Monday, September 15, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jackie Briggs Martin: William Stafford Sitting in My Straw Bale Garden

Straw bale garden in June
It's interesting, curious, how these Inkpot blogs seem to be related, though they come from different writers, located all over the world. We want to write about what keeps us from writing. Recently Laura Ruby has written  a wonderful blog about losing heart. Vanessa Harvey has written movingly about the difficulty of finding time. And I want to look at the fear of not being good enough.

straw bale garden in September (note tomatoes)
I have a gardening failure this summer—my straw bale gardens. I wanted to try growing vegetables in straw bales to see if people who did not have good dirt would be able to use straw bales on top of the questionable soil in their yards. 

So I bought some straw bales, set them down in the back of my garden, did the prep steps, and popped in some pepper plants.

What happened was that the tomatoes I planted in front of them grew so tall that my straw bale gardens were in deep shade all summer.  I have, so far, harvested two peppers from these straw bale gardens.

But I did learn some things. Next summer I’ll put the straw bales in a different spot, where I’m sure they’ll get good sun all summer. I won’t plant a tall plant like snap dragons on the sides (what was I thinking?!?) and I’ll probably pay more attention to the straw bales, check in with them once in a while. It wasn’t that easy to get back to those straw bales once the tomatoes took over. 

This failure doesn’t seem to bother me. I see gardening as process. Every failure is a learning opportunity.

Why is that attitude so easy with gardening and so difficult with writing? Why do I want it to be perfect as it comes out of the pen?  And why is it so easy to think what I am writing doesn’t really matter, that it's trivial, not connecting with anything important.

Sometimes the universe gives us what we need. On a whim, I pulled a book of essays off the shelf called Creativity and the Writing Process (eds. Olivia Bertagnolli and Jeff Rackham; 1982) and it fell open to a piece by William Stafford, who begans his writing day by getting up early. And then he got out paper and pen.
To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come and I am off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started….And if I let them string out things will happen.

If I let them string out. …Along with initial receptivity, then, there must be another readiness: I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep writing I cannot bother to insist on high standards…I am thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc. I resolutely disregard these….So receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes.

There is the rub. The willingness to fail, the resolve to keep writing in the face of doubt. It sounds easy enough not to worry about significance, values, consistency, worthiness. But in fact those are the questions lurking in our pencil holders, under the notebooks, behind the printer. 

William Stafford is not saying we should accept without revision these first spinnings onto the page, but that we should let them be the beginning, not wait for perfect, or  powerful, just take what comes, trust that something will come and work with it. Stafford also believes that not all of what comes will "amount to much....I launch many expendable efforts."

I recall another saying from William Stafford. When asked what he does when he runs into writers block, he replied, “I lower the bar.”  The trick is to keep writing and something comes. “Something always occurs…and things will happen.” 

The only real failure in gardening might be not to plant the seeds.  On my best days, with the help of William Stafford, I think there are no failures in writing: whatever we do, whatever happens, whatever flops or sloppiness, if we work long enough, hard enough, well enough, we can make a story out of it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Alumni Voices with Vanessa Harvey: Time

lactic acid structure

I am not afraid.

I have sat on the start line of 2k race knowing lactic acid will rip my limbs from my body within 25 strokes leaving me to dance with the devil to cross the finish line.

I have left friends and family behind in the name of adventure and the unknown.

I have stared down blank canvases and sheets of paper, not blinking once.

I laugh at rejection because I have been rejected so many times.

And failures... well how could I be afraid of that which leaves me wearing proud battle scares?

And that hot stove... It is where I live every moment of every day. My worst memories and skeletons are my constant companions. They are no longer terrifying.

I am not afraid.

Then, why do I not write?

Why do the stories stay lodged beneath my breastbone?


Or a lack thereof.

Finding that quiet time to carefully dislodge my stories. If I rip and force them out, they tear and break into unrecognizable mush.

I have been told I should make time.

I should.

I don't know how.

I have been told if I didn't run so much, I would have time. True. But then my stories wouldn't know what it was like to feel the wind in their hair and the joy of flying down a hill full tilt.

I have been told if I just stayed in one place, I would have time. True. But, then how would my stories be born? My stories are pieces of my adventures.

