Writing is not magical, it’s hard work, and yet, to allow our mind to float easily, start with a blank slate or what the Buddhist call the beginner’s mind, that is what Process calls for. Most poetry and writing workshops focus on Product. Work that has been written during the week is usually read in a classroom situation, copies are passed out, and class members and teacher critique the work. The focus is usually on how to make that particular work better. Helpful hints are offered, lines that could be changed or cut, rearrangement of stanzas, different words perhaps. And, it’s all helpful, but confusing as well, for what often happens is there are so many suggestions, tips on this and that, the writer takes in all the suggestions and just like that, their individual voice is lost and the end result is a “group piece.” A good instructor will try to focus most comments to a larger purpose, so that individual criticisms can be applied to everyone’s work in general. And so, this is the way it unfolds, each class member works every second or third class. They read, get feedback and edit.
Studying with me is a very different experience. The very foundation of all writing, every single piece, begins with the student “showing up,” which means, spending a certain amount of time staring at a blank piece of paper, as M.S. Merwin is fond of staying. This includes a computer screen.
I ask that each student “show up” five days a week and email me what they have written. Then, each day they get feedback on the exercise they are working on. In this way, each student receives the individual instruction that is needed. Once a week, we will speak at an appointed time for 50 minutes or there about.
I am not as interested in the specific Product as I am working on specific Process. By working through process, a student can achieve greater results in product, and bring greater variety and power to their work. However, the concept of process can be hard to deal with theoretically, since the word itself is vague and refers to a way of working that is sometimes hard to explain. This process is analogous to sculpture, it takes away what need not be there and leaves something like a fingerprint, only the student could have created. We work in a clear, step-by-step approach, with checks along the way so that it doesn’t end up in a muddle.
It is important to understand that each exercise is part of a larger approach to Process. The focus is always on the exercise, and not on the product itself. As the student works from week to week, they will eventually discover a creative approach to their work that will transcend the working out of any particular piece. It is most important that each person realize this, and not get bogged down in seeking validation. I teach how to write and the work is a residue of the Process throughout that particular exercise. Every living person has a story to tell. Sometimes it comes through the novel, sometimes through the poem. The student has to trust that everything they need is already recorded to memory. It is a journey for which I hold their hand all along the way.
Each week the student will work on a different use of their voice. “Straight Talk” is the reporting voice. No deep voice, no deep tones, just straight ahead reporting. Whether or not the piece is good is irrelevant, though a welcome bonus when it comes. What I am interested in is how well the student works on the particular exercise. Having established their ability to do “straight talk” whenever they want, and consistently, we will move the voice along by focusing on “The Deep Voice” using transformation lines, but also using language that is rich and poetic and all that other fancy stuff I would have told them not to do in “Straight Talk.” However rich and poetic and dense they can get, now is the time. Again, this is not a competitive exercise. They are developing their ability to use language in a way that is not straight talk, but a deeper diction, and it is important for each person to see how far they can go with this before their work becomes top-heavy and breaks down, or loses its sense of truth. Each person needs to know this. They need to stretch, develop those vocal muscles, and have an understanding within themselves of what they are capable of doing. It is necessary to push to the limits, to go beyond, so that we can find that point where the work gets over the top and becomes too much.
The surest way to fail at the working of this process is trying to write that great piece. Each week, we will evaluate how well a student is doing with any particular exercise, and what other aspects of that exercise they could continue to work on. It’s not even about doing it right?there is no one right way to do it. There’s only developing that way of working and trying to get as much as possible out of the exercise. It would be foolish to think that after one week of working out, you’d suddenly be in shape, or that you’d have the exercise down pat. Theoretically, it’s possible to work on each exercise for weeks, for months, before they would have explored all its possibilities.
Next we will work with the “big voice”?the speech-making voice of Martin Luther King “I have a dream” voice, the Ginsburg’s “Howl” voice. This is the voice that speaks from the hungry heart, sotto voce, one to one, the deep confessions and the dark testimonies of guilt and innocence. American writers are rather shy and reserved when it comes to raising their voice in rhetorical splendor—the speech-making power of persuasion and exhortation. Especially in this age, our politicians are reduced to the “cool” voice of the television set. Yet, there was a time when our public figures spoke with the voice of Greek and Roman poets who knew the power of the sung phrase to persuade and move an audience to action. It’s an old voice, the ancient voice of the poet who literally “sings” for his supper, if not for the nation. Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Congress in St. John’s Church on March 23, 1775 ignited the American Revolution. It was a fine spring day, and 122 of the colony’s delegates where assembled in the Richmond church to vote on a series of resolutions. A crowd had gathered outside to listen to the deliberations. A resolution was on the floor that the colonies prepare a plan of defense and armaments. When Patrick Henry rose to speak, he held no notes in his hands, his voice quiet and sincere, but soon the speech began to smolder and ended in a blaze of passion. A Baptist clergy-man present wrote that “the tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations.”
The last in this series is called “Absence of Field.” This is where many of the most significant new forces in poetry have taken place since the rise of Modernism and “Language” poetry that has generated more discussion than any other literary movement in recent decades.
I will give you the nuts and bolts, the hammer and the nails of writing.
I know it’s all clear as mud right now, but stick with it and your voice will move and slide as easily as a trombone. And there is good news: this is just the beginning. Oh, I have so much for you to learn. Robert Frost said, “There are two kinds of language: the spoken language and the written language; your everyday speech which we call the vernacular, and a more literary, sophisticated, artificial, elegant language that belongs to books. We object to anybody’s talking in this literary, artificial English; we don’t object to anybody’s writing in it. We rather expect people to write in a literary, somewhat artificial style. I, myself, could get along very well without this bookish language altogether.”
Most of all, students are not competing with anyone. There is no such thing as better or worse. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to evaluate such an intricate thing as one’s overall performance. Learning is very complex, and there are always vague and hidden areas where we do well and where we have difficulty. Students will not measure themselves against anyone. We all feel inadequate. So what else is new? This is for you. This is your time. I’m going to give each student reading assignments, writing assignments, thinking assignments, and other creative assignments. You will learn in this course of study. Get ready for some fun and change. This will revolutionize your way of thinking about writing. Class is 8 weeks at $700.00. Email me 5 days a week and a telephone conference call once a week at 818 430-7844. I don’t care which 5 days you work, or if it’s morning, evening or midnight. If you write longhand, which I do, loving the tactical experience of paper and pen, or if you write directly into the computer, either way works, but the first way takes a bit more time. Plan on devoting about 40 minutes a day to your work with me.
Let me know if you should want references. I have students all over the USA as well as Europe, so where you live and where I live is not any kind of issue.
Stellasue Lee, Ph.D.