Both Nicole Cooley’s The Afflicted Girls and Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica contain simultaneously subtle and startling conflict, as does all of history. Conflict often represents the spaces where history has dumped the fragments of its mystery. It would be difficult for poetry to convey an imagined history without a conflict, a mystery, as a source of energy.
In between the how it was and how it should be, that’s where “the other voice” exists, and I think that’s why most books do not contain a perfect reconciliation, and shouldn’t. That “other voice,” the rare voice that a poet possesses, recognizes and honors the gaps. More correctly, anyone who has made it their profession to be a channel for “the other voice,” using any literary genre, is charged with both the power and responsibility for being such an important vessel . “What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative process” (Delistraty, Thought Catalog.com), therefore channels for “the other voice” function within a type of constant personal conflict, their own mysterious conditions.
My thesis and capstone project were practices in the writing life. I worried about time, money, the availability of books and other resources, the meaning of quotes within the larger concepts of my project design, audience, my health, the health of others whom depend on me, my participants, the service organization leaders, the weather, the landlord of the venue where I presented my workshop, my mentor and advisor’s responses, and the words, words, words. Each aspect of my project was a mechanism inside my giant professional writing life machine, a machine that has only recently been fully developed to begin functioning fluidly. And I must care for each piece, the tiniest to the most influential. I managed the conflict with discipline in order to channel and successfully deliver my writing voice.
While writing, revising, structuring, incubating, and thinking about the documentation for my project, my personality traits that have always bothered me, those traits that are so intrinsically me, became more acceptable, more impressive, instead of burdensome. I have grown fond of the me that cannot be masked with new clothing or by faking laughter at some joke I pretended to hear – when I was all the while completely involved in contemplating the mesmeric white smile, the absolute joy effusing from a twenty-something woman, whose personality and behavior appeared ineffably genuine, totally resistant to varying social climates inside the restaurant. The dark kinky-haired woman was sitting alone, next to a mysterious plastic garden goose, dressed in a green and white suit and donning a name tag that read, “Lucy.” The woman’s arms suddenly, precariously flew up into the air when her soprano voice screamed out “BINGO!”
My story writing habits are simply clicks of my brain’s natural behavior, and though I may often be lonely, alone with my ruminations, even while in a group of people playing BINGO, situations are depicted through story form in my mind, whether I want them to be or not.
Stories develop, expose and articulate the conflicts, and allow the victims and heroes, saints and sinners their voices and perspectives, through both facts and imagination. Documented history does not know itself as story. It needs a writer, a poet, to release it to everyone. After all, “A great mystery: the poem contains poetry only if it doesn’t keep it; the poetry must be given, shared, poured out like the wine from a bottle and water from a pitcher” (Paz, 154). Language gets inside us. It is felt, heard and seen in the most sensitive and intimate ways possible. Like Paz wrote, “Unlike a painting, a poem shows no figures: it is a verbal incantation that provokes in the reader or hearer a spray of mental images. Poetry is heard with the ears but seen only with the mind” (Paz, 154). If not interpreted by a poet, or a creative writer, documented history has less potential to penetrate our perspectives and our futures. Thanks to mastery channels like Dove and Cooley, “the other voice” has been sensed and interpreted for us; yet, as deeply appreciated and necessary as writers are, writers are not without risk .
The hardware of a writer’s life is sensitive. The mechanics are arduously manipulated and cared for in order to function at their best. In order to provide the smoothest ride, the writer must be sure that each part of her vessel, each activity of her tires, motor, exhaust system, fuel pump, are agile, flexible, elastic, and available for the journey, long, short, bumpy, or easy-going, when “the other voice” comes through. Art has a way of coming through writers, like water through a sieve, like a train through a tunnel, but the writer must be equipped with the finest sensory monitors and mechanical skills in order to interpret and transcribe its presence for others. “Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at the time that we are reading . . . the inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it” (Gornick, 164), therefore writers must be available to absorb and translate what they read, feel, and observe, while readers must be ready, bags packed and minds eager, to take the ride.
