Holy First Person Singular, Batman!

Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.

This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. (more…)

Revising in a Tumultuous World

For the past decade I’ve been an ardent champion of revision, in my own and my students’ writing, consistently reflecting and blogging about it and finally collecting my thoughts in a book, Living Revision, due out this August. To many people the realm of revision seems rarified, even masochistic. When I pitched my book at a writer’s conference, two publishers laughed at me outright. My mission is to overturn this stereotype, to crack wide the experience of revision and make it accessible to everyone who writes.

Since the presidential election, however, I’ve come to think of revision as a coping skill—one we all need to navigate these tumultuous times. Writing is a means to develop this skill. (more…)

Enduring the Discomfort of Writing

mandalas-3After allowing my novel to rest for half a year, I launched back in to make some major changes. I restructured the first hundred pages, shifted the personality of the main character, and changed her reasons for making a pivotal decision. As I revised, I experienced the complicated joy of being fully immersed in a project. The sensation is one of absolute concentration—I move into the cosmos of the book and see nothing beyond its boundaries—coexisting with absolute rebellion. I squirm, I want to get a glass of water, and then ice, then a coaster. I need to clip my toenails. When these powerful, contrary forces rise up, I know I’m in the heat of writing.

This discomfort reminds me of meditation, how part of me is drawn into the vast oblivion of silence and another part fights mightily to maintain the dignity of selfhood. (more…)

Intercourse with the World

AdobeStock_53634879New writers are often surprised to learn that the main drama of memoir is not what happened in the past but what happens when we consider the past and allow ourselves to be changed by the consideration. “What happened to the writer is not what matters,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story. “What matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

In other words, memoir is a discourse with memory. It is conversation between past and present—the self you were and the self you’ve become. This sense of exchange happens in fiction as well and is why Nathanial Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” (more…)

Writing as Deep Listening

DeskW:DaffodilsJim was a thoughtful, retired pastor who came to me for writing support. Because of prolonged wheelchair use, a wound had appeared at his sacrum that proved difficult to heal and challenging to his faith. Jim wrote personal essays about the struggle while enduring multiple surgeries and long periods of immobility.

Then his project stalled. He had expected the wound to close and provide neat closure to his essays. When it didn’t, he couldn’t finish his essays.

I told Jim (rather crassly) that a physical healing would be a clichéd ending to his story. (more…)

Walking On Air

When my partner Emily teaches a traditional circle dance to a group of newbies, they go through a predictable progression. First, they’re so uncomfortable they trip over their feet. They talk nervously, drawing attention away from their awkwardness. Sometimes they give up. But Emily’s a patient teacher and her dances are simple, ancient, and usually repetitive, so those who stick with it eventually fall into a pattern and begin enjoying themselves.

Then, if the dancer repeats these steps over weeks and months, he or she forgets the steps entirely and enters the dance. I’m not much of a dancer but even I have experienced my self-consciousness release into consciousness and then fall away entirely.

I’m interested in how this happens for writers, too. Seamus Heaney describes it as “walking on air”: “We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment.” (more…)