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

The Pear Tree

Christmas Eve–cards are sent, gifts are wrapped (mostly), and the holiday dinner shopping is underway.

After my visit to Chartres in June, I’ve been challenging myself to write down three things each day for which I’m thankful. This practice found its way into my mystery novel when the protagonist shared her gratitude practice and then started thinking of Instagram photos as a visual gratitude journal. (Something I now do, too. Funny how writing about it brought the whole idea to consciousness.)

Recently someone suggested that I write down 20 things to be thankful for. It took the practice to a whole new level.

The advice contained three additional suggestions:

  • be grateful for what delights you
  • be grateful for what seems not-so-delightful (or downright horrible)
  • be grateful for what’s coming

Writing down the not-so stuff makes me see it in a new light, and reminds me that even the crappy stuff in our lives often comes bearing gifts. In fact, it always does, if we are paying attention: the hardest lessons, if we stick with them, teach us the most.

This ties in with a little assignment I gave to writing lab members way back in September, to write a poem of praise. I wrote the poem in November while at a writing retreat, and I had every intention of finishing it and mailing a copy with my holiday cards. But it takes as long as it takes.

At a reading I mistakenly attributed the form or inspiration for my poem as “Skunk Hour” by Elizabeth Bishop, but of course “Skunk Hour” is Robert Lowell’s poem, which is famous. But what many people don’t know is that he was inspired to write it after reading Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which is the poem I meant to refer to.

The Pear Tree

            for Francine Walls

It’s late fall now, and we gather at Glen Cove
to write. This morning we watched
four grebes float across rain-pocked water,

watched as one dropped from sight,
then another, then all, and all popping up again
in comic succession, lifting small white wings

and throwing back their heads as if to crow.
What draws us beneath the surface of our lives,
if not minnow or eelgrass, insight

braided, strong enough to pull us deeper?
Once in a cathedral I stood in front of a statue
of the Madonna and child, said to be carved

from a single pear tree. The sculptor
had tilted Mary’s face downward, so that she gazed
at Jesus, a toddler crowing on her lap.

Outside the window, this morning,
the rain has stopped, though when I look,
the grebes are still there, each resting

on its own reflection. Before that pear tree
was chosen, it must have grown a long time
in someone’s garden. Someone walked there,

breathing the scent of blossoms, talking of love.
Someone picked and ate a pear,
the ripe flesh spreading like honey

across her tongue. O taste and see,
as we read in the Psalms, what is holy waits,
eager to delight our every moment.


And I’m grateful for you. In 2020, I hope you write!

Writing — guilty pleasure or basic need?

So here it is, January of the New Year. I have a few resolutions I’m working on, and someone suggested that I reframe why I set them, and that conversation got me thinking.

Then, at Writing Lab today, one of our writers admitted that she doesn’t write very much, even though she’d like to, because taking time for writing feels self-indulgent. Others chimed in. She wasn’t alone.

I kind of want to whine here. If, instead of writing, you are busy finding a cure for cancer, or homelessness, or world hunger, maybe you have a point. But, frankly, I don’t think any of us at the table today were doing anything stop-the-presses-newsworthy instead of writing.

And of course I’ve heard this from so many people over the years that it shouldn’t be jaw-dropping any longer. To illustrate, I have one friend who, in all the years I’ve known her has never been able to sustain a writing practice. It isn’t that she wouldn’t love to write; plus, she’s got the know-how — she has advanced degrees in writing. I asked her once why the heck she wasn’t writing, and she told me an amazing story about a teacher of hers who wrote despite having “crazy needy children.” Then she continued, “And I don’t want my children to go crazy.”

She was not trying to get a laugh; she was sincere. And although it seemed absolutely bizarre at the time, now that my friend has grandchildren and I’ve seen her in action for a number of years, I think I understand. She’s busy with work and keeping body and soul together, and when she does find any free time, she wants to spend it on her family.

For the record, I approve of people lavishing attention on the young’uns in their lives. But I don’t think that’s quite the problem here. You can substitute your non-negotiable here (unless it’s checking Facebook or watching Criminal Minds). At this point, I’m not even sure it’s about making the time to write (I’ve tried before to address how you might do that). So maybe, for you, like me with my New Year’s resolutions, it’s time to rethink your why. 

all pictures from

And since we’re talking about writing here, which is — at least some of the time — about making stuff up, let’s talk about re-imagining why you want to write. (And I don’t mean so that you can pull down the big bucks. I mean why it’s important to you.) To get really really clear here, the belief that writing is self-indulgent is a belief, just like the belief that being a writer = crazy offspring is a belief. Not one of those beliefs like believing in God (let’s not mess with that) or not (or that). It’s not even a belief like your political beliefs, which I think we all know by now are troublesome enough.

No, this belief is simply something that you made up at some point in your life. Maybe at that point it helped you cope with some difficulty or other. Maybe it kept you alive.

But it’s just a belief, and you can replace it. Here are a few suggestions, all of which are true for me:

  • I write because writing is good for my brain. (This is also my piano lesson argument.)
  • I write because writing is healing. (See Louise DeSalvo.)
  • I write so I can be a better __________ (teacher/mom/pastor/committee member/friend).
  • I write to gain objectivity.
  • I write because I want ____________  (your students? your children? someone else?) to see that it’s possible to balance a busy, even over-full life with one’s passion.
  • I write so _____________ (my daughters) will see that having a passion is important.
  • I write to find out what matters to me.
  • I write because writing keeps me sane.
  • I write because writing gives me joy.

There must be other good reasons to write that you can gin up, and one may very well be to make a living (kudos for you), or bringing joy to others.

Writing is a guilty pleasure and a basic need. If you want to write, that’s a good enough reason to write.

Writing Lab Returns

This fall I am taking time off from teaching my regular load of classes. I am training myself to avoid saying, “I’m not working.” I am working. I’m getting up every morning and writing…except when I’m on my way to Chehalis (so far, every week) to see my mother, or to attend a conference. I am working –feverishly — on the unassailable rewrite of my novel. Encouraged by the three days at LitFuse, a total immersion in poetry, I’m also working on a new, long poem.

One Monday each month (yesterday, as it turned out) I’m meeting with two other novelists to look at pages and talk about how one gets what is in one’s head into a story.

On Tuesday afternoons, I’ll be meeting with colleagues at the college for Writing Lab. It’s our fourth year — or is it our fifth? There are only a stalwart few of us, staff and faculty (a couple writing teachers) and alum, but we meet every week and write for 45 minutes or an hour, and then we spend a few minutes reading aloud what we’ve drafted. At the end of the year, we gather at Under the Red Umbrella (a local eatery) to celebrate. In these ways the work progresses.

Here is a quote I plan to share with the lab today. It is from Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing:

“I didn’t know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write. And that your writing will help you unravel the knots in your heart. I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while you’re learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labor. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.” (31)

“Soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labor.” That’s what I’m engaged in this fall.