Can you guess where this is?
Interview with Dr. Julia Deisler!
1. If I love to write but have trouble finishing stories, can this class help me?
If you’re having trouble finishing because you lose momentum, I think you’ll find that the progression of writing assignments will help you. We’ll do lots of what I call priming the pump–using a wide variety of writing prompts to create material to draw from in developing stories–and then from that semi-raw material will come rough stories from which you’ll pick two, toward the end of the class, to revise and really complete.
If you’re instead having trouble finding the right endings for your stories, we’ll also be discussing and working with different approaches to beginning and ending stories as part of the class.
2. What are you, the teacher, reading these days?
Over the summer, I took a long-ish road trip–about 2000 miles round trip–and (once again) blessed audible books for allowing my road trip also to be an opportunity for reading or re-reading a few longer works. Two that stand out are Tommy Orange’s There There, which I’d read before, but quickly, and Trevor Noah’s (non-fiction) Born a Crime about growing up in South Africa as a child of parents whose getting together and having a child–because one parent was black and the other white–was against the law. Re-reading There Thereby listening to it made me appreciate even more the skillful use of language and structure to move the story forward and reinforce the inter relatedness of characters and events. Reading Born a Crime impressed me for all I learned about that piece of South African history, during and in the aftermath of Apartheid, from the perspective of someone who had an in with several cultural groups, and adapted well to each, while also being a kind of perpetual outsider.
I’ve been also reading lots of short fiction–not just in the short story collections we’ll be reading from in the class but in a range of places–in whatever books or web collections of short stories drew me in. One that really struck me–for the tricky way the implications of things snuck up on me–was Jo Ann Beard’s “The Tomb of Wrestling,” which first appeared in Tin House in 2017 and then was selected for an O. Henry Prize in 2018. The story begins, “She struck her attacker in the head with a shovel, a small one that she normally left in the trunk of her car for moving things off the highway”–and I’m going to leave it there. I may put it on reserve for the class to look at during the semester.
3. Can this class help me with feeling blocked or uninspired?
Yes, it can. What I’ve heard students say is that taking a class like this–where we write regularly in response to prompts that may take us away from familiar ground (or cause us to see the familiar from a different perspective)–has helped them to shake something loose, and they end up producing work that surprised and pleased them.
Different writers give the advice to write and read every day–to submerge yourself in writing. I kind of like the way Ray Bradbury frames it as an experimental diet to try in Zen in the Art of Writing: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” I’ve seen a fair number of counter-responses to it entitled things like “Why writing every day doesn’t work” and “writing advice that really pisses me off.” However, you won’t know if it works for you until you try it, and exploring what works best for each of us–as writers–is part of what the class is about. What tricks/habits help you to stay on track, generate new ideas, and keep writing?
4. Do you, as teacher, have a favorite quotation about writing?
I have lots, and I could go in many directions here, but one that often comes to mind is Ursula Le Guin’s cryptic statement in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness that “a novelist’s true business is lying.” It’s of course not just about lying (after all, she calls it a “true business”!); it’s also about how good fiction is absolutely true, not just despite but actually because of the way the story emerges from/within the lying.
And then here’s one more I have to add in because reading it the other day made me want to head off for an extended writing retreat. It’s from a 1993 interview with Toni Morrison in The Paris Review in which she touches on what writing was for her, what it meant, what it did. She said, “what makes me feel as though I belong here out in this world is not the teacher, not the mother, not the lover, but what goes on in my mind when I am writing. Then I belong here and then all of the things that are disparate and irreconcilable can be useful. I can do the traditional things that writers always say they do, which is to make order out of chaos. Even if you are reproducing the disorder, you are sovereign at that point. Struggling through the work is extremely important—more important to me than publishing it.” (For the full interview, seehttps://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/toni-morrison-the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-morrison.)
5. Anything you want to add? I am really looking forward to teaching fiction-writing again and trying it out in the online format. I also want to encourage folks to sign up for the in-person literature class on short fiction this semester if they’ve got the time. It can be really rich–sort of like a genre intensive–to write fiction in one class, reading others’ stories to study craft, and to study fiction as literature in another class, still looking at craft but also analyzing the stories in the context of historical, cultural, philosophical, aesthetic, and other trends.
