On Writing by Elizabeth Kelly

Elizabeth Kelly August 4, 2014

As a Counselor for the state of New York, I found writing reports the easiest part of my job. I used writing like a cup of chamomile tea to calm my anxieties. The formulas of the reports made them easy to write and took little effort.

My joy with the prescribed writing was that I could play with words and sentences within a structure. I didn’t need to step out of my comfort zone. I tried to create descriptions of my clients that made them unique instead of the diagnostic label they were forced to become.

I wrote for a paycheck. I wrote using a specific template. I wrote about someone else. It was stress free.

Writing for myself is different; it is not easy. There is no formula to follow. No one is going to pay me for writing at my dining room table. All the characters I create are a part of me. I feel like I am undressing in public.

Then there is the issue of being perfect. How hard is that? Without my template, without my structure, I forgot how to have fun with words and sentences. I didn’t know where to start or even how to start. Then I found Natalie Goldberg, author and writing teacher who wrote the books,“Writing down the Bones,” “Old Friend from Far and Away,” and “Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft,” and many other books.

“Writing Down the Bones” was the first book I read about the art and work of writing. In it Ms. Goldberg motivates the new writer to be courageous; to write with love, energy, and confidence. She teaches different techniques some of which come from her Buddhist background. One technique is to sit quietly for at least 10 minutes, watching your breath. This technique clears the mind of distracting thoughts. It also opens up the writer to inspiration. Maybe the next scene in your novel is in the quiet of your mind.

Another technique is to center yourself before writing by walking very, very, painstakingly slowly. I attended a Workshop with Ms. Goldberg at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. We walked very slowly from the dormitory to the building where the class was held so we could center our minds before writing.    I had to concentrate on the process of putting on foot in front of the other to walk as slowly as required. As with deep breathing my mind slowed down to concentrate on how my feet were moving and my mind was forced to focus.

A focused mind is open to new ideas and thoughts instead of being obstructed by the numerous daily happenings such as looking in the past, worrying about the future, unfocused, distracted, uninspired and closed to new thoughts and ideas. Ms. Goldberg’s writing techniques help the mind to quiet and listen for the next great sentence or great scene. I can’t say that I wrote a mind bending response to the prompt we were given after that slow, so slow walk, but I was grateful to sit down and I wrote.

The major part of her teaching technique is the ten minute writing exercise. I quote “Writing is an athletic activity.” Athletes practices every day to build up their muscles to win the game. You can see the Athlete’s muscles bulging, but a writer’s muscles are not easily seen, yet it is important to exercise and build up writing muscles.

The ten minute writing exercise is the impetus of her Writing Program. Ten minutes of writing on a specific topic is the same as bench presses to a body builder. Think of a specific topic to write about, “What makes up my perfect day” “My favorite actress is ____ because”, “Sunrise smells like”. If you can’t think of a what to write about write on the topic then start your prompt with “I am thinking of”. When you reach a block go back to “I am thinking of” This simple prompt can lead to much more or it can lead to nothing, but either way you are writing and building up writing muscles.

Ms. Goldberg’s books gives numerous simple writing prompts. Or you can make up your own writing prompts to help you work on a specific project. As Ms. Goldberg states, “Maybe you will write nonsense for 10 minutes, but there could be one great sentence or thought in the middle of the nonsense you can use.

The Memoir writer can find writing prompts and motivation in her book “Old Friends from Far Away”

A few of her prompts are:
Write about your mother’s jewelry. Go. Write Ten minutes.
Write about your mother’s shoes. Go. Write ten minutes.
The ten minute writing exercise can be used when you are blocked or you need
inspiration for the next scene. It can be used to Show and not tell.
Describe your house. Go. Ten minutes.
Describe the colors of a sunset. Go. Ten minutes.
Describe feelings of terror. Go. Ten minutes.

Writing for you me is easier when I have a specific question to answer, especially when I feel blocked. Ten minutes can grow to 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 90 minutes or more.

You may think Ms. Goldberg’s books are for the beginning writer or someone like me who feels insecure. But they can also be for the seasoned writer who needs a new trick, because at some time we all need a new trick.

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1 Comment

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One response to “On Writing by Elizabeth Kelly

  1. Good one! I agree, meditation, or a similar exercise, is probably the best prep for a writing time. But that 10-minute idea sounds great. I’ll try it. Thanks, Elizabeth.

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