Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Writer's Mind

We are all busy. Sometimes, even the thought of devoting a few minutes a day to meditate seems far from reality. There’s so much going on in our daily lives, that we risk losing a deeper connection with ourselves. As writers, we are constantly creating, re-creating, thinking, re-thinking, writing, re-writing…

Sometimes, we may feel so disconnected from our minds and bodies that our work may suffer. I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Marshall Flaherty, a Toronto-based poet who leads poetry sweatshops and writing-as-a-spiritual-practice workshops. Read more to learn about her insight on mindful writing!

Thank you so much for being with us today, Katie! I have some questions for you…

Why did you begin the Writing From Within Workshops?

I began the Writing from Within Workshops because I found that having prompts, such as reading a poem, listening to music, smelling cinnamon, meditating on the breath, or recalling a childhood snapshot brought incredible images to mind. And I found that if we just wrote without editing, just let the words flow, and just entered the feelings that arouse with the prompt, that lovely poetry-from-within poured out.

Most participants were astounded at the beautiful images, words, and the deep emotions that came out. Often, a participant would read her own work aloud and say either, “I can't believe I wrote that!” or “This writing brings back such a flood of memories and sensations!” I began these sessions because I could see how therapeutic and affirming it was for people to realize their own writer within, their own inner poet.

What is involved in a typical workshop?

A typical workshop begins with an "emptying exercise" where the participants just write free-flow, beginning with a statement such as "what keeps me up at night" or "before I forget" or "a list of things I need to put down". This exercise lets all the thoughts and concerns of the mind release, sets the mind free to write, and clears the path for writing.

Then we have prompts that often invoke the senses. I might have participants close their eyes while I bring lavender around for each to smell and then they write free-flow as soon as something comes to mind. Or, I might read a poem by Rumi and have them write a "river of words" as I read the poem, allowing some words to evoke others, and some perhaps to be recorded.

After each exercise, participants are invited to share a small gem from their writing, or the entire piece. The rest may comment constructively about what moved them from the writing, or what images were powerful, or how the writing made them feel. There is always one meditation as a prompt, as this allows things to come up from deep within. We end with a little forum on what contests, readings, events, or articles are out there for aspiring writers.

How can writers benefit from meditation and breathing techniques?

Meditation connects us with our true self, with the divine light within, with our inner artist. When we centre the mind and relax, subconscious truths emerge, images appear, memories surface, feelings can bubble up. The breath is the way to bring us to a relaxed state, to calm the body, and still the mind-- the breath, as Ghandi said, is our best friend. By attending to the breath, we leave the clutter of the world behind, and we can enter into that mystical place of creativity.

What are some things writers can do to approach their writing with more clarity?

- Read, read, read! Let your mind marinate with other writers’ words and images.
- Keep a notebook with you at all times to record any and every thought.
- Keep a notebook by your bed for dream fragments that stay upon rising.
- Practice attending to the breath before writing.
- Create puzzles, prompts, and exercises for yourself to surprise your inner artist.
- Practice describing a smell, sound, taste, feeling, sight, and seeing where it leads.
- Listen to music.

What are your favourite tips on achieving a mind/body connection for the busy writer?

Learn to do a body scan, where you can go through the body asking each part to relax. Learn to find a breathing practice that calms the mind (witnessing the breath, alternate nostril breathing, counting four in and four out, or having a mantra such as breathe in/breathe out or hum/sa or one/breath for each inhalation/exhalation). Massage your own temples as you breathe, letting your mind relax as your face does. Practice a few yoga poses, concentrating on integrating the breath with the pose.

Katie has two sessions in Meditation and Mindfulness and two sessions in Writing from Within on Saturdays at St. Michael’s College Continuing Ed at U of T this 2012/13 year. For class details, email Katie!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Revising Your Manuscript: Tips From Author, Susin Nielsen

Television writer and novelist, Susin Nielsen, is the author of Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom. Her latest book, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, published by Tundra Books, is a young adult novel about a thirteen-year-old boy who comes to terms with the horrible crime his older brother committed.

I was intrigued by the concept of this novel, as it is darker than Susin’s past work, but I also wanted to discover more about her editing process.

In this interview, Susin shares some of her revision tips.

In your new book, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, you use the strategy of journal writing to help with the narrative and character development. How did you incorporate Henry’s voice in the journals? What kinds of changes did you notice in the journals in comparison to the reality around Henry?

It wasn't a matter of incorporating Henry's voice into the journal, as his voice really is the journal ... I guess I felt that the only way Henry would ever share his story would be slowly, under a bit of pressure, hence the journal as suggested by his therapist.

In my first two novels, I also use first-person narrative, but they are not journals, and what I found intriguing (and occasionally frustrating!) in this case was that it really was a different kettle of fish, using a journal structure. I couldn't write things as they were happening; they had to have happened, in order for Henry to write about them, if that makes sense. It made plotting and pacing a unique challenge.

Do you have a particular revision process or did you find it different to edit The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen?

I do quite a lot of revisions before the manuscript ever gets sent to the publisher (Tundra). My husband reads the ms, my agent, and usually a good writer friend of mine. In this case, because I was nervous about the balance of tragedy coupled with humour, I also gave it to a local young adult book club, run by a fabulous woman named Christianne Hayward, to get feedback from her young readers. I actually love the re-writing process; it's much easier to work on something that is already there, than staring at the blank page. 

How much time did you spend on this manuscript in the revision process? Did it change drastically from the first draft?

It's hard to calculate the time, but I did a fair amount of revisions. They were probably smaller things until it went to Tundra, at which point I got what are known as "substantive' comments from my editor, and at that point, I would say I did change the manuscript quite a bit, though I wouldn't say drastically. I think the biggest changes I made were: 1) Henry stopped talking to his therapist - that was how I had written the first draft, and 2) I really brought his therapist, Cecil, to life. He had been almost nonexistent earlier.

How do you deal with cutting scenes out that you have grown attached to, even though you know your book doesn’t need them?

I've been writing for a long time (TV for years, books more recently), so I'm actually quite good at being ruthless. Kill your babies, as they say. If it isn't working, if it's slowing the pace, I chuck it, and it usually feels great, like a weight lifted off my shoulders! 

Do you follow any worthwhile bits of advice when it comes to revising your work?

I read my manuscript aloud. It takes longer, but I do it quite seriously, and it's amazing how that helps. It really points out the spots where the story is lagging. 

Do you have any advice you can share with new writers who have completed their first draft and are about to begin revising?

Be ruthless. Try to get trusted friends/family members to read and critique, and don't get defensive when they give you their honest feedback. You can choose to take it or leave it - not all comments are helpful or worthwhile.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen hits bookstores this month! To read more about Susin and her work, click here.