“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
— Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet
If you, like me, have stories you are dying to tell, you can appreciate the irony of this button I keep on my desk. But irony is only part of it, right? The art of writing may also be suggested by the perfectly calibrated words of Mary Oliver reminding me every time I sit down to write that I am heading for that room where I will be able to call up and name the unimaginable.
For example, years ago I started what became a 400 page novel manuscript called Pillow Prayers based on my horrified response when a friend committed suicide after her pillow stitchery business failed.
How could she do that? The question tortured me.
After almost ten years of writing the manuscript, I decided it was finished and sent it out to agents, publishing houses, and few published writers including a famous crime novelist who wrote back that he “didn’t know what to do with it”.
There was little interest and so, feeling despondent and rejected myself, I put Pillow Prayers away. Fast forward to 2015 when I had just finished and published Spiral. a novel of magic realism set in the ancient Southwest. Now what? I asked myself as I gritted my teeth and pulled the Pillow Prayers manuscript out of the closet. Yes, I expected those metaphorical drops of blood on the button to soon be dripping from my forehead.
But that doesn’t happen. Instead, to my own amazement, I plunge into a deep, dark tale of love ruined and love reborn. I am suddenly in a room I could not have imagined where I’m seeing how to resurrect my three main characters: Beth, the Stitchery owner; Ruth, the scholar turned hippy artist; and Lonnie, the naive psychology student. I eagerly begin rewriting.
Daily I enter the room of the unimaginable. I cut out Beth, Ruth and Lonnie’s least understandable traits, editing, pasting in, enhancing and creating new juicy ones. In the process I relive Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus and experience the folk, rock and soul music emerging from the Summer of Love. I feel the excitement posing as a flower child, the menace of the Civil Rights backlash, the horror and fallout from the Vietnam War, the allure of drugs, and the call of what was for me an exotic Buddhism. Most of all I bask in the sunlight of that rare and short-lived freedom I felt when we all first came to San Francisco.
Last week I began my first-ever Writing Workshop. It was cold and dark in the parking lot when I arrived at Infusions Teahouse in downtown Sebastopol, CA with my Mac computer, a few books and materials. Why was I here? I am passionate about writers and the power of words. We writers are translating our hearts to paper (or computer screen) and our work needs to be nurtured. All our work begins in the heart. If you want to be a player as I do, a writing activist as it were, you want to do more than observe; you want to join in. You need a certain kind of community, a community of literacy.
In my writing workshop I want to build community to explore our written self-expression. To write, we need an audience. And to build the audience, we need to become it. That’s why feedback from our peers is so important. We need a safe place to share our work-in-progress and David Gambil, owner of Infusions Teahouse, offered me that safe place.
The teahouse, a small rectangular room, had one side devoted to a long counter containing exquisite chocolates behind glass fronting a wall of teas. The place was busy, humming and full of customers. All sorts of local people were in animated conversation, reading or deep into their laptops. Three men in heavy coats were talking in big armchairs around a low table. The space I was hoping for in front of the window was taken as was every other chair and table.
What a crowd! I sat down at a round stool at the counter and wondered where we could sit. With all the activity and buzz, would we be able to hear each other talk, not to mention read our work?
Soon I found my participants–a poet, a novelist and a writer of interactive adventure ebooks. Minutes later, helpful employees cleared several tables after generous patrons offered their tables as they left.
“Let’s begin by introducing ourselves,” I said when the four of us were facing each other by the window. Why were they here? The responses were moving, exciting and inviting. What were their intentions for this workshop? Really, there was only one, repeated over and over, using phrases such as “committed to the work”, “need to finish” and “get my work out into the world”.
I brought up the different writing genres and mentioned how skill in one genre leads to skill in another. We talked about the origins of my two novels, Sundagger.netand Dreamers as well as the non-fiction travel memoir of living on a boat in the Bay by Shelley Buck, Floating Point. One participant read aloud the magical poem, The Dove by famed songwriter, Leonard Cohen, which I had copied from Everyman Library Pocket Poets.
Quoting the truism that 80% of writing is reading, I showed two novels I had read recently and couldn’t put down. You remind me of me, by Dan Chaon, is a story about the power and pitfalls of family and adoption. I quoted the author from his interview at the end of the book, adding that his experience resonates with me: i.e., Dan Chaon’s belief in the power of story and how he starts out with a title only and “dreams” himself into the story.
The other book I just read was How to Buy a Love of Reading, by Tanya Egan Gibson, a very literary, quirky-punk coming-of-age story of an unhappy teenager from a wealth, dysfunctional family. The chapters are divided into Setting, Plot, Devices, Backstory, Theme, Time and Tense, and Point of View in that order. You can find out more in my review on Goodreads.
Additionally these novels appealed to me because of how and where I found them–not through national bookstore chains or media publicity but at a grassroots level. I had met the author of one at the Northern California Storytellers Festival while my favorite librarian at the Hercules Library recommended the other.
Now we had arrived at the heart of my workshop–the writing itself. One courageous woman brought her poems, explaining their context and what kind of feedback she was looking for. We listened as she read a few aloud to us several times.
We discussed the poems while the writer took notes. No questions were asked of or answered by the writer. It was as if the writer were not present. Why? I explained to the group that this way no writer is put on the spot and does not need to defend her work. More importantly, she has the space to actually hear how her writing is being received. Also, the group can compare, question or respond to each other’s impressions, feeding each other’s responses and building on them, rather than directing every comment back to the writer. New ideas are generated in this spirit of brainstorming and the entire group becomes committed to having the piece (in this case, her poetry) be as successful as possible, as opposed to merely criticizing or pointing out limitations. Of course, at end of discussion, the writer is free to reply or not and free to take whatever she can use from our feedback. Honestly, our poet was thrilled with the feedback of the group. I know this because she emailed me later.
We ended up with a short 7-minute writing assignment on the subject of age (a topic brought up regarding our own ages related to point of view). Each of us chose an object we could see around us in the teahouse to include in the writing about age exercise.
At the end, I let everyone know that any work they wanted to submit could be emailed to me and reposted to the group. In addition, I would provide written comments on their drafts. Next Wednesday we would meet at 6:30 p.m., an hour later.
Leaving, I felt so grateful, so inspired. My first From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop was a success!