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Week One: Writing Our Hearts Out

June 1, 2015

Welcome to our Summer Writing Workshop! I do encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Rebecca McClanahan’s book Write Your Heart Out if you can. Even without it, you can join us in any of the writing activities, but the book is a rich source for continued writing. What I especially like about this text is that she focuses on the reader’s purposes and needs, rather than her own.

We’ll look at the introduction and the first two chapters this week as we get started. You may choose to keep a journal of your writing and notes or you may prefer to journal on your computer. If you wish, you can keep everything you write to yourself, but I encourage anyone who will to post in the comments section each week and to take time to read and comment on others’ posts.

While you could sit and address all the questions and ideas at once, you might consider writing a little every day this week, dealing with the questions or topics that strike you as significant in your own writing journey.

Part I: What kind of writer are you? To get your writing muscles loosened up, l want you to think—no, write—about you as a writer, answering any of the following questions that apply to you:

Describe your relationship with writing and words (from childhood to now).

How do other people see you in relation to writing?

What are your writing habits? Do you journal? Is there a regular schedule or pattern to your writing?

Can you describe a time when you have been writing, as McClanahan calls it, “to save your life (and other lives) from    extinction?”

Where are you on your writing journey? Just beginning? Continuing?

* * * *

Part II: Why do you write? People who feel driven to write do so for reasons those who don’t feel the same urge may not understand. In the introduction, McClanahan lists ten rewards writing offers that other activities do not (which I distill here). Which ones hit a chord with you? Which ones had you not considered—at least not in these terms?

  1. Writing it down leaves a trail.

McClanaham describes things we think we’ll never forget—but do unless we write them down. This struck a chord with me. We call one of my sisters “Remember When Jeannie.” She has such a detailed memory of things my children did that have completely slipped my mind. Likewise, I sometimes come across the fragments of my own writing—letters, journals, diaries—and my former self reminds me of precious moments, funny expressions, momentous events I might not have remembered otherwise.

Shakespeare acknowledges the preservative nature of writing in his Sonnet 18: “So long lives this and this gives life to
thee. . . .”

  1. We write to reflect and process experience.

Writing slows us down, gives us a chance to process our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. She emphasizes in the introduction and throughout the book the healing power of writing—not necessarily forgetting pain and loss but reshaping them and putting them into context.

  1. Writing helps us to sharpen our focus,

Writing often forces us to pay attention to details and gives us the opportunity to name our world. We give voice to our own story. When I take the time to analyze why I like certain writers’ works—poetry or prose—I recognize that it is the sense of the specific, whether literal or figurative, that makes writing come alive, that makes it memorable to me as a reader.

  1. Writing creates community and revives the past.

While many people see writing as a solitary activity, it can also make us part of a community in many ways. McClanahan likens writing to “hosting a party where all the people you have known, been, or imagined show up at your door.”

This idea particularly resonates with me. One of my favorite features of the New York Times Book Review “By the Book,” is arranged in a Question/ Answer format. The interviewee, generally an author with a recent book publication, is usually asked which three authors he or she would invite to a literary dinner party. Because it’s an imaginary occasion, the option to bring together authors living and dead creates the potential for rousing dinner conversation.

My own writing gives me the chance to bring my grandparents and great grandparents back to life, to revisit old friends from the past, to preserve the stories they told me. In fact, through the attempt to write about them, I often uncover stories long lying fallow in my memory.

While many people write with no intention of publishing—or even sharing—others find a source of satisfaction is sharing with actual readers. My own poetry writing was rekindled when I started engaging in Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog, where I found a community of writers eager not only to share their own poetry but to read and to respond enthusiastically to mine.

In his book, Love and Death at the Mall, YA author Richard Peck said (and I paraphrase) that people read fiction for a sense of recognition. I believe people poetry for the same purpose. Certainly, we sometimes read to escape, but I think we’re also looking for ourselves or, more specifically, to confirm that others have felt the same way we have, have had the same heartaches and joys.

* * * * *

Part III: What keeps your from writing?

I’ll confess that when I hear of someone famous who didn’t publish until after the age of fifty, I feel a tremendous sense of relief. (I used to feel the same way when I was forty.) While some people see writing as very hard work, I actually enjoy writing, yet I find myself postponing writing sessions, or if I do write, I don’t finish what I begin.

In Chapter 1, McClanahan discuss why we don’t “write our hearts out.” What excuses do you make for yourself? I sometimes feel guilty, as if writing is a hobby that keeps me from doing the things I should be doing (laundry, yard work). Ironically, writing has permanence; chores have to be done over and over and over.

The most important point she makes is that nobody has time to write; everyone has to make time to write. She deals with misconceptions those little devils over our shoulders whisper in our ears—that we have nothing to serious to say, that we aren’t real writers unless we become published, rich, famous.

