"First say to yourself what
you would be; and then do
what you have to do."
“Sarah’s personal style, her eloquence, and most importantly, her compassion, inspired me to keep going even when the only thing left for me to do was to give up on a particular piece. She truly illuminated my path and I will always be grateful. Even after years of writing, taking Sarah’s class was like walking out of a wall of fog. It was so refreshing to see the sun again. “
-- Ana Consuelo Matiella, columnist and the author of The Truth About Alicia and Other Stories
This free online course is an excerpt from Sarah’s forthcoming book Dream It, Write It. The book and this course began as a series of articles originally published in the Eldorado Sun, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
BEGINNING YOUR WRITING PRACTICE…
Take any of us, follow the knotted line of our ancestry back through time, and sooner or later, you’ll reach the storyteller. It’s in our DNA, this storytelling business. If you’ve been yearning to write that novel, memoir, poem or article, the first thing to know is that you’ve already begun. So much of the creative process has to do with what is unconscious—your mind is constantly generating ideas and images outside the realm of consciousness. You are incubating story seeds and growing stories when you dream, day or night, when you drive to work, when you stir the sauce for your kids’ favorite pasta or fold laundry, when you run the dogs or work on a jigsaw puzzle.
Fine, you say, “I’m a dreamer—always have been, always will be—but I never seem to get those ideas out of my head and onto paper.”
Relax. Take a few deep breaths. It’s time for practice, persistence, and trust. It’s truly a matter of encouraging what already resides in the deep mind to surface. Your job will be to act as your own scribe, recording on paper those memories, story ideas, and dialogue fragments as they rise to consciousness. Wondering how to begin?
Over the course of publishing more than 20 nonfiction books and five novels, as well as teaching and consulting with writers, I keep coming back to a simple formula because it works:
Let’s take it step-by-step.
Begin by placing pen to paper. Don’t forget to breathe. Write fast, without worrying about punctuation, grammar, spelling or logic. Your writing should be rough, wild, sloppy, unpunctuated, uncensored. When it comes to fast writing, these are all great things. Write anything and everything that comes into your mind. Keep your hand moving to record all those chaotic thoughts—I’m doing it right now and I don’t knowwhat I want to write about I feel stupd and stuck and this isntfun but meybe darn it know I really suckbut I’m to try keep going until I what about that sunset yesterday with the marshmellow clods did I mean clouds…Get the idea? You need to keep at this long enough to break through your own resistance. The part telling you you’re stupid and all your writing is stupid, too. Keep your pen moving for more than ten minutes—try to go for fifteen. If something calls to you—an idea, an image, a memory—by all means follow it.
-Inspirations and Prompts means…well, making lists. I first heard about the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagun from Miriam Sagan, poet, teacher, and author of Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry. Sei Shonagun, a 10th-century Japanese courtesan, kept a diary of court happenings inside her wooden pillow. She included lists of specific and quirky things.
Begin by creating a personal pillow book filled with your very own lists—under the heading of “purple things I love” you might list grape soda, lilacs, lavender sachet, purple prose, Aunt Minnie’s huge amethyst pendant, red-purple bruises...under the heading of “first evers” you might include the first thing you ever saw born, the first thing you saw die, first love, first hate, first fear, first nightmare, first shooting star, first sex, first humiliation, first time you didn’t like yourself…
Write your lists quickly and wildly: ten things I hate most at this minute; ten things I hate about food; my ten worst enemies; things that make me cry; sexy sounds; seven things I wish I’d never said; eight things I wish I’d never thought…
-Morning Writing (virtually) when you’re half asleep is my variation on another Dorothea Brande favorite. Morning is a good time for fishermen, birders, and writers. Those few minutes before your normal wake-up time, are great for catching fresh ideas. That is the time when you’re least likely to think logically and most likely to let yourself be wild and surprising.
Begin while you’re still asleep and when you can hardly form a cohesive thought much less worry about writing well. Write lying down with eyes closed if you like. Put that pencil or pen to the paper—if you’re really bold, try your keyboard before your morning cup of tea or coffee—and write freely and wildly and fast.
If you’d rather suffer from gout than get up a half hour before your usual rising time, if it takes a four-alarm fire to get you out from between the sheets, I offer an alternative. Virtual morning. These are the times during the day when your brain is least likely to try and impose order and logic and tidy grammar. The middle of the night might be your virtual morning. Or after work at the gym, while you’re on the elliptical machine. I wrote quite a few of these words while I was riding my bike out on the trail. I keep index cards with me at all times so I can catch inspiration when it strikes during my virtual mornings. But remember, there’s no substitute being half-asleep.
-Daily Writing is about practice and commitment. It’s about finding time every day to give to your writing practice. It’s about giving yourself the time to discover your unique voice. It’s about giving yourself a lifetime to explore process. The world is full of wonderful writers who won’t give themselves time to write. I think they don’t feel they deserve this gift, but they do. If your child needs a ride to soccer, you find the time. If your dogs need to go to the vet, you find the time. You find time to feed your stomach. Why not feed your soul and your writing practice? Fifteen minutes a day, that’s all you need to begin. If you miss a day, no problem. Just begin the next day. If all else fails, imagine you are Lance Armstrong or Jackie Joyner-Kersee because writers need strength and endurance, and they need strong hearts. I don’t write absolutely every day, but I write a lot, and the more I write, the more free and grounded and primed I feel.
