Thursday, April 28, 2011

Writing Seed 6: Depth

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

Cathedral Lakes Provincial Park, BC, 2010 - Photo by Jordan Rapley
You are thirsty.  More than anything, you want water – a bucket, a cup, or even just a drop.  You find a shovel and begin to dig, knowing that there is water somewhere in the ground.  You’re digging deeper, you’re up to your waist in your hole, but the work gets harder.  The ground is tougher, and the dirt has to be lifted higher.  Doubts assail you.  Perhaps this isn’t the right spot.  So you climb out, find another spot, and begin to dig there.  Working hard is making you even thirstier, and you feel frenzied to find that water.  Soon you are up to your chest in this new pit, but the doubts come back—what if you are still not in the right spot—and so you climb back out and find another place to dig.  You repeat this dozens of time, digging, giving up, digging somewhere else.  Soon your surroundings are dotted with holes of different sizes.  Once you dig so far that you are entirely submerged, and your feelings oscillate between self-inflation “Look at how nicely I’m digging!” and self-pity “Why isn’t all this digging getting me anywhere?”  Your shovel breaks, and you are forced to toss it away.  You begin to dig with your hands.  You knuckles are bloody and bruised, but your thirst drives you on.  The further you go, the harder it seems to get.  But what else is there to do?

If we want to find water—which is really just a metaphor for that which we most deeply desire—we need to pick a spot, start digging, and stick with it.  This is much more effective than running around digging one shallow hole here and another one there.  This assignment, I hope, will carry us deeper into ourselves, our lives, and into our writing.



In living as well as in writing we have choices: we can remain comfortable with what we can do and remain at the surface of our ability, or we can begin to dig, to penetrate, to get to a place more profound.  Creativity (as I keep saying) comes from who we are, and the deeper we are in touch with ourselves, the more deeply we can get in touch with our creativity.  Simultaneously, the deeper you go into writing or any other pursuit, the deeper you will go into yourself.

Dante Alighieri wrong his epic poem the Divine Comedy in the thirteen years leading up to his death in 1321.  For thirteen years he laboured at the work that showed a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, an allegorical tale mapping the soul’s journey towards God. For Dante, God was water, and he was willing to dig for thirteen years, to go through ‘Inferno’ (which in Italian means ‘hell’) to complete his work.  I find it interesting that upon completion of the Divine Comedy, he died.  Did he find God?

For our purposes here, how do we know that we’re penetrating deep? The answer is simple:  whatever we’re doing will become challenging.  Our shovel might break. Our hands get cut. Our knuckles are bloody and bruised.  Little demons appear, saying “You’re not good enough, don’t even try to go any further” or, “What are people going to think of this?” or even, “What lies beyond here is dangerous, better to around.”  When this happens, you know you are on the right track.  And strangely enough, we can begin to see the demons as our friends: they are actually trying to protect us from failure and disappointment, not realizing that by doing so they are also keeping us from success.  And if they don’t come, we can take it as encouragement that we can go much, much further, that there is so much more to tap into!  Indeed, anything worthwhile in life will bring us face to face with challenges – whether it be entering into a meaningful relationship, living in a foreign country or deepening our creative works.  These challenges further deepen our connection with ourselves, for through them we learn how we react and deal with complications.  Without challenges, we might never learn what we are capable of accomplishing!


One Last Sentence

Sol Stein, an editor that has worked with many best-selling authors, has devised an exercise that helps us get in touch with our own individual originality.  He calls it a “high-risk” and “high-gain” experiment.  It doesn’t take much time, and yet a lot of resistance can emerge in attempting it.  It is worth reproducing here at length:

I ask you to imagine yourself on a rooftop, the townspeople assembled below.  You are allowed to shout down one last sentence.  It is the sentence that the world will remember you by forever.  If you say it loud enough, everyone in the world will hear you, no matter where they are.  Think of shouting the sentence, even if you seldom shout.  What one ting are you going to say?  If you’d like to try that exercise now, write down the sentence.

