Writing Craft & Practice

Exploring the boundary between skill and inspiration...    and a few other things

Let your unconscious solve your writing problems

I’m a writing mentor for a teenage girl, so I’m always looking for ways to help her dive beneath the surface level of her writing and connect with her own creativity. Often this means retrieving various lessons I absorbed from my own mentors over the years.

Here’s one that solves a lot of writing problems: go to sleep and let your unconscious do the work.

http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-84a6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Embroidered bags from Greece, mid-19th century, New York Public Library Digital Collections

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More trumpery, and questions of “meaning”

found poem mind map

I didn’t intend to do another “found” poem from a Trump speech, but the following passage, sent by my friend Sallie Reynolds, was irresistible. It’s one single sentence.

You choose: read it first, or read the two poems below it first: by me and Winkie Ma, a high-school senior whom I mentor in a writing program. Found poetry was one of our assignments. I brought the passage to a mentoring session and each of us tackled it.

Here goes, hold on to your rational mind:  Read more

“Found” Trump poem

atlas_slave_by_michelangelo_-_jbu_02

“Atlas Slave.” Photo Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http:// creativecommons. org/licenses/by-sa 3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This month’s assignment for my Girls Write Now mentoring program  was “found poetry.”

There are several ways to “find” a poem, but our assignment was an “erasure poem,” where you take an existing text and black out lines and words. The poem is what’s left, rather like Michaelangelo and the block of marble.

I was in a stream-of-consciousness sort of mood, so I  downloaded a transcript of a Trump campaign speech, and to my surprise—since I’m in no way a poet—produced something that I rather like. (WordPress doesn’t let me reproduce the line breaks nicely, so I turned it into a photo, below.) Read more

The Trojan Purse and the subversive woman

trojan-purseThis ten-foot high wooden purse on wheels was part of a week-long art festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Happily for me the artist, Ethan Crenson, was on hand the day I came upon it, conducting dialogues with curious passersby.

Why a “Trojan” purse? Was it filled with some kind of subversive material? No, Crenson told me. It was empty. The idea was that everyone could project their own feelings or ideas into it—anger at capitalism, the political system, whatever. I didn’t ask him why he’d chosen to make it a purse—probably because my own imagination immediately supplied a rationale.

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My Girls Write Now mentee in Newsweek!

anthology coverEvery June, Girls Write Now, where I volunteer as a writing mentor for a teenager, publishes an anthology of specially polished pieces by that year’s group of girls. This year Newsweek ran a big story on the GWN program, featuring six selections from the anthology. And one was by my own mentee, Winkie Ma! I am beyond thrilled.

Her piece came out of one of GWN’s monthly genre workshops: Dystopian Flash Fiction. I had vaguely heard of flash fiction but had never met it, so to speak. I haven’t written fiction since my 20s, so a fiction workshop is a challenge for me. Adding a 500-word limit and making the piece dystopian didn’t make it easier. I was happy to find myself producing a bare-bones concept of a piece with a strong theme and a twist at the end that could actually be done in 500 words (currently on my list of things-to-work-on).

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Self-sacrificing women: free tipsheet for you

An issue that hasn’t gone away

Breaking women's culture of self-sacrificeHow many men would eat food they don’t like because their wife likes it? Or wear clothes they don’t like because she wants them to look a certain way? Women do these things all the time. I did them with my former husband.

In my book Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, which uses Andersen’s Little Mermaid as an image of the ultimate self-sacrificing woman, I investigated why so many women feel obliged to put other people’s needs first—even when they don’t want to. I discovered that the self-sacrificing impulse comes from women’s history, not their nature.

Recently a therapist contacted me to say that excessive self-sacrifice was a big problem for her clients, and I decided to revisit this subject. I did more research and reporting, and the result is a brief new ebook, Mermaid No More: Breaking Women’s Culture of Sacrifice,  available for preorder at 99¢ at all ebook retailers (see sidebar) and in all formats.

Mermaid No more offers pragmatic, specific strategies for figuring out whether you too are a “modern mermaid” and for overcoming your own personal pull toward unhealthy self-sacrifice.

In the meantime, you can preview it by downloading my free tipsheet (see sidebar). Most women are prone to unconscious, involuntary, self-defeating self-sacrifice, due to our training in what I call the “culture of sacrifice.” See if you recognize yourself in any of the indicators.

And you can leave your own thoughts about self-sacrifice on the Mermaid No More web page.

A Jewish fable for adults

IllustratordefaultKelev’s Journey: A Jewish Dog Wanders Home, by my client David Hammerstein, is about to be published, and I’m just thrilled. I knew Kelev when he was first coming into the world.

