I am starting to go through some of my old notebooks and I came upon this little jewel from 2004. I think I was reading PoemCrazy by Susan Wooldridge, and I’m pretty sure these were her questions I was answering.
Who were you in my dream
I was the girl in Balenciaga
What did you hear
I heard the click of white heels on linoleum
What were you wearing
A cape and blue stockings
What were you eating
A crepe paper plum
What did you want
I wanted a pair of finger symbols shaped like fish
Why were you hiding
There were ticks in the grass
Who was with you
The moon and my cape
Where were you going
To the party, if I could make it without tearing my dress
I love this exercise because after you’ve answered the questions, you can take them away and string your answers together to form a poem, or at least the first draft of a poem. Poemcrazy is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.
What does acting have to do with writing? In my experience, the two are rather similar. When I was in high school, I was in a really great theater program. You had to audition to get in, and the teacher was amazing and hard and sometimes a little mean. We loved her. She was the first teacher I ever had who made me work. I wanted to please her. She wanted, demanded, and succeeded in directing high school plays that were top quality. We were serious. We were all decent actresses and actors and we worked our butts off. This is, incidentally, the same way to become a good writer.
The teacher/director taught us the difference between acting and Acting! Acting! is John Lithgow and Jon Lovitz doing their Baudelaire skit on Saturday Night Live. “Acting! Genius! Thank you!” Okay, so you’re too young to remember it. Google it. Seriously. Go now.
That is Acting! Acting! is what you want to avoid. Similarly, Writing! is what you want to avoid. Writing is true and from the heart. Writing is not using a bunch of big words that no one can understand. That is Writing! Writing is not using metaphors that sound good but don’t work at all. It is not cliches and melodrama. Writing is you, not trying to please anyone, not trying to write like anyone else. Just pouring your heart onto the page. What could be simpler? Don’t force it. You will find your voice. I promise.
Okay so I was joking when I said What could be simpler. Pouring your heart onto the page may be one of the hardest things you may ever do. But if you are a writer, and you know it if you are, then you must do it. Start small. Baby steps. It does get easier.
One more thing about acting. I have always been able to write dialogue. I’m not saying this to brag, or because I even believe it wholeheartedly. But people have said this to me over and over again, from my very first writing workshop in college. “You know how to write dialogue.” I have heard people say that they wrote entire books without dialogue because they couldn’t figure out how to make the words ring true. I credit acting. I had to read a lot of plays when I was a teenager. I had to read them and audition them and ultimately memorize my part. And what are plays but dialogue? If you are stuck on dialogue, go read a play. Even better, choose a character (who is similar in age to you or the character you want to write about) and act that part out as you read through the play. You can do this quietly, all by your self. No one will ever have to know what you are doing. If you do it enough, the dialogue will come.
Recently, I took my kids to a fair at the local University, and there was one of those big plastic balls there, the ones that look like a human-size hamster ball. Kids were lined up to take their turns running inside the ball from one line of trees to the other and back. My son wanted to do it; my daughter was not so sure. “Do it,” I told her. “If you hate it, you never have to do it again. But if you don’t do it, you’ll always wonder.” She did it twice.
Say yes. This is a lesson it has taken me almost 40 years to learn. Do I really want to go to the sexy ladies party I’ve been invited to, where they are hawking dildos and lubricant to frustrated moms? Kind of. But even if I didn’t, I would make myself go, because I’m a writer.
Once I was at a parent meeting. I was sitting in a circle, inside my daughter’s classroom, and I had my notebook open, ready to take notes. “You have to do everything,” one of the mothers said. I now have no idea what she was referring to, or why this came up. I just knew that I liked the way it sounded. I wrote it down. You have to do everything. This is now my mantra. You have to go on your kids’ field trips. You have to dress in a pink bonnet and pretend to be a Russian Immigrant at Fort Ross; you have to hike to Bumpass Hell which smells like the breath of a hell beast hot on your face. Do Everything. Then you will never run out of stuff to write about.
You are young and you have so many things to say yes to. Do you want to go to Rocky Horror, even though you might be embarrassed the first time you go? Yes! Do you want to go to some weird underground club where a new band you kind of like may or may not be playing? Definitely! Try out for the school play. Learn to play guitar. Reinvent yourself with glitter and makeup. Go to Prom, no matter how dismal it may sound. You have to do everything, especially while you are young. Don’t hole yourself up in your room brooding and being artistic. There will be time for all that later.
A final story to punctuate my point: The very first writer’s conference I attended was in Reno. I was a new mom; money was tight. I had won a scholarship, but I knew I’d want some spending money to buy books and things, so I grabbed a bunch of quarters and put them in a ziplock. At the conference, I bought one book, which cost me about 60 quarters. Afterwards, I was sitting in a workshop, my remaining quarters tucked neatly in my backpack, and some of the attendees started talking about gambling. They lived in Reno, and they had a system for the playing the slots. I don’t remember what the system was and I’m sure if you’re curious, you can find their system on another website, but it dawned on me that I was in Reno Nevada, and that my hotel room was in a casino of all things. And the universe was even giving me a nudge, because I happened to be carrying a baggie full of quarters. So that night I went to the slots and I ordered a mix drink, and I played the slots according to the writing students’ system. While I was there, I noticed the sounds, the smell, the weird dark grit of it all, and sticking to the system, I won some money and I lost some money and when I was down ten bucks, I called it a night. Now, if I ever have a character who ends up in a casino, I will know what she sees. I will know how the chair feels, and the sound the cocktail waitress makes as she clicks away on her heels, before the sound is drowned out by dinging and the winning sound of change clinging against metal.