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.


The Work — an update

cabin4Classes are over. I have survived a year of teaching full-time. Other people seem able to do this. They teach extra classes! I don’t know how they do it, but it’s hard for me. (How do those other people have time for their students, let alone for themselves?!)

I realized after Christmas break, that I was not ever going to get my novel rewritten if I didn’t work on it. The time was not magically going to appear (it hadn’t over the holiday break, and that was my best chance). I worried that all the fabulous work I had done on my October retreat was going to be lost to me. My fantasy that I would suddenly get two or three days — or another week! — to write, that I would write 24 hours a day (two days, that’s 48 hours!), I realized, again (yes, I’ve had this fantasy before), was just a fantasy. The only way to get the novel rewritten was to work on it every day.

I know how to deal with time limitations and with procrastination. I got out the old tools. Foil stars. A 12-week calendar (one quarter worth of blank squares). If I worked on the novel in the morning, before I went to work, for at least 15 minutes I earned a foil star. At Writing Lab on Tuesdays I started working on the novel instead of poems. This felt like a sacrifice, at least at first. But then the pages began to accumulate, and that felt good. It felt wonderful.

Lists are another of my tools. During the break before spring quarter, I wrote a long list of what I needed in order to finish. The most important: to have a clean copy of the entire manuscript, or at least the 2/3 of the manuscript that was all marked up. I don’t know why I would resist typing, but I decided that I could only earn my star by working on the manuscript, on my laptop, for fifteen minutes — before journaling or anything else. For Mother’s Day, a friend of my daughters gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card and I used it to buy a 15-minute hourglass (if it’s 15 minutes, is it still an “hour glass”?) It gives me a wierd pleasure to turn it over again and go for 30 minutes (this morning — one hour!).

I am happy to announce that the process has worked. And it’s been working all along. In February, for instance, and against all odds, I managed to submit 30 pages to the PNWA historical fiction contest, and my manuscript is now a finalist. But even without that nod from the universe, it’s gratifying to look back at my journal and find April 30, Stuck on chapter five. Don’t know what to do next. Cleaning it up, after all, wasn’t a simple process. It meant dealing with all those cryptic notes, things like “This isn’t working.” “You need action here.” “What is Pearl thinking?” Cleaning it up, meant writing. But here I am, on chapter seventeen, which is the beginning of the end.

starsI know that I say this all the time, and you probably get tired of hearing it. But if your dream is to write, I am here to tell you that you can. Don’t make excuses. And you don’t have to believe me. Go buy a copy of Sark’s Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper. Whenever you hear yourself saying the word “can’t,” imagine it as a big, flashing neon arrow pointing you in the direction you have to go.

Don’t Shoot the Dog

As part of my homework for our class project, I have been rereading a book a friend recommended to me when my twins were toddlers. It is Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, and a great teaching manual to have on hand whether you are working with dogs, dolphins, or college students. No, I can’t claim to be much of a trainer, but the message I’ve absorbed from multiple readings is that it isn’t really the animal’s behavior (or the child’s) that you have control over, it’s your own. This book is filled with good humored anecdotes — from her cat’s perspective, Pryor tells us, “she is training me; she has found a way to get me to ‘Come'” — and offer food, besides.

Pryor saved my life when my children were small by showing me that catching them doing something right was a key to the entire process. Okay, so they don’t clean their rooms, and at least two of them are still the slowest girls in the entire world. But they have great hearts, and they care about their parents and each other. That’s a lot.

Here’s an eye-opening passage:

“One of the most useful practical applications of reinforcement is reinforcing yourself. This is something we often neglect to do, partly because it doesn’t occur to us, and partly because we tend to demand a lot more of ourselves than we would of others. …As a result we often go for days at a time without letup, going from task to task to task unnoticed and unthanked even by ourselves. Quite aside from reinforcing oneself for some habit change or new skill, a certain amount of reinforcement is desirable just for surviving daily life; deprivation of reinforcement is one factor, I think, in states of anxiety and depression.”
–Karen Pryor

Writing every day is a big commitment, and achievement.

Oh, and rewards! Having written this blogpost, I now deserve a latte and a few minutes sitting outside in the sunshine. I’ll take Don’t Shoot the Dog with me and read a few pages.


Two days ago my friend Shawna visited. She brought me two bird candles and a stone with the word “stillness” etched on it. Today, in Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously (which I highly recommend), I came across this:

“To be engaged in reading a book or in writing, to connect to your inner life, goes against everything contemporary life, with its bells and whistles, is about. To be quiet, to be still, in this raucous world can be scary. But sometimes just acknowledging that fact helps to take some of the fear away.”

This is something I’ve been brooding about, with my teenagers away. My teenagers with their TV and phones and I-Pods and …. They, too, have been without their technology this week, doing good work on the Campbell Farm in Yakima, Washington. And river rafting. They get home today, just when I seem to have finally acclimated to the stillness, to appreciating how the living room, after I cleaned it on Monday has stayed clean all week. Just when I’ve mucked out the bathroom and lit candles…

I can’t wait to see them.