Last July, I participate in Camp NaNoWriMo. During the course of the project I drafted and did a first revision of my novella Going Home (which is now in the later stages of revision) and as a reward to myself for completing the project I decided to purchase a book on writing. After some browsing, I settled on One Year to a Writing Life by Susan M. Tiberghien. I mainly chose it because I thought it had an interesting format; it contains 12 Chapters, each featuring one genre or aspect of writing, one for each month of the year. Each chapter contains a handful of writing exercises, to be done all at once or spaced out over the course of the month. I will be sharing the pieces produced by these exercises with you, as well as my thoughts on the exercises and the book as a general.
The first chapter of the book, which I worked through during the month of January, is about Journaling. I read through it once, without doing the exercises, right at the beginning of the month and I briefly contemplated actually keeping a daily journal. In the end I decided against it, simply because journals and I have never really gotten along. I’ve tried to keep a journal several times and it’s never lasted very long. The truth is, I don’t find it particularly enjoyable. If I have feelings I need to work through I tend to prefer just talking about them or channeling them into fiction. Furthermore, writing the sort of elegant, pensive prose that is generally quoted in this chapter about my own life and feelings just doesn’t feel natural to me. For me, making an effort to write beautifully is something I prefer to do when writing fiction or creative non-fiction, not when I’m simply chronicling my daily experiences. On the flip side, if I write a journal in a more matter-of-fact way, I end up getting quite bored with it instead. A brief chat with a friend is more cathartic to me and takes less effort. So in the end I decided not to try and journal every day, but to just do the exercises and try to take the lessons the chapter presented me with to heart.
The first of the six writing exercises in this chapter was, quite simply, to write a journal entry in a 10-minute freewrite. Since I had decided, as mentioned above, not to journal daily and instead just do the exercises, a problem occurred. The problem was this: if you add “Write Journal Entry for Exercise 1” to your to-do list, chances are you’re going to find yourself thinking about that journal entry a lot before you actually sit down to write it, which to a certain extent ruins the spontaneous nature that one would expect a journal entry to have. I personally have a tendency to do a lot of writing in my head when I’m working on a new idea, and I was worried that I would do the same with this exercise and then subconsciously improve the entry when I actually typed it out. I ended up postponing the exercise for a few days because of this, but then I decided to ignore this problem and simply try to “go with the flow”. I did “head-write” the entry before I typed it down, but rather than to see that as a problem I simply tried to reconnect with the feelings I’d had while “head-writing” and let them come through while typing. I confess I was a little choked up by the end of it, so I must’ve managed to capture some authenticity of feeling even if it was, in a way, my second time writing it. Here is the entry:
January 10th, 10:30 pm
After a largely irritating day at work I met Sari for a cup of something hot at the mall. Dark hot cocoa with chili, as has become my habit. It is exquisite although I kept getting it down the wrong pipe and interrupting myself with coughing. It amazes me how spending time with her never changes. That is to say, it always changes, life always changes, we’re always changing but spending time is always there, always the same. Even now, with everything that’s going on, she remains my darling sister from another mother, my North Star, my soul-mate (maybe one of several, but a soul-mate none the less). For a while I think I was worried, without really realizing it, that she would stop being that now that she’s going to be a mom, that I would stop being her sister and just be a friend like any other, someone who doesn’t quite get it and whose company becomes more and more scarce. The last few weeks I’ve grown more and more convinced that this won’t be the case. When we spend time together I state this plainly, or jokingly, although with some relief but afterward on the bus, just like the last time we met at the mall, I found myself choking up on the bus home. Who’s the hormonal one anyway? I think it’s always been me. I feel more strongly than ever that I am right, that family is something you make yourself and not determined by genetics. Biological relations may increase one’s chances of knowing a person intimately, but in the end love, companionship, shared experiences and values, laughter and tears, secrets and half-boring afternoons passed together are so much thicker than blood, water be damned. A while back I would think that maybe now I would be left out, when all’s said and done, that I would have only my blood relatives (whom I do love dearly) and that my chosen family was now lost to me. Now I choke up thinking of auntie Emma’s darling Mini, who I think I already love so dearly and whose approaching arrival into the world fills me with an anticipation that mixes the nervousness of waiting for the results of an exam and the excitement of waiting for Christmas. I itch to see her with my real eyes, not my mind’s eye. A piece of living, breathing flesh, pink and wrinkled and most likely utterly adorable. Thoughts like this make the idea that maybe I will only ever be an awesome aunt (blood or not), part of a village, a family, but maybe I’ll never be a mother myself, almost bearable, at least for now.
It seems a little overly dramatic now that I’m reading it after the fact, but what’s the point of a journal entry if not to capture emotions when they are still raw and unprocessed?
Exercise 2 was to read a couple of journal entries that were quoted in the chapter and to circle the images that appealed to you, so I don’t really have anything to show you for that one. I did circle a hawk, though. Just so you know.
For Exercise 3 the reader is instructed to pick an image that they like from Exercise 1 (like in Exercise 2, but with your own journal entry) and then writing a short description (10 minute free-write) based on that image. I initially had a bit of confusion because I accidentally read the instructions for Exercise 5 instead, which as you’ll see below is quite similar. After realizing my mistake, I picked the image of the baby and wrote the following:
The infant lay on a maroon blanket, curled up into a little ball. Her skin was pink and still wrinkled in places, like a little old lady. Wispy black hair, present since birth, stood up on her head. A primitive mohawk for a rocker baby in a green onesie. The green suits her, just like it always has her mother. There is a skull and crossbones embroidered on the chest, now smushed against the blanket. Her eyes, big and dark, are little slits, in a state of near-sleeping. She makes me think of all the times we’ll watch Disney movies and I’ll try not to cry.
