Grace Paley and me at Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat.

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Last Saturday was the Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows in Victoria, MN — a wonderful day funded by Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.  The librarians who organized it were hoping to attract a mix of members from their established writing groups and people new to writing. They succeeded. An interesting and engaged group of people paid attention to each other, and to writing, all day.

I carry Minnesota writers with me wherever I go — in my head, quoted in my notebooks, passages copied into my calendar. Minnesota is awash with talented writers. When I teach, I read passages from their books — Alison McGhee, William Kent Krueger, Louise Erdrich, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Sutphen, Patricia Hampl. Because I was talking with other Minnesotans in Minnesota, I relied even more on local writers for this retreat.

But I was pleased that heads nodded at this passage by Grace Paley, who knew a thing or two about good writing. From her essay, “Some Notes on Teaching, Probably Spoken”:

“It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of blood and money in order to be interesting to adults. That is — everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements, people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. — And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of a family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two FACTS and is never comic or tragic.”

A good reminder, especially when writing memoir, to LET SOMETHING BE AT STAKE. Because something always is. In any good story, there is always something at stake. Something changes between the beginning and the end of the story. It’s the reason the writer needs to tell the story. It’s what keeps the reader interested. Whatever is at stake is what connects two human beings who might otherwise never encounter each other.

On Saturday, we were talking about memoir, a particularly personal kind of writing. But I maintain that all writing is personal. All good writing either asks a question, or answers a question. As long as we keep that question in mind as we write, we can’t go far wrong.

We ended the day with William Stafford’s poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready,” written just two days before he passed away. I cried when I read it. I always do.

It’s here! Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat

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Registration is now open for the Saturday, September 13 retreat from 10 AM to 3 PM. Call Tari Clay at Carver County Library at 952-227-7609 for details and directions. We’ll do lots of fast and fun writing exercises, with a couple of breaks for quiet writing time on the grounds of the retreat center.

Sharpen your pencil, pack a lunch and join us!

Local workshops coming up!

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I love traveling to teach, but I’m thrilled to offer these workshops and retreats closer to home in the Twin Cities:

Monday, July 21 from 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm at Deephaven Education Center. Register at Minnetonka Community Education. If it’s a beautiful evening, I promise we’ll go outside!

Saturday, September 13 from 8:30 am to about 3:00 pm — Carver County Libraries Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows Retreat Center on the border of Excelsior/Chanhassen and Victoria, just off Hwy 7. This is going to be so cool – details soon!

Book Art — several people have asked me about teaching an altered journals or book making class. I’m still playing around with all of this, but will post photos and info soon. If you’re really eager, sign up for a class at Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

 

The Time in Between

Another effective writing exercise is to consider two photographs taken at different times (decades apart, or a few minutes) or your own mental images of yourself or another. Or photos or mental images of places.

Write a few words to orient yourself with each image – who, when, where. Add a word or two about the feeling or emotion most prominent when you think of each image.

Now spend a few minutes writing about the time between the images. What changed for the person in the image?

Go deeper: Return to the images a few more times over several days or weeks. Guaranteed, you’ll come up with more to say, questions you’d like to ask (or wish you could ask). Write about that.

How To Be

Writing a mini-instruction manual (really, just a paragraph) about How To Be a particular person is a quick way to remind yourself of all sorts of stories you can tell. For each line of your “recipe” to be this person, you’re drawing on your experience and memory. Those are the stories.

For instance, I could tell you that my mom is from Indiana, she’s 5’3”, she likes to read, she’s kind, she eats healthy food, she loves me. And maybe, if one of those things resonated with you, you might want to meet her.

Or I could think a bit more about each of those points, and give you a recipe that shows how my mom is unique. Bingo. Instantly, she’s a more interesting person. Fiction writers use this exercise all the time to see what their imaginations “know” about a character and to help predict how that character might act. I think it’s just as much fun to do with real people.

How To Be Sandy – Be born in a small town in Indiana and be both glad that your childhood was spent there, and glad that you left as a young adult. Be small, about 5’3” and neat and modest. Smile often, except when you are reading; when reading have a relaxed yet intent expression. Be kind. Be critical of ideas, but not of people. Rarely eat fast food, but once or twice each year or so, really, really enjoy a Big Mac. Interrupt frequently, and fail to notice that this annoys people. Love your family unconditionally.

 

Story Starters

And here are some writing prompts I use with my students. They also make good conversations starters if things get dull at parties!

Writing Your Own Stories:
–  write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 –  or 16, 38, 67.
–  tell about a time you moved from one place to another. What did you miss? What did you like/dislike about the new place?
–  write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation?
–  is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?
– write about your jobs in the order you held them, and how you learned what you needed to know.

Tell about your best birthday gift.
Who was your favorite relative when you were 10 years old?
What would you ask your grandmother if you could?
Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike.
What is the most significant weather event you can remember?
Tell about the worst haircut you ever had.
Who was your best friend as a child?
What’s the naughtiest thing you did as a child?
What amazes you most about the year 2014?
Who was your favorite teacher?
What do you remember about learning to swim or ride a bike?
How old were you when you left home? Where did you go?
Tell about your ideal Sunday afternoon.
What skill do you wish you had learned better?
Did you have siblings or cousins to play with?

