Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing Seed 3: Talk to Your Body

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]
Guanxi, China, 2007
"Writing becomes like a meditation exercise. If you walk down the street, in New York, for a few blocks, you'll get this gargantuan feeling of buildings. If you walk all day, you'll be on the verge of tears. But you have to walk all day before you get that sensation. What I mean is, if you write all day, you'll get into it, into your body, into your feelings, into your consciousness."
– Allen Ginsberg

I’ve decided to start off this text with this quote of Allen Ginsberg, because something immediately clicked in me when I read it.  There is no doubt in my mind that creativity flows through our bodies, and when you are fully engaged in any art, it really transports you into your body.  In the years that I have been writing I have started more stories than I can remember, many of which have been left unfinished.  Why is it – the question naturally arises – that some stories get finished, and others do not?  What is the quality inherent in something that works?

When I begin a story I am always excited about the premise and always feel that it has great potential.  When I don’t finish something, it’s easy to blame procrastination, lack of discipline, lack of time, but the truth is that a story that doesn’t get finished simply loses energy for me.  But what exactly does it mean, for a story to “lose energy”?  Thinking more deeply about this, I realized that stories that carry me through to the end – and it really does feel like I am being carried – are usually accompanied by a full-body feeling while I write them.  There’s a kind of energy that feels charged and excited, and I have come to trust that when this feeling is present a story will work.  Like with any feeling, it is difficult to describe it in more detail, but I am certain that we have all experienced this at some point in our lives, even if it’s not always conscious.  That same feeling accompanies activities that I know are exactly right for me in a particular moment, when I know I am doing exactly what I should be doing.  There is something very joyful in this, and at the same time something very awe-inspiring.  Many of my stories have come, in a sense, directly from this feeling in my body.  Many of the story lines that have been abandoned come solely from my mind.  Settling into our bodies is one of the most powerful things we can do for our own creativity.

We’ve already begun this process by grounding ourselves in our senses, and now we will continue to ground ourselves in our bodies.  Over the next two weeks, I would like you to pay attention to your body on a daily basis.  This need not take more than five or ten minutes (but it can take long as you like, or as long as your attention lasts).  What you are doing does not matter; you can be walking down the street, skating on the ice, sitting in a metro train, washing the dishes, or having a meal.  Simply pay attention to the physical sensations involved in any of these activities, notice the tensions and discomforts, and notice the pleasant subtle sensations.  Just observe.  Notice also how often your mind flies off and out of your body, and just keep bringing it back.  Try not to judge the pleasant or unpleasant sensations, or even your mind as it gets distracted.  Just observe.  Becoming aware of our bodies can be an absolutely remarkable process:  I never realized that our bodies talk so much, that they have stories to share with us, if only we would take the time to listen.  As simplistic as this may sound, I cannot stress it enough:  grounding ourselves in our bodies can be extremely transformative not only for our creativity, but also for our lives.  We cannot engage with this enough. 


Body Dialogue

I suggest for you to engage in a dialogue with various part of your body.  Pick any of the following:  head, neck, shoulders, eyes, mouth, nose, heart, chest, lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, knees, feet, etc.  If you would like (and have enough sensory awareness of them), feel free to talk to your organs: stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, bladder, etc.  What about your brain? Or its protective casing, your skull?  What are the joys of these various parts of your body, and what are their sorrows, their complaints?  Do the shoulders feel like they carry the weight of the world upon them?  Are the eyes excited by the colours of the world, or are they overstrained from working too much?  Do you feet tell you a story of joy when they walk barefoot through grass? Do they feel that they are massaging the earth they walk upon?  Do your lungs greedily suck in the fresh, cold air each breath, or do they take little, careful, shallow breaths, never taking too much?  And what can’t you feel in your body?  Where does your body feel numb, blank?  Where does it not exist?  And why does this body part cut you off, what might be the reason that it doesn’t want to be seen?  What are the hidden stories in our own bodies?


Show, Don’t Tell

One of creative writing’s most important maxim’s is “show, don’t tell” meaning if you can show a sentiment like sadness through action, description and dialogue, it is much better than telling us “it was sad.”  Luckily, we all experience human emotions in a similar way.  Sadness will often feel like a noose around our throats, especially when we are trying to choke it back.  Heartbreak really is felt in the center of our chests, and our jaws clench when we are holding back angry words.