What do your voices tell you as they attempt to keep you from writing? Do you also have the little angel counterpart over the other shoulder saying, “Just sit your butt in the chair and start writing”? If so, listen to her.

* * * * *

Part IV: Making Time and Space to Write

Take a minute to imagine—and if you are willing to share, to describe–yourself in the place you feel most comfortable writing. Are you in a quiet place or is there music or the television playing in the background? Are you alone or are there others within your peripheral vision? Do you write best at home or in your office at work? Do you have a favorite coffee shop or library where you can write more productively?

Are you writing onto a screen with a keyboard or by hand? Do you prefer pencils ( I love Black Warrior pencils, freshly sharpened) or a particular pen? Yellow legal pad, spiral notebook, unlined journal? Do you write in bursts of paragraphs or do you start with lists? Do you add doodles?

At what time of the day are you most productive? How long do you write at a stretch? Do you set time blocks or minimum page lengths?

Next important question: How’s that working for you? If it is, then how can you make sure you can create that ideal environment on a regular basis? If it’s not, why not try to shake it up a little. Rebecca McClanahan had several suggestions in Chapter Two:

* Changing your writing location or moving from your chair to the bed. Some people find that using a standing desk is energizing.

* Set a timer. Decide how long you are going to write each day. One of my favorite North Carolina writers Ron Rash manages to write prolifically—novels, short stories, and poetry. I have heard that even when he’s on a book tour, he writes a minimum of two hours a day.

* Remember: thinking about writing isn’t the same as writing. You have to make an appointment with the page.

* Set a page length. Decide you’re going to stay at your station until you write a set number of pages (or words if you’re at the computer, which can count for you).

* Lower your standards. This suggestion from McClanahan implies that we may paralyze ourselves as we try to write masterpieces or polished drafts. Anne Lamott in her classic work on writing Bird by Bird has a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she recommends giving yourself permission to get it on a page first and to polish later. Computers simplify the process.

As an analogy, consider how your photography experiences has changed with the introduction of the digital camera (or camera phone). I remember how economical we had to be with camera film, not knowing if we got a good shot until we picked up prints at the drug store a week later.

In fact, I recall a fruit bowl full of exposed film canisters, as we put off printing them. Now most of us snap away, knowing that we can delete the bad shots—immediately. We don’t have to experience the regret of missing or blurring a priceless moment. I’ve heard that for professional photographers, the goal is one good shot out of six taken.

Applying that principle to our writing, then, what if we just “snapped away,” writing with the prospect of viewing the finished text later in order to mine for the jewels?

Take time this week to vary your writing practice to see what works for you. Rather than giving specific writing prompts, I suggest that if you don’t have a specific topic you plan to explore right now you should write about your writing habits and practices. Loosen up those stiff writing muscles if you necessary. By all means, log in and share this week, or email me at

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2015 11:05 pm

    Part I: What kind of writer are you?

    Nancy writes: I’ll get the ball rolling today, looking particularly at the first question. I think I’ve always been some kind of writer. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a pencil or pen in my hand. In a magical way, I feel as if the pencil becomes a part of my arm, and when I write some strange charge runs up and down my arm from my hand to my brain.

    When I was in elementary school, we had a bookstore on campus, and we were allowed to visit it during recess. That was back when we had a “play period” in which we were allowed to run wild for what seemed like hours. Our teachers may have had us in their sights at every moment, but we didn’t realize it. In fact, I think that would have been physically impossible because we spread out in every direction. We had our own cave inside a very large bush of some kind. We had a playground that would now be condemned as a physical danger. I believe one of my own peers, a fellow class mother, is responsible for having the old merry-go-round removed when our children were small. Not having attended the school herself, she had no idea the connection she was severing to our childhoods—gravel in our bloody knees, mud puddles. . .

    But I digress. I spend countless hours pouring over the pen and ink supplies in the bookstore. I did all my family Christmas shopping there. I still remember finding a pen that used gold ink. That wouldn’t be the serendipitous discovery today that it was in 1964 or ’65,

    I started writing letters to pen pals when our family moved out of town in the fourth grade—and I still write actual letters. I wrote poems—bad junior high girl poetry, not the love, dove, above variety, but my juvenile attempt at artsy, I imagine. I still have them in spiral note books, along with notebooks I kept of other people’s poems—real poets’ poems—that I loved. I am almost embarrassed when I remember that once in a school beauty pageant (enough embarrassment right there, even when you overlook that I was representing the Debate Club), my talent was reading my own poetry. At least I didn’t try a flat rendition of “Color My World,” my generation’s precursor to “My Heart Will Go On.”

