Writing as a Practice

I make writing my spiritual practice. It takes practice.

Winding down my work days at my day job and gearing up for my new small biz, I have let my blogging slide. I want to get back into the practice.

Also, let’s face it, the Olympics are on. I watch these athletes every night. I see effortless skill and human perfection. It looks like magic. But to get into these games, they have spent at least ten thousand hours practicing.

Practice is such a boring word and is such a boring idea. It seems to bear no fruit. It reminds me of those few piano lessons I had in second grade, sitting there in our front room in Skokie, Illinois. No one to hear me or encourage me as I pounded out my drills and scales.

And it all amounted to nothing. I did not seem to get better. I still can’t play the piano. Truth be told, I spent way more time avoiding practice than practicing. I loved kickball better.

But wait, there were a few moments of fun. I remember goofing off on the piano by myself, figuring out how to play Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, not by reading the music, but by hearing the tune I loved in my head and playing it. Just playing around.

I guess if practice requires some kind of play, some kind of goofing around, it is not deadly boring. Practice, then, becomes a discovery and not a rote memory.

Practice becomes a journey, a way to pole vault you from one side of the hurdle to another.

I may never make it to the Olympics of writing, but I will practice any way. For in the art of practice, there is gold.

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This was the back of a tee shirt at the United Methodist Ubuntu Day of Service, working at the Tierra Negra Farm in Durham, NC.

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Write Your Spiritual Autobiography

I am proud (and a little embarrassed) to be the guest speaker at the Resource Center for Women in Ministry at New York Theological Seminary next Tuesday, February 21, 2012 from 4 pm to 6 pm in Suite 500 at the Interchurch Center. Please join me. It’s free.

We will be talking about and practicing Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. The workshop is inspired by Dan Wakefield’s book, The Story of Your Life.

Here is the sign in the elevator at work promoting the event!

I have led this workshop a dozen time and every single time, it’s different and the stories are brilliant. Seriously.

We write about and share how small, quiet, ordinary events shape our lives in unexpected ways.

Yes, the big events — the weddings, births, divorces, funerals — are important, but so too, are the ordinary days when nothing really seems to happen. The extraordinary is found in the ordinary. And we discover a pattern, a meaning — our own awesome-ness. We just need to take a moment to write down our stories and share them.

I am always blown away by the stories that I hear. There is a magical and healing power to writing and sharing your story. Just come to the workshop. You’ll see what I mean.

NaNoWriMo Progress

I’ve got 7,200 words and no plot going on my NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) novel. To win I need to write 50,000 words by the last day of November.

In 2009, when I won NaNoWriMo (yes, that’s right, WON!), I wrote a young adult novel, but this one I classified as literary fiction. Yes, LITERARY fiction. Not, crappy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fiction.

Oh, wait, that is what I’m writing. I have no idea what is going to happen next. Let’s say a song about diamonds comes on the radio as I’m writing, I put a diamond in that scene.

On Sunday morning, I read a New York Times article about a drunk roller, a pickpocket who slices into a drunken and passed-out subway rider’s pocket with a straight edge razor. So I added a scene with a drunk roller.

My protagonist is a crazy, overworked mother of three, a writer, teacher and New Yorker with a benevolently neglectful husband and an active fantasy life. A stretch for me? Not really. As they say, Write what you know!

I wish I had time to write thousands of more words today. After all, it’s quantity, not quality that counts with NaNoWriMo, but I have to get to work. Two of my three children are home sick with a flu today.

Perhaps by tending to my real life, I will find some direction and plot points to share with my protagonist. And, in turn, by writing my novel, I will create a cycle of adventure and creativity in my real life. (This fits with my Rule Number 2: Escape through reading literary fiction.)

My Country Song

At our lunch time creative writing workshop, Dan Licardo, an awesome musician and novelist, talked about songwriting.

He said a song can include rhyme. The message of a song can be more direct and easily understood than other types of writing. So I tried my hand at songwriting on my lunch hour. Here’s how my song went:

creative commons

Your face reminded me of the sun
Bright and sweet and always on the run
You run so fast, you run so far
You run and steal my Chevy car
I called my daddy, I called the cop
But they couldn’t find you
Not even in the hills of Vermont

I took my gun, I went on the run
I run down to the Virginia-ay shore
And there I found you with a two-bit whore

She had her legs and arms around my baby
I squinted my eye, I pulled the trigger
But you said, “Honey, Honey, I mean maybe?
Give me ‘nother chance?”

I’m seeing red,
And that floozy in the motel room
She got up and fled
But you lay there all weak and sad and mad
Like the moon, behind a cloud,
You went all bad

Honey, you went bad on me
Now I’m going bad on you
Because there’s just some things
My man ain’t supposed to do
The first is steal my Chevrolet car

That’s the first step you took 
just a little too far
The second is you left me all alone
With the babies and the dishes
You think you really flown? 

