Friday, May 30, 2014

Emotional Gateways--How They Help You Write and Revise Your Book

On June 2, next Monday, I begin teaching my summer online classes.  In both the beginning and intermediate level classes, we examine how scenes, chapters, and whole books are built to deliver the exact meaning the writer wants. 

Katherine Dering, a writer in past classes, just had her first memoir published.  She wrote me this week: 

Your classes were very helpful to me finishing and getting Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle published:  where to start, what to cut or add, finding central images, rising and falling tensions, inner and outer story, inviting the reader into the all helped.   People tell me they couldn't put it down.  Mary, you must have gotten through to me.

Not an easy process.  But intensely rewarding when your book is finished and published, as Katherine now knows.  Those readers who can't put her book down are engaged because of the story's drama, of course, but also because of the emotional gateways this writer has crafted so expertly.   

What Are Emotional Gateways?
Most good books offer a series of gateways where the reader's own past, thoughts and feelings, memories and values, can connect with the story on the page.  Imagine them like entrances into the secret world of the book.  Emotional gateways are responsible for that blissful experience of getting lost in a story, thinking about it for days afterward, feeling rage or sorrow or joy as you read about someone you'll never meet but whose world is entirely real to you.

Emotional gateways are openings into a book's meaning.  They are more powerful that intellectual delivery of ideas and concepts; they hook into more primal centers in the brain.  They depend on images and senses.  There is no effort to retrieve the memory, unlike the work it can take intellectually.

Crafting strong emotional gateways is a skill every writer can learn, and I'm fierce about its importance in creating strong writing.  In my classes, we work on first expanding use of the five senses.  Involuntary memory evokers, the senses are the simplest way to open emotional gateways for readers.  (Remember Marcel Proust and his rhapsody on the tiny French cake called a madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past?)

After expanding use of the senses, what's next?  Practice relaxing the linear side of the brain and engaging the image-based mind. 

I use many exercises in my online classes to help writers learn this.  I offer the excellent resources of Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream (see below for blog post on this book) and Robert Boswell's The Half-Known World--two writing books that clear the way to image-work I also recommend daily freewrites based on images and collage work (Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and many other writers use cut-out pictures to prompt the image brain). 

Most vital:  train yourself to not censor the images that come onto the page, even if you have no clue how they connect to your chapter or scene.

A writer from Canada emailed me recently.  She asked how I approached my own writing after learning about emotional gateways.  What changed?  Everything. 

I still write and revise with my lists, my charts, my character timelines and other linear tools.  But I give equal time to image work.  When my writing feels stalled out, I freewrite--just for 20 minutes--on a random image.  I know that "stalled out" feeling is just the linear brain becoming too active, critical, and disengaged from emotional gateway work. 

Truthfully, for most of us, it takes re-awakening the part of ourselves that is so little used in daily life.  Once we do, it makes a tremendous difference in our writing.  

For more information on my online book-structuring classes, where you can learn and practice emotional gateways, click here. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Cheryl Strayed on Jealousy, How to Keep Writing, Getting Famous, and Other Great Stuff--Interviewed by Elissa Bassist

 I loved this flippant, educational article by a favorite writer, Cheryl Strayed.  She's reached fame and fortune lately, since her memoir, Wild, became a movie.  Well worth reading, a solid reality check on the writing life.  Originally published in Creative Nonfiction magazine, the link is here. 

Enjoy--and get inspired--as this week's writing post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Resources for Writing a Potent "Inner Story" in Your Book

{This post also appeared earlier this week as a guest blog on Grub Street Daily.}

Vivian Gornick talks about “the situation and the story”—the two elements of good prose.  What happens and why it happens.  Because of her simplicity in describing this complex idea, The Situation and the Story became one of the first truly influential writing books in my life.  Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Writer came next, teaching me about writing of consequence and how to stay unembittered while working with difficult material.  Finally, I found Kenneth Atchity’s innovative A Writer’s Time, which transformed the last five manuscripts I completed and published. 

