A Place at the Table

I’m taking a moment to not write about writing and to write a little bit about something else instead.

Once upon a time…

When I was young, sometime between six and 12 years old, I was heavily influenced by what felt like so much conflict around me. The Vietnam War was on TV. People (including my grandparents and parents) were still watching documentaries on World War II. I’d also read lots of history stories and biographies written for kids. Edith Cavell (a nurse from WWI who was killed by the Germans for harboring Allied soldiers), Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Marie Antoinette (that one made me too sad, I only read it a couple of times), Joan of Arc (another sad one, but I always felt victorious after reading it) and the British Blitz (WW II bombing of London) were just some of the topics of those books. The whole we’re-gonna-die-any-minute-in-a-bomb-blast-or-a-catastrophe thing was also highly influential (Cold War mixed with a handful of disaster movies like Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure helped with that).

I also remember being acutely aware of how mean people were to each other for various reasons (Side note: I had no idea why people were being mean to Nixon, but I felt sorry for him. Later, of course, I didn’t. But as a child, it felt like everyone was picking on him and I felt sorry for him). Race, gender, and denomination or religion were only some of the obvious reasons people entered into some kind of conflict. On top of that, I hated how it felt like girls were treated differently than boys, excluded because they weren’t boys — it felt like I was always shrugging something off of me, or that I was constantly trying to prove myself. Plus, I was one of those kids who was bullied at school as well, so I knew it wasn’t just adults, it was everyone.

In the middle of all this, I craved unity. I wanted so much for everyone to get along. I wanted good stories and beauty and creativity and lots of musicals with singing and dancing (Okay, I admit, I still want lots of musicals with singing and dancing). I used to draw pictures of huge buildings built out of large pine logs (I was a Laura Ingalls fan) in the middle of flowery meadows on a sunny day with an American flag on the top (I was a patriotic child). I called them “non-denominational churches” that everyone was invited to attend, to be in, to be accepted in. I was sure that would solve the problem. If we could just all love each other and feel loved and accepted then the world would be a better place. That’s one of the reasons I became a Christian as a kid. Love and acceptance.

By the time I reached my 20s, I realized that the church (at least the one I was attending at the time) was not about love and acceptance after all. It took me at least 10 years and the reading of Stealing Jesus, among other things, before I felt like I could accept my faith back into my life and heart. The Jesus I believed in was not exclusionary. As Bawer in Stealing Jesus pointed out, everyone deserves a place at the table.

And now?

I’m not sure where those pictures are anymore, if they’re stored away in a box or now only exist in the attic of my memories, but back in the 90s when I first read that book, I figured I would have create my own all-inclusive table, similar to that all-inclusive church, if I wanted it to exist for me. Every once in a while it felt like society was getting closer to this idea, but every time there was forward movement, something happened to snuff it out.

Today when the delegates were casting their vote at the Democratic National Convention I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt that hope again. I had felt that hope, that feeling of being part of history, when President Obama was first elected, but after eight years of all his progressive goals being continuously blocked I had forgotten what it felt like. So when the delegates from Vermont and Sen. Bernie Sanders cast the votes and requested Hillary Clinton be accepted as official presidential nominee of the Democratic party, I cried. I cried from relief that at last this was happening. And this time it’s herstory that’s happening, and not just history.

Then I saw this video clip and bawled and bawled (in a good way).

Despite all the other stuff (insert all the things and links and stuff you’re going to post if you are cynical or don’t like Hillary Clinton or think there’s some grand conspiracy etc., etc., etc.), I am happy Hillary Clinton is the official presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. I want to hold onto this hope. I want it to last. I want things to move once more toward that better, inclusionary place from my childhood that I daydream of — that place where we all have a seat at the table.

 

Workshopping through “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic” — A Review

When I went to a poetry reading recently, I entered a door prize raffle and won some poetry books and a book of writing exercises, “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic,” by Rebecca Bridge and Isla McKetta, published by Write Bloody Publishing, September 2014.

Some of the door prize swag from the poetry reading.

Some of the door prize swag from the poetry reading.

Why this book?

I have enjoyed some of the poems from the poetry books I received, but I think the gold nugget in the door prize I received was this book. Previously, I blogged about getting into some of the exercises in this book as a way to self-workshop. I was going to leave it at that, but decided it might be good to leave an in-depth user review for anyone who might be on the fence about spending the money on it (hint: Long story short, I’m for it. And if the price is steep for you — $10 for Kindle or $13-15 for paperback can be steep when you’re trying to make ends meet — try tracking down a used copy or see if it’s available on BiblioBoard or somewhere).

If you don’t have the time to track down or create a writers group or can’t afford a workshop on your own, then something like this book might help keep you fighting the good fight in the writers world. “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic” (still think it’s an awkwardly worded title, but there, not my book) won’t replace a good comprehensive six-week course, of-er-course, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $600 or more. And going through a book will never take the place of interacting with other writers, getting critique and feedback, or reading your own or others’ work aloud (great for catching all sorts of problems in your writing, especially the ebb and flow of dialogue), but for $15 this book will help motivate you to get back into writing shape or get you to start looking at what you are writing differently.

That’s how I approached using this book. When I delved into it, I hadn’t worked on my poetry or fiction for at least a year. While I do write some small filler articles at the community newspaper where I work or occasionally write resumes or bios or letters or other copy for clients, that’s not the same as using my creativity muscles or stretching my storytelling bones. You need to have writing stamina to work on poetry of all types or specific characters or story line or plot over time. It’s like any other exercise; you need practice. So, that’s how I have been using this book, to help me get back into the practice of writing creatively on a regular basis. This is what I have learned.

