Saturday, July 16, 2005

Getting It On the Page

"Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice." -- Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

I referred to Goldberg's quote the other day in response to a question in my free-writing group: "Why should I write about marbles and umbrellas when they don't relate to the project I'm working on?"

Same reason football players do pushups and run through tires even though neither is part of the actual game. It's about exercising the muscles. It's about picking up a pen and dashing off a narrative on demand, as though to do so is the most natural thing in the world.

I facilitate a weekly free-writing group, patterned after one I attended at the Cambridge Women's Center, which took its cue from Goldberg's free-writing exercises. Unlike the critique groups I attend, this one is designed to simply get folks to write. Anything. Any way they can. We don't critique because we're all writing rough drafts, on the spot.

We throw out a topic and continue from there, usually for about 10 minutes. Goldberg's jumping-off points include starting with the words, "I remember...." Or starting with a line of poetry, what she calls "writing off the page." Or writing about your morning, or a place you love, or a leavetaking. Dorothy Randall Gray, in her book Soul Between The Lines, uses free-association on colors (red-letter day, "I saw red," paint the town red), elementals, etc., as jumping-off points. After we write, we read around the circle. The reading aloud is optional but it's very rare that someone chooses to remain silent.

I've plucked quotes out of Bartlett's. I've zoned in on something on our table (writing topic: "Coke Can") or pounced -- sometimes to folks' chagrin -- on something that's been said off the cuff. Every so often someone else tosses out a topic. Recently, one of our members brought in a simply adorable wooden treasure chest that fits in the palm of my hand and that holds dozens of cards on which she's brainstormed ideas. Hence "Marbles" and "Umbrellas".

One need not stay on topic. In free-writing you just write, even if it's, "Okay, what the heck do I write next?"

I haven't yet seen that line. What comes out of us are stories, each unique even though diverging from the same source. Hearing multiple perspectives is one of the perks of the group. As in Cambridge, sometimes the stories are powerful enough to move the writer and/or listeners to tears. More than a series of exercises, they become a bonding experience. (I met my sweetheart in the Cambridge group -- we'd spent a year sitting across the room from each other, writing and telling our stories along with everyone else.)

We haven't kept exactly to Goldberg's free-writing form ("don't pause," "don't cross out," "lose control," etc.). Sometimes one or another of us writes poetry in response to a prompt. Sometimes we invent fictional stories. One never knows quite what's going to come out. Unlike the Cambridge group (and by popular demand here), we have a weekly "take-home assignment," which tends to be more polished. Recently I polished one of mine further and submitted it to an e-zine that publishes "flash fiction," what I grew up knowing as "short-short stories." (It's also the first time I've submitted to an e-zine, as opposed to traditional print media.)

I was going to pull a card from the treasure chest for this week's take-home, but one of our members brought in some delectable Dove chocolates ("Chocolate" was last week's take-home assignment) and each heart-red foil wrapper bore a message inside. A member held one up: "Write a love letter."

I said, "Let's do that for next week. Could be a letter to anyone -- or to anything."

Inspiration abounds everywhere. In response to "Marbles," writings ranged from descriptions of the different types of marbles, to the nuances of playing the game and the excitement of long-ago urban gatherings, to the game itself as a metaphor for life.

My writing for "Marbles":

I grew up a collector, but a chaotic one. A bright blue pail held shells plucked from the beach at Coney Island. Not categorized, not named, just sitting in a growing pile that weighed down the pail all the more after each foray to the Atlantic.

My marble collection was the same way. I won nothing in any game, could not name the types of pretty balls. I only made repeated visits to the small novelty store around the corner -- first called Harnick's Happy House and then the more generic Hobbies and Toys, and plunked down my allowance for a small bag of them. I brought the bag home, tore through the plastic, upended the marbles into another pail.

Their colors dazzled me. I reached into the pile with both hands, steeped in smooth coolness. I listened to them clack against each other as I lifted my palms and let them drop between spread fingers. I hadn't a clue as to how to play marbles. This was my own game, one of unexpurgated accumulation, an embarrassment of riches.

Perhaps that is why I use electronic marbles on my Web site, along with round, ball-headed pins. I haven't collected those willy-nilly, but I do save pictures off the Web that I find intriguing. Sometimes I use them for writing exercises, for myself and for others. Sometimes I collage the images.

My mixed-media work uses other collections: ocean-smoothed glass, broken crockery washed up at low tide, pigeon feathers, and shells like those I'd kept in my blue pail and had probably, at some point, liberated back into the sea. My artwork is another game -- not blind accumulation but finding pattern and rhythm, and relinquishing my collected objects into a different form.

Words are my present-day marbles. I collect them, arrange and rearrange them, accumulate journal notebooks and three-ring binders, paper and printer cartridges. My computer becomes my pail. My life becomes a renewable cycle of collecting, arranging and rearranging, and giving away. Plunging my hands into cool, smooth concepts, or those more abrasive to the touch. Feeling them out, letting them run through mental fingers. Getting them down on the page. Collecting the pages and starting the cycle anew.

I don't remember what became of my old marbles -- whom I gave them to, where I let them spill. But I remember how it felt to have so many friends who warmed in my palm and glowed back at me like cats' eyes. The friends change. The magic stays the same.


Blogger Dave said...

I enjoyed the marbles essay a lot. I can't help thinking you've done it a bit of a disservice by burying it down here at the bottom of a post & not giving it a post of its own. Now you have me thinking of all my various childhood collections, & why I no longer feel the urge to accumulate things (or even words, really) just to enjoy having them with me.

8:27 AM  
Blogger twila said...

God, I love this place! I can't tell you how glad I am that I found you, or you found me or whatever. I really enjoy reading your work.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Natalie Goldberg and think I own every book she has written. I think blogging serves well for grist for the writing mill, but sometimes I feel like it takes so much time that I don't get to bigger writing projects. The blog is my writing outlet right now.

11:48 AM  
Blogger leslee said...

Great writing, Elissa. (Found you via Via Negativa.) Recently I've been getting inspired by the book "poemcrazy" by Susan Goldsmith Woolridge. Another collector of words - she finds them in magazines, cuts them out, and glues them onto admission tickets and attaches them to things. Interesting exercise, but time-consuming.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Kagemusha said...

I've had great success with Natalie's books both in my teaching and writing...

2:21 PM  

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