Writing Workshop Lesson 7: In the Zone
Why write? Because we have to. Because the words buzz around in our heads like angry bees until we can set them free and get them onto a page. We are compelled to write. The world around us keeps tripping us up with new stories to tell. We have no choice. We have to write them down.
Writers have a “zone” just like athletes and musicians. Space and time disappear there. When you’re in the zone, you write for eight hours and it feels like one. You forget to eat and are surprised to hear the postman filling the mailbox. Doesn’t he usually come at 4 or 5? Wait, it’s what time? Writing in the zone means blocking out everything else. When the sentences are flowing, aaaaaaah. Word-gasm.
By now you probably know how to trick yourself into the zone. You get new legal pads and just the right pens with the super-fine points. Or you win just enough rounds of computer solitaire to bring you luck. You get through your “resistance to work” moves—all the cleaning and fussing and preening--until you absolutely have no excuses left for not working.
For me, two things are necessary for “zoning”: a blank wall in front of me and a certain kind of messy chaos around me. Look around my desk right now: the stapler and a bottle of Tylenol have fallen on the floor to my right, where they've been for several days now; a stack of old Life magazines is under the table near my feet (a real bargain from eBay about six months ago…really must get around to reading them); the phone is teetering off the edge of the table to the left; a pile of clippings about college life spills out of a basket; a totebag from the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, lies crumpled near a little mountain of reporter’s notebooks filled with the scribblings from dozens of plays I’ve reviewed this year; oh, and there are the silver earrings I was looking for last weekend. There is a system here, but only I can decode it. I like a little craziness in my environment. But what I like best is that blank wall. On that I write my best stuff. Not literally, of course. I just stare at it until blood droplets form on my forehead. Then I start typing.
Writing is a skill, a craft, an art and a pain in the ass. I can teach the first two—it’s up to you (and a good editor, if you're lucky) to achieve the third. The fourth, well, you already know that by now. If you haven't yet written yourself into the zone, you will. It's like the elusive G-spot--once you hit it, you'll know how to find it again. Or at least you'll enjoying trying, knowing how good the pay-off feels.
Through these exercises I hope you’re flexing some new writing muscles. And I hope you’re reading some good stuff. I’m really enjoying all of your posts. I feel as though I have friends out there in writerland. You challenge and inspire me.
I was going to introduce the basics of the craft of interviewing today, but I think I’ll hold off on that until week after next (next week: Fall Break!). Instead, let’s try this writing prompt that I picked up during a summer visit to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I took a class called “From Memory to Art” with Professor Jim Heynen. Each day he’d give us an assignment. We’d work on it overnight and then workshop whatever we wrote in class the following day. Professor Heynen is a friendly, twinkly-eyed poet from Minnesota. From his collection called Standing Naked, these are the first and last stanzas of a poem called “Valentine” that he wrote about his wife:
Among maple leaves in winter, you’re the one that doesn’t fall.
Among owls, you are the one awake at noon.
Among birds, you are the cardinal on the chimney.
Among fish, you are the one who ignores the bait.
Among sheep, you’re the one who won’t follow,
among pheasants, the one who won’t flush.
But among bears, you’re the one dancing
Around the fires in the forest of my heart.
Nice, huh? With these simple metaphors, he really tells you a lot about the woman he loves. This is an “anaphora,” a poem in which almost every line begins with the same word. Typically, that word is a preposition: among, between, because, above, etc.
Your assignment this week: Write a short anaphora about someone you love or someone you hate. Do that same-word-first thing. Don’t make the lines rhyme. Just make it good to read. Post it in comments here.
Now, back to work. A blank wall is calling.