Back in February, I was interviewed by The MFA Project, a tumblr created by Rebecca Wallwork as “an experiment in creating one’s own MFA education via a dream team of teachers without the price tag of a degree. In other words, an MFA that is complete fiction.” Rebecca asked me four questions. Here is my first answer. For the rest, you know what to do!
What advice would you offer to writers and poets who aren’t part of an MFA program but are trying to grow and learn in their craft?
Read. Read what you love; read what you’ve never heard of; read with stickies on your side table, a notebook in your lap and questions in your mind. You can learn everything from books, and once you buy them, they are your teachers. No tuition necessary.
I do teach in an MFA program, and bear with me; I need to tell you about it to contextualize my advice. Goddard College created the first low-residency program; ours is the model all the others have copied, and it was conceived as a hybrid solution: writers could come to campus at the beginning of every semester for a week of residency, and then go back to their lives at home and write with the support of a mentor.
In a way, it’s the anti-MFA, but with a community and a teacher thrown in. The writer is working at home alone, on track to finish a full manuscript in two years, and while she is writing, she is also reading at least 45 books and using those books to learn to see how the author writes, the choices the author makes, and their effect on the reader. So when I am advising students – here’s some free MFA advice – I tell them to ask their questions to their reading lists: How do I speed up this dialogue, jump from scene to scene, end my chapters, order my chapters, develop my mystery, describe a room, show and tell at the same time, place my turning points and climaxes? Whatever your question, you can pick up a book and see how that author answered it. Maybe that person’s solution works for you, maybe not, but if you are a writer you will have shelves full of books and a well-used library card, so consult another one.
I love the Goddard program. That’s why I teach there. And if you are on the fence about an MFA and you have the resources, I highly recommend it (in fact I will get on the telephone with you to talk about it.) But I will tell you: I don’t have an MFA…
I’m a self-taught writer, and I learned exactly this way. When I was writing my first novel, I picked up books I loved and mapped them out. How many chapters? (Seriously.) What is the trajectory for this character, and what’s going down for the other one? I identified the turning points, looked for the places where I was surprised and traced the clues backward so I could see how the author placed them. And because I taught myself, those are lessons I will never forget.
What else did I say? Visit The MFA Project by clicking here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer in this world. Not about the need to raise our diverse voices, or to break down the barriers that keep too many of us silent; not about the role of writers to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. I’ve been thinking about the opposite: about how our current culture is strangling art, and how we are letting it.
You’ve been reading, surely, about authors’ declining income, about our paltry sales figures (even for prize winners). You’ve quite likely read suggestions on the Internet for “making a living” as a writer. But when money “makes” our very lives; when money is the measure of our worth, we are living in Opposite Land. And in Opposite Land, where art equals product, equals sales, equals giving some ill-defined readership what “they” are presumed to want, it can sometimes feel impossible to begin to get words onto a page.
How do we write in this climate of efficiency, productivity and bestseller lists? One way is to embrace opposition, and contradiction, in our writing spaces. If you are looking for a new approach, or some inspiration to energize your writing in a corporate world, here are a few suggestions:
Don’t write: At least, don’t start with the blank page on your computer screen. You’ll find yourself counting pages, or words, and disparaging the quality of your delicate first draft. Instead, grab a journal, and start writing by hand. Try out voices, descriptions; rough out a scene. Cross out, draw arrows, and keep going; messiness can be very freeing. Jot down notes and ideas for later. Record your questions without stopping for the answers. If you brainstorm your way into a dead end, let it be. Your brain is pondering the problem in the background; the answer might sneak up on you in time! You are building pressure in that journal, and when it is bursting with ideas, your blank computer screen will be irresistible. Don’t forget: your journal is waiting for you whenever you want to come back to play.
Don’t edit: Once you are writing, let it flow. If one path peters out, jump to something that feels urgent. Be prepared to be surprised, and to follow those surprises, but try to resist the urge to go back to fix what you have. If the writing is going well, it will keep shifting and changing. You won’t know what each element of the story is supposed to do until you get to the end of the first draft. Revising, and especially polishing, parts of your manuscript too early can be detrimental because you run the risk of making something read so well that it’s hard to see that you are supposed to cut it, or move it, or reassign it to a different character. If that urge to revise is coming from the need to have a product and pages to show for your time: resist!
