Writing Marathon

It was session eight of ten in our Writer’s Circle Workshop Series this last week. John and I tackled subjects like “going home to be free” in your writing—territory that isn’t always easy for writers to embrace. We all have our pasts, not all of which were filled with happy memories or charming characters.

While this offers plenty of grist for the writing mill, it can also feel like a vulnerable place we would rather avoid. But “Writing Down the Bones” author Natalie Goldberg urges that where there is vulnerability and resistance on the part of the writer, that is where the energy and real meat for writing resides—dive in, go for the jugular, and write fearlessly from that place.

We also explored writing in character, using Mark Twain as inspiration. As a young man born Samuel Clemens, he signed up to fight for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. But the battlefield was too much for him, and he deserted. In a culture of manly valor, such an act would have been social suicide for Samuel, and he bummed around on steam ships for years before adopting the name Mark Twain (a call on the ships to indicate clear sailing ahead) and began remaking his public image. The crass, curmudgeonly, no-sacred-cows attitude with the white suit and fly-away hair and eyebrows was part of the character he formed and wrote from.

Goldberg states that we can grow bored with ourselves as writers, and it’s important to take time to shake things up. On the workshop table, I’d laid out a whole variety of hats from my theater stash—from a prairie bonnet to a 1930’s mink pillbox with collar, a woven cowboy hat to a 13th century crowned wimple, a velvet Tudor flat cap to a felt western hat with turkey feather. Each of us grabbed a hat to wear and took a moment to get in character, writing monologues about our lives or experiences as these new persons. I ended up wearing Steve’s Tilly hat (since it was the only hat at the table that wasn’t my own) and wrote a monologue about fishing on Moose Lake.

The last exercise was inspired by Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” where she asks for time travel, first to yourself at age 80, and then to age 8. Take a moment to write about who you were or might be like at those ages (essentially a character sketch). What were your likes and dislikes, how would you describe yourself? Then write a letter from that point in your life to yourself now.

In our workshop, we adapted this exercise to having this older or younger self write a letter to you as a writer now. What would they have to say to you about your practice, your focus, your genre, or your style of writing? What wisdoms or encouragement might this other you offer to yourself? It’s amazing what comes out of this exercise—things that deep down you already unconsciously know that suddenly come to the surface and bring clarity to the issues at hand in your writing practice.

Most of the students chose to write from an older self—say 80 or 90. I picked going younger, to college days, when I thought I was surely going to become a historical novelist and spent countless hours writing fantastical and complicated stories with huge casts of characters. There was a real energy behind that effort and enthusiasm that isn’t always easy for me to re-grasp. I took a paragraph to get into character, then wrote from that place.

Time Travel—Writing to Your Writer
College–when time was more bountiful, when responsibilities were fewer, when you truly believed you could change the world, when all was open to exploration and so many experiences were yet to have. When writing was its own world to climb into and disappear into adventure.
Dear Laura: Writing is that voice you always wanted to have–that canvass of indefinite colors because it’s repainted in the reader’s mind anew every time it’s read. Writing is the way to say what cannot normally be said as a white, Anglo-Saxon/Germanic/Nordic female in a small Midwestern town.
With writing, it doesn’t matter where you live, you can be anywhere, say whatever needs to be said. Come right out and say it—or paint it in a story, dress it up in characters so it seeps in via osmosis and sits in the soul to ripen.
Weave the stories in words you wish were there and don’t worry what people might think of them now. So many people are not fully appreciated in the era they were born into–sometimes those people must come before their listeners to hone their words, that they might be ripe and ready for rediscovery in another era.
Write to share. Self-indulgent wordiness might have its temporary pleasures, but the sweetness is short-lived. You’ll read back on it and laugh and grimace at your own folly of showing off to yourself, like a strutting Tom turkey with no hens in the yard.
Instead, write from a place where you can’t not write. Don’t let it stagnate and get repetitive and boring, like going to the literary gym. Write from a place of the urgency of existence, of perspective, of needing something to be heard. Crawl fully into what you with to write–whatever it is–feel around in that place, be it.
This next Thursday, we’ll be hosting our “writing marathon,” where we’ll all put writing prompts into a basket. Then we’ll pull out a prompt and do a timed writing exercise, go around the circle to read it, then right away pull out another prompt and write again. No critiquing, just write-read-write-read-write-read. If you’ve been thinking about attending one of the workshops but aren’t particularly interests in focusing on learning craft, this would be a fun time to jump in. It will be a steady two hours of writing (at least!), with the added energy of camaraderie as the pens fly across the notebooks.
Either way, I hope that winter has found time for you to capture stories and memories onto the page. Only you have had your experiences. And now it’s time to head off to chores (another hat to wear!). See you down on the farm sometime.