Friday, April 15, 2011

Guest Post: Anene Tressler, Author of Dancing with Gravity

Today we feature a guest post by Anene Tressler, author of Dancing with Gravity: Anene has a wonderful talent, and an artistry in creating characters with real motivations behind their actions. I was surprised and intrigued by Dancing with Gravity, and today Anene shares a little about her creative impulses with us. So, without further ado, please welcome Anene to Raging Bibliomania, and sit back while she shares her thoughts with us.

Once upon a time…I took a summer writing workshop from Richard Bausch. I don’t take them anymore. But that’s another story.

One afternoon, our class discussion turned to the question of whether a person could be taught how to write (my take is whether a person should be taught how to write). Bausch said that writing was like singing in the shower. A lot of people do it. And many actually do it pretty well. But very few people pair raw talent with the work required to become great, as did Frank Sinatra.

Writing is both mystery and mechanics. And while I don’t believe that talent—the mystery of writing—can be taught, I know that each of us can do a lot to nurture our writing and to take it seriously. That’s where the mechanics/writing processes come in. Needs and circumstances are as varied as writers themselves, but here are a few of the principles that guide me:

Before there is writing, there is preparation. For me, that’s reading. I’m talking about reading with a capital “R.” Reading things that interest me. And challenging myself to reach beyond comfortable parameters. I read classic as well as contemporary writers...books that demand I pay attention...and force me to use a dictionary or other reference from time to time.

As a writer, I am honor bound to know the rules of grammar and punctuation. And when I forget them, it means taking the time to look them up all over again. Not something I would file under ‘happy times.’

And while research isn’t the same as real writing, it’s essential. Eudora Welty was both an outstanding writer and an accomplished gardener. She’s quoted as saying that if an author had a plant growing in the wrong season or zone, she’d put the book down at once. The writer had lost her trust...and her interest.

Now for the actual writing: There’s a terrific book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s filled with innovative ideas for jump-starting the creative process. One of my favorites involves something called “Morning Pages.” Cameron recommends that a writer start each day by filling three pages with stream of consciousness, random observations, even complaints about the drudgery of writing morning pages. She contends that this exercise helps get past self-imposed blocks. By literally filling the pages, we’re strengthening the pathways that we’ll need for the real work. It may sound like a simplistic idea, but I know from personal experience that it works. The literal making of marks on a page has an alchemy whose whole is greater than its parts. While the word ‘synergy’ has been co-opted by motivational speakers, it’s worth checking.

I’ve also tailored Cameron’s idea to address specific problems: If I’m having trouble with a particular scene, for example, I may focus my three pages on that alone. More often than not, I’ve written my way to something I can then use for the problem at hand. If nothing else, I’ve “limbered my writing muscles” and defused some of the tension so I can focus.

And while my own work centers on the short story and novel forms, I have always been drawn to the imagery and beauty of poetry. Many times, I’ll begin my writing session by reading a poem. And while I cannot hope to achieve the skill of poets such Ted Kooser, David Clewell and Pamela Stewart, their work is very important to my own understanding and appreciation of language.

Then, of course, comes the actual writing. And that, for all the pleasure it may ultimately bring, is work. I schedule my writing time just as I would any other appointment. I find I work best in the morning, so I get up early and get to work. Before my husband is awake. Before I check email or bring in the paper. Before I find any other activity that will tempt me from writing. (I think Steinbeck used to sharpen pencils and write ‘letters’ to his editor.) It’s a demanding goal. And I don’t always reach it. Sometimes I must slash my writing time in order to attend to something that really can’t wait. But even a little work is something. And it adds up. Besides, I know that when I give myself permission to miss a weekend or a week, it often turns into a month, or more. And when I come back to the work, it means guilt and pain as I confront lost time and opportunities.

An essential part of writing is editing. And lots of it. I often start my writing session by re-reading what I wrote the day before, polishing it, and going on. This isn’t the final edit, but it’s incremental. It helps me return to the mental place I occupied the day before, and it gives me a jump-start on the day’s work.

I keep a quote by the writer David Huddle near my desk. It has offered solace and encouragement more times than I can count, and I offer it to you here: “For a writer, the one truly valuable possession is the ongoing work—the writing habit, which may take some getting used to, but which soon becomes so natural as to be almost invisible.” Whatever habits lead you to the ongoing work, I encourage you to embrace them. And I wish you well.

Thank you, Anene, for sharing your thoughts with us. I know I'm looking forward to reading more of your future offerings with relish, and hope that others out there will pick up their own copy of Dancing with Gravity.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

How interesting! I have wondered a lot about the question of whether writing can be taught. I suppose at the least it can be improved. ...although she is right - nothing could improve my singing in the shower!

ImageNations said...

and thank you too for bringing such an important message and advice to us. I love it and I enjoyed it. I learnt a lot and I have to sit up.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I think it is wonderful to hear from people who are in the trenches, writing on a day to day basis. I think it is easy to glamorize the lifestyle of a writer, so it is good to get the real story!

Darlene said...

Great post! I especially love the quote she uses at the end.

bermudaonion said...

She is so right about editing. Nothing turns me off more than poorly edited work.

Audra said...

Really lovely guest post -- I'm deeply devoted to journaling and I think that practice of brain dumping is so good for working through things! I appreciated Ms Tressler's honest description of writing -- the work and commitment it takes. Thanks to both for this great post!

Jenners said...

Oh my goodness...I just loved this and drank it all in. My secret dram has always been to be a writer but I lack the faith in myself to do it. Blogging has helped me in that it forces me to write on a regular basis and I noticed how that has lumbered me up by doing so. I need to start setting time aside to write I think and then just do it. This was full of so many helpful tips. At least I have the reading part down.

Suko said...

Having read Dancing with Gravity, and having interviewed this gracious author, I read the guest post with keen interest. Anene Tressler underscores that writing well is a demanding job. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for presenting this, Zibilee.

Unknown said...

A fascinating guest post. I've often wondered if people cna be taught to write. Also I've always wondered if those who get their MFAs in creative writing etc. are learning to write or just shaping what they can do.
I have been recommended that Julia Cameron book by a few people. I think I need to get a copy!

Thank you Anene and Heather for a very interesting post!

Geosi said...

So many, many things to learn from here. Good you brought it to my notice.

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