Community writing program spotlight

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Finding the On/Off Switch--Fearlessly

It's moments before the start of a two day workshop with Crescent Dragonwagon. The title is "Fearless Writing" and it is happening at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs. This is not the first time I've taken Fearless. It's not that I didn't "get it" the other times or that I just want to hang out with an author I admire. Claiming "been there done that" doesn't work. Each time I have learned different things. The mysterious spot where the writing clicks and my muse dances gleefully --is a constantly shifting location. I see that spot as the intersection of my life experience, writing skills, focus, and ability to listen to intuition.

For example, if Alice sits in the library at 3 p.m. on Friday and golden phrases flow onto the page from her green designer pen--Sunday at the same hour, same chair, using the same pen, she may write well but will not be able to recreate the exact experience of the day before. Our lives, inside and out, are constantly changing. Rather than being disappointed by this realization, I'm thrilled. It tells me that each time I begin to write, it will be a new experience.

When talking to friends about the workshop, I heard a few common reasons to not attend. "I'm not a workshop type of person," "I want to write but I'm not sure I'm good enough," "I'm afraid that other people will be more advanced than I am," and "If I write my truth, people will be mad at me or won't believe me." All of those fears reside in me too, but I've learned to either (1) send them--along with the whiney naysayer in my brain--to a timeout, or (2) as Crescent recommends, recognize them by name and accept them as part of my creative process.

The workshop is about to begin. There are 17 of us attending. I recognize a few acquaintances from Eureka Springs, but many attendees are from out of town and out of state. Our pre-session instructions were that we should not talk with each other, which eliminates the tendency to rank each other by our accomplishments or our confidence levels. We find comfortable spots in the living room at WCDH. Jana has made delicious snacks and set them out with coffees and teas. The artwork on the walls is exceptional. It is a creative space.

Crescent fills the room with her exuberance. As we begin we are each prompted to say how we want to feel at the end of the workshop. Crescent writes each positive declaration on the whiteboard. Throughout the course she refers to these, walking each student carefully toward his/her goal. Mine is "to have an on/off toggle for my writing and to use it at will."

And whoosh we are into writing exercises that are fun, surprising, and poignant. There are handouts of "percepts" for each section as we progress. For example, "You can't drive with the emergency brake on", "practice makes practice," "self-validation," "be specific"... Any one of the 12 "percepts" could have filled an entire week long workshop.

We sail deftly into one thing after another. Crescent is indefatigable with insights and angles to consider, humor, and laser-like observations. She remembers everything we read to the class and she uses examples from our own writing as positive comparisons. We come to know our fellow classmates by their own words, ideas, and regard for each other.

Without being obvious, each section of the course builds on the previous one. "Fun and interesting" transform into tools we can use away from the workshop. She doesn't teach us what to write, but how to show up for the experience daily and reach inside for the stories that want to be told. We learn to embody our work rather than try to write with only the mind. After years of teaching the course, Crescent says she has learned from each student. Each class augments and refines her skills.

One exercise involves making lists of 24 nouns, 28 verbs, 16 adjectives, and 5 emotional tones. We call out words as Crescent writes them on a white board. Each of us has contributed to these apparently disjointed assemblies of words. The timed exercise: pick one emotion (but never use the word) and write a story incorporating all of the other words listed. Impossible? Not really. We all begin and furiously write, checking off the used words. Rather than scrutinizing the possibilities, I just begin somewhere and trust the process. Seventeen of us come up with seventeen completely different stories using the same words. The best moment for me is discovering that I just need to begin. One sentence will be followed by another and another (ideas make their own connections), sensory information spills in, the writer knows that the car isn't green and the cat named Matilda hates strangers and...we are all capable. I surprise myself with the thoughts expressed and the way they are put. Nobody is forced to read what they have written, but some of us shyly read. Each listener has just finished the same exercise and heard his own naysayer sneer, yet each can be moved to tears by the words that were created just moments before.

Crescent did guide me to the "on/off toggle for my writing, that I can use at will." It is writing practice, enhanced with all of her suggestions. A timer, an appointment with myself, a notebook... beginning to put down words even when I think I have nothing to say. The process itself is the payoff. The present tense breathes. Ideas connect themselves. The story wants to be told, fearlessly.

Crow Johnson Evans lives in NW Arkansas with her husband and their two mothers. She spent decades writing and performing songs before exploring prose. "In music you have tempo, chord changes, volume, pitch, and vocal texture to dramatize the meaning. I love the challenge of hinging everything on words on a page and the reader's imagination." Her first book, "Flights of Fancy--Short Stories, Essays, Novella, and Other Pieces" is being published by Mockingbird Lane Press and will be available in January. Crow is also a spinner, knitter, and weaver, with her works in the Eureka Thyme Gallery and on the website

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