Writing Prompt: A Path Through The Haze

Jessica Dore writes: “To know something is to be set in a way. To be set in a way makes it difficult to change. But when a way doesn’t work, what confusion does is it decimates the psychic boundaries that made it impossible to see differently. So that a new path can reveal itself through the haze.”

What new path has revealed itself through the haze to you recently?

Writing Prompt: Space and Confinement

Right now, people across the globe are being confined to their homes. We are self-isolating. We are social distancing. Sometimes voluntarily, but increasingly in a more policed way. And unless you live alone, we are not distant from our family members, our children and partners, the people we are confined with. We are RIGHT ON TOP OF those folk. This got me thinking about how characters in fiction and nonfiction might deal with space and confinement. So, for this prompt, take a character you are writing about — and that character can be YOU if you need it to be — and either write about a) what space means for that person. (You can take that in any direction you like. Make it cosmic if you want to.) or b) write about confinement and — this part is crucial — how it can lead to growth. For you. Or your character. Because growth from confinement IS possible.

Writing Prompt: We Are the Characters

This used to be a blog. Ah, blogging! We were so young and cute in the time of blogging, amirite? But now we are in the time of coronavirus. And we need community. And sanity. And self-care. Writing is one path that leads to all three destinations. So now this is a stream of writing prompts. Take ‘em and use ‘em as you see fit, as is helpful.

Here’s today’s prompt:

It is hard to is to know what to do when the news is moving so fast and our lives are changing so quickly. But forcing characters to reveal themselves in moments of great stress is what writers DO, all the time. We are now those characters. So: what has been revealed? What, in all the mess and chaos and uncertainty, is now clear to you? What are you realizing about yourself? Free write on that for ten minutes.

Blame it on my High Level Brain

Keep Calm and Check for TyposI don’t want to blow anyone’s mind or anything, but I sometimes struggle with proofreading. I know, I know, I’m a professional editor. I should rock at everything edit-y, right? But I have a blind spot when it comes to typos. Sometimes I just don’t see them, particularly in my own work. It can be kind of embarrassing, actually. Often I can spot them later — like when I look over my email correspondence to find out why that new client never got back to me and I realize that, oops, I typed “Thank you for sharting” instead of, um, sharing.

This is why I subcontract for proofreading, if a client requires it. This is also why proofing isn’t on my menu of services. Instead, what I specialize in is developmental editing. I can look at a writer’s work and understand where they want to go, and how to help get them there, and then I can break that knowledge down for the client in a way they can hear. It’s about accessing their true intent, articulating it, and sharpening meaning.

So, when I came across this article about typos (written by Nick Stockton, posted in Wired magazine) I felt so gratified, so validated, so understood. I miss typos because I’m so high level and shit. Phew. Now I know.

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

Let me be clear that when I talk about my problem with proofreading, I’m referring to the occasional misplaced letter, autocorrect problems, and, every now and then, spacing issues. Words that runtogether. I’m not talking about making sure your grammar is tip-top, your sentences fluid, and your meaning clear. For me, that’s an even higher order task. As Joan Didion once said, “Grammar is  a piano I play by ear.” Like her, I might have been out of school when they went over the rules but I have nothing but respect for the infinite power of language (and copyeditors). And I’ve since had to learn how to articulate the rules of grammar, so I can pass them on to students. That was hard — because making intuitive knowledge accessible is always hard. But boy, was it useful. Now I can hammer out a tune on that piano like…

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Writing and Doubt

I identify with this so strongly it’s kinda scary. How about you? It’s from this article in the New York Times by Mark O’Connell.

To put it in the sort of simplistic terms that I’ll no doubt come to regret using: self-doubt is the best friend and the worst enemy of the writer. Because being a writer isn’t like being a tennis player or a boxer, where you presumably have to hunt down and ruthlessly eliminate the source of any flickering shadow of suspicion that you might not be destined for victory. As a writer, you have to take your own misgivings seriously; you have to attend, now and then, to the little voice in your head or the booming baritone in your gut that wishes you to know that what you are writing is entirely without value.

The trick, of course, is to know when to listen to it and when to tell it to shut its stupid fat face. I say this as someone who has never quite learned that particular trick.

“Trust your own dark bouquet of inspiration.”

