You are the last straw
the final stroke
the crack in the dike
the match to the powder
You are the last straw
the final stroke
the crack in the dike
the match to the powder
Monday when rock star teacher Brandie Trent led the Morehead Writing Project‘s Spring 2017 Teen Writers Day Out I was inspired by a prompt that she threw out to us. She asked us to consider where our writing is from. This prompt was an alternative to those of us who have already written about our origins many times and weren’t interested in pursuing that idea at the moment. I do love writing about my origin story, but that day I wasn’t in the mood for it, But to think about where my writing comes from…now that intrigued me.
One of my table partners and I chose to write very visceral pieces about the well-spring of our writing full of sensory and descriptive detail. Turns out we both were writing from pretty dark places at the moment. Perhaps we were influencing each other, but it had to be some sort of telepathy as we didn’t share our ideas before we wrote.
Sometimes the air is thick and heavy like a thunderstorm is about to unravel. Tall, dark trees overarch the fetid swamp while drapes of moss trail through dark pools of unknown depth. Unseen monsters lurk beneath ready pull the unwary down to drown, rot, and turn to carrion.
I told you it was dark, but then my writing is in a pretty dark place right now. I’m writing things out a lot just to help me cope. I’ve attended some pretty interesting writing events recently and hope to share some of those prompts with you soon, but for now I thought you might enjoy exploring the source of your writing.
And this prompt offers a great deal of potential for other forms of exploration. For example, if you are also in a dark place perhaps you should explore the origins of that darkness — in a more metaphorical sense. I’m thinking about doing that too. Let me know, using the #JustWrite hashtag, if you explore any of your origin stories in this way whether they lead you to poetry, prose, or some remediated form.
Life is hard and sometimes it really knocks us down. Hard. So hard we can’t get up. We can’t crawl. All we can do is curl into the fetal position and cry. Sometimes we are so exhausted and beaten we can’t even cry. For some people it is one big thing, one traumatic event or loss or illness, that has struck the blow and for others it an endless pummeling of small and medium blows that just keep on coming until we can no longer protect ourselves from the pain and devastation.
However, we do not need to fight this battle alone. Therapy and support groups are available for major traumas and often one really good friend can make the difference for those of us who don’t quite fall into a support group category. Don’t be afraid to reach out and get help. You don’t need to go it alone. There are many resources available when you just can’t cope anymore. There are also steps you can take to self-heal – one proven strategy is writing therapy.
Writing has helped many people cope with stress, trauma, and both physical and mental challenges. Studies have shown that writing can help with mental trauma and suffering and abate physical symptoms for some long-term illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, asthma and arthritis. Suppressing negative emotions, stress, and trauma can actually be harmful to our physical as well as mental well-being by suppressing our immune function. However, writing can help us release our fears and anxieties. Even more important, writing can help us understand our pain and offers a way to learn from and move past the suffering.
James W. Pennebaker is the founder of this movement which is now extensively used for therapy throughout the world. He offers this simple strategy for beginning your journey with healing through writing:
What to Write About:
Pennebaker offers the following instructions:
Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?
Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
And also this warning: Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find that you are getting extremely upset about a writing topic, simply stop writing or change topics.
I know that writing it out has helped me cope with life. Whether you are suffering from a major traumatic experience or a series of stressors, #JustWrite it out to help the healing begin.
I have chosen Light as my One Little Word for 2017 because this word is comforting and inspirational. Light has so many different meanings that I immediately felt better for thinking about this choice. I have so many fears about 2017 that I need something to give me hope and inspiration.
That is the beauty of light. Light is the candle that lights our way in the darkness. I can hope that we will all find the light at the end of the tunnel in 2017. But we can also think of this word as something that lifts as in lifting our spirits or lightening our load. A lighter can be a device that causes a flame to light or it can be a form of transport. The love of light is deeply ingrained in our being. No matter how dark the night the first light of dawn always offer a lift in spirit and hope. Light not only inspires hope, but it represents it. Lights and light bulbs represent genius and ingenuity. This is something I hope for all of us, because I believe our world needs more of this. Lights are our guides as well as beacons of hope. Light warns us off dangerous shoals and when to pause and to exercise caution. Light shows us the way if we pay attention. Light is celebration, but also a reminder that life, like light, is fleeting. We must embrace the beauty and joy of each moment and search for the beautiful in the mundane.
