Archives for category: Writing Workshops

Making art while making a living & a life is, I’ve found, trickier at some times than others. Whatever parts of me need to come together to make writing a good story possible require an ever-changing blend of opposing forces: generosity, fury, patience, diligence, sloth–you name it. Becoming an artist, for me, is as much a matter of mastering myself as it is understanding craft and delving into my material.

image_of_CentennialValley

Sometimes you do need to give creativity a big, clear space to roam. This is Centennial Valley, MT.

I’ve been working on a new group of short stories for a collection that I’ll submit as my dissertation at the University of Utah. One of the new stories, “The Whiskeyjack,” recently won first place in the Utah Arts & Museums Original Writing Competition’s Short Story category. (Thank you, Jon Billman, for selecting my entry!) While that story was a long time coming from the initial idea to the execution, it was mainly built during the one-hour personal writing sessions I engage in before my day job.

Trial and much, much error has shown me that one hour of the cream of the day–for me, the very top layer of coffee-enhanced optimism and quiet alertness I experience before I have to talk to people–usually trumps multiple hours at any other time of the day when it comes to creative (imaginative, expressive) writing. I get more done and the quality of the work seems better.

Yet I have to be honest with you: limiting personal writing time to only one hour a day ever would be like attempting yoga in a phone booth (remember those?). I also take the occasional weekend day when instead of haranguing my kids to clean their rooms or battling the beast-mountain of laundry that perpetually hulks on a table downstairs, I put on headphones and slog away while my lovely husband takes the kids to a movie or something.

And then once in beautiful while, I get away for a couple of days and see what happens when I make a story my whole business for good long string of hours. A couple of years ago, my friend Heidi (amazing poet!) and I took off to the desert for two days. We holed up in a bed and breakfast, wrote and hiked, and otherwise were away from our kids and jobs and everything else.

One of the poems Heidi worked on during our retreat has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! You can watch her talk about form and her book, Self Portrait as Betty Page here.

Last summer, instead of writing a blog post, I was part of an artist’s colony. With 15 other writers and visual artists, I spent nine days (!) in Centennial Valley, Montana, where cell service and Internet is just rumor and bear spray is something people actually carry. I worked on “The Whiskeyjack” there, and two other stories I know will be in the collection, plus something that may or may not become an essay. By the end of my stay I was really, really ready to go home–see my guys, drink my preferred brand of coffee, NOT THINK ABOUT MY WRITING ALL DAY–but having all that time uninterrupted by ordinary responsibilities was essential for allowing me to sense the shape and weight and possibilities of the work. To see where I needed to get braver, go deeper.

Since returning, I’ve been galloping along with the mostly happy busy-ness of making a living and making a life. Making art is back in its one-hour square on my schedule, with a notable exception: after learning about the prize, I found myself facing the half-built lump of a new story and thinking, I’ll never write another good story again, will I?

Never mind that the point of writing, for me, isn’t to win prizes or even to publish. That’s a desired outcome, but it’s not why I do it. Never mind that I have seen the power of brute force in accomplishing goals: ass in chair for x hours = more & better writing. I found I just couldn’t stomach the thought of bellying up to the computer first thing in the morning. What was happening to me?

My calendar held the clue. Work had heated up. I had two business trips and several high stakes deadlines packed into about three weeks. Maybe the prize had nothing to do with my reluctance to write. Maybe the pendulum was swinging and my inner sea needed to roll in the direction of making a living for a little while.

So I took a break from stories. I drank my coffee while watching TV and planning my work projects instead of facing off with another story. I told myself I’d take a month off from morning writing, but after about thirteen days, I found myself itching to get back to this (stupid, truculent) story I’ve been working on (struggling with). So here I am again, coffee beside me, file open, the scene I wrote yesterday looking not too bad.

Not too bad at all.

Mary Anne Mohanraj doesn’t need a shout-out on my blog, but I have to give it. To me, Mary Anne is the epitome of the working creative writer. Engagement is her way of life.

I first met her at the orientation for new graduate students at the U of U lo, these many (almost 15) years ago. For me, getting through our doctoral program required an unsustainable level of focus (hence an extended leave of absence between coursework and exams). I felt a bit of envy and also the hope of new possibilities when I saw that she had a different way of doing our program, one that included weekend jaunts to California, time to make music and crafts, and a generally easier (but no less determined) vibe all around. I kept her in mind as I returned to prepare for my exams, making sure I made room in my week and my mind to take pleasure in the process.

We swapped stories in Fiction workshops and ideas over coffee & the occasional lemon bar at Cucina’s. The giant ficus she couldn’t take to Chicago still flourishes in my house. And I will always be grateful to her for lending me a stack of Harry Potter novels when I really, really needed to remember what I loved about Story.

She’s had an impact on my life, in other words, and I’m grateful for it.

Now this creative force for good has cancer and, like the writer she is, she’s writing about it here. I love that she’s turning her light on this experience–brave! brave! brave!–and sharing her insights with the world.

I encourage you to check it out.

