Monday, November 20, 2006

The Rapture of Being Alive

People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Joseph Campbell

When the desire to write shrivels and threatens to die, try sitting quietly and waiting for am image to emerge from the
unconscious. Close your eyes and let something bubble up. A room, a memory, a dream. Write about it. If nothing happens, take a walk and pay close attention or find a photo or an object that moves you and begin writing. Start with the concrete--
with are you seeing, feeling, touching, smelling, hearing. Move on from there. Consider the rapture of being alive, alive to the senses.

This post is in answer to Judi's question about what to do when the creative juices aren't flowing.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Writing Sweet

Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others, and many other books as well as the founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists method, suggests that the discipline of writing does not arise best out of obligation but will always arise best out of love. p. 51. “Rather,” she says, “than thinking of going to your writing desk as the ‘ought’ and ‘should’ work of your life, think of it as a longed-for pleasure, as a hot fudge sundae, as that which pleases you, delights you, that which you love”


Write about what you did for Halloween. Did you dress up? Eat sweets?
Write about a Halloween costume from childhood, yours or somebody else's.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On the page dreaming

A student gave me a journal that has gold stars on a dark blue cover. It is
unlined--a necessity for me--and small, good for packing and keeping
by the bed. I use it as my dream journal. And now I leave the left side of
the page blank for drawings. I draw and then watercolor a dream image or two
before writing the dream on the right-hand page.
Who can say the pictures are inaccurate?
Not in perspective? It's a dream image.

Friday, September 22, 2006


Write about how it feels to be awake at 3 AM and unable to get back to sleep. Write from your senses, in present tense.

I've just started an "Insomnia Journal." It won't be about dreams because I keep a separate dream journal. For my insomnia journal, I bought watercolors, stamps, ink pads, tape, pens, and vellum. I cut, paste, stamp, paint, and doodle in this journal.

Because sometimes, in the middle of the night, I don't want to reflect and write and I don't want to read. I want to make tiny lines across the page, cut up newspapers, find images, and anchor it all on the page.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Write about a time when you stole something--and when someone stole from you.

From As Good As It Gets

Jack Nicholson says he's been "suckered in, set up, and pushed around" by his neighbor Simon's art agent who forces Jack to take care of Simon's little dog--verdell. Simon is in the hospital, having been beaten up by a male model. Nicholson, a rich OCD author named Melvin Udall--who compulsively locks and unlocks his door, can't step on sidewalk cracks, and endlessly washes his hands with fresh bars of soap--can't help but fall for the cute smart dog.
Write about a relatioship with a pet and how it changed you.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


Write about falling: on the school playground, out of favor with the cool crowd, in class rank, from grace.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Summer will grow old

Pick a line from this poem,
published in The New Yorker
September 18, 2006, to use
as a prompt. I like:
Summer will grow old . . .
It is growing old. What
does that mean to you?

A Pasture Poem

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle,

Threatening to wield
Its green, jagged armament
Against the whole field.

Butterflies will dare
Nonetheless to lay their eggs
In that angle where

The leaf meets the stem,
So that ants or browsing cows
Cannot trouble them.

Summer will grow old
As will the thistle, letting
A clenched bloom unfold

To which the small hum
Of bee wings and the flash of
Goldfinch wings will come,

Till its purple crown
Blanches, and the breezes strew
The whole field with down.

--Richard Wilbur

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Prompt A Day

I'm going to try to do it: Post a prompt a day.

Don't know if I'll succeed. I'm not good at maintaining routines,
or sysems. I do finally have a place for the keys. Most days I find
them there. My eyeglasses? No way.

Write about a routine or a ritual.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hot Cicadas

"At eight of a hot morning, the cicada speaks his first piece. He says of the world: heat. At eleven of the same day, still singing, he has not changed his note but has enlarged his theme. He says of the morning: love. In the sultry middle of the afternoon, when the sadness of love and of heat has shaken him, his symphonic soul goes into the great movement and he says: death. But the thing isn't over. After supper he weaves heat, love, death into a final stanza, subtler and less brassy than the others. He has one last heroic monosyllable at his command. Life, he says, reminiscing. Life."
E.B. White

Prompt: Write about the heat on a summer day.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Rereading Great Books

In "Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love," Anne Fadiman collects essays she commissioned while editor at The American Scholar. It's a wonderful collection of essays about reading and life and changing perspective.