For years, I wholeheartedly recommended these three books to my writing buddies, coaching clients, and students.  I know there are many very good writing books available—and shelves of them line my office—but only a few, such as these, have really taught me how to grow as a writer. 

A friend’s discovery recently added another transformative writing book to my small collection.  From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005), is a series of lectures to his graduate fiction students, transcribed and edited by Janet Burroway (of Writing Fiction fame)Although geared toward fiction writers, From Where You Dream answered my question on how to bring out the deeper meaning of any piece of writing, especially when writing a book.

I teach online classes and workshops on how to structure your book in any genre.  In the workshops, writers learn about and explore the two levels of story that Gornick describes:  (1) the situation presented in outer events (“outer story”) and (2) the real story, or the inner changes that come from these events (“inner story”).  For most, a successful outer story is the easiest to write; it does not require opening a vein, being as vulnerable on the page, staying at risk. 

A successful inner story requires all of this.  It asks the writer to be present, vulnerable, delve into her own life for emotional truth, and bring it all back to her book.

(By the way, “inner story” also applies to any small anecdote illustrating change or growth or new understanding in essays, informational books, travel books, and biographies.)

Butler gave me good clues to writing inner story.  He proposes that to write successful emotional moments, a writer must dwell in the sensory elements of that moment.  It requires a full immersion into the senses. 

I tried this idea first on my own work and then in my workshops.  I worked for weeks with the techniques in Butler’s From Where You Dream.  Slowly, I discovered what Butler was suggesting:  that by fully dwelling in a sensory moment, space is created that the reader can enter.  Emotion emerges, almost organically.

Most writers believe the reader needs some interpretation (the “telling” that often precedes “showing”) but Butler warms against this.  He counsels the writer to just stay in the sensory moment—a very difficult task, especially in early drafts of a book.  The rational mind loves interpretation.  We want to make meaning of everything.  Few readers need that in their literature—it actually can be an irritant.  Readers want to be drawn into the “dream” of the experience, as John Gardner wrote about.  Interpretation may be needed later, once the emotion is transmitted, but rarely is it needed early on.  An inner story (meaning) must evolve organically to be believed. 

Most valuable to me were Butler’s five main ways to transmit emotion to the reader.  I used these within the sensory experience, each became true gateways for my book’s inner story.  I began using them whenever I wanted to enhance a chapter, a scene, whenever I came across a moment in my story that needed enlivening. 

I recommend adding From Where You Dream to your writerly reading list this spring.  And try this simple exercise whenever you want to enliven your own inner story. 
  1. You’ll be describing an event during your childhood, one that evoked strong emotion.  Write about this event, using the sense of sound as much as possible.  Your writing may encompass the other senses, but really focus on how things sounded, as much as you can recall. 
  2. Add the sense of smell.  Continue writing about the event, keeping the emphasis on these two senses.  The writing may feel artificial or forced, but don’t let that critic stop you.  Try not to interpret, just create as strong a sensory experience as possible.
  3. Now ask yourself, How is my body feeling as I write this?  Close your eyes and perceive your breathing, heart rate, tightness of muscles, any fatigue.  Do you feel irritated, bored with your writing, sad, angry?  Write about your inner state and your physical sensations—add this information to the writing you’re doing, as you remember this past event.
  4. Next ask yourself, What don’t I remember hearing during this event I am writing about?  Asking yourself this question often brings back memories you may have forgotten—or wanted to forget. 
  5. Then ask yourself, What was I afraid of smelling during this event I am writing about?
  6. Finish the exercise by writing how you feel now, looking back on this event. 
What has changed in your perception?     

This exercise often brings out a theme, emotional resonance, or inner story that can be used in your book writing.     

And if you'd like to explore your book's inner story (and outer story) further, join me in Boston on Saturday, May 31, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. at Grub Street.  This class often sells out, so click on the link above (Grub Street school) to find out more or register.