-Embrace imperfection. Anne Lamott made bad writing famous as “shitty first drafts” in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. She reminds her readers that it may take writing five pages of the worst dreaded dreck to produce one excellent line at the top of page 6—that one electric and singing sentence is the one that tells you what you really want to write about.
A writer in one of my classes brought in an article by poet Marvin Bell, who kindly reminds us that, “…the worst part of a poem may contain the seeds of what will become the next poem and, beyond that, bigger and better poems by that writer.” Not only will we survive writing badly—we can make our truest leap forward by risking bad writing.
-Raw and risky writing means writing without self-censoring. Hah, you say, why not climb Mt. Everest in flip-flops? I say it’s vital that you give yourself unconditional permission to write whatever comes to mind, especially if a little internal voice tells you—no way cant write about mybrother the junkie or my mom’s drinking habit or my vanityor jealousy or my fantasy of strangling my ex’s new beau because heavenforbid people seethat part of me because that’s the mean old dirty rotten nasty stinky B-A-D part!
The big secret here is that people love to read whatever you think is dirty, nasty or stinky. Also, you are no judge of what is B-A-D when it comes to your voice, your material. Your best writing will come out of risking and writing raw. Remember—YOU DON’T HAVE TO SHOW YOUR FREE, WILD, RISKY WRITING TO ANOTHER SOUL, NOT EVEN YOUR CAT. So, when you sit down to write, try picturing one of those old movie posters with your name in bold, criss-crossed with the words “Raw and Uncensored!”
A word about The Critic. Everyone has an internal critic. Be forewarned before you even begin to write, yours will probably be nagging you that you’ll write embarrassing things, stupid things that should never see the light of day. This critic is full of hot air. Give the critic a job. Send your critic to the movies. Tell the critic that this time is critic-free time. Be courteous but very firm. Acknowledge that your critical side has much to offer, and reassure your critic that an invitation to collaborate will be issued at a later date. Do not get in a fight with your critic, because that’s just a distraction and it might make your critic get really rowdy and noisy and pretty soon you won’t be writing because you’ll be too busy arguing with your critic.
Now, take a deep breath, relax, it’s time to begin your practice.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY:
You’ll need a few pens or pencils that feel good in your fingers. You’ll need a notebook that’s easy to carry around. Buy several, because you’re going to fill many pages. (If you like working on a computer, fine, but start with pen and paper first.) You need at least 15 minutes at each sitting.
For your first week, stick with fast, free and wild writing in the morning (or virtual morning.) Wait at least three days to read what you’ve written. In the meantime, write more. At week’s end, go through your pages and circle the words, phrases, topics that make you feel jittery or excited or filled with dread. These are hot topics because they carry emotional heat for you, the writer. Did story ideas come up? Family history? Is it hard to believe you actually wrote these pages? Excellent.
Make lists of your hot topics. Break those lists down into more specific lists. And so on. Each day, choose a new topic from your lists and write for 15 minutes.
Make a list of ten things that you can’t wait to write about. Make another list of ten things you’re most terrified to write about. Is there any crossover between both lists? If so, free write about every crossover topic at least once. If not, choose a subject from each list. Free write about each one, separately. After a few days, read them over. Can you find a story idea? A song? The beginning of a poem?
Make a list of five things you’ll never do again in your life: ride atop your father’s shoulders, fall in love for the first time, learn to talk, do a handstand, you’re your first baby step…Choose one and write about it from a fictional character’s viewpoint. Let that character write about it in a letter.
Write a list of your earliest memories. Now pick a memory and free write. Pick another. Read them over. Choose the one that’s hottest for you. Mull it over. Ruminate. How can it expand and evolve into a simple story with a beginning, a middle, an end?
WRITING EXERCISE: CREDO; This I believe
In the spirit of the long-running public radio essay series, this is an exercise aiming to reconnect with your deepest beliefs. There’s nothing formal about this. Be wild and let your mind play between the simple and the sacred. No right or wrong—but please keep it personal.
You may feel moved to write, “I believe in the perfection of wild flowers, I believe in best friends, I believe a child’s kiss is healing to the soul…”
Or you may begin your beliefs by tackling the power of love, the accident of courage, the mystery of faith.
Ask yourself, what would I be willing to die for? Your children? Your country? Your convictions? Ground yourself by using active and specific detail.
As our beliefs change, so our credos follow. One writing teacher I know encourages her students to write a credo today, seal it in an envelope, and open it in the future—after writing a new credo.
Use this exercise to gain clarity and insight into your foundational beliefs and values. You can write as many credos as you want.
Now list the titles of a few of your favorite books and/or movies. Next to the titles, jot one or more credos explored by each story.
Purpose: Reconnect and strengthen the alignment between your deepest values and your stories.
As you work, remind yourself that writing is a warrior’s path. That’s what I tell my students and my clients. By that I mean it is demanding, rewarding, sometimes fiercely challenging. Along the path, you will encounter both your most daunting foe and staunchest ally. Yourself. You will also have a wild time—where else are you allowed to steal (go ahead, grab that snippet of conversation overhead on the bus) and lie (all great storytellers tell whoppers) while you are searching for one truth at a time.
CHECK BACK FOR ADDITIONAL EXCERPTS, INCLUDING SECTIONS ON “FIRST DRAFTS”, “REVISION”, AND “ENDINGS”.