How to do a self-directed writing workshop. Part 1/2

books in snow

I'm reading widely and pleasantly this winter, making my way through a nice fat stack of (mostly) novels. I've put myself on a self-directed writing workshop, and there's no end date. The goal: to learn all that I can from everything that I'm reading.

My only rule is that the process of the reading itself sparks a feeling for me. If I read the sentences and don't feel anything, then I permit myself to put the book back on the shelf, and promise to pick it up again in a few weeks, to redo the spark test.

If I feel a spark when I'm reading, it's asking me to pay attention.

This is how I can tell that I'm writing when I'm reading: I feel more attentive, like I'm watching for clues. I then take notes in my journal about any sparks of feeling I have, and I try to work out the writing mechanics and possible lessons from there.

Sparks of feeling may include: ideas, thoughts, aha moments, bewilderment, coincidences, delight, desire, distaste, and jealousy (ooh, especially jealousy).

Noticing my response to the writing feels different than simply "liking" or "disliking" the book itself. I'm watching myself read, watching how I react to the story, the writing, the characterization, etc. One part of me is reading and having reactions to the book, and another part of me is simultaneously making note of why I'm reacting to it.

I thought I'd share some of my notes on the books I've read this winter, to show you what I mean.


Reading Notes

Note - these are actual quotes, copied verbatim from my journal. They might not make perfect sense, but that's because I didn't think they'd be read by anybody else! Lilian is the name of my novel's protagonist.

Elizabeth McCracken. Thunderstruck.
I see the beauty of detailed description -- slow down to capture the breadth and expanse and atmosphere of a space. Try to do it in a few deft strokes. Details!!

Sarah Henstra. Mad Miss Mimic.
I feel the power of language and syntax here. Don't forget syntax. Occasionally I also feel how deeply she has immersed herself in the world of this novel - London, England, over 100 years ago - because she describes the streets and the clothing as if she were living it, as if she were there. It's the magic of imagination and research and trance-mission. A solid reminder for me.

Both Thunderstruck and Mad Miss Mimic teach me to go deep into the low point of my scene. If Lilian is sad, BE LILIAN and write from that consciousness. Get down on the floor and lie there and feel powerless. Be Lilian feeling powerless. What does she see from the floor?

Rachel Pastan's first book, This Side of Married, reminded me that writing about the feminine experience is a time-honoured joy and pleasure, that of course women's lives are worth reading about, duh, Pride and Prejudice is so beloved precisely because of this. Love and marriage, trust and betrayal, women's friendship, domestic life -- all are crucial to our lives, and we never tire of reading about them. Never feel shy about writing a novel about the female experience. *

Alena - also Rachel Pastan. ART. Reminded me to write about art, and colour, and about Lilian as an artist. Lilian, of course, sees her life with the eyes of an artist! Write from that place.

From Tim Burkett, Nothing Holy About It - remember that writing is a practice, that keeping an open heart even (especially) when it feels difficult, brings relief. Also that my story, the trueness of it, is always right there for me. It is my own thinking and storytelling over top of it (worry, doubt, preparation and rehearsing) that clouds my experience of it as it unfolds. The mystery is always there.


Maybe you do something like this yourself, already? If so, please leave me a comment below. Tell me what you've read and what it sparked in you -- and how you used that spark to your advantage in something you've written.

Meet me here in two weeks for Part 2 of this post -- more reading recommendations and notes, and advice on how you can do a self-directed writing workshop.

xo,

Sarah Selecky

   

* If you haven't already read Clare Vaye Watkins' killer essay about this topic, please read it, prontissimo.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.


