When Dorothy Allison asked our Goddard M.F.A. class “How do you get your writing done?” I should have kept my mouth shut. “I bribe myself with decaf soy lattes,” was not the answer she was looking for. She chuckled, shook her long brown hair, and called on the woman to my right. The next reply, “I just force myself to sit down and do it,” wasn’t the right answer either.
I had the pleasure of being accosted by Ms. Allison, author of best-selling books such as Bastard Out of Carolina and Trash, at our July creative writing residency where she was the visiting writer. Her class, billed as “Character Driven Fiction,” displeased many of my classmates who didn’t appreciate her uncut style. Perhaps they expected to hear a lecture on the technical aspects of plotting a novel by using character development. But Allison wasn’t interested in giving us what we expected. She’s out there. Openly lesbian and flamboyantly southern, she uses the “f” word when she talks about sex. She talks about sex frequently, and when she’s not talking about sex, she uses the “f” word about everything else she is talking about.
“I’m here to tell you what no one else may ever tell you about writing,” she explained to our startled group of students, faculty and staff. She proved more interested in developing our character as writers than in helping us develop the characters in our books.
“What is the book you most want to write?” she asked. We mumbled answers. Her volume increased. “Are you writing THAT book?” A few of us nodded, but most looked down at their spiral notebooks. When Allison’s fist hit the table, I jumped. “Why The F**k Not?” she shouted. The room expanded with the silence that followed.
She continued, calmer, confident that she now had our full attention. “What is the one thing you know that it seems the rest of the world doesn’t?” This she said is the story we must tell before we die. In a tone that bordered on pleading, she urged us, “Find a character you love and a story you must tell. That is how you write.”
Her gritty manner notwithstanding, Allison’s class came at exactly the right time for many of us. After six days of listening to our excellent Goddard professors teach the meat and potatoes of the writing craft, Allison’s sermon rolled like a salty gale waking us from our exhausted slumber.
Toward the end of her talk, Allison openly discussed her abusive childhood. “If you had a violent past,” she said, “make peace with it. You’ve got to be sane to do the emotional work of writing a book.” A quiet life supports the sanity it takes to write. Then she chuckled, pushed her hair back from her face, and said, “Move to the suburbs. It worked for me.”
“The important thing [in writing memoir], is not the life, but the meaning extracted from it.” – Ellen Boneparth
I haven’t yet figured out the true secret of writing memoir, but my struggle with this book has clued me into what went wrong in my early personal essays. When I first began crafting essays, I simply culled events from my writing practices and stopped there. I edited each piece down to the details of funny or sad things that had happened to me, my family, our dogs, my friends, the neighbors, etc. While these events were funny or sad, they didn’t really have a point. The resulting pages were anecdotes, not essays.
When I began graduate school in creative writing, I made the same error in my critical papers. Recognizing that an author had used a particular technique excited me and so I simply pointed it out. I didn’t analyze it, ruminate over it, roll it around in my mind. I didn’t explain what it meant or voice my opinion. I didn’t go far enough.
Now, when I revise, I reread the pages and question each section: What’s the point? Why does the reader need to know this? How does this contribute to the theme I’m presenting? What am I really trying to say?
In the early days, I found these questions daunting. Reticent to let the reader know what I felt or thought about each interaction, I stuck to the facts. As I push toward the third year of work on this project, opining becomes easier and easier. Without this musing aspect, the work is lifeless. My job as a writer is to filter the material and shape it in a way so that the reader knows the point I’m trying to make. I don’t hit her over the head, but gently guide her. “Over here,” I say. “The point is over here.”
If you find that your essays are lifeless and dull, don’t throw them out. Just ask some simple questions. What does this mean to me? Why do I think this is important? What do I really want to say? That’s what your reader really wants to know.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” – Robert Frost
As many of you know, my beloved niece Jamey Ax, passed away on February 6, 2007. She was 24. It’s no wonder I was having trouble writing last month! Jamey was at the end of her journey and my entire family was deep in the throes of pre-grief. But anticipatory sadness did not diminish the pain I felt when I heard the words, “She’s gone.”
I’m letting myself grieve. I continue working on the book and reading for school, but I’m also doing lots of pure undirected writing practice as well as spending time with Jamey’s mother, other family members, and alone. Just like writing, grieving is a process. It will take its natural course whether I want it to or not.
I hope when something devastating happens in your life that you will allow yourself the time it takes to heal. Life slows down when we’re in pain. As a writer, I pay attention, take notes, and let time do its work.
Thanks for your compassion – now, and always.
Nita (calling all angels) Sweeney
©Nita Sweeney, 2007, all rights reserved
I’m sitting in Port Townsend, WA in the computer lab of Goddard College‘s west coast branch where I’m working on my MFA in creative writing. When I checked my email just now (first time in several days), a friend sent a link to a Salon.com article by a
Carey Tennis about his MFA school experience. Here’s the line that jumped out at me:
. . . take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult’s job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.
Over the break between semesters, my inner critic escaped it’s gilded cage and nearly ate me for dinner. This was due in part to the death of my dear niece, but also just because I’d let my guard down. By the time I arrived here on Sunday afternoon, I’d mentally eviscerated myself.
I’ve spent the past few days just pulling myself back together. Every morning and evening I give myself the gift of writing practice ala Natalie Goldberg, timed writing on topics that pop into my mind. I take long walks on the beach down to the lighthouse. I have lunch with a friend when I can. I stare out the window of my second-story room that looks over the water. I walk as slowly as the schedule will allow. And I breathe.
So far so good. I feel better. Surrounded by other writers and a good friend, listening to readings and lectures and water and mountains, I feel renewed. I am grieving and healing from various wounds. Regardless, I will continue.
I’m feverishly working on a “short paper” for my first semester in Goddard’s MFA program. Since personality typing systems have intrigued me for years, I decided to focus on using one in writing.
I chose the Enneagram, a nine point system which includes many different levels of health and integration because of it’s dynamic nature. Not only can an author use the Enneagram to create a character, the flexibility built into the Enneagram allows an author to track a consistent arc of character development.
As with most of my brilliant ideas, I found that somebody else had “my” brainstorm first! There’s even software available. To learn more, check out Judith Searle’s book, The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out, and Character Pro 5. Software. Searle provides a short essay on the nine personality types and examples of characters, actors and their Enneagram types at writersstore.com.