Writing as a Way of Life

I didn’t decide to write.

It happened.  Just happened.

I was living in New York City, and Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones was in town giving a workshop.  I signed up.  I hadn’t written since I was a kid–not even in a journal.  I sat in a room with about two hundred other people and watched as Natalie talked about her free writing method. “Keep your hand moving,” she said. Then she had people read what they wrote.  It was a whole weekend of short free writes, people reading in small groups, some people reading to the whole group.  I felt so unlike the others.  They knew they wanted to be there.  I didn’t.  I remember being in a panicked state each morning on the subway ride to the workshop.

After that weekend, I signed up for a writing course at the YMCA with Patty Dann, who had written Mermaids. I was so surprised at what came out of me.  I had no idea that these stories existed in me.  Yes, I was writing about my life—going to live in Oregon with crazy Renee Pat; being sent to Dammash, the Oregon State Mental Hospital; deciding to keep my son Reuven instead of putting him up for adoption.  The class liked my stories.  They were real. They were alive.  For me, it was another part of me awakening.

I had been scared to put the pen on the paper.  I felt frozen.  When I had a teacher give me a prompt, tell me it was okay to write, I wrote.  But I remember going to a class where we were supposed to do “morning pages” according to the method developed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way—three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing done first thing in the morning.  I couldn’t write in class.  I couldn’t write at home. I put the pen to paper, but my hand felt frozen.  And then one morning I wrote—I just wrote.  I wrote the story of when I was in high school and the school psychologist told me never to write again.  He said I was lying about my family.  I wasn’t telling the truth.  Truth.  I told the truth about my father, but I was shut down until the women writers gave me permission to write again, gave me the tools.  Morning pages, keep your hand moving, go deep.  It’s never been easy.  The words don’t just slide off the pen.  But I did learn to free write.

I went to Taos, New Mexico, to more workshops with Natalie Goldberg.  I took a yearlong memoir class with Jack Remick and Robert Ray, who also used Natalie Goldberg’s free writing method. Three of us from that class began meeting after completing the class.  We met for nine years, almost every week.  We wrote our stories.  I got feedback. I got support.

But what do you do with pages and pages of free writes?  Craft.  I discovered that I needed to learn craft.  In Seattle I was blessed to have as my teacher Priscilla Long, author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor. She taught me to write sentences and paragraphs, good ones.  We had exercises—over and over.  Lists, sentences, making good sentences. I felt like I was joining the world.  The literary world.  I couldn’t do it alone.  I had to have the help of friends who learned sentence structure in high school or college.  Somehow I didn’t learn those things although I took English in college.  In those days I was just surviving.

I’m a Capricorn.  I plod along.  It took me ten years to write my memoir.  I didn’t have a vision of what it would be like to publish, and, of course, the publishing world has changed so radically in recent years. With the help of a friend, Julie Fretzin, I was able to put together a manuscript and get it published.  Julie got me readings—at Elliott Bay, Seattle’s prestigious independent bookstore.  Over seventy people showed up.  I read.  I got to read in New York—the Lower East Side, where my story started back in 1964.

My son read the manuscript and called me immediately.  “I’m shocked,” he said.  “It’s good, really good.”  I’ve seen him give copies to friends, to business associates.  He’s proud.  More than that, he’s had a renewed respect for me, a single mother who didn’t choose a traditional family path.

That’s the outside.  For me personally, writing my memoir has been a healing journey.  Just putting word after word, sentence after sentence, having a story to make sense of my life.  I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in trauma.  I lived with these isolated, desolate feelings.  Putting it on paper, all of it, making a framework, making a book, reading to audiences—it’s given my story a place in my life.  It’s a rightful place, and now, as an elder person, I can enjoy what I have today.

Some people paint.

Some people make craft, knit, run, all kinds of activities.  Writing for me is a way to be in the world.  I write with other people, in groups. We read to each other.  We talk.  It’s given me a place in the world.

It’s open.

Take it.

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Reading at Elliott Bay

Having the opportunity to introduce my memoir Torch in the Dark at Elliott Bay Books is one of the greatest honors I can imagine. I remember the first time I walked down the stairs at Elliott Bay in Pioneer Square. I knew I found a home. I liked the old wood, I liked the shelves. So many books. It reminded me of other large, cozy bookstores I have known, like City Lights in San Francisco and The Strand in New York.

What a special treat it always is to sit down at Elliott Bay and hear readings from authors whose stories touch me, to see them in person. Bettina Aptheker, who spoke at Sproul Hall in Berkeley when I was there in the sixties. Deborah Santana. Deborah and I studied with Natalie Goldberg together. James McBride, whose book The Color of Water meant so much to me. I got to see him at Elliott Bay when he introduced his novel Miracle at St. Anna.

Elliott Bay is so much more than an ordinary bookstore. Founded in 1973, it has a long history that is interwoven with the literary life of Seattle. My teachers, Natalie Goldberg, Jack Remick, Priscilla Long have all read there. When I recently went to see photographer Annie Liebowitz speaking to a packed audience at Elliott Bay, she simply said, “When I come to Seattle, I only want to read at Elliott Bay.” More than 3,000 writers have read at Elliott Bay over the years. I am so proud to be reading at Elliott Bay. I hope you can join me there at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 3.