I think my One Little Word offers me both hope and guidance for the coming year and I hope you find the #OLW that can do as much for you. I hope that I can be a lighter for others whether they need someone to ignite their flame or lighten their load. Check out the path I used to select my #OLW for 2017 and choose your own One Little Word. Check out my brief video about Light to inspire you on your journey.
We are on the cusp of a New Year and everywhere there are signs of people setting New Year resolutions. Gym memberships. Diets. Donations to Goodwill. All these are admirable, but for many people the resolution becomes just another cause for angst. Frankly, I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life, thank you very much. So for the past three years, I have eschewed the resolution (and the associated angst) and focused instead on choosing One Little Word to serve as my guidepost and mantra for the year. This is a positive action that has helped me focus my energy and my time. My #OLW is a touchstone throughout the year that can help me with difficult decisions and help me reset when life gets out of control.
I have already chosen my #OLW and that is pretty big for me as the journey is usually much more fraught and difficult for me. Last year I did not arrive at “COOL” until well into the New Year. I was especially worried because my emotional state this year is in a more precarious place, but reading my original #OLW prompt reminded me of the essential question: “What matters?”
To uncover the answer to this essential question I decided to try out Heart Maps. I cannot be sure where I first heard about Heart Maps (although I suspect it was at an NWP event). I have read about uses for Heart Maps in the classroom several times on Two Writers Teachers and you can never go wrong using their tips and strategies. If you really want to delve into the world of heart maps you should consider going directly to the source, Georgia Heard in her Heart Maps book. Quite simply, according to Georgia Heard, heart maps are a “a concrete and visual” tool to help the writer “map out their lives — people, memories and experiences that matter to them most.” As such, heart maps are a great journal topic to help you identify personal and important topics to write about. There are lots of great heart map prompts and activities out there, but I found these to be the most helpful to me:
I first created a list of all the things I love, the things I am passionate about, including people, places, and things. I contemplated what makes me happy and what is fun. Then, because 2016 has been a very bad year on so many levels, I decided to make a loathing list, too. I didn’t want to make it a hate list, because I try not to give these negative things any more power than they deserve – hate takes a lot of energy that should be spent only on important things – so a loathing list. That exercise was useful even if those items did not make it only to my heart map, because it helped me sift and sort and prioritize what is important about the entries on my love list and ultimately helped me arrive at my One Little Word for 2017. Stay tuned and start thinking about your #OLW!
Do you choose a one little word? Do you find the #OLW practice a helpful and positive alternative to the New Year Resolution? What is your #OLW process?
If you want to be a writer then you must write. If you want to be a better writer then you must write. If you want to be a more successful writer then you must write. That is the one simple incontrovertible truth of writing. Writers must write. Writing is a habit that must be cultivated and that habit can only be developed by writing. The one dictate I give my students is to write. Just open up your mind and your heart and put words on paper. As activist writer Mary Heaton Vorse O’Brien said: The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
Creating the daily habit of writing will do wonders for your creativity and your productivity – especially if you do not try too hard to focus the direction of your writing at first. Just let the pen scratch across the paper or your fingers fly on the keyboard. I like to start my day off write with a pen and journal. Many days this is simply a way to unburden my heart and vent my emotions, but sometimes I am surprised by the words and ideas that take shape on my page. Those wonderful serendipitous mornings are pure magic, but rarely are those morning writing jags a waste as they help clear my mind and develop my writing muscles. Athletes and musicians condition and train their bodies through repetition – specifically by developing muscle memory for specific motor tasks. Writers need to condition and train their brains in a similar fashion by writing. Not all of this writing will be good or useful, but developing the habit of writing will be very good and very useful.