    My own writing style has matured, and my taste in poetry has changed, but there are still many I loved back them that I still enjoy—and enjoy sharing.

    Being a reader shaped me into a writer, too. I simply loved books. In fact, I loved print. I read magazines. I read the paper. My eye was just naturally drawn to text.

    Lacking the structure that many people crave, I haven’t developed regular writing habits. I start so many more projects than I start. I have dozens of partially filled journals. I am all over the place. I have notebooks filled with poems, enough for several chapbooks and a collection or two. I just need to begin the selection process, weeding out, organizing.

    I have the beginnings or stories, the first draft of a complete novel and large chunks of others. One reason I was eager to start this particular project is that I could see how I could use the time not only to write but to reflect on my own writing practice, to find ways to take what I have and push on through to a satisfying end.

    I am enough of an extravert to know that I do want to write not just for the “private I” but for the “public eye.” Ironically, what I see my writing needs is an awareness of my audience. Several writing projects recently have called to my attention that I get so focused on what I have to say that I forget to ask, “Who would read this? What would they want to know? Why would anyone care? What do I hope my reader takes away?

    As I try to settle into my writing groove, I hope I will address this particular matter. I’m looking forward to getting some feedback from you too.

  2. June 1, 2015 11:24 pm

    How wonderful that you were always interested in writing! As you’ll see in my piece, I came to love writing late in life, but now I love it enough to make up for lost time. Loved this, Cuz!

  3. June 1, 2015 11:29 pm

    Week 1 of Writing Our Hearts Out

    Part 1 – The On-Again-Off-Again Writer

    The first Part of this journey reminds me of an assignment that I used to give my students at the beginning of the year. It was a wonderful assignment, but I can’t claim it as my own. One summer, I had the chore/pleasure of evaluating essays for a writing contest in Florida. I don’t remember the name of the contest, nor do I remember how long it took me to complete my assignment. All that I remember is one essay that gave me the idea for my assignment. The student wrote on and on about reading in his life. Voila! My writing assignment was born. The name of my assignment? Your Reading Autobiography. For some reason, writing about the kind of writer I am based on wonderful suggestions by Rebecca McClanahan in her book Write Your Heart Out and worked into our June and July project by my cousin, Nancy Posey, reminds me of that assignment, which, by the way, I completed right along with my students (wish I still had a copy!). And so on with the assignment and probably a peek into the significance of the title of Part 1.

    Saying that I love to write is certainly an example of litotes – understatement. But I haven’t always loved to write. In fact, writing was a chore for me throughout my formative years in public school. The only kind of writing that anyone taught me was the five-paragraph essay. I became an expert at that form! In college, we had only creative writing as a choice for a writing course, and I wasn’t interested in that. Still am not. For the first twenty-five or so years that I taught English, I still didn’t like to write, but I could teach a mean five-paragraph essay and research paper. It wasn’t until three wonderful teachers from Ft. Walton Beach, FL, came to Pensacola for a two-week writing-workshop that I learned to love writing. My students were my guinea pigs the next year for all the fun and educational assignments that my new best friends taught us. Why hadn’t I learned earlier to make writing fun for both my students and me?

    My husband and I have traveled literally all over the world, and do you know that I never kept a journal, except when we traveled in Europe with students? I kept journals then, mainly because I required them to keep them. How I wish that I had started in 1962, when we made our first trip together . . . even in December 1961, when we honeymooned in St. Augustine, FL. What a treasure I’d have if only I’d have loved to write back then. It was such a chore for me, and besides, it never entered my mind that I’d need to remember trips. My memory has always been so pitiful that writing surely would have helped with details. Frank remembers everything! Even without writing it down. Envy is NOT a Christian virtue, but I’m envious.

    So . . . am I an inveterate journaler today? Not by a long shot! I love the idea of keeping a journal religiously, but I’m just not disciplined enough. Maybe I’ll become so during our workshop this summer. My friend Ivana in Croatia has kept a journal or diary for years. I think it’s just a reminder of what she did that day. One time she mentioned that she didn’t know what would happen to all of her books of writing when she died. I almost volunteered to be the recipient, but then I remembered that it’s written in Croatian. Another friend, Claudia, has done the same thing, but I think she has lots of details in hers, including all of their visits to the doctor and prescriptions given to them. Hers, too, has details of the day. I thought she might share some pages from it when we traveled together in February, but when I suggested that we exchange journals (yes, I was keeping one), she just said something like, “Oh, we probably both wrote the same things.” Grrrrr . . . I wanted to read hers with details the way she saw them, and I wanted to see her writing style.

    During the past few years, ever since I joined Facebook, I have kept a journal, accompanied by photos, on that site. So much . . . but a lot of work because I’m known as The Mouth of the South, and I just don’t know when to quit . . . sort of like this epistle. I love being able to go back to these trips to remind myself of what we did and, of course, to see the photos!

