Monday, April 21, 2014

Think of sentences as opportunities

“My writing process — a blog tour”

I always write in complete sentences, our journalism professor told our feature-writing class one afternoon. Don Murray was talking to us, as he often did, about his own writing life. Although I resisted a lot of what he (and everyone in positions of authority) had to say back then, his example shaped the writer I was to become.

The only time I use fragments is when I intend to do so, thanks to my teacher. Every opportunity to put words to a page is an opportunity to practice my craft. That is the lesson I was meant to learn. Even my journals are written in complete sentences, just like Don’s were. I do not abbreviate words and I do not use clichés and hackneyed language.

It’s with Don Murray’s lesson in mind that I come to today’s blog entry, “My Writing Process — Blog Tour.” I promised my good friend and fellow writer Betsy Marro I would participate because she did a very similar blog tour for me last year. You can see Betsy’s current entry on thistopic here.

I’m tired of and unimpressed with my own thoughts about process despite the value of the exercise. Last year I learned that thinking through such process questions (see below) helped me step back and define my intent, my unique point of view, my motivation. And the exercise helped me to see if and why it all still mattered. I’ve had writer friends who, after such exercises, gave it up.  
The four questions:
What am I working on?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?

Today, I’m going to avoid obvious answers and attempt to turn this exercise into a writing session in the spirit of Don Murray.

What am I working on?

These people pictured above, some of whom are friends, have gathered, as they often do, in late afternoon for drinks. For me, the theme is loss. A key member has died and this is the first time I’ve sat with them in this way, and in this lovely setting, since her death. It’s a terribly sad moment for me and yet I want to see everything. What do I see happening here? What are the details around me? How much do I miss when I look? How much do I, aged 65, infer due to experience and longevity when I believe I should infer nothing at all.

How much do I misread because of my own emotional point of view in that moment? What does it take to look harder and deeper? Can I even do this? What does this white wine I’m drinking do to the picture I’m taking in as I sit with these people? What can I do to make myself see everything as if for the first time, with fresh eyes, without assumptions and expectations? How do I forever access that sense of wonder? What will I come away with when I stand up and get into the car to drive away? What will I forget? What will I turn this moment into, back home in Rockport?

What am I working on? I am working on concentrating my effort, whatever it is, to make it as fruitful as I am able.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My father Angelo a few years before he died, is seen here wearing what’s called a Mexican wedding shirt. He’s with is wife Carolyn and his older sister Jennie. We are at Jennie’s house in Carpinteria, about to head to a gigantic Padilla family reunion in our hometown of Santa Barbara. I am writing about this Padilla family and my early relationship to them in the Santa Barbara of the 50s and 60s in a memoir I’ve titled “Partial Recall.” This writing project is a journey of discovery, a problem-solving work of writing (all creative projects are problems to be solved), another attempt to go deeper, with any eloquence I can muster. How is this memoir different from all the others? It started with Angelo, who made me who I am whether or not I like it.

Why do I write what I do?

Betsy, in the middle wearing the wide-brimmed hat, strolls along the San Diego pier toward her home a few blocks away. I am over to the right, happily remembering the aroma of the air off the Pacific I grew up loving. It feels in every way like home though I have just come in from NYC, where I now spend a great deal of my time. All impressions, ideas, reactions, thoughts — everything — start with this primal connection to the micro-universe from which I came. Betsy, my new and better family, is one of the reasons I have the courage to do this. And Betsy, many years ago, showed me how creative nonfiction writing can be.

How does your writing process work?

It’s a daily discipline that’s energized by wonder. I can go back to question #1 for details on how to recharge. 

Next up

On April 28 author and my longtime friend Susan Oleksiw will blog about her recent work. She has a new Anita Ray mystery novel coming out. This series is set in India where Susan has lived and visits often. If you have an opportunity to view exhibits of her photographs taken in India, don’t miss it. And, of course, don’t miss her wonderful Anita Ray series.

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