As a teenager I read all of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and most of Thomas Mann. I'm now rereading "The Magic Mountain" and enjoying it immensely--in part because I'm recognizing passages I loved as a teen and I'm thinking about why this book appealed so much to me when I was younger. Who was I? What did I think about? It's a fascinating adventure.
Try it. Reread a favorite book.

from "The Magic Mountain," page 156
"What a strange game these two tablemates were playing. Both of them knew that their lies had double and triple twists--that Hans Castory teased the teacher just so he could talk about Frau Chauchat, but that at the same time he took unwholesome delight in flirting with the old maid; and that for her part, she welcomed all this: first, becuase it allowed her to play the matchmaker, and second, because she probably had become smitten with Frua Chauchat, if only to please the young man, and finally, becuase she took some kind of wretched pleasure in being teased and made to blush. They both knew this about themselves and one another--and that it was all tangled and squalid. But although Hans Castorp was usually repelled by tangled and squalid affairs and even felt repelled in this instance as well, he continued to splash about in these murky waters, taking oconsolation in the certainty that he was here only on a visit and would soon be leaving."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Naming--and writing about-- the Forbidden

"When we are told that something is not to be spoken about, we understand this to mean that this something should not exist - should not, cannot, must no, does not exist. In that moment our reality and, consequently, our lives, are distorted; they become shameful and diminished. In some ways, we understand this to mean we should not exist. To protect ourselves, we too begin to speak only of the flat world where everything is safe, commonplace and agreeable, the very small world about which we can all have consensus. Soon we don't see the other worlds we once saw. For it is difficult to see what we are forbidden to name". - Deena Metzger

Prompt: Make a list of what is/was not spoken about in your life. What's taboo? Look over your list. Write about what jumps out at you. Give voice to those "other worlds."

Saturday, July 08, 2006


OK. You may not be a tennis fan but anybody can be inspired by the French player, Amelie Mauresmo, who won Wimbledon today--beating Justine Henin-Hardenne in a three set battle. Mauresmo, 27, has for years been a "head case," undone by nerves, erratic at key moments, defeatist. Today she prevailed and said in her acceptance speech that she doesn't want to hear any more about her nerves!

Write about a time you overcame your nerves.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Spend it all

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water." --Annie Dillard

Sometimes I'm tempted to save a glorious anecdote or an intriguing workshop prompt for another column or another class--for a day when my deadline looms large or I'm short on ideas.

No more! Use it all. There is more where this came from--always.

Share what you have with other writers, teachers, students, friends.
Remember: All boats rise with the tide.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

And the day came

And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside
the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
~Anais Nin

All around me people are splitting into bloom--opening the way tight-layered peonies swell into soft pink balls.

One woman I work with has fallen madly in love since we last met--she's still finding time for her writing and feels grounded by her words. And she is learning that writing the truth, bold honesty on the page, liberates her from her past. She didn't arrive at the stoop with her ratty old satchel full of "poor me" letters she needs to read alound immediately so that her new love will have no choice but to get up-close-and-personal with her wounds. "I don't need to drag all that old crap into this relationship," she said, her clear blue eyes looking straight into mine.

Another client has started writing about her addictive realtionship that ended recently. Through her pages and pages of detailed truth-telling and recounting, she's seeing deeper and deeper into addiction and uncovering all sorts of gems, "diamonds in the dust heap," as Virginia Woolf says.

Author Louise DeSalvo believes and has witnessed that writers heal when they make: "detailed accounts of the traumatic events in their lives, linking feelings with happenings. The more writing succeeds as narrative (by being detailed, organized, compelling, vivid and lucid), the more benefits will be derived."

Too bad about the passive voice Louise but the thoughts are right on. I'm always blabbing about the importance of details, vivid verbs, and strong feeling. Write about what matters. DeSalvo continues: "Writing in this way seems to discharge complex pent-up feeings, providing a catharsis. But it also permits refelction upon the event's significance so that insight and wisdom are attained."

Passive voice again but still true. A third client has carved out writing time she didn't know she had. She loves to write--she talks about the process the way folks describe the rushes and highs of intense exercise or yoga.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

If I own a cow . . .

the cow owns me.

Anna told us this proverb at out visual journal gathering this morning, at Foster's. I wrote it in my journal. I love it. What does the proverb mean? Write about it.

A bunch of us had met to drink coffee and share our journals--what we hve created in our visual journals since the course Linda and I taught in April.

