What Feels Dangerous in Your Writing?

I recently completed an online poetry workshop with Kim Addonizio. She is a perceptive and skilled poet and teacher who was both fun to work with and discerning in her critiques. I highly recommend her. As part of the workshop, each participant was asked to pose a question for discussion on the group blog. One of the questions was, What feels dangerous in your writing?

Interesting, yes? Here’s what I wrote: Everything. The fear of not getting it right, of not being able to express exactly what I want to express in the way I want others to receive it (ridiculous control issue there). The fear of being rejected (especially by the “people who matter”—I'll come back to that in a minute). The venturing into a way of writing that I haven’t done before, whether it be poetry or something experimentally genre-bending.

Vulnerability is scary. We open ourselves up in our writing, more than most artists do. There is arguably greater risk, it seems to me, in writing something that has potential to bring on condemnation—if not death, as in the case of dissident poets in totalitarian regimes—than in painting or musical composition or dance. And if we assume the persona of another, whether in fiction or poetry or even nonfiction (as in the case of trying to understand someone else’s motivations), we are inevitably being dishonest. But sometimes it takes that to get to a larger truth.

I was intrigued by the Lionel Shriver controversy last year, because I think novelists particularly have the right to and should write what is true for them, and if it means assuming the persona of another gender or ethnicity or race, then I’m okay with that. Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a man. But I also see the other side. Sherman Alexie writes a lot about what it’s like to be a Native American in a white world, and I, too, found the problem of choosing work based on the ethnicity of a name pretty provocative. At AWP in 2012, Claudia Rankine took Tony Hoagland to task for writing in the voice of a racist narrator in his poem, “Changes.” And Kate Gale added to the fray last year by suggesting that the organization didn’t have a diversity problem, when it clearly did. All of this is to say that we, the writing community, perhaps has as far to go in communicating and understanding our diverse voices as our divided country does today. Okay, I veered off into politics, so let me get back to voice and vulnerability and risk-taking.
I think any time you pick up a pen or pencil and write something from the deepest places inside you with the intention to share, you step into a place of risk. There have been many times when I’ve read something I’ve written to an audience, and had people come up later and tell me what they got from it—and frequently it’s not at all what I intended. So, yes, it’s scary and risky and makes us vulnerable, but in the end we write for ourselves, because we have no control over how others will respond to it.

Now, as to writing for recognition from the groups we aspire to be a part of. There is inherent risk to sending out work and seeking approval from the “legitimate” literary community. I sought approval for a long time, then decided I would learn as much as I could and apply it the best I know how.  If something is accepted for publication, I’m thrilled, of course. But I don’t stake my self-worth on it. Sadly, I have some writer friends who do. What I’ve learned is that if you do in fact write outside the expectations of others, you’re less likely to win the approval of editors (especially younger MFA-trained ones) who follow the latest trends. And that’s okay. The only critic you really have to satisfy is yourself, and sometimes that’s the toughest one.

Kate Gale at AROHO: Play, Trust, Write

Kate Gale is a force of nature. Co-founder and managing editor of Red Hen Press, editor of the Los Angeles Review and president of the American Composers Forum, Los Angeles, she is a teacher, poet, novelist and playwright. She is also a board member of A Room of Her Own Foundation, which sponsors the weeklong biannual women writers’ retreat in New Mexico from which I just returned. She offered several workshops during the retreat, but one in particular I found particularly compelling and want to share with you here.

What she said, in essence, is this: Play, Trust, Write.

We writers take things so seriously. We sit down to write and expect a finished product. When it doesn’t seem to come, we get anxious, even distraught. Kate says just relax. Play! Approach your daily writing with lightness, with no expectation, with playfulness. (There will always be time for the hard work of revision later.)

Trust! That something amazing will emerge. That eventually, through journaling or just writing what comes, something important will emerge.

If you write something important, it will be at the intersection of imagination and intellect. Get rid of the “writing is not important” chatter in your head. Trust that what you are creating is worthwhile and worthy.

And, Kate said, be willing to have a relationship with silence. I spend at least an hour every morning with my journal, in silent testimony, in silent prayer, in silent entreaty to the universe to bring insight, words, extraordinary thought to the paper in front of me. Sometimes it eludes me; often it brings the grace of creativity and concrete movement: words – amazing, inspiring, powerful words.

In every writing project, Kate said, ask yourself, “What is it that I want to say?” Then find the most unusual, extraordinary and motivational way to say it you can imagine.

Because imagination coupled with intellect is the writer’s only true gift, a gift that can inform and inspire. So go on, inform, inspire – write!

AROHO at Ghost Ranch

Just returned from an amazing week of inspiration and encouragement at the A Room of Her Own Foundation's biannual women writers retreat at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. A week of deep introspection, time away from daily distractions, and opportunities to meet some of the most incredible women writers you're likely to meet in a lifetime.

I love New Mexico. I've traveled there five times over the past twenty years, and hope to live there part-time some day soon. Santa Fe offers solitude, culture, a literary community and a spiritual dimension I've not felt anyplace else I've ever lived.

Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, was where Georgia O'Keefe lived and painted through a good part of the 20th century. Her paintings speak for themselves; the landscapes remain unchanged, even after half a century or more. I took some photos I will share here. The red cliffs, the vast indigo sky, the billowy cottony clouds that make one feel so small in comparison - all are reminders that we are just specs upon the Earth, lucky to be witness to some of nature's most impressive shows.

AROHO is a powerful force for women (www.aroho.org). If you love to write, whether it's fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction, AROHO is a source of support and provides an incredible opportunity for women writers to come together, write, share, network and come away inspired and motivated. I am so grateful to have been a part of the 2011 AROHO Retreat! Go to its website, get involved; come to AROHO 2013!

In coming days I'll be posting blogs on some of the wonderful workshops and inspiring talks I heard there, including from the inimitable Kate Gale of Red Hen Press and Marilynne Robinson, author of the luminous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home. Stay tuned!