Writing the Story of Your Life with Erica Jong

There are few moments in your life where you meet someone so epic they have left a mark on history.  This week I was in the presence of someone like that: Erica Jong.  Oh, you may of heard of her!  She wrote the feminist classic Fear of Flying among many, many other novels and books of poetry.  Well, taking her class is something I will never forget.

Writing is something that I’ve become more and more interested in since blogging here at the Ranch.  I’ve met so many amazing writers and editors here including Sam Barry, Leslie Levine, Joelle Delbourgo and Larry Grobel.  They have been so inspiring to me in ways they don’t even know.  Now to meet and learn from Erica Jong?  Well, I consider that priceless.  The golden tidbits I learned from her class:

  • Getting your reader to identify with your character is key.
  • Create your own style of writing.
  • You never understand an era unless you know how they  ate, how they went to the bathroom, what they wore, what the streets looked like; the details of everyday life.
  • Let it be revealed instead of telling your readers what to feel.
  • Don’t edit in the beginning, you may never finish.
  • Get the critic off your shoulder.

Listening to her stories about writing was just comforting in a way.  To know that someone could be considered one of the most well known authors in the world and still the process of writing is the same; the constant reworking, the doubts and fears, how it can get lonely.  Honestly, I could have sat there and listened to her talk all day.

Then, on the second day of class something happened…

I had written something early that morning so I could read it during the second class.  It was supposed to be about a moment that was a turning point in my life.  I really didn’t know what to write about because I felt like there hasn’t been just one moment that changed my life.  It’s been a gradual awareness.  The night before I had no idea what I wanted to write and then I woke up thinking about at about 5 in the morning and it just came out.

When I got to class I listened to many other people read.  Some sounded like professionals while others didn’t (however, who am I to judge?), but everything I heard was interesting.  Everyone gave critiques, comments and listened to what Erica had to say.  I really wanted to read mine, but the more I thought about it, the more nervous I got.  I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous.  My whole body seemed to be tensing up, my throat went dry, my heart was beating like crazy and I was sweating… well, a lot.

I did finally raise my hand and ask how she got the courage to read to so eloquently in front of a room of people she didn’t know and to be honest I can’t really remember what she said (it’s amazing how nervousness can take over, isn’t it?)  Then she asked if I would write something to read the next day. When I replied that I wouldn’t be here, she asked if I wanted to read right now?  I started laughing and reluctantly said okay.  But then as soon as I started reading the first sentence I could hear my voice wavering, by the second sentence I was on the verge of tears and by the third something had kicked in and turned on the water faucets and it seemed there was nothing I could do to turn it off.  It was like a combination of all my insecurities from when I was younger came flooding back.  The fact that what I was about to read  to a room of full of strangers, not to mention a famous author about extremely personal things… well, something in me lost control and I couldn’t get it back.  I said through the tears, ” I can’t read it.  I can’t.”  I was beyond embarrassed.  Of course everyone was so sweet, but I just couldn’t stop crying.  I cried the last 10 minutes of class.  Other people started crying because I was crying.  People told me I was brave, however, there were many other people in class that could get through their readings.  I didn’t feel brave.  Truthfully, I sorta felt like a loser.  However, what was special was the fact that others in the class came up to me, opened up with me about their fears as well.  I wasn’t alone even if I was the girl that couldn’t stop crying.  I can’t tell you how sweet they all were and I had a sudden appreciation for the human spirit.

During class, Erica said that writing will reveal things about yourself that you didn’t know and sometimes it’s better than therapy.  Well, it’s obvious to me now that there was something that needed to get out.  Maybe I couldn’t read to a room full people the personal stuff I wrote, but these emotions had to find their way out somehow and instead of through my words, it was through my tears.