Listen to the story you are trying to tell, that unconscious combination of imagination and memory and feeling, and trust it. Concentrate on expressing that as clearly as you can, concentrate on finding the language for it, but above all don’t second-guess it. It’s your true north. Because here’s the great thing about novels and writing and creating anything: Nobody else can possibly write the book you’re writing. It is yours, singular, and the more clearly it is expressed the more alive its singularity will be. If you want to be ruthless, be ruthless about clarity, be ruthless about trusting yourself, be ruthless about finding generosity for your characters, but most of all be ruthless about ignoring the inner demon that keeps telling you you’ll never be as good as Eudora Welty or Zadie Smith or David Mitchell or James Baldwin or whoever, that your novel will never be better than an 8. That inner demon is full of fear, and fear, if anything, is what reduces a novel and sterilizes its language. Fear, in writing, is a self-fulfilling prophesy. So banish it, banish the whole scale, and trust your own dark bouquet of inspiration. Thank god you’re not those other writers. We already have their books, but we don’t have yours, and I am of the mind that the world is almost always made better by more books.

So true. Thanks Ted Thompson.

ISO Deep Humility and Patience

Because I have been spending too much time on parenting listservs (ISO stands for “in search of,” meaning there’s something you want to buy…) and not enough time reading Rilke.

Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Yeah…so THIS happened.

Ikkle Gangster!

Ikkle Gangster!

This my son, in a three piece baby suit. Doesn’t he look bookish and literary? I think so. Pic care of the talented Amanda Bernsohn.

Lucky baby? Lucky teacher!

LucKy Baby

Lucky Baby red velvet cake....mmmm!

As you may or may not know, dear blog readers, I’m up the spout. Do people say that in America, or is it an English idiom? Let me translate, just in case. I’m knocked up. Got a bun in the oven. Preggers. I’m…preg-Nancy.

The baby is due at the end of July, and my husband and I are busy doing that nesting thing, by which I mean throwing away — or hawking online — everything we possibly can in order to make way for what is bound to be a massive baby (I’m 6′ and my husband is 6′4) and all his massive baby swag. And this also means the end of an era. Since 2006, I’ve been holding weekly workshops in our living room — but no more! Baby’s coming, and baby’s taking over. Well, taking over the living room, at least.

The salons that I’ll be teaching this summer will be hosted by my gracious mother-in-law, the poet Alison Jarvis, and I’m currently sourcing space for the fall workshops.

In the meantime, though, I have two workshop groups just finishing up and one of them was kind enough to throw me an surprise baby shower at the end of our last session together. I was very touched. Reader, I almost cried.

The photo above is of the awesome red velvet cake that we ate, and the photos below show the workshop group and the living room workshop space. (Please note — there are not usually open bottles of alcohol at my workshops, but this was a special occasion.)

A big thank you to everyone in the group for making this such a great workshop and for all your wonderful gifts!

The Workshop Group (and my color-coded bookshelf)

The Workshop Group (and my color-coded bookshelf)

The workshop livingroom space (and that's me on the left, grabbing my belly!)

The workshop living room space (and that's me on the left, grabbing my belly!)

No One’s Despair is Like My Despair

This is probably the exact wood violet that Glück was talking about in her poem. Maybe.

This is probably the exact wood violet that Glück was talking about in her poem. Maybe.

My father recently sent me a quote from the poet Louise Glück who, in her collection of essays, Proofs and Theories, writes that the fundamental experience of the writer is…

…helplessness…most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, not being able to write differently. It is a life dignified…by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement.

Which is affirming, if you look it at one way, and see it as confirmation that your own struggles — and what writer does not struggle? — are par for the course, a consequence of the difficult art you have chosen for yourself, and not a symptom that you suck.

So many people that I work with think that their writerly torment means that they are doing something wrong, or that they shouldn’t be writing, or they believe that that no one else finds it so hard. Me and ole’ Louie G are here to tell you otherwise.

At the same time, though, jeeze, Louise. Bleak much? I replied to my father’s email with just such a sentiment. “I get it,” I wrote to him. “I experience it, but what’s the freakin’ payoff? Why do this?”

His reply: “Well, the reason for doing it is that there’s no other way of ‘getting’ it than by doing it. That’s the payoff: being in it. ‘Cos otherwise you’re not in it. And then where are you?”

That’s a prime esoteric father response right there, readers. I get it though. Do you? Is this your reason for writing or are you driven by something else entirely?

As a closing note, here’s a link to a Glück poem, called “April,” because we are in April and despite all the writerly torment that we all put ourselves through on a daily basis, the spring sunshine outside is glorious. This is not at all what the poem is about, though.