Part of the joy of recently completing my doctoral exams (and I passed! yea!) is having more time for fun service projects, like team-teaching a Third Grade class with my lovely husband, poet Dave Hawkins. On Tuesday, we got the kids to write haiku poems focusing on an image or mood they associated with a winter holiday. Dave did a great job introducing the writing project, and we each took on helping a different half of the class as they drafted their poems.

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On Thursday, we returned to the class to help the kids turn their poems into teddy bear ornaments. It took me a short time (and several versions) to develop the design, then about two hours to hand-copy and cut enough bears and bows for the whole class. Dave helped me prep the kits, including stringing the yarn through the bears’ heads. It was well worth the effort: the kids had a great time with the activity and, at the end, were eager to stand up and read their poems to the class.

To save time by reducing the need for clean-up, we used glue dots and sticker-backed embellishments (gem stickers) for the eyes. To improve the longevity of the projects, I sprung for acid-free papers. It helped that I found the acid-free brown cardstock on clearance, but in any case, I know I’ll use the extra. That said, this project can easily be done less expensively with construction paper or even repurposed chipboard (i.e., a cereal box).

INSTRUCTIONS

Materials & such to create 1 kit:

Black permanent marker

Cardstock

Light-colored, patterned paper

Gem stickers

Glitter paper (or any contrasting paper)

Glue dots (very helpful for classroom)

Hole punch

Plastic/paper bag, small

Scissors

Yarn

Steps:

  1. Trace the outline of a bear onto cardstock. (Feel free to copy/adapt mine if you’d like.)
  2. With the black marker, outline the bear’s body and draw features such as the face, ears, and paws.
  3. Cut out the bear, including cuts under the bear’s front paws.
  4. Punch a hole at the top of the bear’s head and thread it with a loop of yarn. Set aside.
  5. To create the placard for the poem, cut a rectangle of decorative paper (large enough to hold a haiku, small enough to fit when tucked under the bear’s arms). Make enough so that kids can have a new one if they mess up. Set aside.
  6. Cut a bow out of glitter paper. (Hint: Make sure the center of the bow is a little larger than the size of your glue dots.) Set aside.
  7. Assemble the kits: one bear, one placard, one bow. Add sticker sheets if you have them. My gem stickers were on such small sheets, I couldn’t cut them up and I couldn’t afford a whole sheet per kit.

Xmas Bear Ornament

INSTRUCTIONS – DURING THE EVENT

Materials and such:

Kit

Crayons/markers for coloring

Marker for writing (fine-tipped, dark-colored ink)

Scrap paper

Stickers (optional)

Steps

  1. Show a completed version of the project, pointing out that the bow can be on the bear’s head or at the bear’s neck, or anywhere else the kids want to put it or nowhere at all. It’s their bear.
  2. Get the kids to practice writing their poems with their markers on scrap paper as you pass out the kits. Assure the nervous ones that legibility, not perfection, is the aim. When the kids are ready, direct them to write their poems on the decorative paper.
  3. As the kids complete their poems, have them decorate their bears using crayons, markers, and stickers. I walked around delivering gem stickers for the bears’ eyes while Dave walked around doling out glue dots for the bows and to hold the placards in place once the bears were all done. Watch out for kids who want more than their share of stickers to put on their earlobes, unless you have plenty, in which case, who cares?
  4. Hold a rapid-fire holiday haiku reading party!
feedback infographic

CCL: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

When it comes to being a critic of other writers’ works-in-progress, I’ve hit all the points on the continuum from tactful expert to boorish junk show. I’ve been on the receiving end of the gamut of criticism too, and have concluded that criticism of the constructive persuasion emerges only from a shared understanding between artist and critic.

Ideally, critic and creator agree on the kind of feedback that’s called for. For example, some teachers and editors are in the business of achieving a certain quality of performance by a deadline. Their prime directive (a la Jean Luc Picard) does not include pussyfooting around your delicate feelings. The best editors (in my opinion) know how to be honest without causing unnecessary harm (see nonviolent communication), but the assumption is that you, the creator, are so committed to excellence, you’ll set aside your ego and thank them for the chance to make your work better.

Other times, the work’s sole purpose is to express the author’s ideas and feelings. No particular reader in mind. No ad rates to justify. No public to sway. Just one soul out loud. The cancer survivor’s workshop is designed for just this kind of work: using writing to connect with oneself and with other survivors.

But how do you give feedback in this context? Do you just nod and smile? If the creator actually wants suggestions—wants to make sure the work carries its message to an intended audience—then isn’t it a disservice to softball the feedback?

Because participants in the cancer survivor’s workshop have expressed different needs regarding feedback, and ours is a student-centered class to the nth degree, one of my main tasks is to find ways to offer differentiated approaches to feedback. The method I’m using for this group is to ask each creator which she or he prefers after they’ve read their work aloud: No feedback or Two Questions. If the former option is picked, we just say thank you and move on to the next author. If the latter is chosen, we discuss (1) What stood out? And (2) Is there anything one would like more of?