During the exchange, writers risk exposure to criticism, once readers are behind the wheel. Their words could be driven off an Arizona cliff or crash into unsuspecting citizens like drunken drivers at 3 a.m. Their books could incinerate on impact with the publishing house or editors’ pens, but, still, writers continue to dedicate their lives to manifesting the art, laboring over the words, lines, paragraphs, chapters, attempting to ensure survival, as well as ensuring that it is sensual and accessible for readers. And naturally, they do this out of an in-born enigmatic desire.
Even if the risks are so great that their lives are in danger, persecution is eminent, their relationships are gravely neglected, their finances are indecently unstable, writers cannot ignore the desire to create through words, so possessing the voice becomes their greatest joy and their greatest pain. And when a writer wants to instruct others, to transplant the joy of writing into other bodies, she wonders, like I do, if writing can truly be taught.
Within her book, The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick announces a profound claim: “You cannot teach people how to write–the gift of dramatic expressiveness, of a natural sense of structure, of making language sink down beneath the surface of description, all that is inborn, cannot be taught–but you can teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others” (Gornick, 159). I don’t want to, but I do agree with Gornick, because I know that you cannot teach passion for writing, just as you cannot teach passion for auto mechanics or science or hairdressing. You cannot implant desire. One can only motivate others to realize a satisfying relationship with writing.
I know, from reading and editing my friend’s essays and articles written for her master of science course assignments, that elaborate description does not come easily to people who are not naturally passionate about writing. Though she is profoundly skilled at research papers, and writing structured around analytical content related to social science topics, she is never eager to write personal essays, and she often uses “the dangerous method” to complete the work as quickly as possible. Either my friend dislikes the practice of creative writing all together, or she has an aversion toward the craft due to the great stress placed upon her by authorities who dictated and exploited her enthusiasm and pleasure with writing, as Dunlap suggests, (though a mixture of both conditions may apply).
Most elements of the creative writing craft have come naturally to me, but I’ve been writing and reading for pleasure since I was a small girl, despite the rigid systems employed by some of my teachers. My friend, though well-read, may have only started writing as assigned in school, a place where all too many stipulations and regulations are placed on the generation of writing, and a place where kids and adults are shamed for writing freely, exploring the depths of their imagination’s wells, and are kept from having any true autonomy within their writing. I experienced overbearing stress when writing school assignments, which is the reason that most of my passionate writing occurred outside of the classroom.
Later, during adulthood, “many of us feel intimidated when people we write for have control over our jobs or our future” (Dunlap, 14), therefore we have a great need for Gornick’s book, focusing on the development of an authentic voice in order to produce an effective narrative, and Dunlap’s tools, helping many people regain their voices which were lost to institutional oppression. Novice creative writers, like my friend, are taking risks, even if subtle, when they begin exploring their relationship with writing. Since their experiences with writing are attached to feelings of defeat, fear, and shame, love for writing, the desire that writers cannot ignore, or, at least, a desire for a respectful relationship with writing, must develop just as strategically and carefully.
During her book, Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider describes both the risks and gifts of writer’s workshops. From reading her book, I recognized that my workshop participants may have felt a sense of danger about exposing themselves through language, but the opportunity to share literary gifts through their versions of “the other voice” was the incentive. Their voices represent the voiceless of those they serve (as fosters and volunteers for an animal rescue organization, Pit Sisters), therefore using language to provoke their mission is intrinsic to their work. My job has been to circulate the creative vibration, and set them to the motion of creative writing, in order to generate and use their most valuable tools, their flashlights, the words and imaginations. I will always need to help others feel “safe to say the things they want to say, instead of hiding them in order to self-censor” (Dunlap, 20).