It turned out rather short for a 10-minute freewrite.
Exercise 4 was a non-written exercise and involved drawing a sort of mandala with an image from your text in the center of it. I’ve never had much faith in my visual artistic ability, but on the other hand I like drawing abstract things so I broke out my watercolor pencils and went to town:
I’ll admit it’s not very mandala-ish, but it’s abstract and has an image from my text in the middle so I’m happy anyway. It was quite fun to draw.
Exercise 5 is a lot like Exercise 3, except that instead of just describing the image you’re supposed to “shape it into a story” in a 10 minute free-write. I wrote this short exchange:
“Well, Mini.” I said and plopped down on the couch. “It’s just you and me, now.”
She gurgled and peered at me from the play-mat on the floor, trying to shove a chubby fist into her mouth. She looked more like her dad, with wispy dark hair standing nearly in a mohawk on her head, but I thought I could see some of her mom in her too. I’d never been very good at pinpointing why one person looked like another exactly, but I could see her somewhere there in those cheeks.
I shifted from the sofa, and sat down on the floor by the mat.
“So what should we do?” I asked, giving her nose a little poke, careful not to scratch her with my long nails. She looked surprised. “Should we play?” I asked, and tickled her under her chin. This elicited a glorious baby-giggle, her body jiggling in the green onesie. “Yeah? You like that?” I tickled her again, under her chin, then her side, her belly and her little feet. She cooed, squirmed, giggled and drooled, in no particular order.
“Ticklish feet, huh? Just like your auntie.” I said, taking a little foot in my hand and planting a kiss on the sole. “Just like auntie!” I repeated, making a face and raising my voice as if I was saying something really exciting and interesting.
“Agagag!” She exclaimed, apparently agreeing with me.
“Agag!” I agreed back. “You know, it’s nice to talk to someone who gets me.”
“Exactly! Now… where’s that rattle of yours?”
Re-reading the piece now I realize my phrasing sort of went bananas in the beginning of the scene, but I wanted to put the exercises up in their unedited form (unless the exercises themselves call for editing).
Exercise 6 was, much like Exercise 1, to write a journal entry in a 10-minute freewrite. This time, though, the instruction was to “go deeper”, emotionally. Honestly, I couldn’t really think of how to go deeper with an exercise like this so I just wrote instead. I wouldn’t say either of the two exercises are more or less deep than the other.
January 31st, 21:30
It’s been snowing lately. I was walking from the bus towards my parents’ flat to have dinner and watch a TV show, fuming over something that happened with work, and I crossed over a street that doesn’t get a lot of pedestrians. The path I took hadn’t been walked on in a while, the snow was smooth and untouched. I love snow like that. I love walking on snow like that, crossing it when there isn’t a mark on it yet except from the wind. One might think it’d make me feel sad, knowing once I’ve crossed it it’s no longer untouched but I don’t mind that. I just watch the bit in front of me, smooth and glittering in the moonlight. It makes me happy. It’s doing something for the first time. First times are special. First kiss, first job, first child. First book published. You can only walk on the untouched snow once. But the nice thing is, there will be more untouched snow. The next day, the next week, the next year, the next decade you’ll get to walk on untouched snow again. Write another book. Have another child. Change careers. Nothing is new under the sun but everything is new when snow sparkles in the moonlight. Everything is crisp and fresh and glitters. It has been a tough week. I have been angry a lot. I have wanted to give up. But I think maybe right now I need to treat my existence like the snow and look only at the half that glitters, ignore the half that’s trodden on, just for a while.
I kind of like it.
So what is my general impression of One Year to a Writing Life after reading the first chapter and doing the exercises? Well, some of the reviews I read about the book before buying it called it “New Age”-ish. Although I don’t mind a bit of New Age in my daily existence, I’d say a more accurate description is to say that it puts a lot of focus on the spiritual and emotional sides of writing, as opposed to the technical, practical, financial and other sides. I don’t mind that. Additionally, I feel that it sort of caters to a romanticized ideal of writers as people who stroll around orchards and muse over the color and texture of stones and leaves they find in their path before going home and sitting down with a pen and paper to write down their thoughts. Personally, I’m more the sort of writer who plops down in my computer chair after work and start typing while munching on a chocolate bar, so to a certain extent I feel a bit estranged from the image of the writer that’s presented in the book. In spite of this slight disconnect, my first impression of the book was a pretty good one. I would’ve perhaps liked a bit more original insights (a good part of the chapter involved presenting and commenting on what others had said about journaling), but on the other hand I found the exercises both fun and challenging. I really enjoyed how the exercises hung together and sort of developed from each other, and I hope that keeps being the case in later chapters, too. In spite of the heavy emphasis this chapter put on journaling for authors, I felt that there were two points that superseded the notion of journaling. Namely, that an author should write regularly, preferably even daily, and that an author should be willing and able to explore their emotions deeply while writing. I already try to make a habit of writing daily. I also have a tendency to, when I feel the need to write about my feelings, project them onto some character (whether a pre-existing one or a “dummy” I make up for the occasion) and write about it in the third person. I think in future I will try to explore a more journal-like style in the first person for such occasions. I think might be a very useful exercise for me.
The second chapter of One Year to A Writing Life, which I started reading a few days ago, deals with Personal Essays. I am largely unfamiliar with that genre so I look forward to exploring it over the next few weeks.