So far, folks seem to be happy with this approach, based on the informal feedback I’ve received. But I’ll be collecting formal feedback on the course this Saturday, and perhaps will learn that adjustments should be made before running a workshop like this again. Well, if that’s the case, I am committed to excellence…

When Angie dug her fingers into my shoulders, I sighed. When she found the knots of my levator scapulae, even her hands, which were large and corded with muscles, couldn’t press too hard or go too deep. But when it was time for me to lie on my back and she brushed the skin over my clavicle lightly as a dragonfly, I bucked off the table as if she’d jabbed me with a lit match.

As good with the intangible side of massage therapy as with the rest, Angie remained neutral and let me settle back. She asked me about the pressure and we continued: chest, arms, hands, feet, and all the while I was marveling at the sensitivity of such an erstwhile part of my body. It occurred to me I had no memory of anyone having touched my clavicle before. My neck, yes, my boobs, sure. But that unassuming span between the public and private areas of my upper body? At that point in my then-young life, no lover had been inventive enough to be inspired and no medico had cause to linger there. The mere weight of Angie’s attention, expressed by fingertips, had been enough to elicit shock from the cells of my skin.

Another reason I was surprised by my reaction was that the massage therapy was part of a project: I was on-purpose healing a trauma that was both emotional and physical and that (I thought) had nothing whatsoever to do with my upper chest. I’d worked through the emotional stuff—writing, painting and dancing had been instrumental in that—but it’d become clear I’d developed what bodyworkers call holding patterns—habits of movement and tension that develop from a defensive response to a specific situation, like an injury, and become so ingrained, they can ultimately impair the body’s functioning. And so I expected Angie to find numerous imbalances in my back muscles, to advise me on ways to realign my off-kilter hips. I didn’t expect her to give to me a part of myself that had escaped my notice, perhaps for the very reason that it had not been the site of damage.

Over the years, Angie and I have talked about the role of the witness in healing. As a bodyworker, a large part of her job is to create and hold a safe space in which another person can unfold and make discoveries like the one I had.

“Most of my clients would benefit from simply lying down for an hour in the middle of the day but won’t let themselves do it unless they’re paying someone a hundred bucks,” she once said, only half joking.

Her quip made me think of my many experiences on her table. We both knew the value of her skill, which combined hard-earned knowledge of anatomy and physical processes with a deep intuition and excellent training. Without taking anything away from that, I could see what she meant about the simple act of being there for yourself. But I’d done so much of that already, I’d reached a point where I needed to do some of my healing work in the presence of another person, someone I could trust.

She agreed that sometimes having a witness is in itself valuable and went on to describe the labor involved in facilitating a healing experience for someone. Her philosophy, not uncommon in bodyworking, is that her job is to help people get unblocked so their body’s natural process of recovering health can proceed.

I can relate: as a writing instructor, a great deal of my labor goes into setting up a situation in which people feel they have a reason to write, which often includes having a live, present audience for their work. There’s an exchange of energy between the witness and the author; sometimes, that exchange is needed more than suggestions and elaborate discussions of “what’s working” in a given piece.

In the writing workshop for cancer survivors, I’m the Angie. And it’s such a simple thing, the job of a witness. To be there. To listen, not simply hear. To watch. To hold for time, in your consciousness and, in this case, in a collective, a space in which some else can unfold.

Simple, but not always easy.

As I told the group at our first meeting last Saturday, ours isn’t the kind of workshop where we’re pushing each other to reach some external standard, some Platonic ideal of literary production. Those classes exist and can be tremendously useful depending on your goals, but that’s not our agenda. Our aim is to explore, to share, to witness. I know that “good” work can emerge in this context. More importantly for our aims, I know that even if the author is writing about some little happenstance, an image or a moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with their trauma, something very good for them might happen. Through sharing their work with a roomful of compassionate witnesses, they may find a forgotten part of themselves.

When winter—figurative or literal—presses you to the ground, what fires you up to take your next helping of life? What’s your invisible sun?

For me, the answer is art—which I define very broadly, by the way. Writing is my trade as well as my main artistic squeeze, but sometimes words are both too much and not enough, so I paint or dance or (lately) knit odd-looking hats and mittens. I cook. Why you make a thing is sometimes more important than what you make or whether it’s useful afterward.

The why of art-making is on my mind today as I plan a writing workshop for cancer survivors and their families. Too many people miss out on the raw energy they gain when they engage in the labor of making a thing just for the satisfaction of making it, so in this case, my aim is a workshop that helps people recharge. To bask in the glow of their respective invisible suns.

G., my contact at the wellness center for which I’m running the workshop, tells me we have 12 registered. I look forward to hearing from each one of them their why for joining the class, and we’ll take the what from there… Over the coming weeks, I’ll be using this blog space to share posts that may be of interest to these participants. If you’re not in the class, you’re still invited to check in too; if you have any insights, suggestions or questions about how writing and other art-making can bank the creative fire that makes life worth living, drop me a line.

All my best,

JG

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