I have experienced a lot of amazing things as a writer, teacher, and performer. Years ago I read at Modern Times Book Store in the Mission District of San Francisco with the legendary Beat poet Michael McCluer, who from the back of the room made throat-cutting gestures as I finished my last poem. I was mortified. Was I dragging aimlessly on—cutting into his precious time? He came up to me afterward leaned in casually and said, “I liked the one about the butterflies.” I read poems in Paris with the brilliant New York School poet Alice Notley at a bookstore in the Marais called “The Red Wheelbarrow” after a poem by one of my favorite poets of all time, William Carlos Williams. I was so nervous I thought I’d pass out and have to be carried off in a red wheelbarrow, but Alice put me at ease, being so emotionally astute and radiant in her reading, the whole store was beaming.
When I was sworn in as the very first Poet Laureate of my county, I read an extraordinary poem by one of our fourth grade CPITS students named Caroline who wrote about Turquoise laughter and whispering in a dragonfly’s ear, about a poet weaving her story on a loom of sawdust. We were floored. In the presence of a true master at age eleven. The Board of Supervisors were on the verge of tears Caroline brought so much joy and peace to an otherwise acrimonious and opinion-grinding county agenda.
And here I am in March of 2015 finding myself in Maui Hawaii teaching with one of America’s truly magnificent, clear-minded, intelligent and generous-of-spirit writers and teachers, Cheryl Strayed. It’s such a pleasure to be in the presence of someone so genuine, so authentic, so in touch with the reality of truth with a capital T. Which by the way, comes from being fully committed to your craft, from surrendering to the process again and again. Cheryl Strayed is truly fearless in the face of self doubt, criticism, shame, judgment—never reckless, always clear of heart and mind enough to keep writing. There is a necessary wisdom that shines through in her reading and teaching which emanates as a gift—encouraging, allowing, and even anticipating our own. You get the sense you are on a collaborative journey of discovery together. There’s no sense of superiority no air of her strutting around thinking “I’ve got it and you don’t.”
As I was reviewing some of the writing prompts Cheryl shared with us a couple years ago and some new ones recently in Maui, it became evident to me that writing prompts are fairly dependent on context and presence. Sure you can run with them on your own, pulled from a blog or website, but for them to really inspire, for them to thoroughly bleed into you and push you deep into the page, it helps to actually be there with the teacher. And by there I mean in the presence of a master writer and teacher. So if you’ve been thinking about going to a reading or taking a workshop from a master teacher like Michael, Alice, or Cheryl, do it. Don’t hesitate, no excuses, go for it. Take the plunge, your writing and heart will shine from the experience.
As per request from the attendees of my most recent workshop, here is a selection of some of my favorite books on writing. If you have some favorites you think I should add to the list, please send me an email!
As host of the recent “Writing, Truth, and Community” event featuring best selling author Cheryl Strayed, I was blessed with the task of introducing Cheryl, who has by now, been introduced in so many fabulous and interesting ways by so many fabulous and interesting luminaries, that I was wondering what little old me could possibly add to the mix? So in my poet-like bewilderment and terror, I couldn’t think of what else to do except what I always do with such surges of emotion. Write a poem! She was so genuinely touched, that she mentioned how when she met Robert Redford, though he kissed her four times, he did NOT write her a poem. My life is now complete, I can die a happy fulfilled man!! The poem is copied below. Enjoy!
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Cheryl Strayed (after Wallace Stevens)
Among twenty snowy mountains
The only thing moving
Was the eye of a woman with a blue backpack
She was of three minds
Like a tree with three branches
Of grief, of hope, of love
The woman whirled in the summer winds
A tiny speck of brilliance in the setting sun
A woman and a mountain are one. A woman
And a mountain, and a grieving heart are one
I don’t know which to prefer, the beauty
of subtle thought, or the beauty of mountain dreams—
the woman weeping, or just after
Charcoal clouds drifted across the tops of the sugar pines,
oh dear future sugar. . .the mountains frowned
her solitude thickening, the trail steepened
Oh good people of the city
why do imagine only golden words?
Do you not see how the blackbirds
nest in her trees, as in yours?
