“A flower is never opened with a hammer.” — motto of From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops
I have been teaching From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops for over seven years here in the San Francisco East Bay and begin each session with this motto.
You’d think I’d be tired of it by now, considering it old and worn out. Yet each time I say “A flower is never opened with a hammer”, I feel the power of the words, the exquisite truth of flowers, and the awe of seeing a flower open. I feel my heart leap with possibility— for myself and for my students who are like flowers too.
Writing workshops are upcoming in Winter and Spring, 2020.
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“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.
Salon: A gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.
I had everything ready, flowers on the table, chairs in place, my Bavarian China tea cups and saucers. The fire was going strong and my German Shepherd, Maisie, was ready to greet the guests. Soon they would arrive!
It was shortly after 7PM when the writers appeared. The living room was soon crowded with nine enthusiastic guests from Pinole, Walnut Creek, El Sobrante, Richmond and Point Richmond, CA. ( One more writer outside didn’t knock on my door alas, thinking he had the wrong time.)
We began with a animated discussion of what a salon is and what it means to read our work aloud (it means everything). I shared a story I read in the biography of Nobel Prize novelist, John Steinbeck. In his early years as a writer, Steinbeck had a habit of greeting his friends by reading his latest writing aloud to them. Courageous!
For an ice breaker, I asked the writers to randomly choose quotes from authors I featured in my From Heart to Paper Writing Workshops. We discussed what the quotes signified to us as writers. It was amazing how whatever quote we chose at random so aptly mirrored our own writing lives.
We started with non-fiction. A writer read a revision of her prose-poem about driving in the rain. I believe we all felt as if we were driving with her, passing the majestic redwoods of California dripping with rain, seeing the manzanitas as ancient native inhabitants, feeling this miracle in nature as we listened to rain on my roof.
Another writer read from her memoir-in-progress describing a recent birthday. The selection began with her waking up to the bedside digital clock, its red dial ominously ticking, foreshadowing the unforgiving passage of time, perhaps disappointment or resignation. But, surprise! The first-person narrator, having reviewed the past, experiences a rush of gratitude for her own rich life.
The last non-fiction reading was another surprise: a proposal for a digital workshop to create online presentations to woo prospective employers. The writer wanted our feedback and we gave it. So much variety!
After a too-short intermission with animated conversation, wine and sparkling drinks, we turned to fiction: a Y/A novel of WWII Amsterdam about the attempted rescue of a Jewish child; lovers holding hands in an unnamed landscape of brilliant stars; a family in India struggling to survive in the face of British colonization and lastly, I read an excerpt from Spiral where Willow, an Anasazi mother and her son, Little Hawk, prepare to scale a haunted mountain to find Grandmother.
Besides reading aloud, we also shared how and why we wrote what we did, giving each reading a rich context. I described the archeological findings and archeoastronomy of Chaco Culture’s monumental Southwest ruins which provide the background for the epic adventure Willow and Little Hawk take in Spiral. Sharing the context makes all the difference!
Here are some of the heartening email responses from writers who attended the writing salon.
“I am inspired by your writing and your innate ability to bring out the very best in everyone who read their excerpt.— Julia A.“
“Thanks so much for the sweet and inspiring evening last night. It was a very rich experience with beautiful people. Thank you. Already I am inspired to begin editing my book. — Ellen R.”
Here I am at my son’s wedding, sitting at a table, listening to a friend across a centerpiece of lovely flowers review my book. “I don’t understand why Annie keeps coming back!” my friend says, gesturing for emphasis across the round table set with white china and brilliant bouquets–my favorite flowers, I muse. She’s an inveterate reader and we haven’t seen each other in months.
“Why does Annie keep coming back?” my friend keeps asking. She’s referring to the main character in my newly published novel, Dreamers, a coming of age love story of the ’60s. Annie’s a white girl who falls in love with Thomas, a black actor. It’s the height of the Civil Rights movement and they’re both in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I can think of many reasons of why Annie keeps coming back, but what does it matter if my friend doesn’t see them? The truth is I’m thrilled Dreamers is having such a powerful effect on her.
How wonderful that I get to acknowledge my characters at my son’s wedding! What an opportunity to hear her feedback. I gaze at the scarlet flowers in front of me thinking how fortunate I am to have such a discriminating, exceptional friend who loves to read. How real the story is for her! How deep her involvement is with the character of Annie! She understands how attractive Thomas must appear to Annie she says, but still–here’s the reality test–she herself would never stick around like that. I gaze at a single perfect petal before me and nod, recalling how my book begins with Annie reflecting, “I was in love with trouble.”
“I would love it if you’d write a review of Dreamers on Amazon or Goodreads or on my website,” I say. “Would you be willing to do that?” She agrees.
Later I think about our conversation. I ask myself if I really want her to write a review. After all, what she’s saying about Annie isn’t that positive. It’s not that good in fact. It could be a big flaw in the book. I might end up with a bad review.
Then I think of another book I have at home on my table. Last fall the author asked me to write a review of it and I readily agreed. For one thing, he had just bought my first novel, Sundagger.net, at a booksellers’ show we were both attending. I was very grateful. Plus I wanted to help out another small publisher and novelist like myself. But most of all I was excited at the thought of reading his coming of age story of the ’50s.
But I haven’t written the review. I wish he had given me his second to the last draft. As it stands, in my view, his published story cries out for attention, his dialog for editing, his characters for focus and direction. I’m not the person to criticize that publicly.
Every author knows what I’m talking about. Take the novel draft I am working on now, Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net. In Spiral, the characters from Sundagger.net live out their karma of years before. Daily I struggle with my many dubious, rock-hard sentences. Like weeds, I keep pulling them out and digging deeper for new ideas, scenes, and characters–in short, story-building words. How slowly they emerge from the grit and grind of my mind. But sooner or later the book begins to grow and bloom.
I glance across the room at tables covered with all those fragrant bouquets. Yes, I do hope my friend reviews Dreamers. Be rigorous I want to say. True, writing is a delicate matter, like flowers. So are writers. But still, the only review any author wants and needs is a good one, the one that makes the next book better.