NYC and Writing Class

Jane and I spent the past weekend down in New York City where I took a one day intensive writing class at the Gotham Writers Workshop. The class focused on Memoir writing and our instructor was Stacy Pershall who wrote her own memoir, Loud in the House of Myself. Basically we spent the time experimenting with various writing exercises and ways in which one goes about writing a memoir. Unlike fiction, where you can use the characters to work out the situations in a memoir you are basically telling a story based on how you see things work out. In an article she gave us the author writes, “To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly—inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires—but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public—and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.”
The great challenge is to first find ones own voice and that starts by basically creating a timeline, places of great challenge and change that brought you to the place you are right now. One of our exercises was to write down at least ten moments in our lives where something happened that changed the course of our lives, an event or moment, that forever altered the path we were on at that time. Once that was accomplished, I got up to six of those moments, we then were asked to identify what was happening using six adjectives, love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice. After that we then began to add even more adjectives such as, empathy, ambition, hope courage, fear, anxiety, desire, lost, lust, escape, shame, anger, discovery and regret. Building upon each of those moments you begin to develop, what Stacy called a Major Dramatic Question, the question that will become the theme of the memoir.
All memoir requires that one “inciting incident” that something that brought about the change either in the path one was on or opened a new path. Christopher Booker talks about seven basic plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, from these seven come five stages: anticipation stage–narrator is called to the adventure to come, dream stage- adventure begins narrator has some success, frustration stage- confrontation with the enemy; illusion of invincibility lost, nightmare stage-climax of plot, resolution stage-narrator defies the odds.
The greatest challenge I see is when it comes to character development, how do we make the character, and in a memoir that is self, seem interesting without becoming a whining and complaining bore. Again, Stacy gave us four basic questions: What did I want from them? What did they want from me? What did I not know at the time? How did they change me? Once we begin to flesh out the characters and begin to answer those questions then comes the time for dialogue, how we communicated, spoke with one another. Here the danger is having dialogue that sounds too formal, with no contractions and all sounding alike. Stacy suggested that we eavesdrop on conversations around us, listen to how people speak to one another and again, develop a voice that is true and real. So much goes into our speech, emotions, relationships, environment, culture, geography, education language proficiency, even ones own physical state.
Yep, there sure is a lot to this writing stuff and lots to consider. No wonder it took our teacher, Stacy, over nine years to get her memoir written and then out into the world. It’s work, but I believe it is good work and even if I never get published at least I will have accomplished something that my grandkids will be able to read and hopefully read to their own children and grandchildren long after I am gone.

This past week.

As Jane and I prepare to head down to NYC this Thursday so that I can attend a Gotham Writers Workshop, thought I would give a brief update on what we have been up to this past week. Last Wednesday I went up to Maine to visit my mom who has been going through all of her photos and other memorabilia. What was really nice is that my mother, who will be 92 in a couple of weeks, has such a good memory and so she could fill me in on who was who and also passed along a few precious nuggets of information about some the personalities. As I look to writing my own memoir, it is nice to make these connections, after all none of us are created in a vacuum or in total isolation. For better or worse we carry within us all of the emotional stuff that has been passed down from one generation to another just like we pass down our collective DNA. It is fascinating to see the many threads in our own life and even though we may never have known any of these past relatives we still carry their threads along with our own as we journey through life.
On Saturday I took part in the North Shore Cyclists Blazing Saddles Century, a 100 mile ride that took us along some of the nicest parts of the North Shore and Southern New Hampshire. I was able to complete the century in less than six hours, not too bad for a man of my age. It was fun to latch on to a couple of pace-lines and be able to draft doing speeds up to 20+ MPH. When I finally got home I was a bit tired but other than that not feeling all that bad, in fact my daughter-in-law, Barbie, challenged us to do the ALS ice bucket that has been the rage on the social networks. So I took on the challenge and dumped a bucket of ice water over myself, challenging the vestry of Trinity to do the same.
On Sunday, Jane and I then went over to Grace in Medford for worship. It’s always fun to go and see what is going on at another parish. For a 9:00 am service there were plenty of families and youngsters all taking part in the service. A trio of young ladies sang at the offertory, an uplifting, camp kind of song and inviting the congregation to join them. The rector, Noah Evans, also introduced their new assistant rector and a new intern from the Life Together program, so it looks like things there are going very well.
Well, that was last week. Thursday we head off on the Acela to NYC, this should be fun.

My Reflections for today.

