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Writing Practice

I wrote a poem this morning. It didn’t take me long—it’s a sestet—and once it was done I’d managed to encapsulate a feeling I’d had yesterday as I walked along the Hudson River and stopped to watch the nesting hawks in a tree just north of the Boat Basin Café. I don’t know if the poem will ever be published; it doesn’t matter. It began in my journal and became a poem after I read a sestet by Charles Wright on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac." The reading, the writing are all good practice. But I liked the poem so much that I sent it out to family and friends, publication enough.

I’m a morning writer and, unless I am traveling or unwell, I rarely skip putting pen to paper during the first moments of a new day. I begin with the intimate, confessional journal I write only for myself and usually destroy once it’s done. In this notebook—a cheap one—I record my dreams, miseries, joys, challenges and ideas. I flag the ideas and put them into another notebook and/or a file on my computer marked “ideas.” I have a slew of them, probably more than I will ever get to write in my lifetime. I don’t know what form they’ll take—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something else I have not yet tried, a play for example. I’ve always wanted to write a play. At the moment I am revising a murder mystery—a first for me. The idea came to me as I was having my hair cut last summer at a salon in upstate New York. The owner of the salon was in the midst of a terrible tragedy: her son had disappeared. The haircut receded in importance and when it was done I stayed and talked for another hour or so about the disappearance, the investigation, all the minutest details of the case. I knew I’d have to write about it either as a journalist or a fiction writer. I considered my hair cutter’s privacy and suffering. Rather than delve and probe, I decided to imagine. The story became a fiction. Mostly, I was interested in a mother who had lost her son. I could easily identify. The case was unsolved so a journalistic approach would not have led very far anyway. Even when the boy’s body washed up on the shores of the Hudson, the case remained unsolved, and the suffering continued.

I wrote my first thoughts down in my workbook/sketchbook when I got home after first hearing the story. I went onto the internet to do some probing and began to sketch out a story. I wrote a first draft in twelve weeks.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some of my students have difficulty keeping journals and notebooks on a regular basis so I ask them to keep observational sketchbooks for the duration of the workshop, at least. I don’t call them journals as that sometimes feels too daunting or prissy or exposing, I call them sketchbooks. An artist’s sketchbook is always practice and so is a writer’s journal so the shift in the title is just a bit of a trick to get my students going. Mea culpa, I confess it here. The point is that writing practice—experiencing the world as a writer—eventually takes hold and becomes immensely enjoyable.

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Clarification is required: Just because I am a proud and devoted owner of a Kindle2 does not mean I am abandoning books or bookstores. I belong to a two-person Kindle Klub wherein I share articles and updates on digital downloading for avid readers. Last week, my Kindle Klub compadre passed along an article by Ann Kirschner, “Reading Dickens Four Ways”: http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i39/39b01601.htm which I agree with wholeheartedly. Reading is important, literature is important, however it is delivered.

If my students are using their iPods to read as well as to text and talk, I am happy. Why? Because they are reading. If my students cannot remember the last book they have read, I am concerned.

Here’s an excerpt from my curriculum: "Reading and writing fuel each other. If you want to develop fluidity in your writing and generate viable story ideas, you must become a voracious reader. I guarantee that all the books on this list are well written. By definition, however, this list is personal. I follow my interests as I read but I also try to stretch myself. I urge you to do the same."

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A man was murdered yesterday in the building next to mine. I’d been writing all morning, deeply immersed in a fictional murder mystery, when I decided to get some air and light, take a walk in the park. As soon as I exited the building, I knew something was wrong: my neighbors were gathered in a close circle on the sidewalk, talking, gesticulating, speculating, and weaving stories. No one had any facts other than, “A man has been killed.” In one telling, there’d been an intruder—hard economic times, burglaries on the rise. In another, the death was accidental, a lover’s quarrel. One person said the man was 50, another said he was 60. A swat team had arrived, a crime scene unit van, officers, detectives and, soon after, the media.

Of course, I participated in all of this. It was a drama. There was even a sense of camaraderie and fun. New Yorkers, usually so much in a hurry, had stopped to talk, to tell stories about other murders, deaths and investigations they had experienced near or far. Stories abounded. Stories fell out of us, most of them more fictional than journalistic which is why journalism is such a discipline and ethical challenge. It doesn’t take much to skew a story one way or another, to confabulate or to conflate.

Recent brain research confirms that speech and storytelling are contiguous, intertwined; one does not exist without the other. (See, Norman Doidge, “The Brain That Changes Itself,” a fascinating and well-written account of the “new” neuroscience.)

But to return to my story about the murder, or the particular murder on my street. I left my neighbors and went back up to my apartment to double-check the lock on my fire escape window. Then I went to the park and then to the Guggenheim Museum. By the time I returned home, the news reporters had filed their stories. The man who was killed was in his fifties. His room-mate had stabbed him to death and been arrested. Despite this "resolution," the crime scene unit van was still parked in front of the building. It was hours later. Were they still gathering evidence? My imagination clicked over. Why was it still there? I asked some neighbors. Every one had a different story.  Read More 
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