Is your sentence one that could have been said by any person you know? If so, revise it until you are convinced no one else could have said that sentence.

When you’ve reworked your original sentence, consider these additional questions:  Is your sentence outrageous?  Could it be? Is your sentence a question? Would it be stronger as a question?

Make whatever changes you like. I have still more questions:  Would the crowd below cheer your sentence? Can you revise it to give them something they’d want to cheer?

As you can see, I am asking question after question to help you strengthen and individualize your sentence.  I continue:  Suppose the person you most love in all the world were to strongly disagree with your sentence.  Can you answer his or her disagreement in a second sentence?  Please add it.

Some writers will try to get out of further work by saying that their loved one would agree with the sentence.  People have different scripts.  If your sentence is original, the chances of another person – even your closest loved one – agreeing with it without the slightest exception is extremely unlikely.

When you’ve done that, you now have the option of choosing one or the other sentence.  There may be value in combing and condensing them

Finished? Now imagine that you look down and see that the crowd below you is gone.  You see only one person, your greatest enemy, who says, “I didn’t hear you. Would you repeat that?”

It is a fact that given one last sentence, addressing one’s enemy can light up the imagination more than an anonymous crowd can.  You don’t want to give your enemy the last word or let him respond in a way that would demolish what you’ve said. Can you alter your sentence so that you statement will be enemy proof?

This, of course, continues the exercise with one of its most difficult phases, creating an original sentence that is strong and to the best of the writer’s ability, seemingly incontrovertible.

Suppose you found out that the only way to get your message across would be if you whispered your sentence. How would you revise it so that it would be suitable for whispering?

It isn’t always easy to change a shouted sentence to one that can be whispered and heard, but it sometimes produces intriguing results and shows how the intent to whisper can produce words that are stronger than shouted words.

Try to compare your sentences now, and see how far they have come from that very first statement.  For myself, it took me an entire year after first encountering exercise to actually try it, but when I did, the results were really interesting.  Stein writes, “My experience has been that often the first run of this exercise will direct you to a theme or expression of a theme that is uniquely yours.”  This is exactly what it did for me.  It brought me to the place that drives my desires, my actions, and the things I want to do with my life.  It is necessary for us to find this uniqueness, because from this source springs our world of originality, and if we want to produce something original, we must dive into this place and write from there. 


Towards the end of the two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
  1. Write something—a word—at the top of a page, and write everything you know about this word.  Then write everything you don’t know about this word.  For those things you don’t know, fabricate, use your imagination to fill whatever object, person or concept you may have chosen.  The point is not to do research, but look within your own creative imagination to fill this object with as much creative colour as you can muster.  An entire story can be written in this way, simply by contemplating one word consistently and patiently.  [For anyone who has read “Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, recall the pack of Camel cigarettes, which grows to such profound mystery and meaning in a very short time span!]
  2. Consider that objects have a history, and a point of view.  A shoe has been assembled from materials that come from all over the world, has been manufactured in a factory in one country, shipping to be sold in another, worn by someone, perhaps thrown out, found by somebody else, perhaps recycled into something else.  Every object in life has this kind of history.  A tree, despite its rootedness, has seen hundreds of people pass, has watched the change in the landscape, has weathered all the storms and breathed in all the sunshine.  Nothing is without depth, if we are willing to see into this.  Begin to see the objects in your writing with this kind of depth.  A story can be told from the point of view of a person, but here I ask you to try instead to tell a story from the point of view of an object. 
  3. Feel free that write anything that this assignment has inspired.
500 - 1000 words, as a guideline.  Have fun digging!


  1. I remember the significance of the cigarette pack pyramid. I really enjoyed this reading this post, and it already sparked so many ideas. Thanks. I'd love to join a workshop, but how about August? Are you considering running one then?

  2. Hey Jen! Glad you enjoyed it... as for future workshops, I'd like to run them, but planning for the future has never been my forte, so I'll say everything is up in the air, and I'll know when the time comes! :) Nice to hear from you... and I hope all is well!