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A Year in Longhand Day 3: Getting Over Myself

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Writing lets me escape the incessant chatter and thinking that goes on inside my head. Once I start writing I usually enter a certain flow, a movement that feels close to the wind, ocean waves, and the roots in the earth. I step out of my own mind and get swept up in a tide.

 

I love many of the exercises in Karen Benke’s marvelous book Leap Write In, a book for “tweens, teens, and other Earthlings,” and I have found in working with my students that her exercise on Personae is especially powerful. You recall a journey to a natural place – a park, the ocean, a favorite tree – and imagine the route one takes getting there. At the same time, imagine one person you meet along the way. Here’s the simple catch: give yourself a new name.

 

This last instruction pulls the writer out of her personal mindset and frees her to become a new character. Combining familiar settings with a new mindset frees the critical mind. Through this process, I’ve seen shy students transformed into rock stars, concrete thinkers morphed into artists, and the most hyperactive minds channeled into concentrated imagination.

 

Try this: Write an account of a place you’ve been in nature, all you felt and smelled and heard. But give yourself a new name, a new gender perhaps, maybe even a new species. I bet you’ll see that place anew, and escape for a little while from that critical mind that is always aware of who you are, your limitations and fears and distractions of daily life. Let yourself leave that version of you behind as you transform into someone else for a journey into nature.

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A Year in Longhand, Day 2: Immerse

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Imagine a scene. Fully inhabit it with all your senses, especially hearing and touch and taste. Close your eyes to put yourself there fully. Breathe deeply and count ten breaths. Slowly.

How does your character react? Goose pimples rise on his flesh in the cold night. The howl of the wind reminds him of an old friend’s voice. Is this scene soothing? Frightening? Sensual?

When you’re fully present in your scene, your character will feel it. And so will your readers.

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A Year in Longhand: Day 1

writing day 1This is the first post in my yearlong series of writing explorations geared toward helping myself and other writers engage with the writing craft, adhere to a schedule, and enliven the writing mind. I realized I have many tips and tricks I’ve tried and enjoyed over the years, prompts that have pulled me from the mire when I felt stuck or discouraged in the writing process.

 

When I use one of these tactics, it provides a jumpstart and nudges me in the direction of writing again, so that I desire again that rush of stepping into the frightening, shadowy, yet exciting recess of the blank page. The problem for me is often simply the rut, the attitude that my life is too chaotic or busy for me to make time to be creative. I forget that I have all these tactics and icebreakers available. Then, when I don’t make time, I just feel worse.

So, as a challenge that I hope will help other writers as well as myself, I hereby present 365 days of writing prompts and inspiration. If you or I ever find ourselves in that dark, desperate place of uncertainty and self-doubt again – and we will! – we’ll have a place to turn, guideposts leading back to the page, back to the moment, back to the words that spill out like blood.

 

Day #1: Write it all down! Fast!

 

No editing, no time to listen to the inner critic. Set a timer for ten minutes and go as deeply as you can into the story or character or scene your trying to develop. Use all your senses and emotions, and be willing to risk everything in your writing. Don’t stop or lift your hand from the paper. It’s only a first draft, so don’t judge, just write. Be daring and risky; no one’s watching or reading over your shoulder. At about minute five, I usually realized I’ve cut through all the shallow descriptions and tedious details and gotten to something deeper.

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Empowering Words

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 Playshops: Come play with words in a supportive and creative environment. We practice self-authoring, blending memoir and fiction, poetry and crazy-zany-word-nerdiness in collaborative, exuberant exercises designed to stir the mind.

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Poetry

Seashore

How can a place so uproarious exert this kind of peace?

A billion gallons an instant rumbling ashore

reshaping earth

wearing away my world

in a cacophony of crashes that holds me in

a hug of white noise that blurs, polishes and carves out

the hollows of my terrestrial life

to leave me feeling reborn as I recede.

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Where Have all the Explorers Gone?

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A pair of images hangs over my computer. In one, Merlin points to the moon as Arthur curiously searches the sky. Above that is a panoramic photo taken when I was a Writing grad student at CalArts in 1999, the view from the deck outside my apartment where I often stood to gaze out at the horizon.

I just reread Dana Gioia’s wonderful 2007 Stanford commencement address.  It’s breathtaking and heroic, a call to “trade easy pleasures for more complex and enjoyable ones” and a strong defense of the arts and reading for pleasure, both in education and in life. He points to studies showing that those who don’t read for pleasure or participate in the arts are – empirically and statistically – more likely to become passive consumers of electronic media and less likely to engage in community activities or discussions than those who do read, do practice art or music. “These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility,” he says.

How do we recondition our culture? How can we reinvigorate creative pursuits and community dialogue? By awakening curiosity and storytelling power. As Gioia says, “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” Advertisers and the media cater to the insecurities and fears of our perceived selves right now instead of elevating us and giving us a vision to aspire to, as art does. The instant gratification of the flickering screen, of ready-made food and instant communication, doesn’t require much of us. No imagination, no hard work required.

But the rewards that come from pursuing something artistic and literary are so immense compared to those easy satisfactions.  I’ve seen pure joy on the faces of my students when they discover their voice and the power in their writing, when they realize they can break out of a pre-written and over-structured life through poetic or literary endeavors!

As teachers, as adults, as writers and artists, as humans, we must strive toward curiosity, toward exploration and creativity. Celebrate intellectual discussion in public places. Spread thoughts and ideas about writing and art, not just among fellow artists, but equally with all people, even – especially – with those you think might oppose your viewpoint. Dialogue is key.

Art education is not just about creating more artists or writers.  The imagination of children is at stake. Our imagination is at stake. 

I must say, Dana Gioia is one of my heroes, and someone I’m proud to call a neighbor (he lives in Sonoma County part-time). I was privileged to meet him last year at a poetry reading in Sebastopol, although, in typical fashion, I stumbled over my words and acted a fool when I went up to talk to him and have him sign my book.

Such is the power of poetry, to stun and to awe me.

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Whale Watching

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Yesterday I felt most alone when I was in the crowd of whale watchers out on Bodega Head, scanning the impossibly immense gray and silver sparkling blanket of the Pacific for the elusive  black dorsal fins like tiny broken obsidian teeth jutting up from the surface, nearly invisible. Without binoculars or a scope, you’d have no way of knowing if you’d seen them or not. The whale occupies a nearly mythic place in the imagination, beautiful and pure, huge and yet so tiny in the greater perspective of the entire ocean.

 

I came out searching for the immense, graceful beasts, and was rewarded with a rare glimpse of a pod of ten or so orcas, their heads bobbing and fins splashing a few miles offshore. It made me feel so tiny. If the cold wind and the distancing vision of the binoculars weren’t enough to make me feel dissociated from my body, the glimpse of the whales did it. I stumbled and felt like I was floating. These humongous animals were so tiny in my perspective, no bigger than my fingertip in the great expanse of water, and that at twenty times magnification.

 
After that, I cheerfully returned to watching the slick and shiny seals with their grinning faces, playing in the current near shore. I studied the frozen ice plants clinging to the cliffs, yellow and purple flowers vibrant against the fog as the breakers deposited a spray of foam that turned into a white bed atop a boulder just off the beach. My language provides me a context and understanding of these phenomena. But the whales swimming at a depth and distance I cannot fathom, at the edge of the horizon where waves and wind mix with clouds,  strains at my mind, leaving me dizzy.

 

It’s lonely out there, but I keep searching for them, the whales at the horizon, the experiences beneath the surface. So much exists beyond my ordinary perception, and I want to swim and play at the edges of the possible.