Erica spoke with me after class and apologized for making me read when I wasn’t ready, but there was absolutely nothing to apologize for.  I wanted to read it so badly, to share it and I still do.  What it showed me is that I have to face my fears about my writing.  I like to write, that’s not the problem.  I even like to share what I write, but not face to face.  It’s more me having a mask to hide behind.  You know, when you write an article or on a blog, you don’t have to face your readers dead on.  You don’t see their reaction and even more importantly, they don’t see yours.  But if I want to write, at some point I’m going to have to read it, out loud and in front of an audience, whether it’s personal or not.  Bottom line?  I have to get over my fear of sharing and more importantly my fear of critique and rejection.  So that class with Erica and all of my classmates I can bet, will be something that not only will I never forget, but will shape what kind of writer I will be in the future.

Fearless Writing

Recently we had author Crescent Dragonwagon at the Ranch to teach us about Fearless Writing.  Which, by the way, I think is a great title because writing can be kind of scary.  Don’t you think?  Especially if you don’t have a background in writing, but just really like to write.  It can be intimidating to say the least.

The class I was able to attend has helped my writing tremendously so far.  Within the class, I experiences one of those moments where things just clicked.  I think my major problem was comparing my writing to published authors that I admired and then of course, not being happy with my own writing because of this.  However, Crescent made it clear that there is a huge difference between practice writing and the finished result.  She made a good point by saying that we (as the reader) don’t get to see all the practice writing that got edited out of the published book.  So to compare every day writing or unedited writing to a finished book is like comparing apples to oranges.  Crescent, thank you for this!

After that eye opener, we spent the rest of the class doing practice writing.  My favorite way to practice writing that I learned in the class is called Free Writing.  You just put your pen to the paper and write for a certain amount of time.  It could be about anything.  You can write the same word if you want over and over again, you just can’t let the pen leave the paper (not literally!).  The point of it is to force you to write to just practice, if you will.  It also kind of forces you not to hold back, to write whatever comes to your mind– which is where the fearless part comes in.  I’ve found there are little golden nuggets in this everyday fearless writing.

I’m not going to spill all of her secrets, but I will say that the class has motivated me to practice my writing every single day.  To learn more about Crescent Dragonwagon and her fearless writing workshops, visit her site at dragonwagon.com.

Preparing to Write with Francine Brevetti

mind mapping, creative writing, writing

Yesterday we had a class with writer Francine Brevetti who is here to teach a series of lectures called “Write Your Life Stories Now”.  I took yesterdays class which was about preparing to write.  Since I am a budding writer myself, I thought it would be interesting to hear what Francine’s ideas were.

I sort of fell into writing by accident with no college training so there isn’t a whole lot of structure to my “preparing to write”.  I take notes and sometimes put then into an outline.  However Francine’s idea was much better than mine!  And it was something I was already familiar with, I had just never applied it to writing.

Ever heard of mind mapping?  It’s a simple process that can really open up your mind to gather ideas for whatever it is that you’re writing about.  You start with one idea and expand from that to form clusters.  For example we were supposed to be writing something about our life in the class so I started simply with “Vegas” as my main idea (where I lived from ages 1-3).  You can see in the photo above that Vegas is the center of the mind map.  And then you just go from there…for instance I remember the family dog, Pepper,  went missing when we lived there (so sad), watching cartoons in the morning before Dad watched football, spending time with my grandparents and then eventually moving away to California when I was three.  Then from those pieces of information you can start mapping out even more details.

Mind mapping allows so much more freedom than just a traditional outline.  I’m so glad that I went to Francine’s class actually because I never thought to use it for writing!  But I definitely will from now on.

To learn more about Francine, visit her website at francinebrevetti.com.

New Years Goals and Journal Writing

It’s that time of the year again.  Some people hate it, some love it, but either way, it’s hard not to reflect on the past year and think about changes for the new.  Personally, I think goals should be extended all year long, not just the beginning of the year.  The tradition of creating New Year’s resolutions is a good thing in essence.  But let’s face it, most of us forget about them by February.  And if we don’t follow through with them, then there’s the guilt factor.  Then the frustration factor follows.  And none of this sounds fun, right?  But I’ve found it doesn’t have to be like that.

