Recently I crashed my good friend Elizabeth's MFA residency at Ashland University. I have had my MFA for more than a decade, yet I wish I had the time and money to go for another Degree. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a professional student..
One of the highlights of my two days as a stowaway is the craft talk presented by poet Ruth L. Schwartz. Her topic, entitled Ruth's Tips for writing Your Way out of the Paper Bag of Pain, describes ten aspects of effective writing. While she is a mentor in the poetry program, she reminds her audience the advice applies to all writing.
Each of us has shattering moments which drive us to write; the goal is to make transformative use of this pain.
This task includes a paradox:
1. No one else in the world has experienced what you have. The experience is unique
2. However, the is nothing you have experience Ed that has not been experienced by many other people in the same way.
Truth and Beauty exist in paradox. We are like kaleidoscopes, each of us fragmented in unique ways.
There only about 2-3 human stories. We want to write as if an event has never happened before, balancing the personal and the universal. Yet if we include too much personal detail, we run the risk of self pity and self indulgence. It's not about you.
Yet if we step too far away from the experience, we run the risk of being abstract.
In both cases, the writing is dull. Herein lies that paradox.
Adrienne Rich said, “the pain in the body is not the same as the pain in the sets. " We need to write where the edges blur between the self and the world.
Pain. Our instinct is to avoid it, back away. Let's agree to forget it.
Yet artists and writers must transform pain into art.
Our task is to take the base metals and turn them into gold, into powerful, effective writing that connects with the reader. Ruth quotes someone whose name I neglected to write down. “When you are in the depths of pain, it's hard to imagine how this could lead to beauty." (Ruth says she uses quotes because someone else has expressed this, and Ro ably better.)
Ruth's provides ten tips for Transforming pain into pleasure
1. Move the lens around. This means we need to focus our perspective with wide angle and macro lenses. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "the field cannot be well seen from within the field," or as Emily Dickinson writes, " tell the truth, but tell it slant."
2. Use the power of sensory experience. Details engage the reader so they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch the experience. This is especially important when writing about trauma.
3. Change disciplines. This advice reinforces it's not just about you: become and anthropologist , physicist, historian, etc. this is a means of moving the lens around by infusing facts . Like in an argument, this gives your poetry and prose credibility.
4. Expand and deepen your quality of vision and love. You must treat your subject, even pain, with love. She quotes [the great love of my life] Pablo Neruda, "you learn poetry moving step by step among things and beings, not isolating, but rather containing them all within a blind expansion of love."
5. Take calculated risks with emotionality. When writing about painful moments, we risk being overly sentimental, or "caring about something more than God does." we also risk detachment. She quotes poet Audre Lorde with, "the purpose of poetry[ or any writing] is to evoke feeling. To do that you have to be in contact with your own." a calculated risk is to stay as close to the emotional cliff as you can without falling off.
6. Self implicate- none of us is perfect, and it takes courage, yet it's necessary to own that.
7. Don't think you know too much. Writing is about finding what we don't know, not to show your audience you know everything. Francis Bacon sad, “the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery." Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai said, "We are all blind, but our poems are Seeing Eye dogs that lead us around."
8. Acknowledge complexity Robert Louis Stevenson said, " everything is true, only it's opposite is too, true; you must believe both equally, or be damned."
9. Remember what you write matters. - A lot. Each of our stories is a piece of the human story.
10. Strengthen your technical skills- word choice and syntax is crucial in poetry and prose alike. There is music in good writing. As Mark Twain said, " the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
An additional tip added after discussion is Do Not Judge. As writers we observe and report the experience, let the reader decide how he or she feels about it. Adding your own judgments weaken your authority. Remember 6 and 7.
At the end of her lecture she gives us an exercise.
She asks us to imagine. Photograph, and consider events around the moment the picture is taken. How old are you in the photo? She uses a photo of yourself at age 8.
Begin with the line
The best thing about being ..( age)
The worst thing was….
The best thing about the worst thing was….
In retrospect I would see ….
A social scientist might point out, or a mathematician would say( use some expert is something unlikely)….
An historian would say my family …
She asks us also to consider the history the year it s taken. What went on the year? Use quotes, or references to news stories
Between each line she gives us a minute or two to write.
Here is a DRAFT of my example. This is NOT a finished poem, so don’t judge me. And please don’t steal it.
[ still needs a title-Poem from Ruth Schwartz’s workshop]
The best thing about being thirteen is
I no longer have nightmares where the tiger hovers,
the moment before his teeth gnash my skin and I shriek awake.
The best thing about being thirteen is my long legs and slim waist.
I own the world and its inhabitants
Yet it is also the worst thing because my kingdom teeters
on stilettos when it still needs saddle shoes
It wears lipstick and a training bra
The world in my grasp but my hands are too big to fit inside my gloves
The best thing about the worst thing is my hands wear polish
Yet the worst thing was I didn't know
The gold would wear off
The polish cracked, exposed fragile layers
I didn’t know
the world was not minted by me
soldered to satisfy my precious planet.
Little did I know.
I was a speckle of dust, a measly spindle empty of thread.
Little did I know my mother would be dead in three years.
A social scientist might report that the self at that age is too selfish.
The geometry I created was a soft sided triangle,
the distance of my own importance greater than the sum of my years.
An historian would argue my train was due to be knocked off the tracks
In the year when college students demanded to ban the bomb and burn the bra
The tiger shredded me from the inside out.
Bonus Exercise: Mark Strand gives an exercise that starts with the line "a train runs over me.......
Make some beauty from your own pain.