Category: writing

I’m excited to share that the spring 2016 issue of Watershed Review is live and includes my essay, “Orienteering.” I’m excited to have this one out in the world, as it includes some moments that really wanted to be written about.

This is the first essay I’ve had out in the world in over 10 years, after experiences that led me to step away from essays entirely. I recently shared that story on The Writing Cooperative:

Poetry is my first love, but essays were calling to me. I was reading Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion and seeing bits of myself in not just what they wrote, but how they thought. There was a sharpness and a synthesis that felt different in essays than it did in poetry. I was struck with that just-right mix of curiosity, kinship, and intimidation that gives you enough gumption to try something new.

So I signed up for a creative nonfiction course in my English department. On the first day of class, I was transparent: I was a poet who wanted to try writing essays. It would be 10 years before I would introduce myself like that again. It was like announcing I was a hummingbird that wanted to become a horse. The division in the class was felt — there were the nonfiction students, a few fiction students (who were okay, because they dealt in narrative), and then me, The Poet.

I could deal with this as a matter of the culture or group dynamic in the class. Maybe it could even become a kind of pride, to be The Poet. But where it did damage was in practice, in the learning. Instead of becoming a guide, the professor became a gatekeeper. She had decided what an essay was, and she had decided which students had the right keys to access it. I learned that poetry was not one of the keys, as most of her feedback was some form of “This is poetry, not an essay.” or announcing, “Well, doesn’t that sound like poetry?” to the class when I shared my work.

I started trying to strip the poetic language out of my essays. I tried to focus on the more concrete, linear moments that were part of the story. As you might expect, those essays fell flat. They couldn’t find their natural shape. They had experiences but no voice. I couldn’t find the threads to follow into my drafts. Without poetry, I didn’t have my intuition.

It wasn’t until years after those classes that I came across lyric essays, and a door into essay writing opened up:

I thought the essay form could be Only One Thing, and I didn’t have the key to it. I thought it was more narrative than symbol. I thought it was more head than heart, more linear and cohesive than experimental and stretching. But here was this idea of the lyric essay. And it seemed that even established essay writers could not easily define it, and that was part of what made it attractive. Here was a form that even the best essayists (i.e., Authority) acknowledged might sometimes be more poetry than essay.

You know that wave of relief you feel when you finally recall the word that’s been loitering on the tip of your tongue? Imagine that, and you might have an idea of how it felt to find the lyric essay.

I’m still learning a lot about essays, and about the lyric essay in particular. “Orienteering” is hopefully the start. But I’m happy just to have a way in, after so many years of believing that essays were off-limits.

creative nonfiction essay publications writing

I’m excited to have a guest post up at All Nine this week! It’s about how to stir up inspiration and signal our muses before we arrive at the empty page. How do we build trust, so we know a creative invitation when we see one? Is it possible to seed the conversation with our muses before the writing even begins?

I believe there are many ways that ideas, stories, and creative energy try to find us. But too often we’ve been taught to silence, ignore, or even fear the inner space where ideas say hello. It doesn’t have to be a hard or even esoteric journey to undo this teaching. I tend to believe that simple, down-to-earth practices are actually the key.

In my guest post, I share a few of what I hope are simple, fun ways to listen for inspiration and invite your muses to come closer in your writing life. I hope you’ll stop by All Nine and gather some creative energy for yourself — the site is full of it! Click here to read more.

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One of the best parts of starting Voice & Vessel has been learning about people’s writing journeys and finding kindred spirits to share the writing process. Between that and recent events I’ve attended, I’m noticing common questions pop up, like:

  • Is it okay to do (insert technique or style here) when I write? For example: Is it okay if I rhyme when I write poetry?
  • I’ve heard I should _____ when I’m getting started. What do you think? For example: I’ve heard I should never lift my pen and write nonstop for as long as I can when I’m getting started, but it’s been hard to do that. What do you think?
  • I feel like I got stuck on ______. Should I start over when I get stuck on something? For example: A duck showed up in my story, and I thought I shouldn’t be writing a story about a duck. Should I have restarted with the prompt?

These questions seem straightforward, but that’s part of their seduction. It’s human nature to want to fix things, and questions like this often get heard as: “Something is broken in my writing process. Can you help me fix it?”

On the Voice & Vessel blog, I wonder whether we need more rules for our process or if these questions simply mean we are hungry for permission to write at all. I also share four ways to spot a helpful writing practice and a set of practices for getting unblocked (if the rules have been in your way). Read more here.

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Writing the Big Heart of Small MomentsLast week, I inched toward a final draft of a poem I have written and re-written for six years. The seeds of the poem are more than seven years old, and there are at least a dozen drafts. And just because a draft is newer doesn’t mean it’s better. This has been the kind of writing process where things get worse, sometimes much worse, before they get better.

Poetry is the only thing in my life that gets this much of my patience. And it’s not because of the poem, really. It’s because of the thing I’m scraping at within the writing, using the poem like a hammer to break it open.

When we write in pursuit of something, especially a small moment or a memory that calls to us, there’s often a pause when we step back and wonder: Is this worth it? What am I chasing, and why?

