During my residency at IAIA in January, poet James Thomas Stevens, presented a craft talk, “Meditations on the Mundane: Rewriting the Already Written.”
James offered his audience a rich set of approaches to finding organizing principles, containers, or metaphors for the work that we are compelled to explore. His talk was a fascinating example of how powerfully an outside text can be as means to explore our interests and obsessions. I enjoyed his presentation for a variety of reasons, but his acknowledgement that writers tend to write about the same issues or themes was permission giving. It makes me feel less compelled to worry about the fact that I tend to explore the same things: loyalty, family, water, land.
He asserted that finding new avenues or sounding boards for our central interests helps give them new shape and meaning. This can alleviate the stagnation that might arise if we don’t look outside for new means for exploration. “Any object can be a metaphor for your life if you meditate long enough on it.” This quotation offers writers an expansive breath when it comes to exploring our work through new avenues or entry points.
A second point that struck a deep chord for me was the idea of gaining a whole new language set if one uses another, older text as the frame for one’s own interests. It’s such an attractive idea; to pick up an antiquated or narrowly-focused book and to allow it to build one’s vocabulary and sense of the world. It certainly makes me want to linger longer in used-book stores or pause at a garage sale once in a while.
I also appreciated the ways this approach to work allows for conversations between time periods and perspectives. James discussed a primer for Native children and this was a fascinating example of education as propaganda, and James’ “response” poem was a powerful interplay of history, politics, and language.
We will write around, through, about, with the same themes - using another text as the entry point can keep the work lively and give us a new perspective on what we think we know.
I’ve just returned from my second week-long residency in Santa Fe for my MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I attended a wealth of craft talks and readings and am full up with the insights and good cheer brimming forth from the faculty. This coming semester, I will be working with Chip Livingston as I develop and expand a memoir. His kindness, expertise, and wisdom on the other end of my writing will most likely yield excellent material, so I thought I’d share a few tidbits from his craft talk, “How Writers’ Habits and Characters’ Habits Enhance Productivity and Dimensionality.”
The rich list of rituals that Chip shared opened up windows on how I might consider and render characters, both in fiction and nonfiction. In particular, sobriety and coming to the table rituals (my husband and I have different expectations about how our family should come to the table when a meal is ready—the insight I gained from Chip’s talk might turn into an essay about these differences).
Breaking ritual can be a way to show the growth of a character and when the character encounters the ritual again, it can be a re-unification with the past. These elements: rules, food, power, and place were an excellent way to consider character, and Chip suggested that ritual is the fifth dimension, the means to move from one social position to another. In my developing memoir, education is a key piece, so graduation ceremonies hold a special significance that I can more directly work with as a result of this discussion.
Another fantastic point offered writers a craft move when working with a cast of many characters; ritual might be the way to differentiate them. We see what is important to characters by their rituals, their eccentricities, and showing character in a given ritual might be a deft means to open a story. For example, a narrative that opens with a person in fervent prayer immediately establishes character.
I am assigning myself the suggested task of watching the first minutes of twenty films to see how backstory is immediately established. I relish this very specific suggestion to improve my ability to understand how ritual can effectively create a full sense of character.
Finally, Chip’s discussion of writers and their rituals married the point that ritual is essential for understanding character as well as establishing one’s relationship to the writing process. Chip shared the story of a writer who wrote in the nude—he couldn’t leave his writing studio until he had finished a project. Without clothes, he was forced to remain in the writing space. This example powerfully demonstrates how important it is to cut yourself from your distractions after identifying them. Rituals as access to another worlds is a rich entry point for understanding character—and is a powerful insight for the access writers desire and require when creating worlds.