“How’d You Come Up With Stuff?”

This is the second post in our series of creative writing workshop recaps. Heather Hasselle led our workshop on short-fiction writing on May 10 at White Light Studio.

Short Answer: We’ve been watching. 

Long answer: Writers don’t make this shit up. It’s out there. It’s in us. It’s real. We’ve just been watching and listening, really closely. 

After my first “Intro to Drawing” class, I realized that to be able to draw something accurately, you had to really know what that thing looked like. Which meant you had to look at it a long, long time, even if that thing was a just a BASKET OF FRUIT. You had to look and draw and look and draw, and still even then, it didn’t always turn out exactly like what was in front of you (me), but it was a hell of a lot better than if you tried to draw it while looking at a blank wall, with nothing but a vague memory of the shape of an apple. 

Writing is the same deal. Fiction is not pulled out of thin air like a fly ball (SPORTS METAPHOR). It isn’t fake, or made-up. It’s true. And even if the events in your stories didn’t “actually happen,” what you’re writing holds truth, especially if you’ve looked at the basket of fruit, AKA: The World, long enough and closely enough. If you’ve been observing and listening, understanding and empathizing; if you are aware of yourself and of others, and of all that is around us, going on in this bizarre and horrible and wonderful way. 

It’s just a matter of looking closely and drawing what you see. Then you’re free to add the flourishes; you can slap some glitter on those apples or make your bananas blue, but what’s there is still recognizable. And hopefully, through your rendering and with your additions, what is familiar will be seen in a new light, but a light that still feels real. We are convinced we’ve seen a blue banana, and if we haven’t before, we have now.

As writers, we can only hope that our “fictional” stories ring true in the hearts of our readers, making them say, damn that is the truth!

Tips on Looking Closely at “The Basket of Fruit”

Keep a tiny notebook of tiny details. Anything that lights your brain up—that woman’s hair in the line at the post office, the raindrops adhered to a spider web hanging on the gas pump, a line of dialogue you overheard at the coffee shop. Write down all the beautiful and strange details, all the little parts of this weird world. Then, when you’re writing a story, and you find yourself (or your character) at a gas station, you’ll remember that spider web. You get to use that brain-lighting-up image/sound/thing and it’s wonderful and you didn’t make it up and it found a place in a different world. Your world. And now, hopefully, it’ll give all those readers that same jolt-in-the-heart it gave you. 

Another thing discussed in workshop (letting free the wild rumpus): 

Once you start writing and what you’ve written has reminded you of something else, write that down, too. Let it all unravel, and later, you can go back and edit. But when you first begin, it’s more than okay (preferable, really) for it to be reckless and wild.

RECKLESS and WILD, WE SAY!

Exquisite Corpse Results

Below is the result of the exquisite corpse writing activity from our showcase at Friends & Neighbors on May 24. Exquisite Corpse is a collaborative writing game where each person can only view the last line written. It's interesting that the beginning and end themes of this piece tie together! Comment below if you have an idea for a title! 

I’ve traveled each and every highway,

through it all when there was doubt

Ad woo-ee that’s a lot of highways. That’s why I’m 93 and

my feet are covered in bunions. And I love Funyons. Fun yuns. Fun-yuns.

Fun and yun and are young fair for bonbon. Tripping a trap to figure out what

all that means, squirrels and shit to eat, I guess … But what to use as hair?

I’ll take the moss from the moist ground and cover my bare bones, the syrup from the trees

will keep it in place long enough, long enough to say something thoughtful, thoughtful

enough so that one day someone might quote me on one of those awesome inspirational

quote websites.

I also hope that I keep it, but not so long that it’s forgotten about.

These are the thoughts I have before I snap back to present time. Fully aware.

Lucid Dreaming makes me afraid to fall asleep. I have all the 

control but none at all too. Last night we were in a shop. I

was asleep but I was awake. The 1st Mate called down to the

hole, yelling for me to come up to the deck. When I was on top

the waves were eating the ship and the sails slapped the

mast.

I couldn’t breathe it was like they were taking the words from

me and all that was left was my breakfast. Toast for

breakfast! The toastest with the mostest! Toast your health,

toast your mother, toast each meal you got cus it’s pretty

cool you got to eat every day—good thing robots don’t need to

since they will be the dominant paradigm pretty soon …

Unless that Facebook founder guy saves us all from the Terminator-apocalypse-come-true,

but then, I guess that would reign in a new *Facebook era*—but one characterized 

not by (virtual) books and not by faces … 

But honestly and truly, this is not to be rude, but

does Mark Zuckerberg even lift?

I asked my Lyft driver, but he just turned the air down (or was it up?),

and I turned up Air Bud on my iPad

in the front seat

I touched myself

I tried to do it subtly

I’ve never been able to do anything subtly

I am loud and raucous and knocking knees into things, all the time.

I can’t help but breathe deep each time a stranger passes me. Call it loneliness, but today I

caught the scent of the most delicious man—he was 50.

