Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shaking loose writer's block

Yesterday I wrote about Natalie Goldberg's book Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life.

In 1996, I was influenced by another book, one that helped me get out of writer's block. Georgelle Hirliman had writer's block in the 80s, so she installed herself in the window of a bookstore and invited people to ask her questions. She had a typewriter on which she wrote answers. 

I loved the idea and decided to combine it with Wild Mind writing. I went to my favorite coffee shop and set up a whiteboard (with permission of the owners), inviting topics. I promised to write nonstop for five minutes on any topic at all. I was honor-bound to accept all suggestions. I wrote the rules for writing practice on the whiteboard. I did this one evening a month for about a year. Sometimes friends would write with me. I kept a carbon copy of each of my pieces and gave the original to the person who gave the topic. Sometimes I got tips. Usually I got a free coffee. 

Here are a few of the pieces:

Gymnastics floor routine

Okay, here's my first routine: three baboon lopes, a leopard roar and a snake slither, two monkey leaps forward then a chimpersault backwards. A dogrun to the left, catpaw tiptoe to the right. Wave to the crowds, bow, accept the flowers thrown by the loyal fans. What? The judges need to see it again? Oh, no! What did I do?

            I think it was two coiled springs backward, one mattress spring forward, a quadruple spring day with no April showers to the, that wasn't it. I think I started with a guitar strum in the key of Z, then eased my way up to an organ chord with trumpets and piccolo. Or was it the rotini, double twist cappuccino, basil pesto on my toes, back flapjack, quarter pounder, two all beef patties, one taco grande and then for the finale, baked Alaska? Rats! I wish I could remember the way this floor routine was supposed to go.

Apologies to my mother for this one:

There goes the neighborhood

Yup, it all went downhill when the Howes moved in. That house was beautiful, with its wall in front, the white pebbled path, the pillars. But now there are always kids around, their bikes thrown down in the driveway, their runny noses and skinned knees offending our senses. It would be different if they had some money, but they don't. The noise, too, oh my Lord, the constant bickering of the younger children pierces a hole right through my brain sometimes. The white pebbled path has clumps of dirt in it from the last time the children had friends over. They had a war in the front yard with the wild onions. I don't imagine their mother was happy about that, though who knows, there never seem to be any parents around. If there were, they would put a stop to that nasty little pet cemetery the children put next to the church wall. It doesn't even have pets—just dead pigeons and squirrels. And I do wish the children had never learned to play the church bells, which they do at the oddest times.

A nod of respect to B. Kliban's cartoons here:

Those aren't raisins!     

Children love petting zoos, especially those with deer in pens. Every summer Mac worked the zoo, explaining to the children how deer really lived in the wild, what they ate, how they survived the winter. He'd make sure the children didn't throw their hotdog buns into the pen, make sure the deer always had water, pass out handfuls of grain pellets for the kids to feed the animals.

            He didn't really like his job, but he liked the deer and it was an easy way to spend the summer, standing around outside. He'd have to clean out the pens, sure, but that wasn't such hard work. Mac always left a some deer droppings near the edge of the pen, for sheer entertainment value. He kept a tally of the number of times a day he heard it, usually coming from a parent but occasionally from an older sister or brother or friend. "Get that out of your mouth! Those aren't raisins!" It was almost always too late.  

It worked. I was able to shake loose my creativity by doing this. I may try it again someday.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Writing my way into stories

I learn through my pen hand, possibly more than through my tappitytapping fingers on the keyboard. In the early 1990s, my sister introduced me to Natalie Goldberg's book Wild Mind

In it, Goldberg sets out "Rules for Writing Practice": 
1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Lose control.
3. Be specific.
4. Don't think.
5. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
6. You are free to write the worst junk in America.
7. Go for the jugular.

These are genius. Of course, this is for writing practice, for stretching and flexing your creative muscles, not for final drafts. 

When I moved to Kansas in 1993, my sister and I met often downtown in a cafe or doughnut shop (Jennings Daylight Donuts, long gone now) to write together using the exercises in the book, writing and then reading aloud to each other. 

