“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” – Henrik Ibsen quotes (Major Norwegian playwright of the late 19th century, 1828-1906)
When I teach, students ask about writing groups. I invite them to stay after the class if they are interested in forming one. Invariably a few folks hang out afterward to swap information and get something started. One of the groups that formed after one of my classes has been writing together for at least five years.
I first joined a writing group the day after I arrived back in Columbus from my first Natalie Goldberg writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico. I walked into Stauf’s coffeehouse, a place I’d written nearly every day for months, and spotted two women I hadn’t seen before sitting at a table. One woman listened intently as the other read aloud from a spiral notebook. On the floor beneath one of the chairs sat Natalie Goldberg’s first book, Writing Down the Bones. I waited until they were done reading to each other, introduced myself, and asked if they were doing writing practice. They were. I told them I’d just returned from Taos and one of Natalie’s workshops and they invited me to join them. The three of us wrote together for a year and a half until I moved to New Mexico to work with Natalie.
This experience proved to me, if you’re open to forming a writing group, the opportunity will appear. When I moved to New Mexico, I was more assertive. I posted a flyer at coffeehouses and the library. I was very specific telling prospective members what kind of group it would be and when it would meet. The flyer read, “Writer seeks other writers to do Natalie Goldberg style writing practice weekday hours.” Over the next few months, six people responded and we formed a group that met for nearly three years. Many of us are still in touch.
There is also a list of more than thirty central Ohio writing groups on my website at http://www.nitasweeney.com/newsletter/ongoing-writing-groups/
If you’re looking for a group of writers to share the journey, it’s out there. You might have to create it, but other folks want to be found. They’re just waiting for you to get it started.
Do you belong to a writing group? If so, how did it start?
“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955)
People often ask whether I write by hand or on the computer. I do both. But there was a time when ninety-five percent of what I wrote was by hand. Page after page in a spiral notebook with either a ball point or rollerball pen. I can go for an hour straight without stopping. In my class, when I explain this, invariably someone will say, “That’s impossible. My hand is killing me after one round of ten minutes.”
In Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, best-selling author Natalie Goldberg lists several rules of writing practice: “Keep your hand moving. Don’t cross out. Don’t think. Go for the jugular. You’re free to write the worst junk in America.” But there’s one rule she didn’t mention. The pen is your friend. It is not a dagger. You don’t need to grip it as if you were trying to stab someone. And you’re not clinging to a life raft even though it might feel that way emotionally.
The idea is to write continuously. It’s not a race. Most people find it difficult to keep up with their thoughts, but you don’t have to grip the pen tightly to keep it from flying across the room. Slow down. Let the words roll off. Relax your hand and shoulders. Also, try different types of pens. Sometimes the barrel of the pen is too fat or too thin. Switch and see what happens. But for goodness sakes, let the pen go. Try holding it so loosely that it does fly across the room. Calmly pick it up. Sit back down and begin again. Don’t worry if you can’t read your handwriting.
These techniques work at the keyboard too. If you can sit up relatively straight and relax your neck and shoulders, your fingers can move more quickly. Position your keyboard so that your elbows hang comfortably at your sides with your wrists slightly lower than your elbows so that your wrists do not need to bend. Keeping your shoulders back and your back straight adds to the relaxation. It’s like sitting meditation. Posture is important. Your body wants to keep working for you for a very long time. Do what you can to help it along.
The other secret about pain is that sometimes it is simply resistance. The mind creates pain in the body because it is afraid. This type of pain provides a way for the body to work things out at a muscular level. In meditation practice a teacher will ask you to sit through the pain, to observe it with awareness and equanimity. When you get up from the cushion, the pain goes away. This is true in writing as well. Only be alarmed if the pain continues beyond your writing session.
The ex-lawyer in me requires that I tell you I’m not a doctor and that this little essay is not intended as medical advice. I learned these tricks by trial and error. I want you to know that you can do writing practice forever. You can do it under all circumstances. You can do it for an hour. You can build up muscles in your arms and shoulders and can continue even when you are certain you can’t.. You can write like a samurai. And you can be kind to you body in the process.
Do you experience pain when you write? If so, how do you deal with it? If you like, leave a comment and let me know.
“Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.” – Oscar Wilde
When the writing is slow, I fear I’ve forgotten everything I know about how to write a book. Everything I learned in all my years with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg. Everything I learned in MFA school. Everything I have read in writing books. Everything I’ve gleaned from reading the books that I love. Everything. This might be a good thing. Perhaps I have to start from ground zero with each book and learn all over again how to write. Each book has its own rules.
