I had the pleasure of attending the Moravian Writers’ Conference in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania last weekend. My writing was recharged by listening to the many writers talk and read. The keynoters, Ursula Hegi and Laurie Halse Anderson, affirmed that writing takes research, research, research, then courage, honesty and revising, revising, revising. I learned the most from Master Memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys, Looking for Mary, and now Astonished.
Donofrio’s reading mesmerized me. The piece began with her waking in her own bed to a rapist threatening her with a knife. No messing around. Donofrio then piles memory upon memory of male sexual aggression, all those events that could lead to rape, but don’t—men yelling taunts, men cornering you, men chasing you. The rape Donofrio describes is happening right before she leaves to become a nun, a spiritual seeker, not in the traditional take-the-veil sort of way necessarily, but by going into a contemplative life to find a connection to the divine, to God. And this violence happens? God, what is this all about? The themes of the whole book were woven into that first galvanizing scene.
I took Donofrio’s workshop the next morning. She talked and we wrote, then read and received comments. She helped people learn to write scenes vs. summary, an important skill. (Just as a side note, I discovered while trying to teach modernism to sophomores last semester that they didn’t understand internal narration vs. description. They couldn’t identify which character’s point of view we were in. Basics.) I finally got to start on that story that has been following me around.
Here’s what I learned. My last real growth spurt as a writer was learning structure. I became the outline queen. I wanted to know what I was writing before I wrote. This worked for my last novel. It turned on in my head like a light bulb. But I’d been waiting to know the structure of my next two. I thought of Virginia Woolf’s quote, “As for my next book, I won’t write it till it has grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall.”
But this book is not going to do that. I’m going to have to write it from the ground up—pick a “hot spot,” as Donofrio called them, and write that. Then write another one. After a while, these scenes will reveal the larger structure to me. I realize we already know this. I already knew it, but I was resisting it. I didn’t want to go through that awful struggle in the dark of trying to find the whole picture.
“So, I feel like I spend about 75% of my time flailing around,” I half asked, half said.
Donofrio nodded, “Yeah, we all do that.”
Ursula Hegi seems to delight in the discovery process. She writes, she reads, she ponders, she researches, she revises, then one day the book opens up before her and reveals its secret heart.
Writing is hard work, even though it’s not really, as Laurie Halse Anderson said. It’s not standing on a hot roof with melted tar in the 95 degree sun with 90 percent humidity, like the workers in her neck of the woods do. No, but it is a different kind of hard work, Hegi urged. Virginia Woolf compared the early part of writing to fishing: “The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being.”
The quote continues, and this brings us back to Donofrio, who urged us to write the “hot spots,” those things that choked the throat of some women in the workshop as they tried to read what they’d written. Woolf describes it this way: “Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men. The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked.”
Time to tell the shocking truth in our writing.