Ha, you ain’t seen nothing
Sniveling on that bed
Pale and begging and, oh so red

Caught red-handed, I put down my gun
I take my car keys, then take your clothes
Just for fun

Don’t come back like the morning sun
Don’t come back when you’re broke
‘Cause my babies need a pappy
Not a two-bit joke

Plus I’m a little honey 
who needs a little bit a love
So I got me an ad on Craigslist
Gonna find some new sun shining from above

So that’s the woman’s part of my song. And then the man’s part comes in:

In the field there was a daisy
But you only saw me like I’m crazy
Yes, honey, I did you wrong
I took up with a honey on the wrong side of town

But you knew I loved the nightlife
I loved the song and the show
I told you that when we married, oh so long ago

When the babies started coming
And you just wouldn’t stop
I tried to re-enlist in the Army
And head back to Iraq

But they didn’t take me
You know I loved your hair, long and red
And I’m sorry that you caught me
With your sister in that cheap motel bed.

We thought we were done for
But you spared me and that debt I will repay
Just one more thing
Can you send me some bail money?
And then I’ll be on my way

Haiku

Hope

In the creative writing workshop I taught yesterday, we wrote haiku. This traditional Japanese poetry looks surprisingly simple — seven syllables, then five, then seven. But we found it challenging, a habit of writing we are unused to.

I told the class to think of the poem’s structure like the cage around a songbird. You have to confine your poem, your bird, your meaning, within the frame. Within the constraint, the songbird can sing freely. And then the poem can flow like a song, traveling far from its cage.

I gave us about 10 minutes to write our haiku.  Here are a few of mine.

I have been teary
Hoping to be understood
Fearful of shadows

Somehow I miss you
Your crazy way of kissing
I live on longing

Need to swim far out
Farther than you can catch me
Splashing, laughing, far

The Westport Workshops

Went well.

I love when people open up — give me stories about your divorce, depression, cancer treatment, or dysfunctional childhood. And then half-way through your writing, lay it on me about how you handled the whole thing with faith, resilience, humor, or alcohol.

Better yet, write about your most embarrassing moment — the time you felt so humiliated you thought you’d never crawl back into civilized company again. You’ve got an epic fail? You’ve got an epic tale.

The stories of our struggles are the ones that will get published, get a laugh, get a tear, get a friend to open up on her crappy/crazy/resilient/hopeful life.

I’m not saying we wrote about any of these things (Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t!) at the Westport Creative Writing workshops, which I offered the last three Saturdays of August 2011 at the Heritage House.

But even if we did, I wouldn’t tell you, because the rule in my writing classes is confidentiality.

I will tell you generally what we wrote about — in the first class, among other topics, we wrote about a safe place from our childhoods; the second class, we wrote about our mentors from high school; the third class, with Hurricane Irene on her way, we wrote about riding out a storm (literal or metaphorical).

At the first class, we had 6 people, then 3, and then at the last class, 8. Hooray! It felt great. There were so many brilliant writers with brilliant life stories. It was an honor to be a part of and facilitate a creative writing experience for non-writers and professionals alike.

I believe there is something healing and transformative about writing your life story. It is sometimes unbelievable, but never never dull.

I will offer these “Story of Your Life” workshops (inspired by Dan Wakefield’s book of the same name) again.

Next 3 Saturdays Writing Workshop

Excited to be leading The Story of Your Life at the Heritage House in Westport, New York this Saturday morning. At this community center, I’ve struck a yoga pose and smiled at the plein air art shows. All in one place, my favorite things: yoga, art, and, now, for the last three Saturdays in August, from 10:30 to noon, creative writing.

This is Dan's book that inspires the workshop, The Story of Your Life.

The Heritage House http://www.westportheritagehouse.com/ was once a federated church, Baptist and Methodist. Now it is a visitor center and home to a community art show, the title of which I love — The Spirit of Place. I want to build the spirit of place into the writing workshop.

The Story of Your Life is inspired from the workshops led by my friend and mentor, Dan Wakefield, who also wrote a book by the same name. http://www.danwakefield.com/ If you’re anywhere in the Adirondack region, please join me in this place.

I sent this blurb to some Adirondack newspapers so I hope we get a few people:

Write about your life — from childhood through the present day –- the small, quiet moments and the large, public events. In this creative, supportive, and fun workshop, you will discover threads of humor and meaning through writing and sharing your writing.

This hour and a half workshop is intended for the experienced, casual, and non-writer. ($10/class)

The workshop is led by Mary Beth Coudal, a writer and teacher, whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, Self magazine, and other newspapers, magazines, and websites. Mary Beth blogs about creative writing at: https://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com (that’s this blog, heh). She also writes about the spirit of New York at: http://mybeautifulnewyork.wordpress.com/ and she writes a lot more than that too.