Pros:

This book has 47 chapters, which means that if you only did one chapter a week, you would get a whole year’s worth of use out of it. You might not do that. You might do several exercises in one night, skip a couple of weeks, and then go back to it. Perhaps you’re setting yourself a goal to write every day, so you might also do one exercise a day, that would be a month and a half. (Note: I wouldn’t recommend a hurried or slapdash method like that, by the way, as many of the exercises require the writer do some prior research or homework. So, a weekly appointment with a chapter seems the best way to go, in my opinion.) The point is, one could use this book to keep one writing for a sustained amount of time, and so get in the habit of writing regularly, just as one needs to get in the habit of exercising regularly. So, for me anyway, it belongs in the “useful” category for that alone.

Also, while this is a straightforward book of writing exercises, the writers understand how the creative brain works and have set it up so that the creative part of your mind can anchor to something to help it create. It won’t get bored. So, the book is set up as if a brain was like a house with an attic with all sorts of boxes and closets of things in it. These things in the metaphoric attic can inspire writing. Each chapter looks at a different part or something stored in the attic. Here we find a secret, there we explore a lamp or a floorboard, old letters or a sewing kit. And the writer is to use that as a starting point in a writing exercise, to create a scene, poem or essay, or whatever.

Each chapter also has slightly different input from the two separate writers as to how to approach that part of the attic to accomplish the writing exercise, so it’s not just one person’s point of view. An example is usually included, as well as a brief list of books for further reading. Sometimes I read the example and look over the list of books, sometimes I don’t. I don’t always need it or want it (though they make for interesting reading).

For the most part I have found the exercises fairly intuitively based and easy for me to grasp. I think they are natural exercises for a writer to undertake. Some require doing homework, but it’s the kind of homework that needs doing anyway, such as eavesdropping into conversations to hear the cadences and ebb and flow of speech patterns (writers are a nosy lot). Or looking up poems, sayings or old photographs for inspiration. In fact, one of my past exercises was to go out and eavesdrop. And my next exercise is to look for an inspiring photograph to write a story or poem on. As I write in the kitchen with photos of my family staring down at me, all I really need to do is look up on the wall to find something if I like. Or I could go open up one of several boxes I have stored. I have my pick. (I had to try a little harder to find a spare seat at a cafe and listen in on people talking. That was hard.) The point is, though, that when I was writing stories and poems regularly I didn’t need to be told to go look for a photograph. Sometimes it was just necessary to go look for that picture of that garden of my Grandmother’s because that was the one I was trying to describe. Again, this book is getting me back in that habit.

I haven’t gotten further in than the first eight chapters, though I have peeked ahead to see what’s coming. And the exercises do appear to get more difficult and demanding as one goes along, so if one keeps at it, it will make one push oneself and grow in one’s writing. This is a good thing. I had assumed that the exercises would be all easy when I first began, but it’s nice to know that there are challenges coming up that will push me into writing better, writing more close to the bone. To borrow words from the publishing company that put out the book, to write more bloody.

Also good is the fact that, for the most part, these exercises can be accomplished with little more than paper and pencil or pen. There are a couple that may require going to the computer or the internet to get say a photo or run a program, but mostly it’s done with what’s in one’s head and at hand. Since I work looking at a computer screen most days, typing on a keyboard, I find that a good contrast for me. My hand sometimes cramps up with the writing while working on the exercises, but it’s better to give my eyes a rest, or I wouldn’t do any writing at all. And the contrast also seems to spur me to go off on jaunts that I might not otherwise give myself permission to take. And while I am in danger of repeating myself, I will say it again, a writer needs to build up stamina. If I need to build up the muscles in my writing hand so I can churn out better poetry and prose, so be it.

Cons:

The only real con I can see with this book is how people treat it. I think if the writers were asked they’d say that these exercises are meant to be jumping off points for the person going through them. These exercises are meant to be suggestions, not rules. However, there are people out there in the world who will read through these exercises and think of them as “rules.” Some people are just like that. They see a recipe in a cookbook or read in a magazine what the next fashionable cut of something is and take it as “gospel,” with no thought of improvising something to suit themselves, or just for the hell of it.

If you are one of these people I do believe you can still get a lot out of these writing exercises, however, I beg you, please, give yourself permission to improvise and explore, because that’s what these exercises are all about. Throw the rules out the door and just treat these exercises as suggestions for mental play.

For example, you tell me you can’t write about an attic because you never had one? Well guess what, neither did I. The most attic we ever had was the space between the ceiling and the roof that Grampa kept us out of because he’d put insulation up there to keep down the heating bill, but otherwise it was dangerous for anyone to be up there.

But, I had a really cool basement growing up, and I have known old houses with all sorts of nooks and crannies and rooms hidden here and there. I grew up reading about wardrobes that were doorways into far off lands, and I watched TV shows where a police box was bigger on the inside and space ships could take me galaxies away. So I can imagine quite a bit for my writing exercises, et voilà! I have my inspiration, just the same as if I had my attic.

So, as long as you’re willing to improvise, go with the flow, use your imagination and use these exercises in the spirit in which they are presented, as jumping off points to get you writing more, writing better, then you’ll find this a very helpful book.

Teddy tells me it's time for bed.

Teddy tells me it’s time for bed.