We talked about "second thoughts," going back over what's there on the page and writing more--details about, say, where I was going when I stopped to draw those horses out in that field.

Linda and Anna had both covered over pages they didn't like--Linda with paper you could lift up and see the original under: the Paul Taylor dancers she had sketched at a concert on a yellow wash she hated. Anna had pasted paper over original pages she didn't want to see again.

At our get-together, I wrote more about the poem we had cut up and responded to: "The Art of Disappearing," by Naomi Shihab Nye.

We discussed adding envelopes, layers, language. We talked about how the journal can be an organic, dynamic book that changes and grows as we do--and how we learn by going back over what we've written and created.

Now, back to the cow--and writing in my journal.

Friday, May 19, 2006


--Creating that list took 10 minutes.
--You don't have to write a first draft.
--Or create an outline
--To get the bones of a story down.
--The details will fade fast.
--Use lists.

Prompt: Using a List

--Packing up to go to the beach with my bookclub friends for Mother's Day weekend--a tradition much deserved by all of us mothers.
--Stellar morning. I let my indoor kitty Tina Fey (yes, she's named in honor of SNL's head writer)out to munch grass. She stays out only a few minutes. Usually I watch her out there but I had emails to send and work to finish before leaving town. So, I let her stay out a bit longer.
--She's gone when I call her to come in, nowhere in sight. Never before has this happened. She always hovered and munched within two feet of the door.
--Daphne, our goofy golden-Irish setter mix standing nearby, panting.
--"Where is Tina?" I ask her. She wags her tail, oblivious, and noses one of her beloved rocks in my direction. That's another story.
--"Tina, Tina, Tina," I call. Damn.
--My family has always thought this was a bad idea, my letting the indoor cat out. And now I'm leaving and she's gone. Yikes.
--I see her at end of yard.
--Catch her but she jumps from my arms, terrified--puffed to twice her size.
--I think Daphne has chased Tina and that Tina freaked.
--Dog/cat relationship is entirely different outdoors. Tina suckled D. when she was a kitten--inside.
--Tina dives at fence, hits her head, doesn't even know what a wire fence with ivy growing on it is.
--I grab her. She growls, hisses, scratches, bites me. Daphne thinks it's a game and lunges at her. She scratches D. who gets upset and fights back.
--I do not put Tina down until we get into the house.
--My right hand looks like I put it in blender. Left hand bad too.
--Long soaks in anti-biotic soapy water. This will fix it, right?
--Jump ahead 24 hours. At the beach with my girlfriends. Right hand is huge, red, and more sore than all my abdominal surgery incisions combined.
--Urgent Care Office visit. I don't want to do this on my weekend with girlfriends. But I'm in bad shape. Friends tried to get me to go yesterday. Stubborn. Don't want to be like my mother who takes temp six times a day and visits nurse every day.
--Antibiotic shot in fanny. "Just lean over the exam table and pull your skirt up," Dr. says. At least she's a woman. Friend Jill who drove me gets a great view of my ass.
--Doctor angry I waited so long. I think she's mean and unpleasant. Dr. Farmer.
--Calls to local animal shelter, even though the bites happened 175 miles away. Are they kidding? Calls to my vet. Tina is the sweetest cat and totally vaccinated.
--Horse pill oral antibiotics for me.
--We go to drive through CVS for Rx. A first for me. Jill is practical and sometimes bossy. But she can see that getting out of seatbelt, car, walking are hard for me.
--No ocean swimming allowed--open wounds, polluted waters. What? Ocean no longer healing water?
--Drooling on couch all weekend.
--Friends have to button my pants, fasten my bra, strip my bed, drive my car, open my horse pill bottle. My right hand is completely useless.
--Hideous pain. Worst of all, I can't write or type. How is a writer to live? I have no disability insurance.
--Home again, a visit from animal control officer. Is this for real?
--Tina is put under house arrest for two weeks! I have to sign papers. My hand won't work. "Can I put an 'X'" I ask. No. I force myself to write, seasick with pain as I do.
--Officer is wearing a medical boot--don't ask why, a dog bite?--that scares Tina. She cowers. Shape up cat, I think. Don't act like you're skittish or rabid. She's neither.
--In fact she lets me cut her nails, used to at least. She is SO gentle.
--It's all my fault, mine and Daphne's.
Note: Before leaving for beach, I checked to see if Daphne was hurt. Found entire Tina claw in her upper gum. I pulled it out (with my left hand). She didn't care. Hell, she chews on rose branches.
--Tina is missing a claw nail, or whatever it's called. She is sore too.
--Animal officer sat in his truck, taking photos of birds at my feeders. We both love birds.
--By law he has to visit Tina again next week.
--One week later I can type again. It's been hell though.
--Someday I might want to write an article about this.
--Having this list will help.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dialogue with my Blog:

Me: Blog, what's up with you? Why don't I use you?

