Friday, October 7, 2016

Before and after


Now, we left off last week with the moment that most stuck with us, the moment where we felt most conflict or feeling.  Now we want to set that moment up and to write what else happened.

Just to be clear, when your done, the moment that you originally wrote will be much longer.  You'll be adding to it.

But in order to bring people with you, and you do want to bring them, you need to walk them there.  You need to invite them in.  And you do that with a good set up.

So where did my story last week start?  Well, it needs to start at the house before we leave.

But where do I start and what do I add?

Writers of all types will give you a variety of answers, from beginning with the thoughts and feelings that will unify the effect of your writing later to writing only the details which one can observe.

My response is more in line with Anne Lamott's: Just write.

What you see and how you see it will come out.  Later, we'll make that more apparent.  But for now, just get it down.

Now, it behooves you to take a moment and gather those feelings you felt, to spread them before your mind's eye and then see the morning through that lens, but, in this draft, simply write.

A few practical tips for making this writing more helpful:

  1. Place it in the same document as the writing you began with if you're using a word processor or, if you prefer the analog method, make sure you have room on either side.  Using a loose leaf binder can be helpful.
  2. Allow yourself to write snippets.  You don't have to have a completely linear narrative yet.
  3. But place your snippets in a linear way in the document.  Move back and forth.  Leave lots of space.
  4. Don't feel you need to adhere to complete sentences yet.  Oftentimes, my memory is an assortment of images, smells, sounds--particularly if the memory is very full of emotion.  Don't feel that you need to domesticate these thoughts fully yet.  Getting them into phrases is enough.
  5. Walk away and come back as often as you need to if you hit a wall, OR if you find yourself in the groove, let it GO and just keep going.  Turn off the inner editor and write.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The moments

We get into our minds what something should look like, and we forget what it does look like.

Over the past two weeks, we have worked with putting together the feelings behind a joyful occasion: one that may have had more than just joy associated with it.

Yet just because we remember the feelings doesn't mean that we can necessarily communicate those feelings to anyone else.  How exactly do we do that?

Well, simply, you move moment by moment.

It may drag at first--that's fine.  That's why we have editing later.  But in order to see, we have to be there.  In order to be there, you must take us there.  To take us there, you must bring us with you, living as you lived.  And, like it or not, we live moment by moment and breath by breath.

So how do we do that?  Where do we start?

I would not start at the beginning.

Think about it for a minute.  When you remember an event, do you remember it from the beginning.  No.  You remember it from the middle.  Or from the most important parts.  Or in the senses that stick out to you.

For example, there was a confrontation this morning.  When I think back, I remember conflicting feelings when I started realizing there was a confrontation.  I remember the itchy cold and the waiting.  I remember gratitude toward those standing up and the necessity of being there.  I remember the way the officer puffed up his chest when I reiterated the point he was trying to blow off.  I remember the frown the other officer made at me as he turned his head back toward us, having acted like we were not worthy of notice before.  I remember feeling his glare even through his sunglassses, which I didn't quite understand why he needed at 8:43ish in the morning on an overcast day in Pittsburgh.

Do you see?

When I start to remember, I don't remember moment by moment until later, in the moment that the moment became important to me.  That's where you start to write.  It's usually a moment of conflict or excitement.  If it's too upsetting, you might need to write from another parallel moment and move back, but you don't start at the beginning or you may take another path.