I have been told that if I didn't want all the pie I would have time. True. But, I am a glutton of life and through my voracious appetite I feed my stories.

I should find time. I should. Really. Honestly. Attempt to find time.


Time to...

To run. To read. To sketch. To paint. To cook. To row. To coach. To volunteer. To travel. To work. To love. To be happy. To be calm. To dance. To build a life-over and over and over again.

To write.

I am not afraid.

I merely quite honestly don't know how to find time. It is an elusive creature.

Vanessa Harvey is a July 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. Her penchant for adventure has currently landed her in New Zealand, where she is a rowing coach at Wellington College.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Faculty Voices with Laura Ruby: Drowning in the Well

Laura Ruby

Once upon a time, it was my job to write about kittens. Kitten plates, kitten ornaments, kitten figurines. I was excellent at writing about kittens. So good, in fact, that, after seven published books, I found myself scouring, looking for another fulltime office job that would pay me to write about kittens. Because I really really really didn’t want to write novels anymore.

Oh, sure, I’m not the first writer who’s wanted to throw in the towel. Just last week, Nova Ren Suma asked a group of novelists if they’d ever felt like quitting. One writer after another shrieked an emphatic YES, confessing problems with unresponsive agents and overworked editors, struggles with failed manuscripts and icy rejections, a sudden and shocking lack of ideas. Writer and teacher Tim Wynne-Jones blogged about this very thing back in 2011: “I don’t believe in writer’s block,” he wrote. “I do believe, however, that sometimes the well runs dry.”

In my case, it wasn’t any of these things. Yes, I did lose my longtime editor to the financial meltdown of 2008, but I was lucky enough to get another. My agent took my calls (whether she wanted to or not). And I have never lacked for ideas.

What I lost was heart.  

There are prescriptions for most kinds of writerly ailments. Maybe you need to break up with your agent or editor! Maybe you need to put that manuscript in the drawer and start another! Maybe your creative well is dry and you need to fill it up — with art, with music, with snacks and wine and salsa dancing! Maybe you need to reject those rejections, have a good cry, whip up some Baby Groot cupcakes, self-publish and/or soldier on.

There is no prescription for the loss of heart. I had all these manuscripts lying around in various states of completion, but the thing — the spark, the energy, the passion — that had prompted me to begin these projects in the first place was just…gone. “Which one of these stories do you love most?” my friends would ask, trying to help. “That’s the problem,” I said. “I don’t love any of them.”

And I didn’t. Not like I loved other things, other people. My father-in-law fell desperately ill at the same time my younger stepdaughter did, and for a very long time, needed me far more than my little stories. After my father-in-law died and my stepkid began to take baby steps towards recovery, it was impossible to convince myself that making a decent vegetarian lasagna wasn’t just as useful and creative as any novel I could write.

If this sounds like depression, it was a very specific sort of fiction-centered depression. What good is a story when the people around you are suffering? Shut up and make them something to eat! I had forgotten how nourishing stories could be.

As it happened, it was during a search for another kitten-related copywriting job that I was invited to teach at Hamline University. By then, I had mastered a decent vegetarian lasagna. My stepkid was flourishing. I didn’t love writing, but I still loved writers. I wasn’t sure that was enough for me to be useful, but it was enough for me to try.

And I had to try very very hard. It was the first time in years that I was forced to focus on how one makes a story work rather than dwelling on all the ways one’s story goes awry. But for some of the students, it was the first time they’d ever given themselves permission to take their writing seriously, the first time they’d ever admitted how much they loved what they were doing, how much they needed to do it. “Yes, of course!” I said. “Of course you do.” And I believed it. For them, it was good and right and true.

It took another year for me to realize that when I said, “Yes, of course, of course you do,” I was also listening to myself, talking to myself, giving myself permission to take my work seriously, giving myself permission to love it again (or at least like it a little, maybe, sometimes).