Every time that I take a Meyers-Briggs personality test I always come out as INFP, that’s Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive. One of the wonders of this type of personality is that persons who come out this way tend to process any information. Some would call it procrastination, but a true INFP would beg to differ, we process. We let an issue roll around in our heads as we seek to dissect every segment and if you are trying to be a writer then it’s perfection we look for because flaws only start us processing again. Yes, it can be a vicious circle but it is one that I have come to accept, especially on those Saturday nights when I can’t sleep as I am letting that Sunday morning sermon just do its best to keep me awake.
This past week, like many others, I was stunned by the report of the death of Robin Williams. Since then plenty of people, more eloquently that I could ever be, have written about his passing and his struggle with depression. We will never know what was on his mind as he made that fateful decision to end his life, but as one who has struggled with depression I can only say that it had to have been a very lonely place. It’s hard to explain depression, for me it’s like losing one’s peripheral vision, everything starts to close in and you cannot see anything but the abyss that lies ahead. Well meaning folks will say that all one needs to do is sort of pull themselves up and get on with living, but it’s much more complicated than that, it’s beyond just the feelings of sadness. I have been sad, sad over the loss of love, sad at seeing the end of summer or the end of a good moment with friends and family, but when the depression sets in I feel different. It’s not something I can control, there are many days when I feel great and then in the middle of the busyness of life I can suddenly feel overwhelmed, my eyes begin to tear up and I sense that loss of my peripheral inner sight. Most times I can recognize what is happening and I can begin taking the psychological steps to work through those feelings, steps that I learned through therapy. I also pray, not so much for relief from the feelings as much as I pray for understanding, that I can hopefully see what underlies this slow descent so that I can begin to unravel that mystery.
Over the next few days I may just watch a couple of my favorite Robin Williams movies, Hook, Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. I will see a man, who despite his own struggles, still gave us such powerful and provocative performances. He indeed added “his verse” and so we all add our “verses” to the long and continuing tale that is the story of human life.


I was reminded by my cycling buddy, Bruce Clinton, that eight years ago we we making ready for our cross country trip. That was my last sabbatical and it was a cycling adventure that I will never forget. We started by dipping our rear wheels in the Pacific at Anacortes Washington and 33 days later we dipped our front wheels in the Atlantic at Scarbourgh Maine after taking the Northern Tier route. Our route took us through some of the most beautiful and breathtaking sceanery, going through Washington State where we experienced smoke and haze from wildfires, cycling up through the Rockies over the Continetal Divide into the Big Sky country of Montana, passing through the North Dakota Badlands then crossing the Big Muddy as we started to make our way home. All in all, it was a great time and one that I will cherish, but on this sabbatical I am taking a different approach. More than likely this will be my last sabbatical as I begin to look down the road to retirement and this is a good time for me to explore some options. One of my major goals will be writing. I spoke with Lori Ambacher, a Creative Writing teacher at Gordon-Conwell, who encouraged me to set a discipline to write each day and to set a word limit. “Don’t worry so much on getting it right the first time”, she told me, “just write, you can always edit it later.” In a week Jane and I will be heading down to New York City where I am going to take a one day intensive writing course on Memoir Writing. I am really looking forward to being in that class learning more about how I can make my writing more fluid and hopefully interesting. I told Lori that I sometimes feel that my writing is flat, one dimensional, where when I read a novel or a good short story, those authors are able to spark life in their characters, opening up new worlds and new visions. Like when I read Frederick Buechner, Bernard Cornwall, Barbara Brown Taylor, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, to name just a few, those are writers who make the pages come alive, they draw you in to their world, creating page turning books that one cannot put down. I remember when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy back when I was struggling in school, that book took me away into Middle Earth, away from the bullies and others who made high school into a dark place, and into a world where I had the One Ring, and I couldĀ disappear to become invisible. Good books, good stories transport you, lift you up, guide and at times comfort, but mainly those stories feed the imagination which in turn feeds the deepest parts of our souls.Ā 

Maybe some of my more creative projects will get posted on this blog, I cannot be sure of that right now. I just don’t have the confidence at this point to expose myself on these pages. I also am a bit of a procrastinator, stuff just seems to rattle around in my head and I think that maybe I need to write that down but other things get in the way, my mind shifts to another event or thought and wham, that previous good idea is swamped in a morass of jumbled bits and pieces. Anyway, I will continue to write, taking pencil to paper, my typing skills kind of stink, and see where it will take me. I’m not out to write the next great American Novel, I’m just out to do my best and, as they say, let the chips fall where they may.