So I would write:
"Now if there had been danger to his property, then he would have a claim," the shift supervisor said, measuring his shoulders back and making himself bigger all the while drawing his head higher as if that made the distance down his nose to my neighbor, no longer standing her full 5'2", even farther.
I could feel the shift in my stomach and the bile rising in my throat.  My own shoulders were stretching back and my chest puffed out.  Part of me knows this is my problem.  I don't deal well with bullies, even official bullies.  If she had held her own or if her husband had spoken up, maybe I would have been quiet.  And maybe they would have spoken.  
But they weren't speaking fast enough.  
They weren't, in fact, speaking at all. 
I could feel my own breathing quicken, and then I felt the gulp, and then, while my mind was still saying, Oh, no, he wouldn't.  He would not dismiss my neighbor and a mother trying to protect her children, not while her husband, two other mothers, and I watched him.  Not without resistance, he wouldn't, while my mind was still saying that my mouth was already opening.
"What about the kids' property?  He and the others have threatened and even taken their toys."
If it was possible for his blue eyes to get colder and his chest to get bigger, they did.   
His compatriot, back up, or whatever you call him--that second officer who arrived in yet another too big SUV who occasionally looked to his supervisor but never swung his sunglassed face our direction--finally turned to face us.  
"That's a two-way street, ma'am," the supervisor said.
I could feel the glare of the second officer through his black lenses as his face, which had been at rest before, drew into tenseness.  I could feel the judgment.  We're supposed to shut up and accept the judgment they pass.
But I do not accept it.  Nothing has been decided.  Nothing has been done.   
"Yes," I answer him. "It certainly is.  I hope you remember that too."
I'm not sure I actually said that last part, but I said something like it.
He turned to my neighbor, "Are you satisfied?" he asked.
They discuss a few things, and she finally says, "Yes."
We all turn our separate directions.  My coffee is now cold in my cup.  I am not satisfied.  But I do understand why the police hate me.
Now, this is not the whole moment.  There's a lot missing.  There are parts that are too much.  There are moments that are not enough.  But it is where to start.  I will need to back up.  I will need to find all the places I wrote, "feel," and replace them. I will need to expand the setting.  I will need to add moments of sensation for the passage of time.  I should ask the other people who were there to be sure I remembered correctly.  I should also pay attention to my own narrative voice.  Some people abdicate responsibility here, but it would be disingenuous of me to not preface this passage in some way that clearly reveals my own discomfort with the police.  It would also be unfair of me not to show more form their side--there is a point of moral responsibility in what we write, whether we want there to be or not.  But it isn't always covered in that initial moment.  It will take time.  It will take reflection.  It may take visiting another medium, like song, art, poetry, or even baking.  But it comes later.  What comes now are the moments.  Later you can decide where you want them to go.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Hardly ever all there is

There's hardly ever a time in life when we've had only one feeling about something, and yet most of us are conditioned to judge and label an event with one word:  good, bad, happy, sad--you get the picture.  And that picture is really more of an animation than a true photo, a shadow of the reality.  I'm not saying that I truly want the whole picture.  Thoreau's...

Think back to your joyful moment.
  1. What were the consequences of that moment?
  2. What did you feel then?  Later?
  3. What did that moment mean?
  4. Were there any twinges you felt?
Write them down.  They may stick out now.  You may need to make them part of another document.  It doesn't matter.  While you're stuck in only one emotion, you're not letting yourself see.  Even if you never share the other feelings--good, bad, or otherwise--the act of seeing them, recognizing them, and articulating them is important.  Depending on the momentousness of the occasion you chose--and I asked you to choose a joyful one on purpose--those secondary emotions may be easy to verbalize or they may escape you all together.  You may find yourself turning to music or images.  Even the best among us have those moments when words escape us, and telling us that--literally writing, "My heart raced like the violins in 'The Hall of the Mountain King,'" or, "I was filled with the same wonder I felt the first time I gazed over the Atlantic as a child and realized I couldn't see a beach on the other side"--is fine.  Even Ezekiel wrote, "It was like unto the likeness of...".

The goal is to see.  Next week we will work on helping others see what you do.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Up and running!

Few joys in life tickle me more than hearing the neighborhood kids giggling together outside my window.  The delight is contagious, and I have to bite my lower lip to keep from joining in.

It's these shared feelings that compel many of us to write.  We know our stories strike chords that resonate in the instruments of other people's lives.

And those chords are the base.  We need first and foremost to find the point of resonance and strike there.  And to strike there, we must identify its point in us.

Rather than begin with our list of stories we want to tell, let's begin with one emotion:


Try any one or more of these exercises.  The goal is not to work for the sake of completion but to work for the sake of reaching flow.  If you want to spend more time on one question and everything begins to come out, then stop there.  Go as you are led.

Locate joy in your body:
  1. Find it in your face.  Where do you feel it come?  Do you welcome the reaction, or do you try to tamp it down?
  2. Find it in your skeletal system.  How does your posture change as you laugh?
  3. Find it in your stomach.  How does your center feel as you giggle?
  4. Find in your breath.  What happens to your voice when you're happy?  Does your breathing slow down or speed up?
Locate joy in a moment:
  1. Think back.  When is the most recent time you felt those sensations?
  2. Think further back.  When is the first time you remember truly being overjoyed?
  3. Think with your gut.  When is a time the joy was so profound it left you breathless?
Locate joy in a rhythm:
  1. Think of your walk when you are happy.  How would it sound if you were to drum it with your fingers?
  2. Think of your laugh.  How do you laugh?  Is it one loud burst and then several small giggles?  These are your rhythms.  
  3. Do you hum a tune when you're happy?  Do you whistle?  What melody do you choose?
Create an environment for your joy.
We often think that an external environment sets the stage for our feelings, but really, it's frequently the other way around.  We create an environment to match our feelings.  Create it in your mind and then begin to commit it to paper.
  1. Start with the moment you feel the joy take root.
  2. Expand from there.  Do not worry about the storyline, plot, theme, etc.  There will be time for that later.  Start with the joy and let it grow.
  3. When you feel the flow has stopped, as if the pitcher from where it poured is exhausted, turn for a moment and glimpse out one of the windows of your environment.  Give it one more sentence, one more look, and stop.  As important as having an inside to the joy is also having an outside, a boundary.  Let that last sentence be the sigh of finishing.
I can't wait to hear your stories!