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How to do a self-directed writing workshop. Part 2/2

13 comments

Personally, I find it fascinating to see what other authors are reading, and what they take away from those books, so thank you for this post! Curious about something, what do you mean by trance-mission? Recently, a book was recommended to me to read, "Reading Like A Writer" Have you read that one?
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Sarah thanks for this post- a self-directed writing retreat seems like the perfect project to take on during the "snowed-in" season. Will be reading the next post closely. The note you made that most resonated with me is this: From Tim Burkett, Nothing Holy About It – remember that writing is a practice, that keeping an open heart even (especially) when it feels difficult, brings relief. Also that my story, the trueness of it, is always right there for me. It is my own thinking and storytelling over top of it (worry, doubt, preparation and rehearsing) that clouds my experience of it as it unfolds. The mystery is always there. Bless you for that observance!
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Carolyn! Um, Francine Prose's "Reading Like A Writer" is one of my favourite books! So, yes - go get it. Also, you might love "By the Book", a collection of interviews with writers about what they love to read. Re: "trance-mission" -- I made that word up. You know when you're in the consciousness of your character, so you're in your story world more than "real" world, and it's almost like you're in a trance? And in that state of mind, you can tap into sensory details that make your story real to a reader? So you're in a trance, but also working as a story transmitter because you're transmitting the story to your reader. You're also on a mission, like holding a divining rod, always aware and searching for the next image and scene? That's what I mean by "trance-mission." :)
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Sarah Selecky

Thanks, Mary! Yes, it's such a good book. Burkett's writing helped me get over a writing hurdle, even though his book isn't specifically about writing at all.
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Suzanne Brazil

Lovely post - I also have "Read Like a Writer" and found it really helpful. I'm rewriting my novel and trying to uncover "what's always there for me" in the story. Originally, I had a big splashy opening scene, but it felt forced, like I was trying to entertain. I've replaced it with a smaller, but truer and deeper, scene and got a piece of feedback from one writer (unmarried and no children) that she loved the original opening more. Your take on writing about women's lives, that the domestic experience is worth writing about was like a morning jolt of caffeine and I won't forget it! That said, I may try to use that splashy scene elsewhere in the book, but only if it fits! Great post and thank you for the reminder. And since we're sharing books...I'm currently reading Kate Morton's The Lake House.
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I'm wondering if you use a different journal for writing about books, or if all your writing is contained in one book? I can spend a lot of time deliberating about journals.
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Suzanne! I'm so curious about both scenes you describe, and the why behind your reader's choice. What an interesting discussion that would be with a critique group! Thank you for the Kate Morton recommendation. I have not read it, and will add to my list. Thank you for reading, and being here!
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Ellen! Yes. I keep a different journal for writing down my thoughts about books and reading notes, and other general notes to self. I have another notebook that I use to work out all of my newsletters and the posts I write for my website. My novel-in-progress, and the full scenes I'm working on right now, are happening separately, in big cheap spiral notebooks from the Dollar Store, with glitter covers. I have other notebooks on the go, too - a travel jotter, a notebook for workshops and lectures, one for team meetings and brainstorming for SSMind School. Yikes! Lots of different notebooks! Strangely, though, I never feel confused about what's what.
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Cynthia Bahnsen

"Jane Eyre's Sisters" by Jodie Gentian Bower helped me to see that women generally have a different coming of age story than men. It helped me to see why I couldn't get the hero's journey to work for the stories I wanted to tell.
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THIS!!! I've been delving into difficult stuff in my writing recently and am amazed and you have captured such truth in what you have written here: "remember that writing is a practice, that keeping an open heart even (especially) when it feels difficult, brings relief. Also that my story, the trueness of it, is always right there for me. It is my own thinking and storytelling over top of it (worry, doubt, preparation and rehearsing) that clouds my experience of it as it unfolds. The mystery is always there."
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Hi Cynthia, There's a great book called "The Heroine's Journey" by Maureen Murdock that you might enjoy.
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Julie Gabrielli

Thank you for this wonderful advice! I often jot down aspects of passages I like, but didn't think to note WHY they spoke to me, other than thematically. (DOH!) I'm reading Helen MacDonald's "H is for Hawk" right now and it is packed with gorgeous, visual and emotional prose, interesting history, grief and suffering and wildness. I so appreciate and value your mentorship.
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Sarah, I am so glad I met you. And, so pleased to have you mentoring me in this hugely challenging writing journey. So much in this post speaks to my heart, encourages me, and challenges me too. Thank you.
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