This is what has worked for me as far as accomplishing goals.  It’s as simple as writing my goals, aspirations and dreams in a journal.  Why does this help, you ask?  Well, first of all, it reminds me of what I need to do in a step by step process.  This is half the battle.  Before I started journeling, I used to have these big lofty ambitions for the New Year, but I didn’t know how to achieve them.  Now, I write my main goal in my journal, but then also write down a little step for it as well each week.  I also write down the things I want to get done each day, making a checklist.  Do I finish everything every day?  Definitely not.   But do I achieve a lot more than I used to each day?  You betcha.  Also,  I have a back log that I can always refer to and see what I haven’t gotten done for that week.  Then I just add that to the list I need to do for the next week.

Now, there are some things that just never seem get done.  That’s life.  There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over it.  The important things at the time will make it up to the top of the list.  For example, in 2012 I got married.  There were plenty of things I had hoped to do in 2012 that will get pushed to 2013 because of the wedding.  And you know what?  That’s okay!  We can’t do everything all the time.

Another benefit of journaling is that it creates consistency.  If you do it every day, chances are you’ll keep at it.  And that crosses over to all other aspects of your life.  Being spontaneous is fun for sure, but consistency is the key to achieving those lofty goals that sometimes seem so far away.  One consistent step at a time and you can make it.

The Ranch is a terrific place to start journaling.  You have peace and quiet plus plenty of time to yourself.  So if you’re fortunate enough to be at the Ranch right now during this New Years season, consider this perfect timing to get started on your goals and journaling.  Make some tea, sit by the fire and have some fun!  It shouldn’t feel like a chore.  In fact, it should feel very liberating and exciting.  And for the majority of us who aren’t at the Ranch at the moment, there’s no time like the present to get started!  You can use any sort of notebook.  Take a little piece of time out of every day to write your goals.  I usually write my daily to do list in the morning, but if I think of anything else throughout the day, then I scribble it in there as well.  Last thing…I pretty much take my journal with me wherever I go (except to dinner and fun things like that!), but pretty much everywhere else.  It’s helps to have one that’s small ;).

I hope this helps and inspires you to start writing out your dreams.  Don’t hold back!  Just remember…one little consistent step at a time.

Writing Non Fiction With Leslie Levine

A couple weeks back I wrote about my experience in a fiction writing class I took at the Ranch.  That same week I had taken another class about writing non fiction from Leslie Levine which I loved.  Talk about insider info!  It was great to get all these tips plus Leslie is a wonderful presenter.  I really felt engaged throughout the whole talk.  Also, Joelle Delbourgo, an editor and Sam Barry, who taught the fiction writing class, were there for even more tips.

So this is my favorite advice she mentioned in her presentation:

  • There is not an ideal schedule for writing.  Do it when you can and know that something else will probably have to give in order to make time to write.
  • You need to just sit down and do it.  Until you sit down and actually write, nothing is going to get accomplished.
  • Open a Twitter account and practice writing in 140 characters or less.  Good writing is often tight writing.
  • Keep going over your drafts to tighten them up.  Reading what you write out loud helps with this.
  • When you read your work if you feel even a twinge of discomfort listen to your gut because it means something isn’t right and needs to be reworked.
  • Let your work sit for awhile and then read it again.  You’ll often see it in a new light.
  • If you’re going to submit an idea or query to a magazine, make sure that you know the magazine inside and out.
  • Pay attention to submission guidelines and know that it may take around four weeks to get an answer.  In some cases you may not get a response at all.
  • Follow editors on Twitter to find out who they are and what they like.
  • Make a connection with the editors on a semi personal level when you contact them.  Just make sure it’s relevant to what you’re writing about!
  • Read good writing, the kind you aspire to write.
  • Create a word list.
  • Join a writing group and surround yourself with other writers.
  • Lastly, push yourself!

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this class and Sam’s fiction writing class.  I was only there two days during writing week, but I wish I was able to attend every one of their classes.   Maybe next year!  Such a wealth of information in a beautiful inspiring environment, really, what more can you ask for?