Tag Archives: Grub Street

Three Life Lessons My Writing Workshop Helped Me Remember

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“Congratulate yourselves,” our writing instructor said at the end of our last class as each person shifted around to get bags and purses. “You’ve just written six stories in six weeks.” Since this was our final class, the message got a bit lost, said as it was right before we were about to exit. That night, there’d been wine, cookies, chips, and other treats. We’d workshopped the stories that we’d given each other the week before (1200 words), and we’d done a cold workshop on our last story (400 words), which we’d passed out to each other in class. It had been a busy night. But his words did sink in later, and since then I’ve reflected on some of the life lessons—really reminders—that I took away from the class. Here are three.

One

Giving yourself specific, challenging assignments can yield truly amazing levels of productivity and accomplishment.

Write one new story each week for six weeks? I’m still impressed that we all satisfied this goal, and in many cases, quite beautifully. The secret to achieving that accomplishment was specific goals, deadlines, and accountability.

Each week we were assigned a prompt or a story type to be turned in the following week, things like “start with an extreme event and no backstory” or “write a ‘how-to’ as a story.” Beforehand, we read and discussed published stories that exemplified what we were to do. (For example, for the ‘how-to,’ we read Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.“) The following week everyone would turn in their stories, many of which were truly wonderful, based on said prompt or type. As for myself, considering that each week I had absolutely no satisfactory ideas and would have many false starts before I found an idea I felt comfortable with (or ran out of time to keep changing it), I’m still in a bit of shock that I actually did come up with both ideas and stories. The deadlines and accountability to other people were huge factors. If I were attempting this in my little home writing cave, I could allow myself to be stumped or start a story and endlessly take it in new directions, but now those behaviors were not an option: The story had to be done in time for the next class and good to the point of feeling at least somewhat comfortable sharing it with others. It also had to end on some note of closure. On one hand, I found everyone’s ability to come up with new stories despite the narrow limitations of the assignment counterintuitive. Creativity is supposed to be free-flowing right? But as with the rest of life, having all the possibilities in the world can provoke major anxiety and indecision. To be so limited was oddly freeing. This is not to say that those limitations would continue to serve the stories. In many cases, the prompts functioned merely as kickstarters; they would (should) probably be thrown away on subsequent drafts, but they did their job: They pushed us past our floundering and got us to Nike it up and Just Do It, a lesson that has applicability to virtually all areas of life.

Two

“Failure” can be a growth experience.

During every class except the last, we had a period of in-class writing exercises, which we then would share with a partner or two. As I mentioned in my initial post about this class, such exercises are far outside my comfort zone, and I wasn’t the only one: Another woman would leave when the in-class writing started, and another dropped the class altogether because of it.  But throughout my life I’ve made a point, at least occasionally, to experience certain things specifically because they terrified me, and so I welcomed this challenge (or a part of me did, anyway). I especially embraced this type of exercise (and the class more generally) because I tend to overthink things, and the exercises called for the opposite. That’s not to say that I came up with great stuff: Almost all the in-class exercises I wrote were pretty terrible. I would start the exercise, realize it wasn’t where I wanted to go, then restart with a new idea multiple times. Or I would try to write an “extreme action,” as an example, but end up starting with back-story anyway. Despite these lame attempts, I would read aloud what I wrote to whichever partner or partners I had for that class. Another outside-my-comfort-zone experience was having the first story I turned in get torn apart (or that’s how it felt), something I’ve never experienced in a class; in fact, just the opposite.

I tend to be the person who wants everyone all happy-happy and gentle with each other as if we’re all made of eggshells, but I heard the criticism and my, for lack of a better word, self-regard was just fine. (Which is not to say I’m dying for more.) I find that there’s something about writing and sharing fiction that feels vulnerable in a way little else does. But what those experiences taught me is that I have more capacity to handle less-than-positive reception than I would think in that area, and that the fear of it shouldn’t stop me.

Three

Writing fiction—or anything you want to do well, for that matter—has a way of hijacking your life.

During the class I was reminded of interviews with published authors who juggle day jobs. Many of these authors talk about giving up virtually all their other pursuits in order to write. I also often thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule,” which holds that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. No matter whether his rule per se is true, I believe focus and deliberate practice is definitely required to become really good at something, and spreading oneself thin is the opposite of that. In a more general way, I think it had been long enough since I’d take a fiction workshop that I forgot just how much work goes into it. It’s not just about writing your own stories. You also need to read everyone else’s and give them thoughtful critiques. My classmates were a truly talented group, so that made it easier, but the work was still incredibly time-consuming. As for my own stories, even though I considered dropping the class on a number of occasions since I’m not even sure I want to write fiction, I found myself kept from sleep because my brain was spinning out story ideas, I would skip yoga and running to spend more time at the computer, and I generally resented anything else I had to do, you know, like that pesky job thing. One of the other women in the class put it bluntly when she said, “I haven’t gotten anything done at work since this class started.” All in all, I was reminded of the sheer amount of time that writing fiction can take and how it can, because of that, crowd out so much else.