Blog: You ignore me. What are you--a luddite, old, retarded? I am the way to go and you refuse to work with me. You were volunteering information about Craig's List to those older ladies at the estate sale earlier today. You told them to get started with Craig's List because the classified sections in the newspapers are disappearing, like cassette players and video tape. But have you ever used Craig's List. No. Never.

Me: I know. I'm full of it. I haven't even become blog-savvy, though my blog is part of my email signature. That's embarrassing.

Blog: Exactly. Now you're talking. Don't be such a slacker.

Me: But when I think of a blog, an image from Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone drifts across my mind--when that huge whale beaches on the New England coast and begins to stink. But that is so not what a blog is, right?

Blog: Excuse me. I am no smelly beached whale. You are for not using me!

Me: OK. I'm going to post a prompt because thinking about writing prompts is something I do all the time. Maybe that's the answer for me: write what what's already formulated in my brain.

Blog: Yeah go for it. A blog entry doesn't have to be a mini-column.

Me: But since I learn what I think and how I feel through writing, I am reluctant to post my first thoughts. Am I supposed to spend time editing my blog post before publishing it? Crap. I have work to do--a writing job due Tuesday, client work to edit and ponder, classes to plan, my journal to keep, my art journal waiting for that new project--not to mention life and a dog who needs a walk.

Blog: So post your prompt and be done with it

Me: OK. Here's the prompt: mother. What comes up when you say this word? Try writing a letter, writing about a photograph, making a cluster, creating an acrostic poem, or having a dialogue with mother. Or just write.Later in the week, I'll post a mother poem--not by me. Anything else you want to say to me, blog?

Blog: Yes. Use me. I am not a beached whale.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wah, wah, wah

"Wah, wah, wah I don't want to edit my writing. Wah, wah, wah, I want someone else to do it and make it all pretty. Wah, wah, wah writing is poopy. Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Thanks for this indulgence.

Judi (wah)"

Judi just sent me the above in an email.

Here's what I have to say. Let me edit any time. Having assembled words to work with is so much less traumatizing than staring at a BLANK PAGE. FOTP I call it--Fear of the Page.

My husband says there are two kinds of writers: those who fear getting started and those who fear getting finished. Once something is declared finished then it's ready for public scrutiny, a scary prospect. But not, to me, as scary as the BLANK PAGE.

Some people can't let go; they never stop reworking. Raymond Carver edited and edited--with some help from his friends--certain of his already published stories, "A Small Good Thing," for one. It was Degas, or maybe Matisse, who continued to touch up his paintings, even after they were hanging on the walls of museums.

Not me. Once it's in print, I'm done. Onward! To another blank page. Gulp.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

THE instant, not AN instant

The newspaper article I referred to in my last post was titled:
"Life changes in an instant." But to be precise, in "The Year of Magical Thinking,"
Didion's memoir about her husband's death and her exploration of
grief, she writes:

"Life changes in the instant."

What a difference: the use of "the" over "in."

Didion read last night and took questions. Talking about her early
writing days Didion said the editor at Vogue would get furious when
she came in every day with her eight lines of type and there were
"extra words."

Didion's writing is spare, fine-tuned, original. You won't find the cliche, the tired phrase, anything extra. Every sentence receives the same scrutiny. It was a pleasure to hear her read her own rhythmic prose, the refrains suggesting lament.

I wish I had asked her if she produces sloppy first drafts or if it
comes out of her head clean. Damn. My first drafts are blubbering
messes of words.

How about yours?

One more thing: She said she would write pages by day and sit and read them at night and cry.

Monday, February 27, 2006

"Life changes in an instant"

"Life changes in an instant," is the second line of Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and the title of an article in my local paper, announcing that Didion is speaking on our campus Tuesday night. The Writing From Personal Experience workshop that normally meets at my house on Tuesdays will get together and go to the talk instead.