Life will break your heart and writing will break your heart, but love is weirdly, wildly, sneakily infectious. If there’s any prescription to be had here, it’s this one: if you don’t have the heart, surround yourself with people who do. It’s almost as amazing as burying yourself in a pile of real, live kittens.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

Alumni Voices with Deborah Davis: Teen Inspiration

Every summer for the past six years I have taught five-day creative writing workshops for teenagers, eight to fourteen kids at a time. Most of the teens love to write: they'd craft stories, poems, and journal entries even if their parents didn't send them to writing camp. A few used to enjoy writing, until writing school assignments soured them on composing with words. My workshop aims to rekindle their interest in writing, help them discover or reconnect to a love of putting ideas into words, and build their confidence in both writing and reading their work aloud.

Working with teens is exhausting—but it’s also exhilarating. Planning exercises that are a match for their jet-propelled, angst-ridden energy and indomitable curiosity, and then writing with my students, I step out of my own comfort zones, reconnect to my own love of writing, and have a lot of fun.

Here are three things I do with my teen writers. I hope you use all three yourself—on your own, with your writers group, or with your own students, if you teach.

1. Adopt Jane’s Mantra
Thirty years ago free-writing instructor named Jane encouraged me to write whatever came into my own angst-ridden, yearning-to-write, 26-year-old brain—and then read my pages aloud to all the other workshop participants. If we tried to apologize before reading aloud, Jane would stop us. "Your writing isn't good or bad," she'd say in her Zen-like way. "It's just interesting." She taught us to examine our writing for their potential: what is interesting or compelling? What needs delving into? Which words are charged or dead or heavy on the page and need to be busted wide open--explored and expanded and developed?

I use Jane’s mantra with my teenage students. After saying it a time or two on Day 1 of the workshop, I rarely have to say it again. If anyone balks at reading or apologizes before they start, the other students chime in, encouraging the bashful, reluctant, or apologetic one: "Your writing isn't good or bad," they admonish each other gently. "It's just interesting!" The mantra makes us all fearless, gives us permission to trust every weird, slippery, or raucous idea that comes to us so that we can discover, when we read our work aloud or silently later, what intrigues us and what seems worth exploring.

2. Apply Pressure
Just as our characters need pressure to grow and change and take risks, so do we. One of my favorite workshop exercises is writing "minute poems." I give the group a word and then set a timer for one minute. In that minute, each writer writes a poem inspired by the given word. Any word works, and the resulting poems are often extraordinary. Like this one, by 17-year-old Emily:

that lemon just spoke.
I swear I'm not crazy
my mind might be hazy
and I know you won't check
'cause you're lazy.
But seriously,
that lemon is talking.
Writing minute poems is a great exercise by itself or as a way to warm up for other writing.

Apply pressure on yourself by setting a timer for other tasks as well. For instance, give yourself a specific assignment that pertains to your story—Write how Jean feels after seeing her brother die, or Summarize Bill's month in one paragraph, or Write the scene where Lulu discovers she's the lost princess of Aragondia—and set a timer for one minute, or five, or ten. See what you can do under pressure. You'll be amazed. And if you're not, well, set the timer and try again. And again. Watch your ideas pop like popcorn, fresh and fragrant and tantalizing.

3. Prop It Up!
Around Day 4 I ask everyone to bring in a wearable prop. They've brought, among other things, a feather boa, stunner glasses, spider gloves, a halo, cat ears, bunny ears, a martial arts sword, and a hamburger hat. Each of us chooses a prop and puts it on, and then we write, letting the prop influence or inspire us. A prop might enliven an ongoing story, or inspire a new action or character, or change the tone of a piece, or bump you out of your story so that you return to it refreshed.

Trying to write a sexy scene? Wear something sexy, or play music that feels sexy to you. Aiming for a humorous tone or creating a funny character? Wear something goofy. If it's danger you want to convey, place something potentially dangerous near you: a sharp knife, a bottle of pills, a container of bleach. Physical props--worn or kept at hand--stimulate our senses and our imagination.

By the time my teenage students leave at the end of the fifth day, I'm zonked, but I'm inspired. Like my students, I’ve generated pages of new writing and ideas, and I’ve laughed a lot.

So find that old feather boa, set the timer, tell yourself that your newest writing isn’t good or bad, it’s just interesting, and have some fun!


Deborah Davis is a 2012 graduate of the MFAC program and the author of several YA novels. She lives,writes and teaches in California. To learn more about her teaching and her books, check out her website.