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“Six stories in Six Weeks” is now in the rearview mirror, and I look on the experience with great fondness. Since I write for work, it took me a while to get out of nonfiction mode: A couple stories sounded like personal essays, even though they were made up—and my reading too much David Sedaris during that time probably didn’t help matters. And in hindsight, I would change my approach in a few different ways. Still, I feel like I came away with a lot. For example, for our last story (400 words), I wrote something that actually made people laugh, which I assure you has never happened before, since when I write, I am compelled straightaway to dive deep for the dark places. I wrote another story I actually liked, and that I’ll have to look at with fresh eyes soon and possibly even send out (which I’ve never done!). Even the first one that got torn apart has potential; key facts were way too subtle but they’re very fixable problems as I am clear what I was trying to do with it. And last but definitely not least was what I learned from other people. The instructor’s critiquing of both my own and others’ stories always gave me new things to think about, and it was a pleasure to be in a class with so many talented women. Also, because everyone was working so fast, we really got insight into each other’s strengths and working styles, which was really interesting in and of itself, and it was fascinating to see how one prompt could create such widely different stories.

Unfortunately, I didn’t walk away feeling that the “write fiction or not?” question got answered for a number of reasons that I will write about soon, but it largely comes down to the saying, “You can do anything, but not everything,” and the difficulty in facing that truth. Still, I got a vivid reminder about the importance of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and how I am guaranteed to learn and grow from the effort.

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Easing Up and Sailing Into New Waters

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Push myself or ease up?

It’s a question we all must face in different areas of our life and at different points, and the answer you had yesterday isn’t necessarily the one you need now.

Ease up…

I was speaking to a friend about this the other day. My friend, let’s call her Deb, had planned to do another marathon this fall. She’s done quite a few of them, and qualified for Boston each time (which many people attempt numerous times before running 26.2 miles fast enough to BQ). Of course, Deb has a certain amount of natural talent and fast genes, but honestly, she owes most of that success to hard work and high standards. I’ve never asked Deb what her motto to life is, but if she were to tell me it’s “A job worth doing is one doing my absolute best,” I wouldn’t be surprised.

So anyway, Deb’s got too much on her plate right now, but her “fun” thing was supposed to be training for another marathon, only somehow these days, she says, running seems, ugh, just too much.

(See reference to aforementioned full plate.) “Have you ever thought of just running a marathon?” I asked. “Just to do it and not requiring that you train for such a fast time?” The difference between a training program to “just run” a marathon and to run a Boston-qualifying marathon in terms of time, physical energy, mental commitment—and well, pretty much in every way—is vast.

Deb sighed. “I’ve actually been thinking that. Or maybe even a half.” She then told me about a new friend who recently ran a marathon and is brimming with the enthusiasm of her newfound passion. This friend’s recent marathon time? “More than five hours!” Deb said. Her envy was palpable. “And it didn’t matter. She was happy just to finish it.” (Note: Shave off around two hours and you’ll be close to Deb’s finishing time.) She continued, “It’s not about the time per se, anyway, and I rarely tell people about that, and I know perfectly well that the number on the clock is something outside of you, it’s the experience of it all that you own—that’s what fills you up.”

“Hmm,” I said, “Do you hear what you’re saying? Maybe, just this once, you can relax a little and just let yourself have the experience of something without pushing yourself so hard.” I could hear the hesitancy in Deb’s voice as we continued to discuss it, because not demanding perfection from herself is definitely outside her comfort zone.

…or push yourself?

Speaking of comfort zones. As a mostly work-from-home writer and editor, barricaded behind my trusty computer, I could write a book on comfort zones. But maybe I’d like to write a book about something else. So recently, I signed up for a writing class “Six Weeks, Six Stories” at the Grub Street writing center.

Like my friend, I can also be guilty of an all-or-nothing attitude. The “I have to have this very high standard with X area, or why bother doing it at all” approach. So along those lines, I was dreading the class. It’s been a while since I’ve taken an creative writing workshop or had a writing group where I have to show my writing to other people, and when I’ve had them I was more in that mode (i.e., that was more of a comfort zone). Plus, lately I’m not even close to sure I want to write fiction (anymore). But I signed up because I felt like I needed to explore that question (and what it means for other areas) in a setting that pushed me to do so and where I couldn’t be stalled by my own perfectionistic tendencies. Well, mission accomplished already, and I’ve only had one class. Whether I write the most terrible stories in the world for this class, the necessary experience of stepping outside what’s become my comfie little bubble will spill over into many areas of my life, I suspect.

Setting sail for new waters

So last night was the first class. It began with the instructor telling us how the next few weeks would be structured. Then he told us about himself, and said, “You’ve heard of two truths and a lie?” We all nodded. It’s the “game” where you come up with two interesting things about yourself on-the-spot, and one interesting thing that sounds true, but isn’t. My stomach clenched. Not my favorite “game.”

“Well, we’re not going to do that,” he said. “This is a fiction class…”

I felt relieved for like a millisecond.

“…So after we say what we do, where we live, and what workshops we’ve had, we’ll tell just one outrageous lie and pass it off as the truth.”

