Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page

On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Last week's blog discussed the concept of frames, one of the best, new techniques I've learned for deciding what to include, how to begin, and how to end a book.  Frames naturally offer edges.  We write in one direction and we bump up against what's included and what's in a different frame.  Many writers new to book-writing will try to expand those edges indefinitely, in essence making the frame larger and larger.  This isn't bad if your book is too tight, too narrow a topic, but for most of us it's just a way of distracting ourselves from the real story we have to tell.

Rather than expand the frame, try pushing against those edges.  Find what makes you uncomfortable in the telling.  Maybe it's not the outer event--you can do drama on the page like nobody else.  Maybe it's the intimacy of revealing your vulnerability (or your character's). 

I recently read a wonderful interview with writer Cheryl Strayed in a new collection called Why We Write about Ourselves.  Strayed's writing, especially Wild (her memoir) and Dear Sugar (her essays from The Rumpus advice column she wrote) has been called "raw" and "brave."  "I don't feel inhibited when I'm really working," Strayed says.  "When I'm working I'm split open and fearless.  I feel inhibited when I spin my wheels wondering what others will think of my work." 

But what really intrigued me was when she talked about pushing the edge:  "I don't impose privacy parameters on writing about myself.  Writing isn't about privacy.  It's about the opposite of that.  It's about truth.  I try to go one or two sentences beyond what I feel safe saying.  Honestly, that's where it's at--the one sentence that makes you bolt out of your chair because after you write it you feel someone lit your hands on fire."

I was working with a client today who has lost some of that fire for his work, and we talked about the slog of getting words on the page.  "What set you on fire in the beginning?" I asked him.  "What edges were you pushing against when you began writing?"  He remembered back, and as he told me, his voice changed and I could hear the fire coming in again.  "Write about that," I told him, for his weekly assignment.  "You've lost that edge; now go back and find it again."

That's your weekly writing exercise too:  What edge exists in your writing that might cause you to bolt out of your chair?  How can you find it again?

This week on Madeline Island, I will be helping my class of the 14 writers--as well as myself--practicing this edge and revealing in the authenticity it brings.

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