If anyone’s interested in enrolling in either of the two classes, go to www.sfcc.edu to register. Here are the details:
ENGL 2320 Introduction to Fiction Writing online (CRN 21146) (begins August 19)
ENGL 2380 Introduction to Short Fiction (CRN 21461) 11:30-12:45 TR (begins August 20)
Picking up apricots
Smashed and sticking to brick pavers
Sweet, plump little bodies
And so many still in the tree
No place for them to land
Where they can do
What they were born to do
In a blast of wind
One plops juicily on my arm
This is from a book Renée Gregorio is working on. She welcomes comments!
The Body-Self, Blossoming
The aikido mats are a powerful place of transformation. Where bodies learn what it is to feel the energy of other bodies, to redirect what could otherwise be construed as an “attack”, to take that as energy and to help to shift that into an exchange that is actually healing rather than harmful. Does every aikido practitioner feel this way? Likely not. But I always did. I was constantly stunned into seeing how the body defends itself against attack, even in a simulated situation (which was also sometimes very real) where people are training together and helping each other discover through body mechanics and energy just what is meant by throwing and being-thrown, by accepting and resisting, getting out of one’s own way, letting energy move through you, dancing in that remarkable space that is made of two human beings who are able to give and take to such a degree that it is really impossible to see who the attacker is. Actually in aikido the word is not even used. The Japanese words being “uke” and “nage”, loosely translated as the one being thrown and the one throwing—or even better, the receiver and the thrower.
What makes the mats a potentially powerful place of transformation is willingness—to fully engage with your partners and to enter the dojo with what one of my first senseis called “an empty cup”. What stops learning is to enter the dojo thinking one has all the answers or not having a willingness to just show up and train. What’s powerful is that a good teacher can point to what you are automatically “doing” with your body as you’re doing it. Then you can make immediate shifts in your body-consciousness that create a new way of seeing, being and moving. Here’s an example. I was on the mats with a visiting sensei who has particularly keen skills in seeing how the person shows up in the technique he/she is attempting to execute. I was mirroring (or so I thought) a technique that he had just shown that was really very basic. My partner was opposite me, both in our hanmi stance, and I was practicing the technique over and over as one does in aikido. The sensei approached and stood in the place of my partner and asked me to do the technique with him. I did what I’d been doing and he stood back, looked me in the eyes and said: “Yeah, that’s right. I thought I saw that.” At which point he slapped my biceps and said: “You don’t need them! You must think you have to work very hard to get anything done in your life.”
I was stunned. What he had said right at the moment that I was executing that technique resonated deeply. The simple technique was not working because I was using my biceps. I was fighting rather than accepting. I was using effort rather than feeling the energy of my partner, accepting it into me, redirecting it. The technique was not working at all. The more I allowed myself to relax in my whole body and to drop my attention into my belly rather than tensing in my biceps, the more the technique began to flow, and the more responsive my partner became. This exploration did not end there on the mats. Once I left the dojo and returned to my daily life, I began to notice all the ways of my effort. In the oddest of circumstances, I was applying effort. Making pesto, for example, I noted how intense I was being as I plucked the leaves of basil from their stems. It was as if I were pulling a massive tree up by its roots for all the strain I was putting into this simple move. And I decided to let that go. I decided that this habit of effort had been around so very long and I really didn’t need it to stick around any longer.
First of all I was engaging in a body-centered practice (aikido) in which I had a teacher who could see what I could not see. What was so clear to him was embedded in my psyche, and it was invisible to me. On the mats I got to see how it wasn’t working. Faced with another human being who was responsive —or was trying to be—to the moves I was making, I got to see how my effort did not produce any degree of success with moving that partner. Still, it took the seeing of my teacher to help me out of this web of very practiced habit. How he did that was twofold: he whacked me, which I swear woke something up in me (I’m not advocating whacking—it’s just that in this case I think it was needed!); and he said something to me that was both true and also stunned me. Of course, I had always thought I had to work very hard to get anything done in my life. I did not know another way. But in that moment of the whack and his statement, I saw my habit. Not only did I see it, I felt it and I understood that I was holding onto a belief that I held to be sacrosanct, that I didn’t even see, that I assumed was true. And it wasn’t.