A friend reminded me that what I know has been absorbed so deeply, I might not remember it. It’s in my bones. I hope she’s right. Currently it feels like I’m taking Polaroid photographs. I want a refined end product, but I want it now. I find it frustrating to wait while the image develops. Each time I go through the work, the characters become clearer, the images brighter. Only in the end will the picture be clear.
With writing, unlike Polaroids, there’s work to be done beyond swinging the thing back and forth or blowing on it hoping it will dry faster. The writer needs to stay in the book. Sometimes this means reading sections and moving things around. Since I’m still working at the macro level, I often find myself rearranging scenes and writing notes. Sometimes it means writing placeholders for scenes that need to be written or simply daydreaming about the next place my main character needs to go in order for the story to move along. The micro-edit will come later. All the while, the details of my characters become more focused.
Writing is not for the faint of heart. When I hear my heart pounding, I worry that it’s a heart attack. But writing is still the thing I love best. The picture will grow sharp if I’m willing to do the work.
“Anybody can become a writer, but the trick is to stay a writer” – Harlan Ellison
One Friday in August,1996, I watched two women sitting across from one another at a table in Stauf’s Coffee Roasters. Each woman, bent over a spiral notebook, steadily moved a pen across the page. After a few minutes, they took turns reading their writing aloud to one another. When one of them looked toward me, I quickly turned away. I’d just returned to Ohio from a workshop with Natalie Goldberg where we spent a week writing and reading aloud to each other. One of these women had Natalie’s bestseller, Writing Down the Bones, beneath her chair.
The question I’m asked most often is, “How do I find a writing group?” I have many long answers, but the simplest is this: know what you need and ask for it. There are many types of writing groups. Some share work and give feedback. Others write and read aloud. Still other groups simply get together to talk about writing. There are as many potential variations as there are writers. The most difficult part for me was asking for what I needed. Here I invoke one of Natalie’s rules of writing practice, “be specific.” If you want to meet weekends, don’t hedge when someone wants to meet on a weeknight. If you’re not ready to have someone else see your work, don’t join a group that’s bent on critiquing everything it reads.
Where shall you find these writers? Start with the list of Ongoing Writing Groups on my website. Take a class to look for prospects. Tell your non-writer friends that you’re looking for a group. Keep your eyes open. We’re everywhere. If you still can’t find a group that suits, don’t be afraid to start your own. A carefully worded flier posted in libraries, coffeehouses, and bookstores works wonders.
In 1996, I’d been writing at Stauf’s nearly every day for months, yet I’d never seen those women before. If I hadn’t been tuned in to the many shapes a writing group can take, I might have not noticed them at all. I mustered more courage than a shy person is supposed to have, courage born of desperation, and introduced myself. They invited me to join and the three of us wrote together for a year. That was my first writing group experience. After I moved to New Mexico, they continued writing as I’d found them.
It’s normal for a writer to want connection whether to share work or just talk about the craft and mystery of writing. If you haven’t yet found your “writing tribe,” it’s not too late.
“Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.” – Bernard Malamud, interviewed for The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz
What’s your way? I ask myself this question all the time. I don’t think it’s static. I once thought I had no way, that I couldn’t write anything except legal briefs, memoranda, personnel policy manuals and client letters. But I was wrong.
In 1987, I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice. Setting a timer, moving my pen across the page, not stopping, not crossing out, not thinking, that became my way. I haunted coffeehouses with a spiral notebook and a purple rollerball pen, spewing ink across pages, across years, across several states.
Now I’m learning another way. Editing. It still scares me. In a chapter in Writing Down the Bones entitled, “The Samari,” Natalie wrote, “William Carlos Williams said to Allen Ginsberg, ‘If only one line in the poem has energy, then cut the rest out and leave only that one line.’” Learning to edit is a skill handed down from one writer to another or from an editor to a writer. I’m learning it the same way – by direct transmission. My MFA advisor reads my writing and sends it back to me covered in blue ink. I bristled against this for a decade. Now I am ever thankful for the direction. I want to know what she has to teach.
So what’s your way? Don’t worry if today your way is to simply write lists of writing ideas in the back of your notebook. Keep making those lists. Eventually you will become brave enough to take one of the topics and go. And someday, you’ll be ready for something else.