David is a retired investment advisor who took up creative writing during a difficult time in his life. He found himself producing stories about Kelev, a black Lab who lives in Pittsburgh with an orthodox Jewish family. When Kelev learns about his Jewish heritage from his beagle buddy Schmalzie, he embarks on a spiritual journey as God’s mitzvah macher. Nosing through a thicket of thorny questions about Judaism in a quest to achieve tikkun olam and heal the world, Kelev becomes a leader among local animals, resolving disputes and helping neighborhood cats and dogs discover their own Jewish faith. Then he performs the ultimate mitzvah, and finds peace.

I’m far from orthodox, but I thoroughly enjoyed editing this delightful book. Not only is it a lovely expression of a truly universal, open-minded spirituality, but really funny. I read it over and over as it went through revisions, and I laughed at the jokes each time.

It’s a short paperback with adorable illustrations and will be great for adults to read to children (though first you want to read it for yourself).

You can “look inside” the book on Amazon.

Coney Island: playground of the unconscious

Alas, this one lost its tail.

Alas, this one lost its tail.

I only visited Coney Island once as a child; I lived on Long Island, and Brooklyn was far away. But in my memory it’s magical: the huge carousel horses with waving manes and real tails (a horse-crazy kid could pretend her mount was alive); the polished wooden slides, so tall I was afraid to go down them; the Steeplechase ride, whose mechanical horses coursed along a long outdoors track (I longed to go but was too timid); the Tilt-a-Whirl, which made me sick.

By the time I returned as an adult, the Steeplechase had been torn down, the streets were shabby and seedy, the remaining rides nothing special (and I got sick on the Wonder Wheel, even in a fixed cabin). The magic was gone.

So I went to the Brooklyn Museum exhibit “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008” looking to find it again. Old photos made me wish my kid self had had more guts. The horses with real tails were there, but they looked small to me now. Mostly I found a Coney I never saw as a child: a site of the transgressive. The exhibit was a blowout of libido, grotesque freaks of nature, and fearful images bursting from the collective unconscious.   Read more

Creativity all dried up? Try this

https://www.flickr.com/photos/samanthalevang/14474813623/

Gold Dust Day Gecko, by Samantha Levang, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

If ever your brain battery feels dead, this exercise will give you a recharge. I learned it in my Girls Write Now mentoring program and tried it out with Winkie Ma, my teenage mentee.

Start by generating a random list of 5 words. We used a smartphone set to Swype. Squiggle a finger across the keyboard and it’ll pop out a word. We took turns doing this til we had five words. (Half the fun is inventing new swyping patterns and seeing what words you get.) You can also use a website like this one to generate your words. Or there’s the pre-digital close-your-eyes-and-stab-a-finger-on-a-dictionary-page technique.

Now set a timer. You have 5 minutes to write something—anything—that includes all 5 words. To make it harder you can require that the words be used in the order they were generated in (we didn’t).

I’m not good under time pressure so was gratified by how quickly my brain woke up and produced a coherent piece of text for each set of words. And it was probably the most fun of everything we did this year.

Here’s our best set.

 earth chap gecko omits kings

(I was impressed that Swype knew the word “gecko.”)

Me:

As climate change warms the earth, my skin begins to chap under the hot dry sun. Before long, I’ll be as leathery and warty as a gecko. And I won’t be alone. The sun shines on everyone—kings, queens, and commoners. It omits none from its intense, baking attention.

“That’s dark!” Winkie exclaimed when I read it to her. Her own invention was sunnier:

“Oh, Lizzy,” the king sighed, slumping into his diamond-encrusted throne. “You won’t believe the day I’ve had so far.”

The king’s gecko glanced back at him, its tongue flickering. The king took this as an invitation to continue.

 “It’s been so hectic. Nearly the whole declaration had to be omitted because of how vile my writers are. Then, I lost my speech, and the media was not impressed. And just now, my subjects burned my robe!” he exclaimed, showing off the burnt edges of the silk. “It’s just been so long.”

Lizzy looked back and cocked its head.

The king smiled. “Lizzy, you’re such a down-to-earth chap. You’re my only true friend here. You know that?”

The gecko snaked its way to the king’s shoulder, and both of them took a nap in peace.

I particularly enjoy the way the same group of words evokes such disparate visions. It reminds me, when I feel stuck in well-worn phrases, that writing is infinite.

And so, it seems, are the varieties of geckos.

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen,  used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original

Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus), Andasibe, Madagascar, by Frank Vassen, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original