Even after you have warmed up your writing muscles it is easy for your brain and your fingers to freeze up when you settle down to your intended writing task. I offer my students three pieces of advice to work through brain freeze. These methods work equally well for creative, scholarly, or professional writing projects. First, borrow the wonderful Peter Elbow exercise, found in Writing Without Teachers and other writings, and freewrite for 10-20 minutes. That is essentially what I do when I start my day off write. I simply let the words flow out onto the paper and turn off my inner editor and critic. Just write without stopping and without thinking. Do not look back. Do not worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or any other forms of correctness. If you cannot remember a word or a detail then just write whatever comes to mind and move on.
In her wonderful book about writing and life, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott offers a more focused piece of advice to move your writing forward. She keeps a one-inch picture frame on her writing desk to remind herself that she does not need to write an entire book in one sitting. She only needs to write the one tiny glimpse of the story or event that can be seen through that one-inch picture frame. She shares two anecdotes to illustrate this idea. First a quote by E.L. Doctorow who said: “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Then she offers a story about her brother who felt overwhelmed by writing a report about birds and her father offered the advice to “just take it bird by bird.” All of my novels were written while I was married and held down a full time job as a reporter. There were no days that I could spend writing and polishing. My books were written in tiny corners of time that I managed to squirrel away or carve out of my busy life. I was able to make the most of that time because I had developed my writing muscles and because I focused on one scene, one description, one event at a time.
I am not certain about the origin of my third piece of advice, but in a nutshell it is a brain dump. The idea is simple. It is a more focused form of freewrite, because again you are not worried about correctness and simply focus on writing down everything you know about the topic or idea you intend to write about. Do not stop to look things up or find the answers to questions. Just note your questions or add parenthetical notes that you think you already have a source for that information. The idea is simply to let the ideas and information flow in a jumble onto the page. I have found over and over again that the brain dump is an useful way to let my subconscious do the heavy lifting while I go about my day. When I next sit down to write at worst I have a starting point to build off what I wrote the day before and at best my brain has been working over the material to give me fresh ideas to write about.
The beauty of daily writing is developing your writing muscle memory. The genius of using these writing strategies to kick off your writing session is that you can quickly kick-start a project. Even if little or nothing of what you have written using these exercises makes its way into the final project, you have a starting point. The blank page will no longer mock you into paralysis, because you have words and ideas and questions to build upon. Do you believe in the daily writing habit? Do you think muscle memory is an important tool for writers? What are your tricks for tackling brain freeze?
Today I am lost and afraid. Swinging between outright panic and wracking sobs. So I set a box of tissues beside me to catch the tsunami of tears and picked up my pen. I’ve been struggling for weeks, months really, and a workshop I led this weekend really helped me find my way. I led my small cadre of writers through a writing journey designed just to help me — and it did. Here is the path we took:
So while all hope was lost after an election where hate won, I hoped to find it again in the pages of the journal. I believe in the power of words to heal or to at least lance the boil so that healing can come later.
So I poured it out in an angry torrent on the page…taking occasional breaks to wipe my tears and blow my nose. I did feel a little better for the release, but I just couldn’t move on to the next stage. There were many people I wish knew my despair, but I don’t believe they care and I don’t believe they want to listen.
So I broke from the plan and wrote a poem (see Hate Won). Sometimes poetry can help me find solace as I shape and corral the words and feelings. Poetry helped a little, but it took only one Facebook post to send me spiraling back into despair.
Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow. But first another box of tissues. Have you tried to write your way out of despair?
History made here
Scarlet sociopath map
“others” lost their grip
Hate won; my home forfeit
where good once outnumbered evil
Artwork by Abandoned Berlin
You can’t have the last cookie
It’s been a rough day, week, year
That oreo is all that stands
Between Momma and losing her fingernail grip on sanity
You want to risk life as you know it
It’s been a rough day, week, year
There isn’t any wine in the fridge
But there is a stack of bills on the table and not enough money
You are right about hugs
It’s been a rough day, week, year
The day will come when I have lots of time and money
Give me another hug then go ahead and eat the cookie