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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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