Keep Yourself Writing Help (page 3)
Keep Yourself Writing
One way to build up enthusiasm for developing drafts is to gather first-reader response. But there is a trick to gathering responses that help you as a writer. Author is the root of "authority." Never forget it. People's responses are helpful in empowering you, the author, to develop your work. If they rush in to fix your work, however, they encroach on your authority, and you will feel badly rather than eager to continue writing.
Therefore, I have developed a method that provides a structure to help readers offer responses that don't trample your writing. The structure directs readers in telling you what they feel and think as they read, so you get a sense of where you have short-shrifted your writing—where you have withheld information or summarized where readers really want the details. You will learn where you seem to have veered away into new subjects without taking the reader along. You'll learn, too, where readers are delighted and where they feel the writing no longer keeps their interest.
This structure helps writers hear what their readers have to say without feeling defensive. Teach this process, which I've dubbed the Three-step Response Method, to those you want to offer you response to your work-in-progress.
Here's how it works:
- Velcro Words: Readers report the images and phrases that stick with them.
- Feelings: Readers monitor and report the feelings that occur as they read.
- Curiosity: Readers tell the writer where they want to know more.
If you are going to be your own reader, make sure you have managed to take time away from your draft so it will seem like a fresh piece of writing to you and you can be more impartial as you look at it using this response system. If you are going to ask others to respond to your draft, make sure they understand that you want them to give you feedback in these three separate ways.
I'll demonstrate the process with a document sent to me by writers' workshop participant, Kellie Van Atta:
I'm writing on this white board with an old, orange marker that has been in my purse for three weeks. Finally putting the tip to the board, I realize that after all this time, it is just as dull as the rest of them.
Sighing silently, I resign myself to pushing forcefully in order to write, "use commas between coordinate adjectives." They strain to see the obscure markings, but it's better than nothing.
This isn't exactly the type of teacher I dreamed of being while instructing my care bears at the age of eight. That teacher has it all. Her perfect handwriting is never wasted on a dull marker. That teacher has total control of students. They certainly never play the game going on in section 3. She couldn't even fathom students trying to insert inappropriate words into their sentences; she doesn't have to stifle giggles after a student mentions that "a new middle school has recently been erected."
It isn't that the teacher I dreamed of being is stiff or austere; on the contrary, she is witty and charismatic. After her students leave smiling, she organizes her room into stacks of graded papers and rows of tidy chairs. Writing her agenda in a fresh pen with a diagonal tip, she is over-prepared for the next day. Off to the gym, she says, delighted after a peaceful day. She loves the gym, her toned arms pumping the handles of the elliptical machine. Her meticulous make-up partially smeared from sweat. That teacher would bound home to create a culinary concoction worthy of Dionysus. She is an exceptional cook by the way.
Jarred by a beeping timer, I look back at my students as they finish their vocabulary quiz. "That was SOOO hard" Jessica moans. "What does it say on the board?" Marco asks. After another 47 minutes, the students leave chatting. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, exhausted. What was the word in section 3? Sack? Urggg. I can't even consider going to the gym. Eight hours on heels—can you blame me? I hope Scott will cook something.
"Commas between coordinate adjectives." The orange marker squeaks. I guess I'm not quite the person I hoped I would be, but maybe tonight I will buy a new marker.
Here is how I responded:
Velcro Words—Writing on this white board with an old, orange marker, in my purse for three weeks, just as dull as the rest of them, pushing forcefully in order to write, commas between coordinate adjectives, instructing my care bears at the age of eight, perfect handwriting, never play the game going on in section 3, insert inappropriate words into their sentences, stifle giggles, "a new middle school has recently been erected." witty and charismatic, stacks of graded papers and rows of tidy chairs, fresh pen with a diagonal tip, over-prepared for the next day, loves the gym, her toned arms pumping the handles of the elliptical machine, makeup partially smeared from sweat, create a culinary concoction worthy of Dionysus, beeping timer, finish their vocabulary quiz, "That was SOOO hard" Jessica moans, "What does it say on the board?" 47 minutes, students leave chatting, word in section 3? Sack? can't even consider going to the gym. Eight hours on heels, hope Scott will cook something
- I enjoy being in the classrooms and in the life the writer is in and the one she imagines. I feel organized in terms of time and place: I know where the speaker is in her thoughts before returning to the scene in front of her. I feel her longing to be a certain kind of teacher and her weariness with the way it is. The details of the marker, pen, board, and dialog of the students help me be right there.
