Sunday, June 30, 2013

Afterthought #17 – Word Count

That work on my thesis last semester (Two Down, One to Go)?   It paid off.  Here’s where I started in January:

By the end of the semester, I was here:

Yesterday, I took my thumb drive to Paper, Scissors on the Rock, the local office supply shop, and watched the printer churn out the sheets—a complete draft of Hiking Naked­—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance; Prologue through Chapter 20; 241 pages; 68,645 words.

If I’d kept track of all the words I wrote, cut, then re-wrote, well, the count would be about double.  And then there’s the revising and editing yet to do—thousands more words.  But for now, I’m pausing to relish this step: 68,645 down, ???? to go.

Beginning in January 2012, I instituted posting an “Afterthought” on the last day of each month, fashioned after a practice in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, some groups continue in silence for a few more minutes during which members are invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Down, One to Go

Last month I finished the spring semester of my second year in the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’m on the three-year plan, on track to graduate one year from now.

This semester was the most demanding yet.  I took my first poetry course­—Craft of Poetry—which I compared to studying a foreign language (see Beginning Again, January 2013). I also signed up for five thesis credits, which required me to work diligently on my memoir manuscript. The workload was heavy:  reading, analyzing, and discussing at least a dozen poems each week; writing a poem a week and critiquing poems of my classmates; writing or revising a memoir chapter each week. No wonder my primary ambitions right now are to work crossword puzzles and sleep.

Friends have asked me if I’m glad that I’m in this program and what I’ve learned by going back to school.  To the first question, even on the most challenging days, I answer a wholehearted, “Yes.”   The answer to the second question is harder to quantify, but here’s some of what I’ve learned these past two years.

  • Narrative nonfiction is an art and a craft that draws on skills and techniques in structure, dialogue, scenes, character development, setting, and reflection. I’m studying the theory and honing my own skill through practice and experimentation.
  •  Practice and experimentation yield the best results with time and commitment to pen on paper, fingers on keyboard.
  •  Reading, particularly directed reading that includes analysis of craft techniques, is building my writer’s toolbox.  I’ve gained many tools by reading memoirs, essays, and short works in fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry.
  •  Deadlines (either self- or teacher-imposed) motivate me, especially on days I question the value of my writing or feel pulled to other responsibilities—or pleasures.
  •  Reading and writing poetry and fiction help my nonfiction writing.
  • The writing profession requires promotion, networking, collaboration, and continuing education.

This next year will bring more learning, more experimentation, and more deadlines.  In the fall I’ll be in a nonfiction workshop—writing and revising new pieces as well as my memoir, reading and critiquing writing of classmates—and a course in literary journalism. That second course is a new one offered by nonfiction teacher Larry Cheek who describes how literary journalism, also known as narrative nonfiction, “…blends journalistic capture of events and personalities with narrative technique and style once assumed to be the domain of fiction.”  Along with Larry and four other students, I’ll be reading and analyzing work by, among others, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and the first writer in this genre, George Orwell. Should be an enlightening return to my first love­—journalism.

Until I start that one more year to go, though, I’ll be reading more poetry (for fun) and maybe a novel or two, making my way through a stack of crossword puzzles, and catching up on some sleep.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Get a Really Nice Journal

Author Amy Tan  gave a lecture in Seattle last week; I sat in a nearly sold-out auditorium to hear her talk about her writing process and who she is as a writer.

I didn’t know whether to feel reassured or discouraged when she said, “I revise constantly—usually 100 times,” and “I’ve never written a novel I consider to be finished.”

Tan spoke my mind with, “What I observe becomes what I’m writing, and what I’m writing influences what I observe,” and “I write to understand who I am.”

I especially appreciated the response she gave to a teacher’s question about what advice she would give to young readers.

“Read, read, read,” Tam said. “And keep a journal.”  Tan spoke about the value of making notes about your thoughts, your observations, dreams, and memories.  “In fact,” she went on, “make someone buy you a really nice journal.”

I did a mental pump fist with that last recommendation.  I had been putting the final touches on a limited edition set of hand-bound writing journals for a show at Chimera Gallery, and I was hoping that people would find them inspiring.  They’re really nice journals. 

Even more than hearing Tan’s support of journals like those that I make, I appreciated her acknowledgment of the act of putting pen to paper.  Although I do most of my composing, revising, and editing on a computer (and frankly wouldn’t want to have to give up this invention), I appreciate the benefits of writing longhand in a blank journal. 

Long before people had computers, journaling was a part of Quaker practice.  In 1972, Howard Brinton published Quaker Journals following his study of the 300 journals in his own library.  He found they all had several things in common:  simplicity and truth in writing; personal experiences, experiences in early childhood, and dreams were only written about if the writer believed they had religious significance; humility.  He also found they recorded similar stages of development:  divine revelations in childhood, then a period of youthful playfulness (usually looked back upon as a waste of time), an experience of a divided self, and finally following the leadings of the Light.

Mary Morrison, a writer and former Pendle Hill teacher, has this to say about journaling in Live the Questions:  Write into the Answers:  “A journal is an instrument of awareness, through which we can watch what we do so we can find out who we are.” Amy Tan would agree.

And from Ann Broyles in Journaling – A Spiritual Journey:  “Journaling becomes spiritual discipline when we use pen and paper to strengthen our faith in God. We can use journaling as a companion to prayer, Bible study, fasting, or any other spiritual discipline that is already part of our life in God. Journaling can be a significant tool in deepening our spiritual lives because by its nature it leads us to further revelation of who we are and who God is in our lives.”

How about you?  Is journaling part of your writing and/or spiritual practice? 

Do you have a really good journal?