Then I took that awareness into my life. I brought it home with me. I brought it to work with me. I brought it everywhere. And I began to see all the ways of my effort. I knew that I did not want to keep living this way. So I started to intervene with this habit. Over and over again, as on the aikido mats, I practiced doing something else. I breathed. I laughed. I said: “Wow, I’m so serious here with these basil leaves, maybe I could let up on myself a bit and see if the leaves come off the stems just as readily,” which of course they did. I could settle within myself more and just pluck away, without strain. What this allowed, of course, was more space within me, which in turn allowed me to look out the window at the incredible view of fields and mountains and to feel myself rooted here, a part of this place I live in.
This is a good example, I think, of what one of my teachers names as: awareness leads to choice. It also attests to the power of a good teacher or coach to help us to see what we cannot. And also to the power of learning through the body. That habit of effort had been around for decades and it was only when it showed up in such a clear, distinct and undeniable way—through the body—that I could see it and find ways to shift it.
We all have habits or sticking patterns that have been around for a long time, that might even be invisible to us and that are preventing us from letting out the full range of our voice and vision. Bringing awareness to these stuck places is the first step, yes. And then we have to open to the possibility of another way of doing things, another way of being. We have to consciously work with the habit, see how it lives in our bodies, see what beliefs are attached to it, and then release them. Of course support in doing this is oftentimes necessary and can certainly help—the support of a teacher you trust or a somatic coach who can stand with you and assist you in moving through the pattern that holds you back.
What does this have to do with your ability to create or write? Let’s say that every time you sit down to write your throat tightens and you feel, deep down, like a fraud. You might ask yourself what you could possibly have to say that no one else has said. You might be plagued with the sense that anything you say couldn’t possibly be enough. That really you are not enough. You might just be unable to sit still enough to get anything down on paper. And yet you want to write. You want to express yourself creatively. And yet.
Ask yourself what your particular habit is. When you are faced with a blank page or some time to really engage with your creative work, what prevents you? What are you telling yourself over and over? How is this showing up in your body? What’s it feel like? Does an image arise around this feeling in your body? What’s the shape, texture and color of this sensation in your body? What is the belief attached to this particular shaping/holding/habit? Come up with a way to chart this. Draw a big rectangle with many boxes to help you define this place in yourself. Become really intimate with this new awareness.
Now bring the rest of you to this awareness: breath, legs, heart, gut, intellect. Stand up. Drop your attention into your hara and breathe from there, about two inches below your navel. Exaggerate your inhale, really taking in a lot more breath than you usually allow yourself. Then just let your exhale out in one swoosh. Keep this up for about 20 breaths and then just see how you feel, what you’re noticing. Now place your attention on your legs. What do you notice? Do you feel grounded? Can you feel your feet on the ground? Can you extend energy down through your legs into the earth? Try this. Notice what shifts in you. Soften your heart. Ask yourself what you care about with your writing. What is your deepest desire as you put your voice out into the world (or onto the page)? Let this reverberate throughout your entire being. Extend the feeling of your care out through your heart. What do you notice now? Now feel into your gut. What do you want to dare to create? How does that feel in your gut? Wherever you feel tightness, bring space there, breathe space into those places that are constricted. Keep with this for at least five minutes—breath, legs, heart, gut….now ask yourself: what do I believe now about my creative work? What do I want to happen next? Again, give yourself time and space to feel this desire throughout your whole being. Again, deep breath, feel your legs, extend out through your heart, let your gut go and speak aloud what you believe right now about your creative self.
Take this with you. Live this. Write it down on a card and place it in your creative space. Practice moving from spaciousness rather than constriction. Practice releasing the old habitual shape and seeing what wants to come in instead. Let it in. Write your heart out.
an abandoned water tank—
over the border patrol
Miriam Sagan, Santa Fe, New Mexico