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My memoir is out. It’s published. It’s real. It’s a book. I didn’t do it alone. A lot of people contributed to making it happen. I’d like to tell about Priscilla Long, my mentor in so many ways, particularly in learning to appreciate the art of the sentence.

I’ve been a student in Pricilla’s classes since 2006. When I first walked into her classroom, I had never heard of compound-complex sentences. I had a vague idea of what a compound sentence was. The adverbial clause of manner was totally new to me. I guess I was spaced out in English classes in high school and college.

At the time I thought, “This sophisticated sentence work doesn’t apply to me and my work. I just write from the gut.” I never thought of sentence structure or paragraph structure.

Priscilla has a unique ability to help writers apply craft to their own work. In her classes we wrote sentence and paragraphs—hundreds of them. Priscilla always said we should apply the exercises to what we were working on. She stressed, “Don’t do the exercise for the sake of completing an exercise.”

One of Priscilla’s favorite writing techniques is the list sentence. She loves lists of words for the opportunity they provide for wordplay, for listening to sound and rhythm. So when I was writing about welding, she gave us an assignment to write a list of ten sets of words or phrases that pertained to the piece I was working on.

This was my list:

  1. electrical stimulation, electrical currents, electrodes
  2. roll forming, hydro-forming, folding, finishing
  3. cold cracking, hot cracking, worm holes
  4. come-along winch, grip-hoist winch, powered warn winch
  5. cable, clamp, stingers
  6. protective long sleeve “bib” leather cape, leather chaps, heavy leather gloves
  7. hydrogen, argon helium
  8. molybdenum, tantalum, tungsten rods
  9. butt joint, lap joint, corner joint, edge joint, T-joint
  10. dials, knobs, gages

By creating this list, I had concrete words pertaining to welding that I could use when I wrote the welding piece in my memoir. I could feel the shipyard. I was there. I could write with detail, with feeling.

Priscilla has laid out all her understanding of virtuosity in writing in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. I highly recommend it. You can find out more about it on her website: www.priscillalong.com.

There’s more to the story.  Stay tuned.

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If It Weren’t for the Sixties

Where would you be if weren’t for the ‘60s? What if you grew up in the ‘50s and didn’t fit into the rigid world of your parents?

Imagine it. In 1962, you’re 21 years old, and while your friends are planning their weddings, you are confined to a mental hospital. After many shock treatments you are released to your parents custody. Then there are more doctors, more medication.

By the mid ’60s, your body rebels, your mind rebels. You have a son as a single unmarried woman, and you live on Page Street in the heart of Haight-Ashbury. Because it’s the ’60s you can walk down Haight Street spaced out, and the guys just say, “Leave her alone. She’s on her own high.”

It’s the beginning of the hippie era, and the tight conventions of middle class America are being challenged. The ten-block area between Stanyon and Fillmore Streets is filled with people like you, looking for a new order, a new way to function in the world. You belong to a young generation that doesn’t believe in leading boring, predictable lives. You want love to rule the world.

You don’t know it, but these young people—often wearing expensive trench coats with their hands outstretched chanting, “Spare change, got some spare change lady?”—are like you—miserable, lost, and so wanting to find a way in the world. There is an order to this world: who has the dope, who’s going to give it out, who’s making money from it, who’s going to start a hash shop or sell bell-bottoms. There is the order of the Diggers, trying to save poor people by giving out free food. Sometimes, the Diggers steal the food from the supermarkets, but always with the intention of giving it out to the real needy.

The ’60s give you permission to keep your son without the convention of marriage, to let him be raised in a communal household, to defy the ’50s mores like sending your son to school or making him wear shoes. You don’t have to be a conventional family with a mother and father. You didn’t get a diamond ring and you didn’t buy a suburban house, but because it’s the ’60s and the others are inhaling and being cool, you can walk through the world screaming with memories, holding on for dear life, and you are not an outcast.

You can go to welding school and get hired at the U.S. Naval Shipyard in San Francisco and Bellingham Shipyard. You can be a welder even though you are a woman, and you can find a way to heal your insides from the dark basement of your soul. Because of the ’60s, you find a better way, or at least you think it’s better, because there are so many others like you on this path who deeply believe in the values of the ’60s.


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I Write Because

I write because it gives me a world;

because I know on Monday evening at 7:00 pm I have my writing group, and I will see women I like;

because writing gives me a framework for being in this world;

because, although I don’t think I am a writer, I do think I have a story to tell;

because I’ve spent way over ten years writing my memoir;

because writing my memoir has given me a way to make my story, my past, alive;

because maybe writing has given me some resolution with my life, my story;

because I really do think I have something to say that can contribute to the world, and I need a way to contribute to the world before I leave this earth, and I don’t have skills like sewing or painting or a lot of other things;

because I want to leave my legacy, although I am one small person in this world;

because I’ve been through so much, although at the time it just felt like my life;

because I’ve come out the other end from mental illness;

because through writing I’ve put down the severe trauma I went through before I could read or write;

because I could not consciously remember any of the trauma, but putting words down helped the details of the story unfold;

because I wouldn’t have believed it myself if my voice hadn’t come through the pen, through my hands;

because I wish I felt good enough about myself to call myself a writer;

because I would like to play with words, really play;

because I would like to write away those critical teachers who tried to stop me;

because maybe I can believe I am a writer, and, by keeping my hand moving, I can find my voice to just keep writing no matter what I say;

because I am still here in this world.


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