“Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
I highlighted these lines in my copy of Goldberg’s wise and funny book years ago. But I feel like I’m just beginning to truly understand their implication in terms of what is possible for me as a writer.
Why did it take me so long to come to this understanding? Maybe I’m a slow learner. More likely is the fact that I’ve been writing a lot this summer. And through the process of becoming more immersed in the story I’m working on, I have become fearless. Okay, less fearful.
But there’s more to it than just writing more. Two experiences from the past month have played a huge role in helping me get to this point.
Thanks to a conversation Melanie Meehan and Betsy Hubbard had on Twitter a few months ago, I am now part of an online critique group. I cannot overstate how lucky I am to work with Melanie, Stacey, and Julie. They are incredibly supportive and kind, but also offer meaningful suggestions and advice. Another benefit of being part of this group is reading my partners’ amazing writing. Melanie, Stacey, and Julie are all talented writers, and I’ve already learned so much from the pieces they’ve shared with the group.
My experience at art camp earlier this month also helped me be more comfortable to “play around” and “take chances” in my writing. One of the activities that I found especially helpful was creating an “analog drawing” of a problem. In analog drawing, only lines are used to express emotion, among other things. As I sketched my problem, I realized I was creating a narrow doorway with a border that looked very much like battlements. “Is this how I approach problems?” I wondered, appalled at the thought. I began to sketch other doorways, doorways that opened wider and were less rigid. As I continued to draw, I came to the realization that these narrow doorways were impacting my writing.
So it was with these two experiences in mind that I was able to not, in Natalie Goldberg’s words, be “tossed away…by [the] fiasco” of this line in my first draft of a story about a girl whose mother has just died:
“Holly was devastated that she would be separated from her two best friends.”
As my husband might say, “Well, no s*&t, Sherlock.” As soon as I read this line, I knew my critique partners would point out its many weaknesses immediately. I really didn’t want them to even see this lame line. I also thought of my drawing of the opening doors. Why was I afraid to find out how Holly dealt with this devastation? Just write. Dive in and see where this line leads.
After an hour of revision, one short sentence had become two pages of action and dialogue that reveal much about Holly and her mother. These are the lines (which still need plenty of work) that replaced the original, obvious statement of Holly’s feelings:
“Holly stared in disbelief at the lists taped up on the glass doors. Tears filled her eyes as she turned away and ran from the parking lot toward the playground. “Arrrgh!” she screamed as she jumped onto bottom rung of the jungle gym. Her hands clung to the cold metal of the bars as if they were all that kept her from falling into a giant black cave.”
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes that we are “creating pathways [into our] consciousness through which the creative forces can operate.” I realize now that I had to write the first line in order to create the pathway to get to the second line. Uncovering deeper understandings about these characters and their story isn’t always possible without a surface level understanding of who they are. Put another way, just as artists have to sketch the outline of a subject before they can add layers of color that create nuance and depth in their drawing or painting, writers have to start with a general idea of what their writing is about before they can add the nuance and depth that creates memorable characters.
While I’m happy about the writing I’ve done over the past month, I’m unsettled by the implications of how I arrived at these insights for teaching. Having the luxury of filling my days with reading, writing, drawing, and thinking about what interests me, at my pace, is not an opportunity we give our students very often, if ever. Children need the time to play and explore, to discover what is possible, not just in writing, but in all areas of their lives. They also need the kind of supportive and nurturing environment my critique group has given me. Finding a way to provide these conditions is critical for anyone, young or old, to create the pathways into their consciousness that will awaken them to all the possibilities within themselves.