Don’t isolate yourself: You know the atmosphere you write best in; maybe it’s a wild, quiet garden, or a room with no windows, or a crowded café. But regardless of what you need to do to empty yourself out onto the page, don’t forget to fill yourself back up. Populate your life with books, movies, music, other people; get outside. Exercise your ability to recognize patterns and see how your concerns echo other people’s stories, and the world around you. Plugging yourself into your community will give you energy, and remind you that your writing is meaningful to others.
Don’t focus on success: Which is, of course, what I have been saying all along. With each book I have written (and I am playing with my fourth), I have had to teach myself how to write all over again. The judgment and expectation that come from having or wanting success are the best ingredients for writer’s block. Creativity requires a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to fail, combined with the courage – stubbornness even – to keep learning and playing and trying something new. In our product-driven world, writing, and living, are both processes. Trust the process, and the product will come.
Want more? I am excited to announce a new week-long writing retreat called Pele’s Fire: Write to the Core on the Big Island of Hawaii next April. Pele’s Fire is a perfect place to embrace your contradiction, get your creativity flowing, find community, and get some targeted feedback on your manuscript. There will also be plenty of opportunities for movement, including yoga and a special series of integrated Nia classes, and a trip to the nearby (currently active) volcano. Take a look at pelesfire.com, but hurry! Admission is rolling, and closes December 31st, or when full.
We’ve all been there: stuck. The pages seem flat; we don’t know what comes next. And what’s worse, writing is a lonely business, so there’s no team, or department, not even any customers to get ideas from. Before a lack of inspiration becomes full-blown writers block, and even after it does, how can we get out of our own way and back to writing? Here are three tips that work for me:
Try on a new voice: If you are a writer, you have books on your shelves. Probably a full library’s worth, but definitely at least a few that you love. These will be books that have transported you to new worlds again and again. Authors you trust. Pick up your favorite. Ask yourself, “If fill-in-the-blank-author was writing my book, how would she go about it?” And then – on a blank sheet of paper, with your favorite pen – try rewriting your story, chapter, poem, opening scene, in the same way as the book that you have in your hands does.
Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to steal someone else’s ideas, nor am I saying your voice and ideas aren’t good enough. But in mimicking someone else’s opening incident, or point of view, or attention to description, or pacing, you will see your own choices and habits more clearly. And something new might – no, it will – occur to you. Even if you don’t “use” those pages (and you probably won’t), a new point of view will give you a glimpse of something in your story that you hadn’t noticed before, much like walking into a different room in your house will.
Try on a new move: And speaking of walking, when you are stuck in your head, don’t forget you have a body. Take a walk, do some yoga, dance…whatever your favorite activity is, take the time to quiet that editing, worrying voice in your head, relax, and let your subconscious rise to the surface. Although it seems counterintuitive, our best ideas and realizations often come when we are not busy thinking.
More than that, using your body can remind you that all of your characters, and your readers, have five senses. Giving yourself a chance to focus on sensation can help more than just your descriptions. You might tap into your characters’ motivations, and get some insight into where their dangerous impulses or unexpected kindnesses come from.
Try on a new space: If the dishes in the kitchen sink are beckoning you out of your office, or the couple at the next table is disrupting the vibe in the café, try a new space. This could be as simple as an hour of writing in the park under a tree. Being in nature can remind you of the many layers of experience (those senses again) you have to call on. Blocking out time to go on retreat is another way to call your muse.
I am a latecomer to writing retreats. My first one, several years ago, was at Hedgebrook, an amazing space for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington. What I have found is that a good retreat will give you quiet space to write and community; inspiration and new vantage points from which to enter your work. Permission is key: making the choice to set aside time and a place to write (especially if you take several days and have to travel to do so) can shift the energy around your project and help you enter it. This is how it works for me: when I am on retreat and unplugged from my usual world, I find that I can do so much more because I have nothing else to do, which liberates me to try anything. To play. And the friendships that began at writing retreats have often followed me home.
It’s 94 degrees in Brooklyn, and I am writing in a pair of blue cashmere fingerless gloves. They are a gift from a dear friend – crafted from recycled goodness, and sent from Canada. They are also a shared talisman that connects me to my tribe: a group of women who inspire me, recognize me, support me, and challenge me. Women writers.
