The Power of Lists

You’ve heard of the “to do” list, but what about the “to write” list? It’s a powerful tool in my writing kit.

Sitting in the classroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, I watched as best-selling author Natalie Goldberg picked up her cheap spiral notebook, flipped to the back, and showed us a list of scrawled topics she’d penned on that last page. She said she carried a notebook everywhere and jotted ideas on the back page of the notebook as they occurred to her. “If I’m stuck, I look at these,” she said.

She’d mentioned this list in one of her books, most likely Writing Down the Bones, but to see the real thing left quite an impression. I began to do the same and still carry a notebook at all times.

We also did list-making exercises in the many workshops I took from her. The topics varied, but here are a few of my favorites:

~ The things I carry (a spin-off from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien).
~ Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met
~ Write the names of every place you’ve been
~ Name your pets
~ Tell me every car you’ve ever owned and what happened to it
~ Write down everywhere you have lived
~ List all your loves
~ Tell me everything you know about the color blue

When I write a list, sometimes I’ll fill the entire writing practice with listed, but more often, as I made the list, something would occur to me and I’d soon be writing an essay instead.

Do you use writing lists? I’d love to hear if they work for you!

Thank You for Playing Along

Today, I spent a fabulous afternoon in the company of writers. Yes, I did most of the talking, but what the people arbitrarily labelled “participants” didn’t know going in was that I needed them more than they needed me.

I teach the “rules of writing practice” as taught to me by best-selling author Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind). In the year 2000, shortly before Ed and I returned to my home state of Ohio after living in Taos, New Mexico where I had studied with Natalie, Nat told me to teach writing practice in Ohio. She knew what I needed.

My lame paraphrasing of Nat’s brilliance goes something like this:

1. Use Timed Intervals
. . . just like in meditation practice. Start with ten minutes. Set the microwave timer and GO! The time constraint has a pressure cooker effect, heating up our minds and helping words flow.

2. Keep Your Hand Moving . . .
. . . for the entire time period you’ve selected. It separates and your creative momentum from that oppressive internal editor. No stopping. No crossing out. Don’t let that critic have a chance to stop your naturally moving hand. If you don’t know what to write, write the topic again and continue. Something more will arise.

3. Be Specific.
Oak, not tree. Teddy bear, not stuffed animal. Capture the essential details of your life.

4. Don’t Worry about Spelling, Punctuation; Grammar. Or even the lines on the Page

5. Go for the Jugular.
If it’s scary, it has energy. If you don’t write about it, you’ll just end up writing around it. Even if you know you’ll never publish those words, just go for it!

6. You’re Free to Write the Worst Junk in America
(America, Earth, The Milky Way, The Universe). Take the pressure off. We all write junk. If you’re free to write awful nasty stuff, you’ll be free to write hot, lively stuff as well.

7. Lose Control!
Don’t try to manage what goes down on the page. Let the wild waves of your mind roam free. Don’t grip the pen too hard. It doesn’t matter how sloppy your writing or your thoughts become. Set yourself free.

8. Don’t Think.
Take a vacation from logic, organization, or anything your left-brain loves. Capture the way your mind first flashes on an experience. Step into the words and go. Become the words. No mind. Just write.

Simple enough.

The problem? I forget to follow them.

These “rules” have become so ingrained in me that I take them for granted. And I forget to use them. I lose sight of the practice that has kept me going all these years. I still write, of course, but not with the wild abandon and rich freedom offered by these simple rules. My writing turns shallow and my mind dull. I lose touch with my own big heart and crazy wild mind.

So thank you today to the brave “participants” who allowed me to refresh my recollection by teaching. And thank you to Nat (always) for knowing what I needed in order for the practice to continue at my own desk and at the desks of others. As is often the case, we teach what we need to learn.

The Divine Detail

“Caress the detail, the divine detail.” – Vladimir Nabokov

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I do take a personal inventory when the calendar flips to the next year. This year when reviewing my writing skills, I looked back over the rules of writing practice as set forth in Writing Down the Bones. Specifically (pun intended) Natalie Goldberg’s admonition to “be specific.”