Story Starters for Writing About Family Members:

It’s OKAY – more than okay – to start with questions. That may be all you really have. Consider any documentation you have about a particular person – diaries, letters, photos, charts, notes. What’s missing? What would you ask that person if you could? What do you wonder about? Know that it’s also okay if you can’t find answers. Just asking the questions connects your life to theirs, and connects their story to your story.

Try to imagine your relative in the year 2014 —  what would be most surprising to him or her? Why do you think so?

Did the person emigrate from another country? Another city or state? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?

Who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?

Think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?

What was their first job? Their last? What happened in between and why?

How old were they when they left home? Where did they go? Why?

Tell about a vacation or trip they took.

Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike. What do you know about the family members who started this food tradition?

Who in your family tells the funniest jokes?

What did an ideal Sunday afternoon look like?

 

 

 

 

 

List Poems

This is one of the easiest and most popular writing exercises I do with students.

1.  At the top of a blank page, write the name of the person you’re writing about, yourself or another.
2.  Freewrite for 2-3 minutes, jotting down every word, phrase, thought, or image that comes to you about this person. Write as quickly and as much as you can; editing comes later.
3.  End with an object, something this person holds in their hand or pocket. (Because this can give you a clue to writing more about this person later.)
4.  Read through what you’ve written, circling or noting any recurring themes. Cross out anything you don’t want to keep.
5. You have a List Poem, a snapshot or sketch of the essential characteristics (as seen by you!) of a particular person. Now, you can:
A) Use this to write a story.
B) Copy your edited poem in your best handwriting, one ides or phrase per line, and frame it along with a photo of the person.

Variations:
Love Poem — in step 2, list everything you love about the person. Step 3, end with I love you because…

Think about everything that scares this person when you are freewriting in Step 2.

Peeing on our monsters.

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Wonderful piece from 1/1/2014 on NPR’s All Things Considered about editing your life stories — and the health benefits thereof.  You know which stories we’re talking about, the ones that run in our head and tell us who we are and how we should move through the world. Turns out we can edit the stories we tell ourselves — in effect,we can pee on our monsters.  A little crude (sorry, Mom) but what a simple and effective idea.

The radio interview is well worth listening to, and James Pennebaker’s writing prompts are worth trying. I’ve followed Pennebaker’s work at the University of Texas on healing through writing, and incorporate some of his ideas into my workshops and classes.

Improving our mental health with our life stories seems like a good thing to consider in this very cold early January. I’m looking forward to exploring this with my writing students this year.

Join us at The Blessing House on Saturday, January 11.

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Stephanie Friant has invited me to teach a writing workshop at the Blessing House in Victoria, Minnesota this coming Saturday, from 9 am to Noon. We’ll be talking about writing your own life story, or family stories, and we’ll do some fast and fun writing exercises together so everyone has a head start. The Blessing House is a peaceful and contemplative place to enjoy a winter day — and Saturday may even be sort of warm.

I met Stephanie last summer, and quickly discovered that we share an interest in spiritual writing, and in spirituality as a journey. She’s a thoughtful and humble writer – visit her blog when you’re looking for food for thought, and she’ll point you in all sorts of interesting directions.

Writing About the Dead

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Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

A colleague from the Association of Personal Historians forwarded a link to Ken Budd’s 11/20/13 piece in the NYTimes about the choices he made in writing about his deceased father. Budd quotes C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” that mourning those we’ve lost makes “the dead far more dead.” His essay describes why he disagrees with Lewis, and how he came to terms with writing about his father in a way he knew his father would not have liked.

I’m constantly reminding my memoir students that they can only tell their own stories, can write about others’ lives only from the perspective of their own. I explain that telling their truest story, with integrity and love, is the only armor they’ll need when family members say, “That’s not the way it happened!” I remind them that someone, some time, will inevitably challenge their memories, and their right to record those memories. And I say they should do it anyway.

When we write memoir, we’re writing more about our understanding of the events than about the events themselves. We strive for accuracy and fairness, and we hope for the best. No one writing about their own life ever gets it all down, every little detail exactly right. We edit and filter without knowing it, simply by going about our days in the ways we’re accustomed to. If that’s the case with our own stories, how can we hope to capture the entirety of anyone else’s story? The point, I think, is to record something, some small thing, about any particular life.

But the C.S. Lewis quote reminded me of a workshop exercise at the APH conference last month where a colleague from Argentina, Eduardo, said something I’ve been contemplating ever since. Eduardo said that if we don’t remember and talk about those we’ve known after they are gone, it’s as if they have died twice: once physically, and again in memory when those who knew and remembered them are gone. He worried that his English wasn’t good enough to express this thought, but he conveyed it beautifully.

The troubling thing, of course, and the point of Ken Budd’s article, is that we can only tell another person’s story through the filter of our own story. It’s not entirely fair, or entirely accurate, to tell anyone’s story this way, especially when they are gone and have no way to correct the record, or contribute to the story. Memoirists struggle with this mightily. We should struggle with this, and pay careful attention to it, in the same way we should be paying attention to the people alive all around us.

That’s the deal, you know. Paying attention to how we affect the lives of others, and how their lives affect ours, is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive on Earth with other humans. Telling stories is how we make sense of that privilege.