The more I wrote, the more I understood my world of story. I began to write about the characters, settings and actions in whatever story I was working on for performances. I wrote backstory, stuff that you need to know but never say out loud. I wrote real estate ads for settings, personal ads for characters, and letters from one character to another.  I also found new stories unexpectedly. 

In the mid-90s, I offered classes to storytellers and others interested in trying this method out. We wrote, read, talked, wrote some more. I love writing with other people, hearing the gems they put down on paper. We all have the feeling that what we've written is total garbage, and then, between the writing and reading, it transforms into something strong and true. 

I no longer offer those classes, but my sister and I still write together weekly, and I teach kids about Wild Mind writing, with variations. Last week I worked with a small group of high school students, teaching them this method. Each had a unique and wonderful voice. It was an honor to hear them. 

Thank you, Natalie!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Converting potential hindrance into help

Last Tuesday evening I had a library show.  There were a few kids in the library when I arrived, including a 16-year-old boy who had a lot to say. He was clearly a nice boy, but needed extra attention and could, if inclined, be disruptive in my show.

I was proactive. "Sean, I wonder if you would do me a big favor. Would you be my photographer during the performance?" I handed him my digital camera (and tried not to flinch as he put his fingers on the lens). I showed him how to use it. He immediately put the strap around his neck. He loved having an official role and was, for the most part, well-behaved.

Thank goodness for digital cameras. I hit the delete button on most of the pictures, but a few weren't bad. Better even than the pictures was the fact that Sean rose to the occasion and became a help, not a hindrance.  I may try this again.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The view from the driver's seat

I drive a lot, on my way to performances and workshops around the Midwest US. Here's the view from the driver's seat in my car:

This picture was taken while I was parked, of course. The Buddha is facing me. On particularly rough roads, he bounces all over the place and yet the smile on his little plastic face still seems serene.

School inappropriate stories

I offer many different storytelling programs on themes perfect for schools and libraries, such as stories from books, world folktales, stories about wise choices, etc. While I know that kids rarely care about themes as long as I tell engaging stories, adults often prefer to have a specific program. When they don't, I offer Storyteller's Choice, in which I look at the audience and decide what stories would be the best for them in that moment.

I have a lot of stories in my repertoire that are not appropriate for schools and libraries. Many of these stories are about bodily functions. If I told those tales in schools, not only would I probably not be invited back, I'd lose control of the audience and never be able to regain it.

Still, these stories, such as Abu Hassan's Fart, are fun to tell and to listen to. At long last, I've decided to offer a program including them. Here's the blurb from my newly-revamped program list:
School Inappropriate Stories
(all ages) No, these aren’t x-rated stories, just tales of poo, farts, devils and other mild taboo subjects. You’ve been warned!
I'll be curious to see if I get hired to perform this program. 

Monday, January 05, 2009

Back to work

Right. I do have a blog, don't I? Sorry for the extended break. I had only a few performances in December and took the month as fallow time, necessary for my well-being. I spent Christmas and surrounding days in Massachusetts and Maine, New Year's at home.

Now I'm back at my desk, ready to work. The first order of business today was sending out the school postcard to be printed. Huge thanks to my sister Mary for putting it into the right format to be printed. Here's what one side looks like:

Cris Ceschi took these pictures at Red Brick Preschool in Sao Paulo on a lovely spring day in October. I love the way she caught the motion of the story.

I send postcards twice a year usually, once at the start of the school year and once in January. The card serves as a reminder to schools that I'm available for in-school field trips, assemblies, residencies, family literacy nights, end-of-testing celebrations and other events. The other side of the card gives all the salient details. Next week, when the card comes back from, I'll spend time labeling and stamping them, most likely while watching a DVD. My sweetie and I are on a binge of the 90s TV show Homicide: Life on the Street, all seven years of it, perfect for this kind of busy work.

It's also time to get back to my storytelling one-sheet, the alternative to a brochure I've been working on in a desultory manner for months. More on that in another post.