Take some time out of your day to experience your emotions.  Remember a time when you felt joyful, content, funny, excited, thrilled, irritated, tense, uncomfortable, guilty, shameful, sad, angry, etc.  Try to recall the moment of the feeling as vividly as possible, but instead of focusing on words, thoughts, or mental images, pay attention to your body.  Where does this emotion physically manifest itself?  Take some time to experience this, then write down your observations.  (And don’t forget, if possible, to relax and release these tensions from your body!  The point of the exercise is to experience these sensations, not to trap and carry them around!)

The best kind of writing trusts the intelligence of the reader.  When we tell our readers the sentiments a character is feeling, and when we tell our readers how they should judge a particular situation, the joy of reading is considerably diminished.  The pleasure of reading comes from being an active participant, in being trusted to figure out what’s going on.  To be sure, by showing we run the risk of being misunderstood, of having a reader judge in a way that differs from what we intended.  But then again, that’s life!  Take a room full of people where each person is asked to recount the events of the previous hour:  do we ever really get the same story?  If we can be comfortable with this ambiguity in life, then we can become comfortable with it in our writing.  So show what a person is feeling by describing where it is felt in their body, rather than telling us their emotion.

Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
1)     Write a dialogue, real or imagined, with various parts of your body.  Feel free to turn these body parts into human characters, and notice how the joys and pains of our bodies can easily transform into personality traits of human beings.
2)      Show the emotions of a character by describing what happens in his/her body when he/she experiences them.  Try to be as specific as possible, and avoid telling what the actual emotion is.
3)      Combine 1) & 2) or write anything else that was inspired by reading this post!

Aim for 500 – 1000 words, as a guideline, and enjoy getting to know your body more deeply in the coming weeks!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Writing Seed 2: Tools to Grow a Story Draft

Wat Phu, Champasak, Laos, November 2004

The world tells us many stories, and the more capable we are of listening to these stories, the easier it becomes to tell our own.  In my own writing process, a story more often than not creates itself.  My role is to facilitate its creation, rather than to control it.  I begin with an idea, and the details are provided by the world around me.  A story for me is the fusion of inner imagination with the awareness of the incredible richness of our everyday world.

The points that follow are primarily suggestions.  I recognize that every writer is different, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.  Nonetheless, over the years of my own writing experience I have encountered several tools that seem to help, and by sharing them, I hope that they may be of use to you.

Start with a Focal Point

One of the most important factors in writing a good story is having a focal point, something into which you can channel your writing.  Without this, writing will tend to jump around and feel directionless, and it will be difficult to sustain the attention of the reader.  Therefore it is important to choose a problem or a conflict around which your story will be based.  Conflict is what drives a story, and without it, the reader will most likely lose the motivation to continue reading.  Try to present the conflict as early as possible in your story.  A good exercise to do is the try to sum up the conflict or problem of your story in one line.  You do not necessarily need to know how the conflict will resolve when you decide on it, and in fact, in my own writing it is very rare that I know how a story will end when I begin it.

 To illustrate my own process:  A story I wrote several months ago began with an idea that came to me in a conversation during a rideshare. The man sitting beside me talked about how bee populations all over the world are declining, and how detrimental this is considering that bees pollinate the trees that provide us with so many of our fruits.  So I thought, what if I write a story about a bunch of bees that disappear?  This was the starting idea.  At this point I had no idea what to do with it, but left it sitting in my mind for a few days, until something emerged.  I managed to sum up the core of the story in the following manner: A man is asked by a woman he loves to find 60,000 bees that have disappeared from her father’s hive. This was the core of my story, and it carried me through until the end.  A good core problem will bring up all sorts of leads to follow, even if you do not know where they are headed.  In this case, how is my character supposed to find bees that have disappeared?  Where did the bees go?  And what is his motivation to carry through with such a ridiculous notion?  Does he love this woman so much that he’d go looking about for a bunch of insects, with no clue how to track them?  And so on...  One sentence that presents the core problem or conflict of the story will give you a focus, a place to go back to if you are getting lost.  It will help your story grow, and all you need to do is follow it where it takes you.