Maybe, my writer’s workshop has been nothing more than a creative way of contributing to the artistic values of my community. And even if it were only about circulating a good relationship with creative writing, it would be difficult for me to ignore the obvious reticence to explore personal voices and language. The trepidation that I have already encountered revealed that even people who sign up for an online journaling workshop are immediately uncomfortable with the process of simply writing a short guided bio. Learning how to uncover the specificity of individual voice and thought, and to express those unique and valuable views and visions through word, was far from the participants minds, as I witnessed during the workshop. The participants were so worried about the rules, judgment, and the sophistication of their writing that their learning process never began. Their voices were chained to the crude walls inside the dungeons of their memories of criticism and derision.
Though novice writers, each claimed to be avid writers, if not currently, in the past. Each claimed to be impassioned by journaling and writing essays, stories, poetry, and letters, yet until the final week of the four-week workshop, no one, other than me, responded to the prompts (administered for personal growth) in any in-depth, comprehensive way. The few that finally began asserting their voices, showing the rest of us who they were through word, often stated that the pieces they submitted were old, “from years ago,” or expressed concern that what they were revealing about themselves was too risky. Their writing, save for some very powerful and provocative lines and conceptions, was composed of “stale metaphors, similes, and idioms” strung together by “an accumulation of stale phrases choking them like tea leaves blocking the sink” to the point which “words and meaning have almost parted company,” as stated by George Orwell in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” (Orwell, 5). Most expressed confusion and disillusionment with the practice of critiquing another participant’s work. They were afraid to say what they really meant to say, or they couldn’t find a way to release the words, so they blurted out short lines of pseudo-poetic value and responded to other’s work with complete praise and absolutely no thoughtful, constructive criticism.
My assessment is not of the skill and passion possessed by each participant. Though I persistently supported them in making the decision to free their voices, responded in great detail and carefulness to each posting and piece of writing, I did not recover writings that were free from oppression and fear, institutional, or otherwise. Therefore, my criticism arrives out of a keen observation of fear. If they each had a passion for writing, their desires were disguised by fear. If not for fear, wouldn’t writers simply write what they mean? Wouldn’t they just take the time to find the words to express themselves through writing, no matter the genre? As well, I am not a novice writer. Most of the group claimed to be practiced writers, but still novice. The difference in experience levels could have persuaded me to believe that fear existed more overtly than it really did, but the final evaluations that were shared among the entire group clearly indicated an outstanding fear of expression, a fear of oppression if one “moved to risk their voice” (Dunlap, 23).
As Pat Schneider suggests, a sense of danger can impede the process of writing, especially when the group is comprised of mixed experience levels and educations. Combined with a fear of releasing the truth from their guts and minds, the places where the oppressor attacks with silent weapons introduced to enact submission, a group as diverse as the one I encountered can withhold their words because they are ashamed of their lack of sophistication. If they are battling a fear of subjugation manifesting from judgment, as well as a fear of the words themselves, then it is the job of the instructor to help them untangle their “knots of silence” weighing them down.
And maybe this group of adult women, seasoned in life experiences and rich with wisdom, were simply playing a role of naivety, of inexperience and powerlessness because they were afraid to stand out like they know they could, like they may have many times in the past. Several listed experiences which depicts them as honorable, strong, courageous, full of dignity and worth, yet they weren’t able to expand, or became tight-lipped and secretive with their words during discussions. If they would have released themselves into language, I may have experienced “the ripples of writing expanding invisibly and constantly in all directions, even more powerful because they reach us at our innermost self,” as described by Antonio Munoz Molina during his response to the question: “Does Writing Change Anything?” (Pen America, 19). If they disguised their voices inside an alter-ego, I wish they had chosen their “super hero alter egos” instead.