Friday, October 30, 2015

I Live in This Mess!

This is the first of a two-part topic.  In this post, I'd like you to consider exploring a "mess" from your life.  It can be anything: a literal mess and what caused it or an emotional mess and your conflicting feelings or a logistical mess and the convoluted plans you made to thread your way through it.

As you write about your mess, consider:
  • Why the mess occurred
  • Who else was involved in it
  • Which aspects of your life were tied up in it
  • How you felt as you resolved it (if you resolved it)
  • How it has changed your approach to things (if at all)
Why concentrate on mess?
  • Messes often occur in times of growth and transition.  They mark the process of your development and the strength of your character moreso than the initial and terminal points of your journey do.
  • Messes generally result from moments when your control over the situation lessens.  Sometimes, you manage to reassert control.  Other times, you learn to disengage and let the mess pass you by.  Still other times, you may become stuck, which can result in hoarding.  Examining these times in your life reveals a great deal about your priorities, abilities, and coping mechanisms.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Why you remember or why you want to tell this story may be the most important question we can ask and the hardest to convey effectively in our writing.  Often, it feels that words fail to express the sheer import of events close to our hearts and many times the feelings and truths most clear and obvious to us are difficult to communicate.

Yet I certainly wouldn't stop trying.

So here are some ideas to help you think about locating and expressing your whys:

  • Not in your story, but to yourself, fill in the blank to the sentence, "This story is important to me because ____________________."  
    • Write and rewrite that sentence until you can succinctly state your because in less than 10 words.
    • Don't be afraid if it doesn't come out right away.  Big feelings and big truths may be simple at heart, but they are felt and experienced in complex ways and are often buried beneath multiple layers of memory, rationalization, and emotion.  It can take time to dig them out, and that's okay.
  • Look for ways, events, or memories that illustrate that truth at other times in your life.
    • Write these less important stories first.  They will give you the practice you need to tell the crucial story that you want effectively.
    • Consider that you may introduce portions of these stories later, in and around the story you really want to tell.
  • Look for moments to emphasize that truth in this initial story.
    • When you are finally ready to write this story, you want to consider issues like uniting imagery, foreshadowing, and changing distance in the event.
    • Write and rewrite if this particular moment is important to you.  Sometimes we say that we don't have time to rewrite, but if your goal in this one memory is to communicate an important truth to your family, I can guarantee that your emotions and the complexity of your associations with the event will absolutely cloud that first draft, the second draft, and many others.  If it's important to you, make the effort to really do it.  Write it once or twice and then set it aside and come back.  Repeat as often as needed.  
    • Don't give up if your intended audience doesn't get it.  Some may never get it, but others will.  Those others may just be the family of your heart.

Friday, October 2, 2015


When I was a freshman in college, my neighbor down the hall spent a long night trying to convince me to switch my major to geography.  In her defense, she was more than slightly drunk when she argued that geography was a perfectly marketable degree.  However, one of her comments stuck with me.  "I didn't know until I walked down the streets of Prague how very much of the city's workings had revolved around the ebb and flow of the Moldau, on its path, and on what traveled along it and in it."

I had spent two summers before, actually, exploring place in stories and had suddenly been aware of the role of where in the workings of my daily life and rituals.

On occasion, place can play a major role in your stories.  Stories that can either be written around place or ones that are enhanced by a sense of place include:

  • A story in which your physical perspective allowed you to see something coming but not to do anything about it.
  • A story in which your physical perspective allowed you to intervene first or cause the motion of the story.
  • A story in which your ritual or actions were necessitated by the physical set up of something.
  • A story in which the flow is interrupted by physical distance or obstacles.
  • A story in which your perspective changes grossly over the course of the story (such as those stories of places that were overwhelming as a child but decidedly underwhelming later).
As you tell these stories, however, resist the urge to lay out the setting in essay format (there was a chair by the door, which was beside the steps, etc.) but try to add the details into the action of the story (as I crept back up to my bedroom, I slowly opened the door halfway, avoiding cracking it on the chair behind it and thus giving away my midnight run to the kitchen).
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