I’m in the middle of teaching a ten week course called “Writing the Healing Story” at UCLA Extension plus conducting the monthly writing workshop at the Wellness Community in Redondo Beach. I swear a certain kind of person takes a creative writing course or signs up for a workshop. I don’t mean to generalize, but I find my students curious, generous and honest to a degree that isn’t shall we say typical of LA.
I love to teach and I love my students. Basically I just stand on the sidelines and act like a cheerleader, or sometimes the biggest nag in the world (like to Alan who started a wonderful essay in class years ago about hauling his paperwork in a big plastic bag to a motel for the night to deal with once and for all – and every time I see him I ask him, Have you sent out that essay yet?) In any event, teaching writing isn’t like teaching Latin or chemistry or auto mechanics. I mean there aren’t a whole lot of rules and regulations you need to give out. About all you can really do is give inspiring examples of published writing, be very specific about what’s good in a student’s work (usually they don’t know) and what could be taken out or reworked. Then just cheer them on.
Monica came to class off and on for a number of years, and along with her hilarious and heartbreaking stories, she also brought her energy and humor and total off-the-wall vulnerability and anxiety about her writing. The only thing the class and I could say when she read was, “Keep going, Monica. Just keep writing.”
And she did. This year she had an essay published in The Mommy Wars, and an article in a parenting magazine. And in March 2007 her memoir, Driving With Dead People, will be published by Simon & Schuster under her pen name of Monica Holloway. I just read the galleys and it’s wonderful – funny and heartbreaking. All those bits and pieces she wrote in class have come together in a book that’s going to be a huge success when it’s published. She’s writing about hard issues, painful stuff, and it reads like a good mystery – the kind of book you stay up all night reading because you love the heroine so much you want to make sure she ends up okay. She’s the only writer I know who can make the near slaughter of a family of bunnies absolutely hilarious.
One of my new students talked to me the first day of class – “What am I going to write about?” She honestly believed she had nothing to write about. And then in a writing exercise she wrote “My mother is going blind….”
This is the thing about writing exercises: they can help you discover your own material, surprise you with your own life.
I’m curious: do you know the story you have to write? Or are you searching for it, aware you have to write something but your material is still a jumble of stuff you haven’t sorted out yet.
To Do: Here are some 5 minute writing exercises we did in the Wellness Community workshop yesterday:
Write about the pains and pleasures of the past month. (We start the workshop every month with this exercise.)
Write about losses
Write about gratitude
(The loss and gratitude exercises were written after we read a paragraph from Andre Dubus's beautiful essay "Broken Vessels" that includes these lines: "...we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.")