Lesson

Fear and Writing in New Mexico

I had a longer post for today. About facing your fears.   I think it had a lot to do with my MFA program where there were many things I was surprised about, but the main one that we were a group of people who came together to write, yet people were afraid to try new things. I thought it was the perfect time, three years to explore the craft, to learn and try new things, to explore everything about writing. But no, there was a prescribed way of writing that people subscribed too and the more I fought to explore, the more alienated I became. I was called into meetings with professors, called a ‘maverick’ and trouble maker out of one side of his mouth, while out of the other a professor said that’s what will make me the one who makes it as a writer. But in the meantime, he wanted nothing to do with me, boat rocker that I was, because he couldn’t understand my evolution. Some of my fellow students (mainly the fiction writers, not the poets, thankfully.) saw this and decided to avoid me as well, writing notes on my stories not that the story was weird, but that I was.   They exiled me from the fiction ‘clique.’

And that was a good thing.

Because I think to grow in your art you have to not be afraid of it. To grow in life you have to not be afraid of it.

It’s so easily, especially in writing, to become isolated and afraid. To sit there and look out a window and say you’re writing the world so don’t need to be part of it. It’s so tempting to not engage in anything new because ‘this works for me.’

And there’s nothing wrong with finding your style, with sticking with your style. I have a style I write.  But there’s something I don’t buy about staying static.  About being a writer who isn’t curious.

Because, see, to grow- both in art and life- I think you need to see what you’re afraid of and then face it. You need to push past where you’re comfortable. You need to not create thinking about the negative people will say, but letting things happen. Show your characters, and yourself in all their glory.  And always seek out something new.  Always explore.

That’s my writerly suggestion for the week. Do something in life you’re scared of, even if that’s a social situation or talking to a stranger. Maybe it’s an exercise class (those on Facebook got a blurb about a Pilates class I took at a trapeze school this week, oh the pain in that one).

Write something that makes you shake as you type.

Then come and tell me how it went.

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On Taking Your Time

I believe in a meditative writing practice. By meditative I mean slowing things down. We live in a fast paced world, but the world has always been fast, just in different ways. If there is time to be taken, others will take it from you. When I was teaching my med students they articulated this very clearly. They were arguing over the length of an assignment, and finally one said, “Professor Chase, if we don’t fight for our time, who will?”

Writers need to fight for their time in every sense of the word. If it isn’t family its work or the weather or mental state or any number of things out there that struggle to take you away from your passion. At the same time, if as a writer you haven’t learned to listen and see the world, it is tougher to write of it. It’s easy enough to hear things, we’re bombarded with voices telling us what do buy, who to be, etc, but what about truly listening to what’s out there, not all that surface noise?

An assignment I’ve given in the past is to choose a day off, grab a notebook and pen, and take the entire route of a local bus. Take notes on anything that seems of interest to you. Watch what’s going on around you. Listen in on conversations and truly hear what people talk about.   Ditch the iPod and cell phone, but don’t be afraid to engage with others who sit next to you. Writers aren’t magical gods outside of humanity, just observing and playing God with language–we’re part of it. We hold up mirrors to the world and, even scarier, to ourselves. If we can’t see who we are, how are we expected to see others?

Don’t be afraid of not writing full sentences, either, when taking your notes. Simple notes such as “cat sitting on fence above ‘beware of dog sign'” or “man with chainsaw” are enough to jog your memory later. You know you and what information needs to go down.

So here’s my challenge: take the bus. Just for one day. Let it loop around. Tell me what notes you take and conversations you had, if any. Slow down and enjoy being a writer.

On Lingering

One of the things I always tell my students is to linger in their writing.  In fact, one lesson is devoted to the art of lingering.  What is lingering?  Allowing yourself to stay in the moment, as it were, as a writer.  To stay on an image, an idea, in scene, for a longer time than you may feel comfortable with and allow yourself to really explore it.  To not turn away.  I have had my students write two pages on whatever they decide to linger on.  Once I gave them all links to random Wikipedia pages and they had to linger on things like Elephants, Amazonian lilypads, and other random things.  Sometimes, depending on the class, I have had them sit outside and write about what they see.  Once, they had to sit outside for fifteen minutes with their eyes closed and then write two pages about the experience.  It got really interesting results especially in this day of constant interruptions and connectivity.  I had to answer a note from a parent that yes, that was their daughter’s homework.

I think it’s important for artists to be able to stay in one place.  You can always edit down, but the longer you examine something the more fascinating and important it can be come.  Don’t give anything short thrift.

I hope to post some of my own lingerings as the blog progressions, just snapshots of staying in the moment.

With that being said, er, written, here is one such moment, albeit shorter than I’d make my students write:

 On The Bus

I watched a beetle crawl on a man.  The beetle was small, maybe fingernail sized at best (and I bite my nails), dusty black with red markings.  It was a kind of milkweed beetle I see all over town on the sidewalks and plants.  The man and I both had our heads turned, watching the rain dripping down the outside of the bus window, the interior fogging with our breath.  It seemed lonely, this existence of us on the bus not talking, staring out at a world blurred by our own breathing.  I thought of alerting the man to the beetle walking around on the back of his jacket, of tapping him on the shoulder, invading the moment with speech and touch.  Each time I was about to break the perimeter the beetle crawled around front.  I thought for sure he’d notice, just as I was noticing the slight dirt in the creases of the back of his neck, the way specks of gray were already showing in his cropped black hair.  But when I was about to the bug crawled back, thread-like legs moving with fierce insect determination.  I fancied the tiny creature his pet, tethered by an invisible leash long enough to let it crawl around his shoulders but nothing more.  Then I watched, transfixed, while the bug squatted (who knew something so tiny could squat!) and voided brown pointillism between his shoulder blades.  It was just three dots, one after another.  I marveled at this turn of events, for while I had heard of dung beetles, I never thought of dung coming from beetles.

The stop signal rang, the bus hissed, the doors opened, and it was time for me to enter the rain and walk the rest of the way home.