- I feel jarred having the label "old" for the orange marker that has been in the speaker's purse for three weeks. I think what the speaker means is that the marker, perhaps new when she began carrying it around, is no longer moist. If it is just as old as the others, I am not sure of the significance of it being in her purse for three weeks. Actually, I do feel left out of knowing why it is there—I would like to know if it was because she was preparing early for school or she forgot it being so busy.
"I take a deep breath and close my eyes, exhausted,"—I am not sure what has exhausted the teacher. I feel left out of knowing if it is classroom management, materials management day after day, or more. I'd like to see more of what the speaker's life entails in contrast to the dream of who she'd thought she'd be, as that side of things is well drawn. I am not sure how the reference to the word "sack" in section 3 (the game players in the classroom?) works here to let us know what the speaker is thinking about herself. Or perhaps Section 3 is on the test; I am confused here.
Curiosity—Why has the speaker been carrying the marker around? Does she have only one at a time to use? By the essay's end when she says she hopes that Scott will cook, I wonder if she is imagining having or not having the energy to drop into a store, rather than the gym, to buy a new marker—that would loop nicely back to the opening. And why must the teacher buy her own marker? It seems the school would supply those! So there must be something else interesting here.
Should "care bears" be capitalized? What is the game going on in section 3? Is it among the students or is this a reference to the test? What does the speaker observe about it? What does the teacher's room look like after her students leave if there are not tidy stacks of papers and rows of chairs? Does this teacher think of what she feels like not being able to go to the gym? What does her make up look like if not smeared from sweat at the gym? What might be some of the dishes in a culinary concoction worthy of Dionysus?
As a writer, it feels good to know your readers' delights, disappointments and expectations. It is important that both the feelings that feel good to the reader and the feelings that don't feel good to the reader get reported. Hearing both categories allows you to understand that your readers are interested in your material. With all of this in mind, you have much to go on in reworking your writing, and, most importantly, you will remain enthusiastic about continuing.
The Key Again: Writers Write
That's the basic definition of a writer; when we don't know what to write, we still write, calling what we are doing "free writing." The simplest freewrites start with a keyboard and screen or pen and paper. The writer sets a timer and writes, about anything, for 10 to 20 minutes. Sometimes writers like to have a bit more direction for freewrites, and they use prompts. There are many online sites and books that share writing prompts, and I have included many of them throughout this book and in the Q & A section at book's end). Groups of writers sometimesmeet regularly to do free writing together and members take turns providing prompts for the group to use. Although freewrites are raw, many groups provide the opportunity for members to share what they've written in the timed writings. This builds confidence in the idea that our writing starts are valuable for future writing, as well as allowing us to make contact with listeners.
Here are some examples of how several authors have cultivated the use of free writing to help students:
Use Events as Prompts
Nahid Rachlin, author of the memoir Persian Girls as well as novels and short stories, suggests these prompts to her students:
- Write about finding out a shocking truth about a loved one and how you coped with it.
- Fictionalize a news item.
- Write about an incident that happened while traveling that awakened you to a new reality.
Use the First Lines of Stories as Prompts
Bharti Kirchner, whose most recent book is Darjeeling and Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discovery, believes in using the lead sentence of a published short story as a prompt. You could, for example, she says, use the following first sentence from her short story, "Promised Tulips," which appeared in Seattle Noir, Akashic Books, 2009: "I am floating between dream and wakefulness in my cozy tree-house nestled high in the canopy of a misty rainforest when he murmurs, 'You're so beautiful with your hair over your face.'"
Set that timer and write; try not to lift your fingers from the keyboard or pen from the paper. If you aren't sure where you are going or what to write, write, "I'm not sure what to say or where I am going with this" as many times as you need to. Your mind will start supplying more to write about, as it doesn't like to be bored!