And now I’m writing this blog in the third person, the first sign of narcissistic tendencies, so I must stop writing and start reading. As the saying goes, enough about me, What do YOU think about me?

Book Proposal Questions

Melissa Rosati ended her workshop with these questions:

  • Is a book really the right first product for me? I love books. I have already blogged. So, yes.
  • What do I want the book to do for me? Make me a ton of money, earn me some street cred, get my distinct voice out there in the marketplace of ideas.
  • What is the relationship you want with your target audience? To empower people to share their ideas through writing. To inspire writing that leads to personal transformation. But, hmmmm, in terms of relationship, that’s a tough one. I don’t know. How committed does an author have to be to her readers? I’ll answer their emails, comment on their updates, teach workshops, attend readings, read their writing. But, let’s face it, all relationships take time. Do I have the time for another relationship?
  • If you do not have business experience, who are your trusted advisers? This is also a tough one for me. I do not like asking for help. I like being the helper. I’m not sure my peeps are business peeps.
  • What’s your budget? How much are you willing to risk? Ummm, $150 maybe?

These questions come from the workshop The New Rules of Book Proposals which I stumbled into late because the parking garage was literally a mile from the International Women’s Writing Guild classrooms on the Yale University campus. (And having a book published wouldn’t make the parking lot any closer.)

I wish I caught the beginning of the class because I have a lot to learn about book publishing.

Writing the Details

Here’s one of the sparkling gems from Southern writer Pat Carr’s Memoir and Fiction Writing class.

Set the scene with three or four details. Here are ten ideas of what Pat means by sensory details and then an example from me on my story set on a playground.

  1. Odor – wet sand
  2. A time of day or season – end of summer
  3. Temperature – warm and humid
  4. Sound – children laughing
  5. Important object – small charm bracelet
  6. Dominant color – beige
  7. Dominant shape — circles
  8. Something that can be touched – curly hair
  9. Taste – rain in the air
  10. Certain slant of light – late afternoon sun

I love number 10. Pat was inspired by Emily Dickinson. Love Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

Light is so important, I think, as I write from a sun-soaked bench cloistered in a square at Yale University attending the International Women’s Writing Guild conference.

Pat Carr’s writing exercises, like this one, can be found in her book Writing Fiction with Pat Carr. Her new memoir is One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life.

Studying Writing with Madeleine L’Engle

Our first assignment was: pick any character from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and write a story from that person’s view.

My story was literal and dramatic (that seemed to be the tone of the bible and I write what I believe is assigned). But Madeleine fulfilled the assignment with an imaginative and funny story. We both wrote about the woman in the window at the edge of town.

I remember thinking, “That is NOT the way the story goes, lady. But you’re Madeleine L’Engle, so you can change the bible any which way you want.”

I got in her class because I’d been going to All Angels’ Church — I loved the warmth and elegance of the worship, but was less in love with its evangelic and literal zeal. I wrote about this church when I started my Church A Day visits, the post was called: A Beer, A Bra, Then Church: at: http://mbcoudal.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/

Back to getting in Madeleine’s class, when I worshiped at All Angels’ the pastor, Rev. Goode, invited any regular church goers to sign up for her class.

About a dozen of us met in her home, for a couple of summer months. She lived in a big rambling Upper West Side apartment which I loved and felt I could easily move into — she wouldn’t even know. She seemed to have a lot of guests coming and going.

She was getting old — still classy yet pixie. She held court from a big easy chair.

She liked talking about writing and listening to writing. I remember she liked my work. I felt we were kindred spirits, not only as writers, but because we were both married to actors, which gives a marriage a certain gypsy charm.

Another assignment: Write about a recent ethical dilemma and how as Christians we answered that dilemma.

I vividly remember one young man’s story. He was riding a night train in Europe. After the conductor collected tickets, a man who had been hiding, crawled from beneath the young man’s seat. The stowaway asked not to be given up and hid again beneath the seat. The conductor returned, asking, “Have you seen anyone else in this compartment?”

Should my classmate tell about the man hiding beneath his seat? Would you? It was a scary, true story. And the young man said he tried to think, “What would Jesus do?” I don’t remember how he answered. I only remember that my classmate was still plagued by this dilemma, believing he’d done the wrong thing.

Her class allowed us to admit we might be wrong. We had to be honest and imaginative.

I have to get to work now.

I have no idea why I woke up this morning thinking about Madeleine L’Engle and her writing class. That class was probably 16 years ago.

Maybe it was simply a Wrinkle in Time.

Or maybe I thought of Madeleine because yesterday I wrote about another aging mentor, writer and friend, Bel.  http://mybeautifulnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/bel-kaufman/