I can talk with anybody one-on-one—my favorite part about journalism is talking with sources and asking them questions (I love asking questions)—but somehow put a few more people in that situation and give it a “public speaking” feel, aka, around-the-room elevator pitch, and suddenly my face flushes and my nerves began their revolt. And I haven’t been pushed to do it for a while.

“You can go next,” the instructor said, turning to me. As I was one of the people on either side of him, it shouldn’t have been that surprising, but somehow I was thinking (hoping?) I’d be last.

So that was the first five minutes. The class then continued with multiple on-the-spot writing assignments that we then had to share with a partner in all their messy, unpolished glory, and yeah, I was outside my comfort zone the whole three hours.

After the class, as I walked outside into the warm fall night, I realized I was completely wired, my nerves jangling from all that stretching they had to do. Was that comfortable? No, definitely not.

And that was a good thing.

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Do you ever refrain from doing something because you won’t measure up to the yardstick of last class/race/year/etc. or because you don’t want to risk being bad?

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Where Books+Body Meet: Interview with Novelist Jacqueline Sheehan

Novelist-Jacqueline-Sheehan

Inspired by “On the Lit Mat,” “Where Books+Body Meet” will take a look at writers’ habits—both in terms of when they sit down to create and in terms of how they restock their well of energy and creativity.

I’m thrilled to launch the first “Where Books+Body Meet” interview with Jacqueline Sheehan, a novelist and essayist who also teaches workshops on the combination of fiction and yoga.

Sheehan is also the author of one my favorite books, Lost and Found, the story of one woman’s struggle to heal from grief after her husband’s death. The book features an absolutely lovable dog whose animal wisdom and instinct is key to that healing. Sheehan is also the author of Picture This, the sequel to Lost and Found; Now & Then, which follows a woman in transition who goes back in time; and the historical novels Truth and The Comet’s Tale: A Novel About Sojourner Truth.

Sheehan lives in New England; you can read more about her on her website.

7 Questions with Jacqueline Sheehan

one

How many hours a week do you spend writing?

This is hugely variable. It could be anywhere from five to fifty hours. But I often work on multiple projects, so while I might not be writing directly on my next book, I might be working on an essay, or outlining a workshop that I’ll teach in Boston [Sheehan teaches writing workshops at Grub Street].

two

What’s your favorite time and place to write?

My most productive time is in the morning from about 9-12. About a year ago, I had a writing studio built on my house and I love it. My desk faces out to a deck and a large meadow below my property. I honestly think that it makes a difference to be able to rest your eyes on something beautiful when you look up from writing, and my view of the meadow works for me. I keep my binoculars on the desk, so that I can get a better look at the hawks, deer, and foxes as they wander through.

three

Where do you find inspiration when you aren’t feeling it?

I don’t always find inspiration, but I do sit down to work. Inspiration is the thing that happens when I wake from a dream that has to do with my book, or when I hear someone say the perfect word as I pass them on the sidewalk, but I don’t count on inspiration. I count on writing, word by word. I also read constantly, and I’m often inspired by other authors.

four

What one book—fiction or nonfiction—would you say most influenced your approach to writing?

I have re-read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about five times. Every time that I read it, I think, This is a perfect book. The plot is riveting, characters strong, fresh dialogue (even now), and not a neatly tied up ending. Children are treated as complex characters.

Currently, I just read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and I’m in awe of what she was able to accomplish in this nonfiction tale. While grief is the plot that simmers below the surface, the rigors of the Pacific Crest Trail are the perfect metaphor.

five

Many people consider fiction writing to be an unhealthy, antisocial, depression-courting activity and/or profession. Thoughts?

There is a certain amount of sit-your-butt-in-the-chair that must happen with writing. But my experience with writers is anything but solitary. I am part of a strong and vibrant writing community. I meet weekly with the same group of writers every Wednesday night. I don’t ever schedule anything else for Wednesday nights. Never. I’ve written with them for ten years. My very best friends are writers and we support each other, cheer each other on, and yes, inspire each other.  In fact, I know these people better and more intimately than I know some of my family.

six

What rituals or activities do you consider your islands of peace (and possibly to balance the effects of writing)?

While I would love to get weekly massages, I have to settle for monthly massages. But wow, do I love massages.

I get a great deal of peace from nature, so I try to be outside part of every day and to really observe and be fully present when I’m in nature. On a perfect day, it goes like this: Coffee, newspaper, meditation for about 15 minutes, shower, writing. Then it is essential that I get out, take a walk for an hour or more or go to the YMCA where I work out with weights. I like to eat good food, so I usually make a big pot of soup on Sunday evenings, and it lasts for half the week.

seven

If you do any physical activities, how do they affect your work?

I can’t imagine how I would write without yoga and vigorous exercise. I need to be connected with my body so that I can stay connected with the physicality of my characters. Readers often tell me that they could really feel what my characters are going through and partly this is because I write very physically and I am able to do this because of my deep appreciation of the physical forms that we have.

For ten years, I worked with Patricia Lee Lewis who ran writing retreats internationally. Aside from running workshops about writing, I also taught yoga every morning. That is how we would all start our day in Scotland or Wales or Ireland for the week. This helps writers get to the places in our cellular memory that is such a rich source of writing.

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