His flesh sagged, love handles settled into his body, comfortable. I wanted to claw at them,

hungry

When there was doubt, drugs surprised my restlessness as I sat for hours staring through

tinted windows.

Music blared as I passed through each city.

and there was hella traffic, each way.

Demystifying the Writing Process

This is the first post in our series of workshop recaps. Hala Herbley led our workshop on process-oriented writing on May 3 at White Light Studio.

When I was asked to do a workshop on the writing process, I jumped at the idea. One of the best ways to become a better writer is to talk about it—to demystify the process so that it becomes transparent and approachable. So often the act of writing feels like something shrouded in mystery and secrecy, like some kind of alchemical, mystical process that only the truly talented know how to undertake. So I basically wanted to call bullshit on that whole idea. 

The main thing to remember is that writing is difficult and time-consuming for everyone. Whoever says otherwise is lying or putting up a front—or they don’t realize that their writing sucks. Romantic notions of genius won’t help you get words on the page, and furthermore, it’s masculinist bullshit. 

The best writing I’ve done, and read, has been the result of a time-consuming and largely collaborative process. The single author’s name on the title page is often there by virtue of the many other writers who have helped the author brainstorm, revise, and edit their project. That’s why it’s important that writers talk to and support each other as part of a practice where writing is just as much part of the process as it is the final product. 

The idea that one has to produce “good writing” and nothing else has always led, for me, to paralysis. It helps me to remember that good writing is, at base, writing that is appropriate to its audience. Ideally, it’s writing that is both appropriate to and that challenges that audience. This isn’t easy—you have to know your audience and have a good idea of the expectations of the form or genre you’re working within. But thinking of good writing as “effective” writing, rather than some platonic ideal of “good writing,” always helps me freeze up a little less. 

Some Common Problems

One of the most common complaints I hear is not knowing how to start. Mainly, it’s important to get something, anything really, on the page. To do this, I always have to remind myself that the first draft of pretty much anything I write is going to be shitty, and that that’s normal and expected. Nothing comes out perfectly at first, and why would it? We mostly don’t think or talk in beautiful, musical, grammatically correct sentences, so it makes sense that a first draft wouldn’t come out that way. Revision has always been the bulk of my process. Most importantly, once you have something there, you have something you can work on, revise, play around with. But getting something on the page can still be tricky. Here are a couple of applications I’ve used to help me do that. 

There’s also the kind of block that happens when you’re in the middle of writing and you hit a wall. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the writing I’ve done and don’t know where to start editing or what to do next. In that situation, organizing and sorting all the pieces of writing that you have can help. The following are both software programs that you do have to purchase, though I think both offer free trial periods: 

  • Scrivener: This is a basic organization tool that functions kind of like a binder with separate tabs so you can organize writing by idea, chronological sections, or whatever you choose. (Their other product, Scapple, looks super interesting too.)
  • Ulysses: This one allows you to create different pages/sections and to organize them through a tagging system, too, so that you can organize and re-organize according to different ideas or themes. 

While those two tools are good for conceptualizing structure at a global level, I’ve used WorkFlowy on a smaller scale to help me structure my writing into clear paragraphs that flow well internally. This is actually a to-do list app, but the way that it allows you to make bulleted lists with smaller “sub” lists also works really well for outlining, I find. And you can use it as a to-do list tool too!

Making writing part of a daily practice rather than something you do only when “the muse” (another bullshit writing myth) pays a visit also makes it easier to get over writing paralysis. I’ve always found that using something like Morning Pages makes it easier for me to feel okay with producing “bad” writing. It can also help me clear my mind by enabling me to get all the insecure crap out of my head. mytomatoes.com is a super useful tool that helps me focus by breaking up working time into 25 minute blocks, and incentivizes working by rewarding you with a break once you finish a block of time, or a “tomato.” I also really like how it allows you to catalogue what you’ve already done, so that when you feel like you haven’t done anything all day, you can look back and have “proof” that you actually have been working. Similarly, something like KanbanFlow is good for managing large projects, and has its own pomodoro timer built in. 

The last thing to remember is that many women have their own particular burden when learning how to express themselves clearly and directly, and that’s the fact that women are generally socialized to turn their thoughts and feelings inward rather than expressing them and sending them out into the world. This tendency can manifest at the most basic level, influencing what words we use and what form our writing takes. An old advisor of mine used to call it “feminine undercutting” when I phrased my own writing in such a way as to call undermine my own authority. So, for example, in a persuasive paper I might have written something like “The nineteenth century novel may have been the most important social development of that era” when what I really wanted to argue was that “the nineteenth century novel was immensely important for the social movements of the era.” Use qualifiers and conditionals, but use them deliberately. Use passive voice, but use it deliberately. Become both a generous, kind and observant and critical reader of your own writing, and above all, rely on each other for support, both intellectual and emotional.