Chuckanut Writers Conference

The Writer's Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost - if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all'Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I'm not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author's literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I'm thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something -  I can't remember what  - but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I've forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job - writing every day isn't feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I'm having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I'm thinking that if you aren't heeding Priscilla's advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer's Portable Mentor is to a writer - of any level of experience and ambition - as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work - there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking - after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I've forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I've chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long's guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I'm tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit - even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there - the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will 'fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I'm in too much of a groove with my writing and I don't want to slow the momentum. You can't be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait...

This isn't the be all and end all of writing guides - there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread - several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision - if I could take only one book - my choice would be clear:

I'd take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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The Scariest Thing

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."  - Muriel Rukeyser, as quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in her book "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice" A reading given June 21, 2012, Bellingham, WA "Writers must share the scariest things about their lives." Sherman Alexie, Opening address, Chuckanut Writers Conference, Bellingham, WA, June 22-23, 2012

 

I will share something very scary with you. I will tell you a truth about my life.

But not just yet.

I attended my first writers' conference this past weekend. I entered trembling, wondering if there was a secret handshake, if I was too young or too old, if I had too few works published to be credible, if it was written all over my face that I did not have that all-important WIP or MS to offer up (writer jargon for Work-In-Progress and ManuScript). Famous Writers wandered about, as well as a Poet Laureate or two; Literary Agents took 5-minute pitch appointments; aspiring and published writers clutched notebooks and tablet computers - a life's work on college-ruled or flash-drive - hoping to be discovered.

Oh but no, it wasn't at all precious. The Chuckanut Writers Conference - held in the earnest, evergreen-and-blue city of Bellingham, perched on a bay just south of the Canadian border - was a welcoming gathering of writers of prose and poetry of every level of experience and ambition. I soaked up insights in sessions on the seduction of a sentence and packing premise into your novel; I scribbled pages of notes on the practice of story-boarding; I held my breath as a panel held court on Breathing Life Into Characters. I came away from each workshop and plenary with concrete ideas to put into practice. I was inspired, motivated, encouraged, overwhelmed and determined.

So, thank you, Chuckanut Writers Conference. I hope to see you next year. And perhaps I will have something ready to pitch. You know, the premise of My Great American Novel in fifty words or less.

But the weekend did begin and end with tears. And there's that scary thing I said I would share.

The evening before the conference began, Terry Tempest Williams - the celebrated writer of environmental literature, women's rights activist and conservationist - gave a reading in downtown Bellingham from her new book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations On Voice. This is a lovely collection of meditative essays on motherhood, nature, faith and love, inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed to her shortly before her death at 54. Three bookshelves of journals, which the author opened a month after her mother died. Each journal was blank. When Women Were Birds is Ms. Tempest Williams's attempt to understand what her mother had written in those empty books.

One of the several chapters the author read was XXVII. It is, on the surface, an essay on the importance of women's reproductive rights. But the muscle of her words, what sent the tears streaming, is what she writes about the meaning of menstruation:

"Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three."

 

The author writes of women who wait for the reassurance of their monthly cycles. Yet for those of us who have faced infertility, who know the devastation of miscarriage, her words resonate as deeply. For us, who have experienced such loss, this bleeding is an ending of all hope, not a sigh of relief. And so her words, they made me cry.

"Because until she bleeds she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life."

Two days later, late Saturday afternoon, just before the final session of the conference, I dashed into the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn't felt.

A streak of bright red blood.

I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray.

When I walked into that bathroom, I was ten weeks pregnant. When I walked out, I was

 

Empty.

 

The cramps began after I returned home Saturday evening. They were bad. Then they got worse. By Sunday afternoon I was writhing on the living room carpet, crying and gasping as my uterus ripped itself apart. I have never experienced such agony for so long. I refused to let Brendan take me to the hospital. Women have been giving birth to life and to death on their own since the beginning. These were the only labor pains I would ever know and it was pain I would own, pain I would remember, because I had nothing else. At 10 p.m. Sunday evening, I finally crawled into bed, my body no longer sharing space with another.

Though shocked to learn we were pregnant - we'd long since given up hope after years of trying, years of exploring alternatives, years spent healing from loss - it was impossible not to give in to joy, not to allow our hearts to swell in anticipation of meeting the life we had created. Yet we tried to prepare ourselves for heartbreak; the wounds from our miscarriage in 2009 reopened as we admitted our deepest fears.

In a moment of twisting around to look at a less-dark side I said to Brendan, "When we lost the first baby, I wasn't writing. I wasn't creating anything, I had nowhere to voice my grief and rage. But now, if the worst happens, I have a voice. I have a place to go that gives me hope and joy and meaning. At least, if the worst happens, I have that."

And the worst happened. At the same time that my intellect was pulsing with life, my body was casting off death.

 

I am very very angry.

 

I am so very sad.

 

There is no sense to be made of nor any higher purpose served by our losses; there is no "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" bullshit platitude that I can bear hearing without wanting to slap silly the mouth which delivers it.

There will be no next chance. I am 43. I am done with this now. My heart cannot take the pain. My body cannot take the turmoil.

Brendan took me in his arms when I returned home Saturday night. My first words to him were, "It's going to be just the two of us."

"That's fine by me," he replied.

And we cried, because nothing was fine.

But it will be again, someday.

So I work, because it gives me dignity.

I run, because it helps me make peace with my body.

And I write, because writing is how I will create life.