I know of noble songs, of grand ideas,
I know the woman with the blue backpack
is involved in what I know
When the woman took flight
as now a bluebird might, it marked the beginning
of many endings
The sight of the woman
in the blue backpack with her heart full of
birds, full of words,
would make the mountains cry out
She walked the spine of California
on winged feet made of glass
on hammered feet of blood and pulp
the mystery and beauty eclipsing the fear
of an unknown. . .the pain of surrender
The river is flowing
the woman must jump in
It was daytime all night long
from then on, the blackbirds in the night tree were
singing for her, a song abloom with the clarity of love
On June 1, 2013 best-selling author of Wild, Tiny, Beautiful Things, and the novel Torch, Cheryl Strayed came to the Petaluma Sheraton for a day titled “Writing, Truth, & Community”–produced by yours truly and The Owl Press. This was the largest event we have put on and thanks to our volunteers, my assistant–Ali Degolia, and the Sheraton staff, things went very smoothly!! The event consisted of a full day writing workshop, craft talk, reading, and book signing! The feedback has been amazing! Thanks to all who filled out the survey, sent me an email or posted to Facebook! It was an extraordinary day, and Cheryl was charming, insightful, inspiring, funny, and extremely generous with her knowledge and experience.
Cheryl mentioned a number of writing prompts and promised to share them with the group! And so here they are! Enjoy! May you be inspired to be willing to “break your own heart” and go forth to “write like a motherfucker!!”
With gratitude and all best wishes, Albert (& Cheryl)
Writing Prompts from Cheryl Strayed
(The “you” can be you or a fictional character)
Write about a time when you’d dressed inappropriately for the occasion.
Write a few pages in which you obsess over something meaningless.
Write about something/someone being born.
Write about something you can’t deny.
Write about what you have too much of.
Write about when you knew you were in trouble.
Write about something you don’t exactly remember.
What about what you used to know how to do.
Write a long apology.
Write about a secret being revealed.
Write about all the secrets that have been kept from you.
Write about a gift that was not well received.
Write a long thank you letter.
Write about something you are certain of.
Write about having no fun at all.
Write about when you knew something was over (or had begun).
By story I simply mean expressive urge to share your experience through words. Be it a poem, a story story, a memoir, an essay, a screen play, a blog post–do you have something to say, a song to sing through words? Why aren’t you writing it? I’ve found in my own experience and with my clients, a consistent writing discipline is the hardest thing to overcome. Our fear and self doubt coupled with the busyness of contemporary life conspire to keep us from the page. There is a solution. But first you really really need to want to do it. Is that a double affirmative? You almost have to have a nagging obsessive NEED to write. If you are to be successful. And by successful, I mean complete a writing project, be that a collection of poems, short stories, essays, a novel, screen play, whatever–but completed–fully! And edited–professionally! What happens after that is addressed in a future post. For now we want to hit the page. We HAVE to hit the page! Something is burning within us and it must be set free. Otherwise go weed the garden, or do the dishes, or amble on down to the county fair and ride the Ferris wheel (all things I avoid doing so I can write). There’s lots of other stuff to do in this life. For writers, to write is to breathe forth the words of the soul–to mirror out from the depths of your own unique experience. It’s an exploration and adventure, and at times a tough slog through the muck of resistance. It’s partly about habits. Changing the listless bedraggled and avoiding neural networks in your brain, for ones that light up when you have a pen in your hand, or are dangling your fingers above the keyboard like an exquisite pianist. They light up anew with that fantastic new idea for what your main character ate for breakfast, and how she held her fork in that funny way with her left hand as if she were going to pound her fist on the table, while in the other she held a pale yellow pencil she kept sliding through the creases in her strawberry braids. Bing. There they go lighting up again! But don’t wait for them to do so. You must MAKE them BLAZE! Practice damnit! Stop thinking about it, shut up and write already!!
If you can judge a book by its cover, (and yes you can–which doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of prejudice and snap judgements–it simply means EVERY detail of this author’s process was considered and thought about deeply) then you can certainly judge a book by its title–perhaps even more so. A title should be a mini poem, a gateway, a threshold, into the larger themes, metaphors, and plot of your book. The title is a badge your book will wear, a badge you yourself will wear, especially when it comes to memoir.
I would suggest multiple brain dumps, brain storms, collaborative brain trusts–to come up with your title–sit with your favorites for a few weeks. Present your favorites to you closest inner circle and take a poll. Then open it up to your larger community for their thoughts and ideas. Most of all check in with yourself–what resonates most with your true heart’s desire and what you are trying to communicating with the book. Connect with your intuition–you should feel excited, proud, and motivated by your title.