We found each other in retreat. At Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers on Whidbey Island, famous for its radical hospitality. Hedgebrook is the only retreat I have ever been to, though, as I write this, I am poised to announce a new, week-long retreat in Hawaii that will combine three of the ingredients that Hedgebrook uses to create magic: place, space and community. It’s hard to imagine that, once, I was a writer who thought, because I have my own office at home and time to write, a retreat wouldn’t offer me anything I didn’t already have.
So how wrong was I?
Place first. A retreat is surely always beautiful. A setting that makes you want to breathe in deep, go for walks, listen to the birds (or frogs, owls, or the rain on the leaves). A place that awakens your senses, that reminds you to be in your body and use it when you write. Where you find a new rhythm that allows you to feel your too-familiar ones, which is to say to see yourself and your work with new eyes. A great retreat will also encourage you to stay inside and get lost in the other realm you created. To be in both worlds at the same time.
Let’s talk about that getting lost, because that is key too: more than no cell phones; an abundance of delicious food you didn’t have to prepare; no one asking you where the scissors are or if we are out of toilet paper (and jeez, it was just a simple question!). Quiet time at a retreat means that there is nothing else to do for quite a while. You’ve given yourself the gift of time, you’ve likely traveled far, and what I have found for myself is: the space that opens up for me changes my relationship to my work. Whereas at home I am much more likely to be thinking about product – how much have I accomplished? Can I fix this? Is it finished? And if it isn’t, can’t I wash the dishes instead? – when I am in retreat, I am able to look beneath the surface of the work and break it open, because, why not? I have the time. I can always go back to my earlier draft. The quiet writing time of a retreat, for me, has been a time when I can play, explore, take a risk, step off the path. And I have been able to tap into the heart of something, unseen, shifting, necessary. Something that, honestly, when I was home, even in the quiet of my own lovely writing room, I didn’t know was there.
The final piece, which Goddard MFA faculty member and colleague Nicky Morris pointed to in a recent blog post, is community. Other writers. It’s a little counterintuitive that one would be going off into the woods to have conversations, but other writers – peers, mentors, students – are the source of the true gifts of retreat: inspiration and encouragement that continue long after you leave. They are the ones who – on that day when you decided to take a risk and rewrite your manuscript in the first person plural – serendipitously have the perfect story, “We,” and four other book recommendations that find their way magically into your email inbox. Or, on a long walk with a new friend, you might confide your current struggle – that you are writing your third book, say, and yet with every one it seems like you have to teach yourself to write all over again – and you find out that she has exactly the same experience, and she’s on book number eight. If your retreat also includes workshops, the support you get from your community will be more directly focused on your creations, rather than the writing life: a prompt to try, a comment about an aspect of your work that is really haunting, or a suggestion for finding a way to rethink something that isn’t working. Maybe you will be the student who finds a flash of inspiration from the first writing prompt and ignores everything else in the workshop because you are lost in your own world, writing. Maybe you will be the one who reads a brand new piece at the final evening open mike and brings everyone to tears. Maybe you will leave with a journal full of new ideas, beginnings, and go-to exercises for when you are home and stuck.
I know you will leave with life-long friends. I have, every time. From my last retreat, which began with Vortext, I gained a new sisterhood, as well as great enthusiasm for the writers who attended, some of whom (and I know this because I worked with them, heard them read, ate with them) you will be reading someday. I also left with a pair of red fingerless gloves (my winter pair!) handknit by one of the writers who attended. I have other gifts and talismans too – from homemade jelly to a carved ivory mermaid, crystal balls, a book, a four leaf clover, a pencil so elegant I am afraid to write with it, plastic earrings that (I kid you not) say “Compost Queen,” a ginger lollipop (no, I ate that); the list, as already crazy-long as it is, goes on. These gifts are evidence of the magic that happens in retreat, and reminders that we are in this together; they are my motivation to help create another space for writers in the world. Even now that I am home again, I know I am not alone. They – you – are out there too
While writing a recent response letter to one of my students, I found myself offering her advice that was also meant for me:
“Setting the scene, locating your character, revealing her motivations…that’s all discovery material just for you, the writer. Once you have discovered, then you can begin. When you are writing your drafts, start with emotion, put your character into turmoil, and add the action. Feel the difference?”
For me, the best part of teaching is remembering that we are all always learning, remembering, and beginning again. Happy writing!