A few of the beta readers who reviewed Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two noticed that my entries about running were full of sensory detail while other parts of the book lacked it. So my revision process has included finding those places where I drifted into vagueness. “Be specific” grounds us in the here and now. While we may be writing about something that has already happened, we should not record just what we think about it, but features and particulars to help the reader experience it as we have.

Yet I don’t want it bogged down in description. Like everything, this requires balance. Narration helps move the story forward. But it must be grounded in the here and now, the place where we want the reader to be. Nineteenth century England? We need to feel the china teacup in our hands and taste the first sip of hot tea. Running along the Olentangy Trail? We need to smell the musty woods and hear the Olentangy River sloshing along beside us as we move through damp air.

As the author, I need to feel this myself. If I don’t, I can’t communicate it to the reader. And that requires me to slow down and remember the details myself. Only then can I put them on the page.

Continue Under All Circumstances

“Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good.” – Katagiri Roshi, Zen Master

I’m just back from ten days in New Mexico. I had the honor of speaking in Taos at the thirtieth anniversary celebration of Writing Down the Bones, the best-selling book by my teacher, Natalie Goldberg. Friday February 19, the Mayor Pro Tem of Taos declared it Natalie Goldberg Day. Saturday, eight of us, Natalie’s long-time students, spoke in the classroom of the new building at Mabel Dodge Luhan House with New Mexico sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. After, we went to lunch at the home of two of the speakers, Tania Casselle and Sean Murphy.

On the plane to New Mexico, as I had skimmed “Bones,” I rediscovered a chapter entitled, “Doubt is Torture.” In it, Natalie describes a conversation between Katagiri Roshi and a young man who was moving to California to become a musician. Katagiri asks the man how he would approach his goal. The man told Katagiri he would try his best and if it didn’t work out he’d just accept it. Natalie writes:

Roshi responded, “That’s the wrong attitude. If they knock you down, you get up. If they knock you down again, get up. No matter how many times they knock you down, get up again. That is how you should go.”

When it was my turn to speak, I cited this chapter. I may have previously forgotten the details, but not the sentiment. “That’s been my journey,” I told the group. Sometimes it wasn’t an external “them” who knocked me down. Just as often it was mental illness, distorted thinking, or bad habits. But I was knocked down just the same. “Having studied writing practice with Natalie for so many years I knew what to do,” I said. “I got back up.”

Today I’m ready to throw myself into further revisions of my current project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two. It’s entirely possible I’ll be knocked down again by forces both without and within. That’s the process. But, again, thanks to my training, I know what to do. Get back up. Period.

Ten Minutes at a Time

“Your toughness is made up of equal parts persistence and experience. You don’t so much outrun your opponents as outlast and outsmart them, and the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head.” – Joe Henderson

When faced with a task, if I spend too much time in my head, I’ll convince myself I can’t do it and won’t even try. In the mid-1980s when I read Natalie Goldberg’s best-selling book Writing Down the Bones, I learned to use a timer to combat this problem. She set one for ten minutes, said “Go!” and wrote without stopping. This practice still works three decades later. Whether it’s keeping my hand moving in writing practice, editing a manuscript, or tackling a cluttered shelf in my office, the timer produces results.

First, I choose a task. It must be specific. Once the task is defined, I set the timer and Go! It might be reading part of a manuscript until the ten minute timer goes off. If ideas for changes come, which they often do, I’ll start the timer again and begin revising. Sometimes it means reading page edits someone has given me. It’s daunting to see what another person thinks of my work. So I set the timer and read until it goes off. I don’t give myself time to think, just read. Once I’ve gotten started it’s easier to make notes as I go. The key is to get into motion and stay out of the negative place in my head. With the finite period set by the timer, I can do nearly anything.

I keep kitchen timers all over the house, one in every room, to help me with all manner of tasks. It creates a pressure cooker effect that expands time and helps me focus on the task instead of worrying about how many minutes I have to go.

Other programs use this technique. Pomodoro has an app. HIIT exercise (short for “high intensity interval training”) is all the rage. For me, it began with Natalie’s simple suggestion of ten minute intervals. I can do anything for ten minutes. The timer is the “gym boss” at my desk turning difficult tasks into manageable ten-minute interval workouts.

Do you use a timer or some other similar technique? I’d love to hear about it.