And what about subtitles? I am of two minds. I love the purity of a simple, poetic title. And yet, these days in order to reach readers its very helpful to include a subtitle that speaks to your niche. I chose both. Your title needs to be enigmatically informative but not obscure, catchy but not hokey, original but not overly inscrutable. A great title should propel you the reader into the swelling wave of the book, salt-spraying you with hints of the primary themes and the big why of the book. Given the insane ocean of information we are all swimming it, a good book title has the heard task of leaping out of the sea as a shiny dolphin might, inspiring awe and curiosity and a desire for a second, third, and fourth look. A look that will turn into a stare of wonder and then a surrender to immediate communion with that creature–that creature being the book.
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But the truth is most of us writers, wannabe and newby writers struggle with the issue of simply putting words to paper—consistently. We can talk a good game, we can hem and haw, and dream, babble, blame, hesitate, masticate, pontificate and spool an endless stream of reasons we didn’t get around to it today. “Work, work, work, I’m just soooo busy at work.” “A family issue came up.” “I’m too tired.” (try that one consistently in your relationship and see how long it lasts)! Sorry, your relationship with writing is only slightly different than your relationship with people! My personal favorite “I’m not feeling it, there’s just nothing there right now.” And on it goes driving us further and further away from our dream of seeing our ideas have a positive influence on other people and the world. Please don’t forget writing is a practice, like walking, or riding a bike. Once you finally surrender and start doing it all the time, it doesn’t feel like a thing you have to practice, it just feels like you are engaging with life. You get good by doing, not by fantasizing. I feel silly repeating what so many have said before me, but maybe I feel I have to since I finally turned a corner in my own writing. I think I must have crossed the 10,000 hour mark. (According to Malcom Gladwell, in order to get proficient at something you have to practice it for 10,000 hours). That’s a lot of hours. I was trying to calculate up all the time I spent writing, editing, and re-writing my recent memoir. Even pushing it, I came up with only about 3,000 hours. That would be 8 hours a day for 365 days. I max out writing at four hours a day four or five days a week. Do the math. Yes it took me four something years. Fortunately I could add in the twelve to fifteen years I have joyfully spent writing poetry. Hard to calculate exactly, but I figure I’m damn close to 10,000 hours. But whose counting, I mean really, we’re in it for the love of process and imaginative discovery or not at all. There’s lot of other things to do with our time as human beings, but I can’t think of anything more rewarding than sharing one’s take on this exquisitely magical, twisted, gorgeously bumbling, wounded, perpetually healing, world—and how I happen to experience it. I simply have fun seeing what I think, and exploring tweaks of language to make it a bit more yummy and compelling for the reader. I’m here to help expand consciousness a hair in the right, positive direction. I write to laugh and to cry and to love-out, and truth-out loud on the page. And besides that I write to write, there need not be a reason, but there definitely need be a consistent practice! So get on it friends, write in the face of fear and resistance and see fear and resistance wither in the presence of your commitment to write!
The most common reply I get from people when I tell them I’ve published a memoir is “aren’t you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?” At which point I have to explain, “no, no, a memoir, singular, I’ve written a memoir. I’m not in my sunset years writing the autobiography of my entire life, known as one’s memoirs (plural).” A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend life, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills. My favorite example is Robin Romm’s book “The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks,” which is a beautiful and emotional chronicle of the last weeks of her mother’s life as she watched her die of cancer. The opening description of the hospice nurse is exquisite and one of my favorite book openings, period. It’s hard not to notice how Mary Karr’s memoirs are pretty much broken up into, childhood (The Liar’s Club), adolescence, high school, and early college (Cherry), and young and mid adulthood (Lit). This is not to say one can’t move through time chronologically, or for that matter experimentally, in a memoir. One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting–my favorite example being “Boys of my Youth” by Joanne Beard. But what we aren’t doing is chronologically recalling an entire life (I did this, and then I did this, and finally here I am old and wise.) Memoir as a genre has very much come into its own over the past twenty years and is now filled with a vast array of narrative exploration of the true (as true as memory can be) personal account. One of the latest incarnations is the “Immersion Memoir” where people are seeking out interesting, challenging, odd, or even dangerous experiences, completely immersing themselves in them, and then writing about it. “My Year Living as a Buddhist Nun in Burma” or “My Time Working for Minimum Wage in a Slaughterhouse in Iowa,” might be examples. I suppose if “Supersize Me” was a book it could be considered an “Immersion Memoir.” Such books include elements of travelogue, documentary script, and deep investigative journalism. The point being that at it’s best memoir (singular) explores a portion of a life lived in a unique open way, filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel, and as poetically as any great poem.
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“…A beautifully written memoir… poignant and inspirational, comical and terrifying!”