Visualization & Recall Writing

When you have come up with your idea (and either before or after you have written your one sentence), let the idea incubate in your mind.  Don’t begin writing right away.  Mull the idea over on occasion, but don’t obsess over it.  Think about it a little, then let it go.  Go on with your day-to-day life.  At times, begin to visualize what might happen in your story.  Who are the characters? What do they look like? Where is this taking place? What are a few lines of dialogue that might be spoken? What’s an event that happens somewhere along the way?  Don’t necessarily answer these questions rationally, but simply daydream.  Remain receptive to the ideas that your mind will begin to offer you and continue to visualize.  In my experience, when I am able to visualize a story, it becomes far, far easier to write than if I only think about it.  The visuals are transformed into words almost of their own accord, and hopefully the words become visuals again when a reader is engaged with the storyline.


If you have trouble visualizing (or even if you don’t), try to do the following:  Take twenty to thirty minutes in your day, and begin to recall something that happened within the last twenty-four hours.  Write this down, without any regard to spelling or grammar.  Just write.  Recall as much detail as you possibly can.  Who was involved? What were they wearing? What was their face expression or body language? What sort of personality quirks do they have?  How is their reaction to a situation different and unique from your own?  What was said? Where were you?  What were the colours of the walls around you? Was there artwork?  What was the temperature?  Where you comfortable?  What did you feel?  Remark absolutely anything and everything that you can recall from any recent memory.  When you do this, you will notice two things.  First, not only will you notice what enters your awareness in any given situation, but you will also become more aware of what you don’t notice, where the gaps in your awareness are (what was the other person wearing? What were their facial expressions?).  Noticing this will help you fill these gaps; it will help you remain more present in future interactions.  Second, most certainly you will be visualizing when you do this, and you will notice how easily you can translate that visualization into words.  With memories this is easy, and it helps us practice the skill we need to write stories.  If we can then begin to see our stories, then our readers will also be able to see them.  Our words will become dancing visuals alive in the reader’s mind.

Recall writing also has another benefit for me:  it has me recognize the amazing richness of everyday life.  There are so many small details in every moment that it is absolutely impossible to capture them all in writing, even if I tried.  What’s more, it helps me see each person’s personality and viewpoint with a kind of wonder.  It makes me understand that life provides far more interesting characters than my imagination does.  I am beginning to recognize how powerfully creative life is, and that it is something I can never hope to match.  But by watching, by being aware, and by remembering and appreciating, we can learn a little of that ability to make details interesting and to create imaginative characters that are unique in their own ways.

Last but not least, recall writing helps me fill in the details to my stories.  Often I come up with a story idea, and it is life that fills in the rest.  I provide the intention, and the details are worked out by the world, and all I have to do is pay attention.   For example, when I last visited my mother she commented on a burning candle, saying “If I burn the house down accidentally, now that would be something!” which morphed into a character who burnt down his own house in order to get some attention from his neglectful children.  For a late-night run by a park, I received the setting for a story.  Listening to a song, I was inspired to express my narrator’s longing for the woman he loved as, “I thought of all the places of her face that I’d never kissed.”  The details are there, if we are willing to pick them up!


While the world provides a good chunk of what will enter our stories, there is also a component that comes from our own imagination, and in my experience this is best accessed by the same kind of stream-of-consciousness writing that happens in the “morning pages.”  If you have been practicing the daily morning-writing, this should come very easily.  After allowing your ideas to incubate for a time, and after having spent some time visualizing various components of your story, it is now time to write them down.  When you sit down to write, don’t worry how it comes out; just write absolutely everything that comes to mind, in whatever order. You do not need to begin at the beginning and write through to the end.  Oftentimes when I do this, I get disjointed scenes, a conversation here, and image there.  I just sit, and I write all of these things down. They do not need to be judged or analyzed at this point, that comes later.

In doing this I have often experienced resistance about halfway through my writing session. I know there is more in me to write, but despite this, I want to stop and do just about anything else.  If you can, do not give into this if you experience this resistance.  While I can’t be sure, my feeling is that this is my ego rearing its head, trying to get me to procrastinate because it is highly insecure and afraid of failure.  But in this kind of writing, there is no failure, you simply put on the page all you have in you.
You do not necessarily need to complete this in one sitting, but make sure you get out everything you have, even if it takes several sessions.