Make Use of Disruptions to Keep Writing
Lori Brack, whose chapbook manuscript, Another Case for the Dead Letter Detective, was a finalist in the 2009 Pilot Books call for manuscripts, encourages you to "crack open what you write about and how you write it by disrupting the shape, size, and rhythms of your writing practice. Add a fresh roll of adding machine tape, available in office supply stores, to your usual writing materials." Brack says:
First, respond for three to five minutes to each of the following prompts designed to evoke memory or sensory responses:
a lost love
something that happened late at night
a thing found out of place
the way a familiar animal moves
names of streets where something important happened to you
a recurring dream or dream image
the kinds of plants you have tended
Jump from your notebook or computer to the adding machine tape. Take out a pen, pencil or marker and begin with something your warm-up writing just generated that interests you or that deserves more time and exploration. You can write the long way, so that your words flow down the long, unrolling paper, or you can write across the narrow width, following the long snake of the neverending "page."
Write for at least 30 minutes, allowing the written coil of paper to slip through your hands and to gather and puddle onto the floor at your feet. At the end of your writing period, tear off your writing and roll it up. Go back to it on another day and cut it into shorter sentences, phrases, paragraphs, stanzas, lines, or lengths. Transcribe parts of it in your notebook or into your computer. Hang evocative sections on the wall and live with them as part of your visual environment, or hang several and rearrange them now and then. Repeat the exercise when you feel stuck in recurring forms, when the material you produce is repetitive in other ways, or when you need the physical sensuousness of the whispering paper unspooling as you write.
Make Heart Journeys
Dorothy Randall Gray, author of Soul Between the Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing, provides her students with what she calls "heart items."
|It would do my heart good to...||With all my heart|
|I had a change of heart||A woman/man after my own heart|
|I was heartbroken||I wore my heart on my sleeve|
|I lost my heart to…||In my heart of hearts|
|I didn't have the heart to…||A subject close to my heart|
|I knew it by heart||Have a heart|
|I had my heart set on it||Heartache|
|I had my heart set against it||Heartless|
|Cross my heart and hope to die||Heartfelt|
|From the bottom of my heart||Heart and soul|
|Do it to my heart's content||Hearts and flowers|
|Eat your heart out||Get to the heart of the matter|
|Heart to heart talk||Heartsick|
Gray asks students to ask themselves, "Which one of the heart items calls me, evokes emotions, or makes me remember experiences I've had, or people I've known?"
"Place that heart journey item at the top of your paper," Gray says:
…and then write about it as fast as you can without stopping to correct, punctuate, change, think about or judge anything that appears on your page. Let the journey take you where it wants to go. Do this for at least five minutes, and continue as long as you can.
Now stop and catch your breath. Take a look at what you've allowed to come through you. Look for lines, words and phrases you might like to expand on, rewrite or continue. Copy them on a new sheet of paper, but always keep this original writing exercise intact. You never know what you'll find in it next time you read what you wrote.
Cheryl Merrill, whose creative nonfiction won special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prize anthology and has appeared in the college text Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, studied with Terry Tempest Williams when she knew she wanted to write a book about her visits with elephants. In Williams' class, she learned about using flashcards as "strike moments" to bring new energy into her writing. As she "fumbled" her way into draft chapters, Cheryl realized the flashcards she had selected were actually signposts: "Whenever I came to a fork in the path," she says, "I consulted the next flashcard message in the order I'd selected them in class":
Ask a Question
Become the Other
Learn from the Masters
Ask a Question
Learn from the Masters
Follow the Scent
After I began my second draft of Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants, flashcard-style messages popped into my mind unannounced as I worked:
No Extra Words
Project the Familiar onto the Strange
Reclaim an Extinct Way of Being
Interesting Questions Find Interesting Answers
Read it Backwards
I regard the commands seriously, though with a mixture of dread —they make my job harder—and joy, since they are guides to follow, no matter their woo-woo origin. I now have 106 flashcards.
Make yourself a set of writing flashcards—start with five to 10.
You've now filled computer files and/or notebooks with the results of exercises aimed at helping you get in the groove of writing well by paying attention to the use of specifics and the use of the senses. You've gotten the sound of your thinking on the page. You've begun to form writing habits (writers write!) that will serve you well you in whatever genre you write.
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