More at Voice & Vessel

Over on the Voice & Vessel blog, I wrote about the memorable, tough-to-shake moments that drive us to write. How do you follow a “shimmering” moment until it becomes a strong poem, essay, or story? I’m sharing what one stubborn poem taught me, plus three writing prompts to help you write into the idea, memory, or moment that won’t let go. Click here to read the full post.

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DeskHello friends & kindred spirits –

It’s been a full year, culminating with a very productive few months. A new adventure has been kicking around my heart for a long time and began to take its true shape this year. It’s the kind of adventure that blends my personal passions, my professional journey, and my dreams for the kind of space I’d like to hold with others in the world. And today it’s ready for some sharing.

With all of the customary butterflies, I’d like to share: I’m on the verge of launching a writing studio. It will be based in West Michigan, where I replanted after a couple years in San Francisco, and it will support people here and beyond.

It will be an open, energizing space for people who are curious about what they can discover through writing. A space for people to say yes to their voice, yes to the blank page, and yes to the possibility of what writing holds for them. A space where big creative risks will be greeted with plenty of compassionate support. This goes for both creative writing and brand/professional writing… after many years of writing for clients, I have some new ideas for writing with them to bring their stories forward.

A big step in this journey happened this September, when I became a Certified Leader of the Amherst Writers & Artists Method. After taking a number of writing workshops over the years, I’ve found the Amherst method to be one of the most joyful and supportive around, for writing devotees and newcomers alike. Participating in the training was one of those thrilling “oh yeah, these are my people!” experiences. It’s an honor to join the Amherst Writers & Artists community now and lead others in writing together.

I have so much more to share, and soon. The reveal of the name and the website are on the way, but I just couldn’t hold on to the big idea any longer. If you’d like to be one of the first to hear of the studio’s arrival, please add your name to this list — I hope you’ll consider writing with me when the studio opens later this year!

[button url=”http://eepurl.com/bE6WCH” style=”small”]Add your name to learn when the writing studio launches![/button]

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It’s funny how kicks from the past can arrive at the right moment. Lynn Melnick has written an excellent, close read of Diane Wakoski’s work in the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a former student of Diane’s, much of Melnick’s essay resonates with my experience of Diane, her poetry, and her “enduring badassery.” No one could make me think twice about a “lazy image” like she could.

The essay has shown up at a time when I’m noticing that my poetry has gone surfacey, lost touch with its raw parts, started to shy from honesty. (Curiously, this has overlapped with a severe sore throat, something that tends to happen when I’m squelching my voice. The body has a way of telling the truth, even if I won’t.)

So I especially appreciate the reminder about Diane’s use of personal mythology:

“Her assertion is that poets are never writing autobiography in the strict sense…but are creating a myth of self in which to tell their most personal stories.”

I’ve been thinking about exposure and sharing lately. About how the speaker shows up in writing… mostly how that damn word “I” has become a vacuum of attention in my poems. (Who is the “I” anyway? Why is she standing in the doorway, just in front of the guts of the poem?) I’ve been attempting to write “I” out of my poetry entirely, until it feels like it’s earning its keep.

I’ve also been struggling with how our online lives are not really our art, although they are full of expression. There are days when Twitter feels like a bad networking event of people vying to leave an impression. So many “think pieces” and blog posts that are less about making something new and more about people making an artifact of themselves. I don’t say this to attempt to be judge and jury… rather, I think it makes the concept of personal mythology — and how Diane applies it — all the more pertinent today.

With personal mythology, there’s still truth in the mix. There’s still a raw voice; the presence of a speaker, an orchestration of characters. It’s an artful construction that works like story, rather than merely aiming to leave an impression or persuade the reader (like so much of our online narratives). In my view, truth-telling is not about persuasion… and maybe that’s the distinction I’m hunting for in all of this. Honest art is voice laid bare, without apology.

Despite what myth-making entails, I don’t find an artificial “I” in the doorway, especially in Diane’s approach. The truth might be dressed as George Washington, the motorcycle betrayer, or an imagined twin… but the “I” itself is not a managed impression that keeps us from seeing the characters/mythology directly.

To make this more plain: I wrote line after line about family (and still do). The “I” was (and still is) standing in the way of those poems like a nervous gatekeeper. It says: “You can see this story, but please put these sunglasses on first, and listen as I explain what you’re about to witness.”

Then I learned about Diane’s use of George Washington as a stand-in for a father. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed that I had never attempted anything like this in my work. That same day, a poem fell out of me that was a truth I’d been rumbling over for a few years. There was no “I” in the poem. There was a trope, a mythology, and truth that I could feel — my ears grew hot when the words began to show up. It was my first taste of a badass poem.

As I try to write my way to the next one, I’m grateful to be reminded of Diane’s mythology and her exacting sense of what poetry can and should do. And I’m grateful to Lynn Melnick for her suggestion that Diane should be on more poetry reading lists… I know I’ll be revisiting her poems with fresh eyes over the coming days.

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“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

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