be noticed.

It’s hard to silence that noise and focus on a single strand of thoughts pertaining to your work in progress.

But I believe it’s imperative to do so.

And if you can, those thoughts will be worth much more than a penny.

How about you? Do you think as much as you write? How do you invite deep thoughtfulness into your writing life?

The 5 W’s of Writing

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My  one and only journalism class stressed the importance of those vital 5 W’s, the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of every good story.

I downloaded Jeff Goins new ebook, You Are A Writer, and reading it made me consider those same “w’s” in terms my identity as a writerly type person. Goins exhorts us to stop beating around the bush of our identity as writers. Part of being able to declare ourselves as a “writer, hear me roar!” involves developing a persona, or a concept of writerly self.

Seems like the answers to the 5 w’s could be an important part of that process.

Ponder these, my writer friends. And if you are so inclined, share your thoughts in the comments, or on your blog.

WHO: How do you identify yourself as a writer? Is it something you do for self-fulfillment, do you have a message to impart, do you write to make a living and is that different from other writing you do?

WHAT: What’s your line? What subjects or themes do you return to again and again? What do you want to explore and impart to others in your writing?

WHERE: Nuts and bolts, here. Do you write at home, in an office cubicle, the library or neighborhood coffee shop? or all of the above!

WHEN: More nuts and bolts. Do you write on a regular schedule? Do you find it necessary or important to sit down at the same time every day? Or does your life dictate that you write whenever and wherever you can find the time and inspiration?

WHY: The real knitty gritty question. Why write? The answer comes from the “who” you are as a writer, but also asks you to consider the importance of the written word in our world today and for the world tomorrow.

 

Excavating

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Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or like books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rainer Maria Rilke

 For several years now, I’ve made a practice of sitting down to write each morning. I do this shortly after I wake up -before my walk and after my coffee-while the impressions of sleep still swirl in my subconscious mind. This morning writing is not for public consumption, will not appear in essays, or on any of the blogs, or even on Facebook or Twitter. These words are just for me, and they come from a place so deep inside that I couldn’t consciously find my way there.

More times than I can count, I have learned something new about myself during this writing time. There is some connection between my spirit and the pen, some alchemy that occurs when my hand starts moving across the page which causes truths to rise up from the hidden levels of my soul and appear in front of me on the page. It connects me with the deeper questions about what is “unsolved in my heart” and allows me the patience to observe them from different angles.

I come to this writing time with great anticipation, because it’s the one time of day I can sit with my own thoughts, the time of day I allow myself to dig deeply for thoughts and ideas and feelings. The paper and pen become my tools for excavation, sweeping across my mind for hidden nuggets of gold.

There is so little time for stillness in the everyday world. We itch to fill every second with stimulation or productivity, and modern technology certainly gives us ever opportunity to do just that.

Whether it’s the actual writing itself, or just the 30 minutes of quiet, I rely on that sacred time to help me unearth my most important feelings and thoughts, and bring them with all honesty to the page.

How about you? What does writing bring to light for you? How do you excavate your deepest thoughts and feelings from the safety of their burial place?

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