I gave this assignment/suggestion: use as a prompt anything that strikes you about the evening--our carpooling, walking to campus from town, the conversation you overhear waiting in line, Joan Didion's body language, the hat the person seated in front of you is wearing, etc.

What a relief: the workshop isn't school, where the assignment might be to go hear a lecture and write critically about what the speaker discusses. Sure, there's a place for that, but we're not covering the Didion event for the newspaper. We can write about what moves us, what we notice, a gesture that triggers memory. And anyway, I'm always attracted to journalism that include a careful intrusion of first-person experience.

The next time you're at an event, try this: write about what ignites your imagination. Watch yourself meander on the page. Have fun. Remember: writing isn't (anymore) homework.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Stick to the Writing

When people write about intensely personal matters, it's tempting sometimes to stray into the psychology surrounding the situation. Let's say the writing's about the demise of a marriage, the demands of an elderly parent, alcoholism, or the loss of a life dream. A listener may feel triggered or may want to offer advice, support, a similar story from his/her life. But the focus always, in a writing group, must stay on the writing itself--the story, the words the writer has committed to paper. What works? What's memorable? What could use tweaking?

Some workshops treat everything written as fiction and refer to the writer as the narrator--it's not YOUR grandmother, it's THE grandomther.

Since I teach writing from personal experience I don't set up my workshops that way. But we all need to remember that this is not group therapy; it's a writing group.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Voicing the Voice

One of my students has been grappling with her writerly voice. She doesn't hear a voice in her head when she writes. What is voice?, she asked in class. We discussed this--some people actually hear a voice in their heads. Some writers have distinct voices, like Hemingway--always--and Kaye Gibbons in Ellen Foster. Voice can be elusive, hard to pinpoint, similar to tone. The best advice I can offer for finding your voice is to write, a lot. Free write for ten minutes a day and just let the words flow. Try not to censor or audition words as you go along. I invite you to respond to this blog with a freewrite. Let the first words that come to mind come out. Ready Set. Go!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sharing Journal Entries

In journal workshops some people enjoy sharing their entries and read often. Others never do. Either way is OK. Usually once somebody reads something--and we all get to enjoy the meander from the writer's particular perch--others want to read too.

Sometimes it's like watching a scene in a new movie or looking at a bizarre landscape. I particularly enjoy hearing folks read about everyday objects. (I give prompts about them.) What people read can change the way I look at amd feel about stuff: my kitchen sink, a watch, backyards. My world view stretches and I like that. Poetry does this too.

Here's an example.

I abhor coupons and am always annoyed when the person in front of me in line uses them--especially when the check-out clerk has to call a manager because something is WRONG with the coupon--as if being a coupon isn't wrong enough! Having read the following poem earlier this week (check the archive) in poetry daily I have a new relationship to coupons. Phew.


The cashier leans forward
to examine the expiration date.
Here's my mother's squinting face

in silent concentration and memory,
adding up my father's paychecks,
subtracting the bills,

scissors and newspaper close by,
my mother's thrifty face
as hard and bright as Formica.

Tim Skeen
The Southern Review
Volume 41, Number 4
Autumn 2005

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Eavesdropping's Joys

Sitting in restaurants, waiting on line, passing people on a walk, I often find myself nosing in on other people's business. I can't help it. Sometimes, when we're out to dinner, my husband will say, "OK, what are those people behind us talking about?" I can be talking to him but I'm also listening to other tables--and he can tell.

The other day I was having coffee with a few friends. I became aware of the woman sitting at the next table. She was with a man. They weren't talking but they weren't uncomfortable. I glanced over again. She was drawing--I could see it was an interior. It was her view of the restaurant, from where she was sitting.

She put her drawing away and started to get up. I told her I couldn't help but notice her drawing. She showed it to us, told us what she was doing--interiors this month--and gave me her blog. She posts her drawings almost every day.

I want to borrow some of her ideas, like focusing on different subjects for a month at a time. OK writers. Let's spend the rest of the month writing about interiors.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jane Kenyon Poem about Writer's Block

Not Writing

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Jane Kenyon

This poem speaks to me right now as I look around my desk area. I see stacks of manila files in need of file drawers, piles of papers in need of sorting--and filing, bills that need paying, notes to self that need attention, car rental agreements for upcoming trips, forms to fill out. I move one pile, add to another. I am convinced I will be unable to write until I tidy up, unable to enter my house of writing.

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