Friday, November 6, 2009

Three Aspects that Make Writing Healing--And Create Good Books

This past weekend I taught my trio of one-day workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One of them, the most difficult to teach and the most rewarding for me, is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing."

Twenty-eight writers of all skill levels, genres, and ages gathered in one of the Loft's beautiful classrooms for a day. We explored what made our writing go deep enough to be healing--for us as well as for a reader.

I've taught the class for about ten years, using ever-growing research about the healing effects of certain types of writing. James Pennebaker, from the U of Texas, Austin, launched my interest in this topic. He clued me into the amazing medical documentation on creative writing's benefit in reducing physical illness and emotional stress.

One of my favorite books on this subject is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo talks about Pennebaker's research and how important it is that writers use all three of the elements that make writing actually heal. I've journaled for years and was very interested in hearing that venting into my journal, for instance, doesn't have healing effects on me. It's good for processing, not healing.

To heal us and touch the reader, writing must have:

1. specific details (senses-rich images, rather than concepts)
2. how the writer or narrator felt about the event when it happened
3. how the writer or narrator feels about the event now

De Salvo cites the research of Pennebaker and others, noting that it is the combination of these three elements that makes writing a healing process. Not one alone, not even two.

In my workshop this weekend, writers asked themselves which of these three aspects they naturally favored. A person who writes about thoughts and feelings will use doorways #2 or #3 to enter her story--reflective, conceptual writing. The third aspect, specific image-rich detail, is the missing element. When it's added to the piece of writing, the magic happens. The writing becomes healing. Same with a writer who lists events and specific details with no trouble. But the missing element is the feeling, the "what does this mean to me?" analysis of the experience. Some writers believe that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to make it mean something to both writer and reader.

Why don't writers naturally incorporate all three aspects, giving themselves a healing boost from their own art?

Because it causes them to re-experience strong events, re-feel the strong feelings.

I wrote many times about my experience with cancer. I could reflect for pages on my feelings and thoughts about what happened. But it wasn't until I began to add the specific details--describe the room and the chair where I had chemotherapy, tell about the movie I went to each week as a treat to keep myself from throwing up too much, talk on the page about what it looked like when I lost my eyebrows--did I begin to heal.

This Week's Exercise
List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change. Pick one. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write about it as it comes, then read it over. Ask yourself which of these three doorways did you go through? See if you can fill in the missing aspects. Does it make the writing more healing for you?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beginning and Ending Chapters--Bookends You Can Work on First

My weekly book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center are wrapping up their six-week fall session this month. We're reviewing what we've learned about first and last chapters. In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts, bookends to keep a writer going forward with a book project.

Many writers start with outlines. An outline seems the best way to manage a huge project like a book. Outlines stall me. I use an outline, like I use notes cards and a writing notebook, but outlines can't form the basic structure of my book. It becomes too linear, too predictable. If it doesn't surprise me, it won't surprise the reader.

I use islands to start a book. Kenneth Atchity (author of A Writer's Time) introduced me to the concept of "islands," although Natalie Goldberg and others use them too. Islands are nonsequential units of writing, dramatic moments in fiction or memoir, teaching moments in nonfiction.

I begin my book in islands, not worrying how they're going to link up. I just let myself write freely.

Freedom's great. But have you ever noticed what happens when there's too much freedom? Islands become hard to organize. The writer starts to lose perspective on her project. I use another tool, storyboarding, to help this. But even more effective is the exercise of first and last chapters.

Your First Chapter Must Have . . .
In our summer session, my writing classes worked on their first chapters. I asked them to consider these "must haves" in a first chapter:

1. Introduction of main players (narrator, others) via anecdote
2. Introduction of main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Placing the reader in a relevant container (physical and emotional and cultural setting) that will echo throughout the book

The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.

We workshopped (shared with discussion) our chapter drafts and crafted them during the summer session. I saw huge improvement in everyone's writing--it was as if the focus on a small part of the book, one essential chapter, helped the writers see strengths and weaknesses in their overall writing.

By fall we were ready for the last chapter. Even though nothing in the middle had been written yet.

Your Last Chapter Must Have . . .
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.

This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.

What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.

What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.

This Week's Exercise
Spend time with your first chapter, your last chapter, in whatever shape they might be. Craft them if you haven't already--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Then, using the notes above as a checklist, analyze the chapter drafts for what's missing and what's too much.

Any time you spend on your bookend chapters will teach you a lot about your writing in general.

And if you live near the Twin Cities, consider joining me for a writing workshop on this subject. It'll be on Thursday, November 5, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center. The workshop is called "Container, Dilemma, and Players: Three Essential Elements for Making Your Writing Come Alive," and we go into more depth and try writing exercises for these important chapter elements.

Registration is limited. For more information or to sign up, go to and search for the workshop title.