Month: April 2017

Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

To Meditate or Not

My friend has taken up meditation. Like all new converts, she’s an enthusiastic promoter of her new practice.  She talked to me of  the benefits  of a calm mind – more focus, better time management, clearer thinking, higher productivity.  All attributes I would like to acquire, so I signed up for the ten free on-line sessions and then she gave me another thirty that she’d earned.  I regret to say, I’m a failure at meditation.  As I sit here with my feet flat on the floor, my hands resting on my thighs, my eyes closed and the soothing voice of the leader tells me to focus on my breathing and let my mind empty itself, all I can think of is the million other things I should be doing.

I try opening my eyes and I can see dust. I avert my eyes and see my notebook lying open on the desk, accusing me of wasting time.  I close my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.  A car door slams and I remember that I need to run to the grocery store.  The cat walks by and demands that I pick her up and pet her.  Now, a cat’s purr is very soothing but I’m working a knot out of her fur, not meditating. 

After a couple of weeks of failed meditation sessions, I’ve decided the practice is not for me.

I clear my mind by writing it down. If I can’t sleep at night, I get up and write down the matters that are keeping me awake.  Then I go back to bed and drop off immediately, knowing that the problems are noted on a piece of paper and will be waiting for me in the morning.  I don’t need to keep running them through my mind during the hours of darkness.  When I’m stuck with a story problem, I write a list of possible actions and the outcomes of each.  Then I can easily determine where the story should go from here.  When I’m preparing for a big dinner party, I write down all the little things that must be accomplished before the guests arrive.  Once an item is on paper, I can get on with the job and not keep stopping to remember.

There are many studies to show that taking notes by hand rather than by typing improves students’ performance. This is because “Generative note-taking pertains to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping,” according to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles.  Robert Dugoni advises writers in his workshops to put away the keyboard and make their own, hand-written notes, even though he will provide his own notes at the end of the class.

Even if you’re not a student taking notes in class, there are good reasons to “write it down.

It makes you smarter.

That’s because putting pen to paper stimulates a part of the brain called the reticular Activating System, i.e. the act of writing it down tells the brain to give more importance to the stuff you’re focusing on at the moment

It sparks your creativity.

Susan Sontag and Truman Capote and J.K. Rowling, among others, write their first drafts with a pen. Susan Wiggs not only writes her first draft longhand, but with a particular pen, and a particular ink.

It keeps your brain sharp.

The act of writing engages motor-skills, memory and more and is a good cognitive exercise for aging boomers who want to keep their minds sharp.

So, thanks, my friend for sharing your joy in meditation, but I’ll give it a pass. Pen to paper, heart to brain, is my preferred method of finding focus, attacking a problem, or clearing the clutter from my mind.  For anyone who wants to try the course she recommended, here’s the link.  headspace.  For everyone else, visit your favourite stationery store and stock up on pens and pencils, notebooks and writing pads, line them up on your desk and enjoy.

 

 

 

Universal Truth

 

I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift.  I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before.  What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing.  So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.

What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths.  Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today.  Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”

So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages.  The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein.  Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel.    For romance writers,  we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice.   Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides.  A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.

Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy.  Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions.  I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate.  Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.

As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories.  If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers.  An old adage for authors is “write what you know.”  I suggest “write what you believe.”

 

 

Point of View

As mentioned last week, my blog has been the victim of a hacker.  The site is now rebuilt and is clean.   Google still flags it as hacked, but it is now safe.  We’re in the process of getting Google to verify and take down their warning.

 

I went for a walk through the Butchart Gardens with a young relative recently.  It was a lesson in point of view.  Things I thought were significant, like the totem poles, received a ho-hum from the four year old, but a very sleepy bee warranted five minutes study.  We met another very short person and engaged in an exchange of teddy-bear touching.  There was a BIG dog, very friendly, and on a leash, but my little charge kept her fingers tightly curled into her palms when invited to meet it.  When the dog is at knee-level it’s beautiful and well-behaved.  When you’re face to face, it’s another perspective altogether.

There was a stroller in our company, so we took paths that avoided steps. Another point of view for me.  I’m apt to take the wide path that includes a long staircase into the sunken garden.  Taking the graduated route brought me to a knot garden I’d never seen before.  There were little pockets of crocus and snowdrops hiding in concealed corners of the road less travelled.  Every trip to the gardens requires that someone sit on the brass pony.  I can pretty much step over it, but the four-year old needed a boost and then her feet didn’t reach the stirrups.  Sitting on the pony became a big deal.  Even mounting a giraffe on the carousel required a lot of lifting and clambering before she was safely in the saddle.  It’s been years since I’ve ridden the carousel and I’d forgotten how fast it turns.  If I had to hang on tight, the little one needed to cling with fingers and toes and knees.  When we got off, I felt dizzy.  She had no problem and declared her intention to race me to the next tree.  I declined but congratulated her on her fleetness of foot.

We looked at maps every now and again and my companion sussed out the ice cream bar on the first perusal. The previous week it had been closed so I cheerfully promised an ice cream cone if the stand was open.  It was!  I paid up and had one for myself as well.

We went through the greenhouse because I thought she’d like the flowers. Wrong.  She did however, enjoy the gold fish.

We talk a lot in writing circles about point-of-view, getting inside your character’s head, writing only what the character can experience. It’s good advice.  My adventure with a chattering four year old was a perfect example.

I’ve just finished a book by a well-known contemporary author that was written entirely in the omniscient view point, surprising, since that style is now considered old-fashioned and remote. The writer is skilled at her craft, so I was engaged with the characters and their story, but all the while I kept thinking I was reading a set-up and that the real story would begin after the characters were introduced.  Didn’t happen.

Another lesson in point-of-view. The technique has the advantage of letting the author tell the reader about things the character’s cannot know but which are important to the story, but it distances the reader from the characters.  Instead of being inside the story, I felt like a hovering presence looking down on a stage. I was an observer rather than a participant in the drama.

I love going to workshops and learning about the craft of writing, but nothing takes the place of real-life experiences. I’ll never again walk in the Butchart Gardens without being aware that my point-of-view is not universal.  I might try getting down on my knees to see what the world looks like from there.

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