Friday, November 8, 2013

The Sun Magazine Contributors Speak at Esalen: Cultivating Your Writing Practice

Coordinator Angela Winter and Sy Safransky
Writing practice? If that's anything like my meditation practice, it's always intended and rarely done. Both require a certain discipline of gluing your tuchas down for a period of time with a particular focus, cutting away the extraneous, the daily clatter and clutter. Maybe that's why Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld was aptly quoted during the Sun's last session at Esalen: "After the ecstasy, you notice the laundry."

Sy Safransky, the Sun magazine's founding editor and publisher, noted there are as many ways to practice writing as there are religion. "I try to write every morning, but sometimes don't," he admitted. "And when I don't, I'm punished." I recently heard another author claim, in an interview on NPR, that for a writer, writing is like breathing. It cannot be withheld for too long without suffering.

Yet, cultivating that daily (or weekly, or...) writing practice is something it seems many writers (or would be writers) wrestle with. So the illustrious authors on the panel each offered up their own strategies for not only getting words on the page, but seeing those pages to completion. columnist Cary Tennis started what he calls Finishing School, meeting with a group solely for the purpose of finishing work. He said that writing groups are good for eliciting words but he has difficulty finishing and submitting his own. Meeting with other professionals is great for that kind of accountability. Tennis breaks it down this way:
1. Clarify: Define your writing goal (for the month).
2. Chunkify: Break it up into manageable pieces.
3. Clockify: Assign time to each chunk of your work. Use time as a physical element (timer, calendar, etc.).
4. Testify: How did it go? What got in the way? What did you discover?

Frances Lefkowitz, author of the memoir To Have Not, suggested that incorporating interruptions isn't a bad thing: "It breaks up the mind's trajectory so you can return to the work in a different way." She reminded us that what we read on the page in a book or magazine is not what the writer first wrote down. Knowing when to push hard and problem-solve during the writing or revision process, and when to let back is something every writer grapples with. In a bit of writerly wisdom that defies traditional advice on sustaining one's focus, Lefkowitz admitted to "actively seeking out" distractions (even email!) that jumbles up the normal pace the brain maintains. I can testify that my best insights come when washing dishes or in the shower; the mind needs a rest and a sensory jumpstart between sessions staring at the screen.

"The moment you are ready to do this will be announced to you," said Pulitzer Prize nominee David Brendan Hopes. His uncommon advice flew in the face of the cumulative knowledge shared by most writers--that old adage that writing is mostly perspiration, not inspiration. He seemed to argue for innate talent over learned abilities, claiming "When I sit down to write, it's there," but that many people's lives would be better served doing something else. Hopes didn't offer much hope to the aspiring writer, which was about 95 percent of his audience. "The world gives you themes," he said. "If one hasn't made its appearance, bathe the kids."

"I get cranky when I don't write enough. That's what brings me back to the page," said award-winning poet Ellen Bass. "If you're good-natured, you might not be able to rely on that," she added with her usual (good-natured) humor. Bass said that the world needs writers and other artists, "but not any one of us." Thus, the reason to write is primarily because you want to. "If I love it, why would I spend my whole life not doing it?"

Poet and essayist Steve Kowit said, "There's anguish and pain in the process, but it's an overall joy." He confessed to not being a "productive writer" and suggested partnering with another for that same sense of accountability Tennis has created. "When you make a commitment with someone else, it's more viable than making a commitment internally." Reflecting on his own process, he added, "I would like at least not to feel so guilty while doing the laundry."

Steve Kowit Reads His Poem, "Basic" from Patty Kay Mooney on Vimeo.

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