A Little Something to Get You Writing

One of my daughters is moving home temporarily, and cleaning out the bottom story of our house — which includes a mother-in-law kitchen we’ve never really used — has necessitated another attempt to reduce the amount of paper I’ve stored in bins and boxes. I threw away a bunch of old literature assignments, and I found a notebook I kept when Writing Lab was first launched.

Our writing group has a couple of new or newish members, so I thought I’d replicate the first meeting, at which several of us (including me) did not yet have our textbook, Susan Tiberghien‘s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft (Marlowe & Company, 2007).

Our first exercise that day was from Heather Sellers’Page after Page:

  2. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (that’s Sellers’s dictum; it’s okay with me if you switch to cursive at this point), WRITE FOR 10 MINUTES (set a timer!) ABOUT ONE ITEM ON YOUR LIST.
  3. We then talked about what it felt like to write in all caps, and agreed that writing in caps slowed us down, and felt a little like drawing the letters. We had to think more, and some people felt frustrated by that. (Note, years later, I did this exercise with a class that included a couple of engineers — they said they always wrote in all caps, and didn’t get the point of it at all.)
  4. Obviously, you can keep at this, tackling each item on the list by turn, or letting one insight or detail from the first free write lead you to a new exploration.

The next exercise was from Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story:

  1. On the left hand side of a blank page, write the numbers 1-30 (all the way down the side).
  2. Beside number 1, write I AM BORN.
  3. Now fill in the title chapters for the rest of your life story.
  4. After doing this…though we ran out of time and talked about it instead…the next step is to choose one chapter and break it into 30 more chapters — or, failing that —  people-places-things that the chapter could, conceivably, include.

(I wish I could recover all the nuances of our conversation about this exercise — it was rich!)

I recommended typing up the exercises to prod them into becoming something more (always works for me). Before adjourning, we agreed to meet weekly, and I asked everyone to read Tiberghien’s first chapter, “Journal Writing,” for the following week.

“In the degree that we remember and retell our stories and create new ones we become the authors, the authorities of our own lives.” –Sam Keen

“I’m fine!”

Long ago, back in my restaurant service-supervisor days (yes, I was such a thing), I had a boss named Stan who had been a Marine, and never really recovered. I forget what in the Marines. But he still had the haircut and the posture, if not the physique. He was a district manager and he dropped in a couple times a month. I opened 2 or 3 restaurants with him. If he asked you how things were going and you said, “Fine,” he said, “Fine! That’s when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Fine, a fine word with lots of meanings. I went to Merriam Webster on-line to check and found the following:

Free from impurity; very thin in gauge or texture–not coarse–very small (fine print)–keen (a knife with a fine edge)–very precise or accurate; physically trained or hardened to efficiency (said of an athlete or an animal); delicate, subtle or sensitive in perception (a fine taste in art); superior in kind, quality, or appearance; ornate (as in writing); very well, more than okay (often ironic–Stan was right!).

Then there’s a fine as in a penalty (a traffic fine), and fine as an intensifier, like very, and all of these deriving from the same root as words like fin (as in fish fin). Think finish, the end. 

Not quite sure where I’m going with this, except it’s something that I’ve been thinking about. A friend confided that she can’t stand to keep a journal. She asked what I do, “lists?” Sometimes I write lists. I usually include a paragraph on “what happened yesterday.” But I keep going, past that, into what’s happening in my brain, in my — well, for lack of a better word, in my heart.

When I’m stuck, I write questions. Sometimes I ask myself questions, and sometimes “I” answer. I sometimes write prayers. I write down quotations from things I’m reading. Sometimes I write snippets of poems or character sketches or short scenes.

I reread my journal every so often (especially the current one, but sometimes older ones) and I try to pick out topics that recur so I can write about them again. I’m sure that anyone else would find my pages mind-numbingly repetitive, boring! But when I worked in restaurants, back in the day, writing in a spiral bound notebook (in 100s of spiral bound notebooks, morning after morning and week and month and year after year), kept me alive. It kept the essential, moody, dreaming, creative me alive. Eventually, writing was what helped me reach what Julia Cameron calls “escape velocity.”

Writing 3 pages in a notebook every morning–even now, when writing is my job–drops me beneath the surface of my lifeI can’t lie to myself when I write in my journal. (Later, I might ignore or willfully forget what I wrote, but it’s all there.)

You can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages. (Not unless you want to bore even yourself silly.) Certainly you can’t write “I’m fine” for 3 pages multiplied over 12 weeks of writing.

“But even if you never share a sentence of your diary with anyone else, you will share it through your life. Its existence will touch other people by the way it changes you and permits you to develop in self-awareness, directness, and honesty. As you acquire and refine the talent for helping yourself in the diary, you will grow in your ability to understand and nourish others. While it permits you to take responsibility for your own emotional well-being, it also opens the way for a deep understanding of human nature.” -Tristine Rainer, The New Diary

Keeping a journal is kind of like my own, portable Stan, that bossy, buzz-cut ex-Marine who won’t let me get away with bullshit. It’s a fine practice and it gets me past “fine.” It gets me through the nitty-gritty of everyday stuff. It gets me down to the finer stuff. Over and over.