Friday, May 9, 2014

How to Keep Your Writing in Your Over-the-Top Busy Life: Helpful Techniques from the Experts

A particular exchange exists between the writer and her writing.  One feeds the other.  If you write, you write more.  If you stop writing, it's intensely difficult to get started again.

Not only that, your sense of your writing's quality and potential changes. 

After three days, some experts say, you essentially need to start over--the flow is gone and it's necessary to completely reacquaint yourself with the project and your vision for it.  Any momentum dies.  Regaining it can be hard work.  That's why many writers, once they stop writing, lose the rhythm of their practice. 

The Inner Critic steps up to the plate:  The writing begins to look much worse than it actually is.  I believe the IC protects us from creative risks, and writing a book is certainly that.  Sometimes, to add more fun to the mix, a crisis appears just at that very moment that drains all creative energy.  Days go by, then weeks, then months.  The writing languishes.

It's still there, of course.  But our attitude and guilt make it hard to approach again.  I've witnessed it countless times in my classes as well as with my own books.

We miss it.  Writing brings something to our life that nothing else can.  So we begin to ask--very quietly, or loud and desperate:  What can I change?  What can I get rid of?  What new habits can I start, to keep writing in my over-the-top busy life?

It doesn't take much, but it does take something.  I love the jumpstart techniques below.  They all work; they're all simple.  Which might work for you? 

Elizabeth Gilbert's Timer Technique
Gilbert is the well-known author of many books, most notably her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.  She wrote a wonderful Facebook post last week about using a kitchen timer to get writing. 

I love the timer technique.  I bought four of them to keep my wayward attention on track (when I am writing, I forget everything else; when I am not writing, I often need a timer to prompt me to get started).  To read Gilbert's suggestions, go to and search for Elizabeth Gilbert (scroll down; the relevant post is the one with the kitchen timer illustration).

Anne Lamott's Picture-Frame Technique
Long ago I bought a 2-inch square empty photo frame for my desk.  Lamott, author of the wonderful writing book, Bird by Bird, suggests it as a jumpstart for writing sessions.  She tells herself (and now I do too) that she only has to write enough words to fit in the frame.  It comes to about 25 words, I've learned.

Once you get over the 25-word hump, it's often easier to keep writing--and enjoy the flow again.

Eric Maisel's First-Thing-in-the-Morning Technique
My writing buddy Nancy McMillan recently attended a writing workshop at Kripalu with creativity expert Eric Maisel.  Maisel is known for his books on the creative process, including Fearless Creating.  Nancy brought back an effective and simple idea from Maisel:  Give time to your writing first thing each day, before anything else.  Even 20 minutes, captured before the day's pressures begin, allows you to keep writing.

Nancy's blog post is full of great ideas from the workshop.  Check it out here.

Jerry Seinfeld's Calendar Technique
Seinfeld used a big wall calendar to keep writing--he marked off each writing day with a red X and was loathe to break the chain.  It works for me too.  Read more about it here.

My Take-a-Class Technique
Exhausted from family crises these past months, as well as an intense teaching schedule, I had a hard time making room for my writing.  The thing that did it:  taking a class.  I signed up for two short online courses, which required writing each day, and I found myself engaged again.

The support of other writers, the joy of learning new skills, and the encouragement to show up and share all provide the accountability I personally need as a writer to keep going.  Many of my students say the same thing.

What keeps you writing?  Which of these techniques--or other ideas--get you to the page each day or several times a week?  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Wisdom from Janet Burroway, Author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

I came across Janet Burroway's superb text on writing fiction during my MFA program.  Writing Fiction:  A Guide to Narrative Craft is the most widely used textbook for fiction MFAW programs; clearly, Burroway knows her craft and knows how to teach it.

This week, check out this interview with Burroway about her new memoir, and the intricacies of her writing process--the how, where, when of writing books.