    Some friends and a couple of family members have told me that they like to read my writing. The strange thing, though, is the fact that my immediate family (Frank, Wendy, Todd, Corey, Irina) very seldom tell me that they even read what I write, let alone like my writing. Sometimes I offer to read something to Frank after I finish, but usually I just get a grunt or a seemingly begrudging, “That’s good” afterwards if I ask him what he thinks. I know that they like what I write, but they are very much sparing in comments and certainly in compliments. I long for those comments and compliments, but I know they aren’t on the way. Every once in a while, when I read to Frank something that I’ve written about Jay, he wipes his eyes, and I know that I’ve struck a chord in him. I cherish those moments! The tears mean that he likes the piece.

    The main kind of writing that I do is memoir, mainly about Jay, our son, who died when he was 24, almost 23 years ago. Even before Jay’s death, though, I was writing memoir. I discovered an assignment based on a book that I bought at National Council of Teachers of English almost 30 years ago. The title of the book was Writing Your Life, and that’s exactly what my students did . . . they wrote their lives, and produced the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. I wrote right along with them, dedicating my book to our granddaughter, Corey, who was about four at the time. I wanted to save my life for our sweet little girl.

    As you can see, I’m not a very consistent writer. I have a great journal place that I wrote on for a while — Penzu. I still post there every once in a while. Maybe I’ll go back there during our workshop.

    So . . . where am I on my writing journey? I still refer to myself as a “writer wannabe,” but I suppose I’d have to classify myself as continuing. I have so many things that I want to write, and in this workshop, I’m sure that I’ll be able to write a few pieces that I can include in larger works. Thanks, Cuz (Nancy), for taking the plunge and getting us off to two months’ of writing adventures!

  4. June 3, 2015 2:18 am

    Week 1 of Writing Our Hearts Out

    Part 2 – Eight Years? I Can’t Believe It!

    When Jay died on July 2, 1992, almost immediately I had to find a way to begin the healing process. Understand that “healing” doesn’t mean forgetting. No, I never wanted to forget anything about my boy. I felt the Lord telling me to find books. I knew, and I believe firmly that God steered me in the direction of books, that I had to read. I had read from my earliest memories, and I taught high school seniors to love to read. So books were a natural. I called Martha Dickson, one of our church librarians, and asked her to help me on Sunday.

    Martha didn’t wait until I got to the library on Sunday, July 12, to start searching for books on grief; she had a stack of books for me with the ultimatum NOT to return them until I was finished with them – no due date on those volumes. And so began my healing process.

    I read and read and read some more, finding great consolation, especially from books written by parents whose children had died. After I finished all of the books that we had in our church library, I turned to Christian bookstores and began buying and building my own grief library. Some of the books I read more than once. I devoured them.

    In the preface of one of the books, a book whose title I can’t remember, had a confession from the mother. She told her readers that it had taken her eight years to get started on her book. What? Why so long? I didn’t understand. You see, I knew early on that I needed to write about Jay. You may not know this, but I have heard that one of a parent’s greatest fears after his or her child dies is that the memories will disappear. That just can’t happen! And so . . . parents write.

    And so I did, too. I almost immediately found solace in writing about Jay . . . in preserving my memories. I really don’t know how many pieces I’ve written about him. I don’t even know what to call the pieces. I guess essays comes the closest to a definition.

    I think the first thing that I wrote was a letter to people who had sent flowers and cards to us. In that letter, I told our friends and family about Jay’s death, the circumstances surrounding his death and how the hand of the Lord was on us the whole time. And then on the first anniversary of his death, I wrote a detailed account of the days leading up to his death. A bit strange, huh, but I was so much afraid that I’d forget details, and I’m sure that I did forget some . . . but not many.

    When I joined Facebook (2008, I think), I began a habit/tradition of writing something about Jay on February 10 (his birthday) and July 2 (the date of his death). I get my greatest joys about writing whenever I post something about him, especially on these days. His friends, Wendy’s friends, and our friends and family comment and many times reminisce, telling us what they remember about our boy and how much they still miss him.

    Sometimes people make comments about how difficult it must be to talk about Jay and to write my memories. Not so! This is the way I keep him alive. I’m afraid NOT to talk about and write about him. I surely don’t want to forget.

    Remember my comment about not understanding why the author took so long to write a book about her boy? Well, Jay has been gone for almost 23 years, and I STILL haven’t written my book. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I know what I’ll do. I even have a title for my book. It will probably be just a collection of the “essays” that I’ve been writing for years. I don’t know how I’ll organize it, but the title will be My Mom’s Always Hot! And the significance? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

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