The super hero alter ego is the one that adolescent and teen girls would have to develop and personify if they want to learn and grow as writers within creative writing programs, such as Girls Write Now and Women Wonder Writers, both non-profit organizations established for the intent purpose of fostering a healthy relationship with art and writing for at-risk and underprivileged girls. But, like the adults in my online writer’s workshop, they would first possess a desire for writing before they even thought of risking their voices for the life of their valuable stories. “Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes persona” (Gornick, 6). Student writers must want to become the narrators of their own stories before they can learn how to craft them for others. They must possess a desire to receive and process art through themselves, which means that they would also possess a desire to learn the craft which produces the ultimate effect on the world. And, sometimes, those who have made the decision to accept these conditions will grapple with the question: Why write? Why invent the characters and personas or fill in the gaps of history with imagination? Why should we tell our stories at all? Maxine Hong Kingston answers this question during the introduction of Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace:
“We tell stories and we listen to stories in order to live. To stay conscious. To connect one with another. To understand consequences. To keep history. To rebuild civilization . . . it is in words that each individual reveals a unique mind. The veterans needed to write. They would write the unspeakable. Writing, they keep track of their thinking; they leave a permanent record. Processing chaos through story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby, I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world. The writer becomes a new person after every story, every poem; and if the art is very good, perhaps the reader is changed, too. Miraculous transformations!”
Writers must want to experience the answers to their questions, not just see it or hear it. They must become the answer through the process of creating and receiving it, in order for the evidence to appear, in order to realize Salman Rushdie’s articulated response to the question, “Does Writing Change Anything?”: “the power of books to inspire both love and hate is an indication of their ability to make alterations in the fabric of what is” (Pen America, 10); and “literature brings information, the base metal of information, transmuted into the gold of art. And our knowledge of the world is forever altered by such transformation or alchemy” (Pen America, 11). Like Kingston’s veteran’s writing group, they must desire to release their stories, channel them through word and voice, vivid scene and bodily sensation, even if they are novice or non-professional writers. But even if the desire for accepting or creating the answers to the question isn’t present, writing is also therapeutic.
The girl writers of Girls Write Now and Women Wonder Writers, as well as the men and women veteran writers, know that through writing explorations a consequential cathartic experience occurs. As described on the website, The Center for Journal Therapy advocates claim that through the transmission of word to page, mind to language, “it is believed that by recording and describing the salient issues in one’s life, one can better understand these (troubling) issues and eventually diagnose problems that stem from them. Journal therapy has been used effectively for grief and loss; coping with life-threatening or chronic illness; recovery from addictions, eating disorders and trauma; repairing troubled marriages and family relationships; increasing communication skills; developing healthier self-esteem; getting a better perspective on life; and clarifying life goals” (Adams, journaltherapy.com). Therapists, including my social worker friend, use journal therapy in order to help clients clarify confusing feelings and memories, release tension, and reorder or refresh perspectives, results which I have personally witnessed.
Even if little attention is given to craft, other writing organizations, such as Women Writing for A Change, an organization for which a personal friend of mine instructs writing, “encourages writing as a process of self-discovery and self-expression—a celebration of the individual voice,” as announced on their website (Womenwriting.org). Therefore, whether one intends to share their stories for the prescribed purpose of publishing literature for a world-wide audience, or they are merely using language as a tool for self-expression and stress relief, their voice transcribed onto the page documents their life, a biography of everyone’s history, as it reveals mystery.
Alvarez discounts the “Freudian theory of art as compensation and self-therapy”: “I myself believe that this is the exact opposite of truth: you don’t shed your sickness, you dredge them up in writing and thereby make them readily available to you, so that you find yourself living them out. Nature, that is, always imitates art, usually in a sloppy and exaggerated way” (Alvarez, 112). I agree with Alvarez’s statement, if only because I know that through my own memoir writing I have pulled up ghastly and tormenting latent memories shaped like globular buds, like massive onions. Writing, as metaphorically explained to me by my former instructor, and similarly described by other masterful writers that I have read, can be likened to the process of gardening: some roots you pull at may easily release from the surface of the soil, while you may spend days, weeks, even years pulling at others, their tendrils curled and weaved so strongly inside clay and soil. Once you’ve pulled them, you can fully appreciate the original reason that you planted them so far inside the ground, because it was never your intention to create a garden of onion weeds.
