That's not me or my dog. Or my banjo. But since we have a few spots remaining for the Fourth Annual Summer Solstice Retreat, and we really hope you will join us, I thought I would write and say, Hey, here's a kid and a dog and a banjo! Also, how's your writing going, and would it help to spend a week at Stout's Island discovering what lies beyond the edge of the story you think you know?
To lead you up to why I love Stout's, I'll paint a little picture of my writing lately. Which does involve dogs, sort of, but no banjos (yet). I broke a personal record last month with thirty thousand words between my novel (the end of the first draft is in distant sight!) and my creative nonfiction. Upcoming publications include essays in The Doctor T.J. Eckelburg Review and Nowhere Literary Journal. I also had the great honor of being selected as a mentor in the Association of Writers & Writing Program's Writer to Writer Program, and I can't wait to head out to Los Angeles for the conference later this month. All in all, I'm spinning in circles with excitement. And dizziness.
BUT LATELY, I have been writing mostly about dogs. That is to say, the dogs I grew up with, their doggish love and their doggish oddities, and also the ways in which they went missing, sometimes without comment. So, to be honest, what I’m writing isn't after all about dogs, but rather something several degrees to the west of dogs.
To my amazement, this not-about-dogs story, which I had the privilege of workshopping with Dorothy Allison in February, has grown into a 10,000 word piece that I'm now revising for one of my favorite literary journals (one I can’t name until it’s official official official because I am much too superstitious for that). But suffice it to say it’s got me all aflutter and, here’s the part I want you to remember: this whole story that's not about dogs started with a fantasy fiction prompt related not to canines but to stairs that are both necessary and useless and powers that are not just gifts but afflictions. Mind you, I don’t write fantasy fiction! Or read it, for that matter, except on the rarest of occasions. So the entire prompt was a lark. Yet, it became something other than what it was, something that grabbed hold of my last rib and wouldn’t let go.
THIS IS RELATED to what essayist Heather Kirn Lanier is talking about over on Brevity’s nonfiction blog this week, as she explores the concept of essays as "rooms with taffy walls." Writes Lanier about the essay, “The more I punched it, poked it, stretched it, the more interesting the thing it could house."
It’s also related to what poet and memoirist Nick Flynn said at that same Tin House workshop I attended recently, where I workshopped my not-dog story. He said, “the interesting story lies just beyond the edge of the one we think we’re telling.” That’s where the good stuff hides out—just on the other side of the periphery.
The more I practice this back brain method of writing, the more unusual material I dredge up—like, stuff I don’t even recognize, even though it’s clearly mine. Which inevitably ignites my curiosity. What is this broken thing? Where did it come from? Why do I carry it around with me? That curiosity, in turn, ignites my empathy and eventually my amazement—both for the thing and for the people who surrounded and touched the thing. Who are these people, and more importantly, who were they then, and before then? Also, who was I? This process eventually fills the writing with a pulse. I guess it's called life. It's certainly richer and more complicated than anything floating on the surface in plain sight.
Writing from the back brain requires some experimenting. It requires some risk. And sometimes what you find is worthless old junk. It might even be sharp. Like, a rusty old drawer pull might be just that: a rusty old drawer pull. But sometimes, that drawer pull is the key to the whole story. The only way to find out is to test it. Maybe on a drawer, maybe not. Will you cut your hand? I don't know. You might. But that, too, can be extremely interesting. There are no rules to this. There is only the intrepid willingness to go into the uncharted places, the ones no one has mapped yet, especially not you. This method of writing is also a great exercise in moving beyond fear, because you willingly expose yourself to the risk of turning up worthless junk over and over again. So much safer to insist on the predictable prose you already know how to write. But will it surprise you? Will it make you breathless? Will it, in the end, matter?
IF YOU WANT to go on a breathless search for a drawer pull in a taffy room and have an amazing adventure in the process, please do consider joining us at Stout’s Island this summer for the Elephant Rock’s Fourth Annual Summer Solstice Retreat. We would love to have you there. This retreat includes meals and lodging on what can only be called a magical island. It also includes two daily writing workshops, nightly readings, yoga and meditation, and a whole bunch of fun shenanigans. It's a week like none other. And you will leave with something unexpected and unforgettable: a part of your story you didn’t already know.