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04-08-2005, 08:03 PM
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Week Two: April 7
Dear writing mamas,
What an inspiring group of women you are! I am so proud to keep company with you. Thank you for sharing your words with us this week.
As I study more about writing, I am struck by how closely acting and writing are as creative forces. My background is in theatre and I have spent most of my life either on stage or wishing I was on stage. Birthing a character is similar to birthing a story which is similar to giving birth. How's that for a circular comparison?
There's this very simple acting theory, one that folks pay big buck to learn. It was first introduced by a grand ol' gem of a guy named Constantine Stanislavski -- you can call him the grandfather of modern acting theory. Or Connie, whichever you prefer. The "Magic If" theory maintains all you need to do to create a character is place yourself into the characters circumstance and respond as you would respond given those circumstances. For instance, if I were lost and if I discovered a house in the woods, how might I approach the door? If no one answered and I discovered the door was unlocked, how would I react upon entering the house and finding three bowls of piping hot porridge ready for dinner? You get the idea. Obviously, it can get far more complex than that simple example but the core principle remains: as writers and as actors, we must simply be our true selves when confronted with life's bag of tricks.
This week we are going to focus on the short assignment. I'm going to steal a bit from Anne Lamott, but I don't think she'd mind too much. She seems like the kind of gal who wants others to do well and feel good about writing, plus she readily admits to stealing stuff from other writers. There is nothing new under the sun and just as good theatre breeds good theatre, so the same goes with writing.
In her amazing book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about short assignments. Short assignments ask us to get over ourselves a bit and stop trying to write the great American novel. Instead, she says, all you have to write is what can be seen through a one-inch picture frame. "All I am going to do right now...is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor."
She names the advice I often give to my drama students when they begin work on creating a monologue. A monologue is a narrative told by one person on stage and often the actor is the only person on stage. My students have grand stories to tell but when they try to put them down on paper, they come off as a chronological list of events instead of an interesting story or emotional journey. Even if the list of events includes conflict (which every good story must include), if it does not speak to the human -- or emotional --journey the character is confronting, it will fall flat and the audience will wonder how long they have been sitting in the seats, what is going on with the babysitter at home and whether they can successfully pick the stray bit of pepper out of their teeth without looking too obvious.
You see, it's the emotional journey that is the most important. It is a matter of letting the senses guide the story, not the events. We are thinking, feeling beings and our view of the world is formed when we make connections with our heart.
So this week, we will work on short assignments in addition to our free writing. Feel free to use your free writing as a starting point for your short assignments, if that jives with you. Lamott talks about the short assignment as filling a one-inch picture frame. So that means we are talking single paragraphs. I certainly don't want to limit the scope of your ideas or creative energy, but I do think it's useful to think about the economy of words as we embark on this task. How much can you share in a small space? How economical can you be with your words?
The short assignment should be focused on a singular aspect of an event or thing (what does one contraction feel like as opposed to what labor contractions feel like) and also be rich in emotion/sensory details. These short assignments will hopefully serve as a starting point for the birth story.
Use last week's notes on the darker side of mothering as your first short assignment topic. If you have a lot of notes, make it into several short assignment topics.
From there, choose three to five topics from this list for short assignments and the same number for free write topics.
newly pregnant breasts
telling my partner
sense of smell
sense of taste
I will create a short assignment thread where you can share if you would like--but please, no feedback yet. We'll get there.
Have a wonderful week and keep those pens moving!
P.S. Another tip I gleamed from Anne Lamott is her use of index cards for writing down writing ideas. She says she carries one with her at all times as well has a stash throughout her house and car. I love this idea and bought some unruled index cards this weekend. Sometimes I am struck by inspiration in the strangest places. By the time I think to write it down, I have forgotten the juicy bits or the entire event entirely. Writers see the world differently from other folks so it's our lot in life to be prepared to use what we see as fodder for our work!