Since naming my gigantic onion bulbs, and exploring the old garden of childhood soil, all of my weeds are more manageable. The more I wrote about my mother, the more she became less scary, less malevolent and enigmatic. My hand clicked upon the keyboard for days, weeks, years, until I had painted the most truthful picture of my thoughts and imagination through words. When the words wouldn’t flow, when I wanted to shut down, close off the valve of my memories, heroic “Tough Girl” sent me life rings of words to spray on the page in place of anxiety and frustration. My mother cannot haunt my memories, if I set her free through written expression.
The results of excavating your weeds can be transformational, too, but weeding is only part of the writing method, as exploration. Writing as an art form is not a substitute for therapy – “in order to make art out of deprivation and despair the artist needs proportionately rich internal resources and proportionately strict control of his medium” (Alvarez, 113). If it is the intention of the artist to make art from their experience of tragedy, or any other grand emotional experience, then we “have to exhaust the emotion before (we) feel clinical enough to analyze and project it,” as Truman Capote explained during an interview: “as far as I’m concerned that’s one of the laws of achieving true technique” (Hill, The Paris Review). A writer may need help in order to “exhaust the emotion” before they can move more closely toward the art. Caring for their many parts, their whole vessel, is essential to a writer’s life. The mechanic must safely discard unwanted or unusable materials, so too, a writer must decide the best process for discarding their weeds. The Girls Write Now program website describes a therapy component for their mentees, which they offer to assist in this critical part of the process:
“We want our mentees to bring their whole selves to their writing, to be fully present in their work and mentoring relationships, but we recognize that to do so requires our support. So we offer mental health resources and services through a panel of pro bono licensed mental health professionals available to consult with Girls Write Now staff and mentors, to provide ongoing training for all mentors, and to counsel select mentees. Our Therapy Panel enables staff and mentors to focus on our mission—writing and mentoring—while recognizing the multi-dimensional nature of a trusting mentoring relationship and the holistic needs of teen girls, making it possible to thrive academically and creatively under difficult circumstances.”
Therapy, as a part of a transformative and rigorous writing program, such as Girls Write Now, is a helpful service, as it assists in maintaining a well-balanced and confident writing life. Writing is therapeutic, but writing is not therapy, and I would not insist that any participant of my workshops view writing as such. However, releasing stress and tension is a valuable result of the type of writing workshop that I have designed.
Through a fluid process that helped others gain a rich and pleasurable relationship with language, my workshop was designed to help fellow writers and activists traverse through my personal creative writing tornado. As I described during my first blog entry, I hope that others look to me as a source of inspiration and knowledge, reach out, dip their hands inside my circulation of poetic vision, imagery, texture and sensation. I want them to experience the creative writing instructor me, the one I have created out of poet-tough-girl’s transcendent experiences with novels, poetry, essays, instructional manuals, all the wisdom contained inside the swirl of my life’s story. As I touch down, I want to spread and collect knowledge, remember who I really am by reuniting with other brilliant lights, each blending their flames together in order to expose the world to a light much greater than our own. I want to teach others what I know is true: expressing themselves through creative writing will empower and inspire them and provoke their audiences to acknowledge the personal messages of their mission. “Any progressive social change must be imagined first, and that vision must find its most eloquent possible expression to move from vision to reality.” (Espada, Introduction).
A writer is someone who writes. A professional writer is someone who works constantly at writing. Unsilencing oneself through written language does not mean that one must live the life of a professional writer, nor does it mean that the person should continue being haunted by writing myths. My workshop has debunked the myths about writing and writers, facilitated knowledge of literature and craft, and helped untangle the “knots of silence” by inducing empowerment through activities that encourage freedom of self-expression, pleasurable relationships with language, imaginative explorations, and evidence of the power of the written word.
I am someone that is fascinated by creative writing instructional tools and methodologies. I am driven by an urge to teach novice writers a process for uncovering and sharing their extraordinary stories to reveal the power of words, and I am always looking for an opportunity “to be inspired by ordinary human beings made by God who undergo suffering but who have the courage to imagine a different future and are willing to fight for it, and to decide to fight along with them” (West, 38). Word addict or not, I am being exactly who I really am.
Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”