Friday, April 30, 2010

Cracking Open the Heart--The Triad of Healing through Writing

How recently have you cracked open your heart?

One of my favorite--and riskiest--writing classes to teach is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing." It's all about cracking open the heart to reveal the inner story of our lives to ourselves and others. Not an easy process, but oh, so rewarding. I teach this class a couple of times a year at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

This past weekend I spent a day on the subject of writing through healing with a group of 22 amazing beings, all doing their best to move through life with consciousness. Via a series of writing exercises, we experienced the cracking of the heart and began to explore what possible gifts and learning our particular traumas held.

Not everyone was ready for this. I'm very aware, from my own experiences of cancer and loss of family members, moving and divorce and business failure, how hard it is to write when you're in the midst of BIG STUFF. Deep grief, and the resulting numbness, is not often a great jumping off place for writing. Especially when the transition is not expected or welcome, not something you initiated. But in each of my big changes, the writing has helped me heal.

Why Does Writing Heal?
Fifteen years ago people scoffed at the idea of writing being medically effective. Now we have documented medical studies that show it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three Steps to Crafting a Book: Content, Structure, Language

It's a rainy Saturday and I'm teaching at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Outside, trees are in full leaf, lilacs are blooming, signs of spring are everywhere, unheard of in Minnesota in late April. But because of the rain, my class of 25 writers is content to be indoors.

They've been working on their books all morning. Now I've sent them off to write. They are each going to travel the river that is their book.

Viewing a book as a river let me imagine it as a journey. I wonder which part of the river will make the most engaging focus for my story? Memoirists, unlike autobiographical writers, choose one or more sections. These must be filled with deep meaning. They must have good content.

So first we look at this question: What's the most interesting landscape the river passes? What content is the most relevant to the story I want to tell?

Step One: Content
Choosing content is a basic first step in crafting a manuscript, no matter what the genre. Memoirists look at the content of their lives, the events that happened, and try to select those with the most impact. While memoirists work from true events, novelists create story from fictional ones, but in the same manner--what engages the reader most easily? Nonfiction writers also do this. I may be writing a book on learning to play the piano, but the first essential question is What do I include and what do I omit?

Content is the outer story, the facts or events your book revolves around. You must have content, dramatic and engaging moments, to create any momentum. To keep us reading. A river always moves.

How do you begin gathering content?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Final Act--Are You Ready to Finish Your Story?

Sunset always happens. The day ends. So does your book, essay, poem, story. Eventually you have to tie all the loose bits into reasonable conclusion. Great books leave us in love with the story we've just read, excited about the ideas we've just heard. There's an effect of satisfaction and engagement. How does a writer achieve that?

I learned about it one summer long ago, when I took a writing course at the University of Iowa. My instructor taught me a concept that was new to me: earned outcomes. He referred to good endings, how they make sense because the hints are built in as we go along. Yet they are not overly predictable. I was attempting my first novel back then (one which will forever remain in the file cabinet) and I'd never before heard the question: Have you earned this outcome?

He advised going back through the chapters, seeing if each thread brought into the ending actually wove, unbroken, back through the book.

In that novel, there were so many broken threads, I couldn't finish it. Conclusions I planted in my ending chapters were not foreshadowed earlier, so readers would certainly feel unpleasantly surprised, not pleasantly satisfied. A good ending, or Act 3, of any piece of writing must be anticipated but not expected. In other words, you plant the hints and you deliver the result in a way that makes us think, Wow, that's great, and I suspected it might be so.

I learned a lot from that U of Iowa instructor. Ten years later, when I was writing Act 3 of my second novel, Qualities of Light, I asked myself this "earned outcome" question. I made a list of how I wanted the reader to feel about each character and major event by the last chapter. Then I brainstormed that outcome, working backwards.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Go to the Movies--And Learn about Structuring Your Book

This week I made soup, because the weather turned unexpectedly cold. It was hot, 89 degrees, in the beginning of the week, but it hit 31 by week's end. We pulled out vegetables and turkey, curry powder and tomato sauce, and let everything simmer until dinner.

After dinner, we watched a movie. It was part of my assignment for the week, as I work on Act 2 of my next novel and a nonfiction book-in-progress. I love movies, but I love them even more when I watch them as a writer. I've always found movies the best way to learn about structure.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Three Acts--A Way to Organize the Monster That Is Your Book Manuscript

A well- structured book is like a clear trail. The reader can follow it. So can the writer.

But many writers get bogged down during the process of planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. A writing project as big as a book can make us confused and overwhelmed. We get lost, even forget where we are in the journey.

I ran into this pretty often when I was involved my first books. I saw that there was a real need in most book writers, no matter the genre. We wanted a system, an easier way to navigate a book-length manuscript, make the path easier to follow--not just for our eventual readers, but also for us, as writers.

Many writers think that books are just expanded shorter pieces of writing. I thought so too, at first. I came from writing short and sweet, as a newspaper columnist for twelve years, and short pieces fit my creative impatience. I liked the closure of writing something each week, limited and succinct. I could work hard, get the writing done, and move on. But I really wanted to dive into a book.

I was naive in those days, innocent enough to think a book would be similar to the process of writing weekly columns. Just longer, right?