The final stage is of course tying together the disjointed bits with some sort of structure.  The story needs a beginning where the reader is introduced to the conflict that will carry the story through to its end.  In this stage you can critically assess your previous writing and figure out what works and what doesn’t, where there are gaps and how to fill them.  If there are large gaps, they can be filled by doing more free-writing.

I have no idea if this process will work for you as it does for me.  And the truth is, it doesn’t always work for me.  Nonetheless these are useful tools to use in creating a draft, and I encourage you to try them to see what they might provide you with.  Since I am absolutely fascinated by the creative process, I am also open to hearing how you go about writing, and what little tricks work for you. Please feel free to share at absolutely any time!

Best of luck, and enjoy the process!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Writing Seed 1: Grounding

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]

Granite rock, Yosemite National Park, USA, 2009

For the past two-and-a-half years I have followed a writing practice from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way: it involves writing three pages every morning as soon as I wake up.  The writing is stream-of-consciousness, so absolutely everything and anything that comes to mind:  the remnants of dreams, things I did yesterday, things I need to today, griping about what aggravates me about friends, lovers or coworkers, or the things that excite me, wishes I have, hopes I harbour.  If there is nothing to say, I write “I have nothing to say” for three pages, although, quite honestly, this never happens.  It’s a very simple practice, but also a very powerful one.  For writers, practicing stream-of-consciousness writing enables us to get past the inner critic that says, “What you’re writing is just no good.”  It helps us to go with the flow of words, and this yields, more often than not, all sorts of gems.  It also gets us in touch with ourselves, which is important since creativity is essentially an expression of who we are.  This writing practice has a grounding effect on our creative endeavours, just as it will have a grounding effect on our everyday lives.  It takes me about half an hour to write three pages each morning.  I strongly recommend that you engage in this practice. If you cannot write first thing in the morning, some other time of the day will do, although morning is best. There is no need to achieve anything with this writing, you simply write three pages of anything, and then you’re finished for the day. This is a recommendation, not a requirement.  It is up to you. 

Delight in Your Senses!

This week’s discussion is geared towards grounding ourselves in our bodies, in particular our sense organs.  Each day for the next two weeks take five to ten minutes and divide these up into five equal segments.  For one minute concentrate on everything you see around you: remark colours, shapes, visual textures.  For the next minute, close your eyes and focus on the sounds you hear around you: the creaking of the building, footsteps on the ground, traffic noise, the ticking of a clock.  Next become aware of touch: the fabric against your skin, your hands as they touch a glass or the keyboard or as they pet your cat.  Next, concentrate on the taste in your mouth: does the chocolate you ate still linger, are there remnants of coffee in your mouth, and concentrate especially on the way your food tastes when you eat it with full awareness.  Finally, notice the smells the surround you.  Begin by taking five minutes a day, or even several times a day, just to become aware of these sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells.  It is not necessary to write these down immediately, unless you feel inclined to do so.

Stories are told not in words but in sensations and it is the world around us that provides these sensations.  So in order to tell stories we need first to become aware of the world around us, and the sensations that it creates in us.  And just as a good story makes us feel something, physical sensations are also intimately connected to feelings.  Sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells – these are connected to emotions, feelings, and meanings that we experience in our lives.

After practicing these short periods of awareness for several days, begin to record them in writing.  Since good stories are composed of sensory details, it’s important to practice translating what we sense into actual words.  This need not be more than one or two sentences for each sense category per five minute session.

Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
  1. Write out one small paragraph for each category (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). Try to describe each as specifically as you can in a short space.  You can choose either the favourites of those you encountered or recorded during the two weeks, or pick imagined sensations.  Feel free to write from any point of view you wish (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person perspective).
  2. Pick only one of the five categories and write a more in-depth description with as much significant detail as possible. 
  3. For more of a challenge, complete 1) or 2) but try to link the sensation to a particular emotion, feeling or meaning that the narrator is experiencing.  Try to do this without overtly telling us about a feeling, but rather by evoking the feeling through the words used in the description. 
  4.  Write anything you like.  If working with this concept of the five senses leads you to write something that doesn’t fit into the above categories, go for it.  The point of these exercises is to provide a structure within with your creativity can express itself, but that doesn’t mean that we want to limit it!  Follow the flow where it wants to take you.
Aim for 500 to 1000 words, but consider this more of a guideline rather than a strict limit.  If you are working together with other people, pick a day on which to share and comment on each others' writing!