Monday, December 17, 2012


Graffiti in a country highway tunnel, rural Vermont
 Processing our own "issues" is an invaluable part of writing memoir. It may not be true to fiction, though some would argue it is (see Alice Miller's The Body Never Lies) or non-fiction, but beyond a doubt, what we have not "worked on" will show itself in our writing in memoir.

In my blog post Confession Vs Expression, I began parsing out this distinction in published work. But published work has so many factors at play - more than I can parse out, though I plan to do so on this blog with published memoirists: editing process, the size of the press, etc.

So I want to now, and also in the future, use some very raw and fresh examples from my writing classes. Just last week, one popped up. It's a perfect piece to read and discuss, as we did in class, and as I will do here.

Monday, December 10, 2012


1: extended treatment of or attention to particular items
2: a part of a whole: as

a : a small and subordinate part : particular; also : a reproduction of such a part of a work of art
b : a part considered or requiring to be considered separately from the whole 

My students are attentive to detail in their writing. As anyone who has taken writing classes has heard again and again, in so many writing euphemisms: The Devil is in the details,  Show Don't Tell, etc. While detail plays a very significant role in writing, especially in expressing versus simply revealing, too many details can bog down writing. And details in writing are not always the same thing - not just the situation, the senses, but also what Tibetan Buddhists call our sixth sense: the mind, which detects our thoughts.

I often encourage my students to be mindful of the details of their thoughts, of their minds. After all, at least in Contemplative Writing, what we are actually practicing is a more intimate and unbiased relationship with our minds. As I cover with my students: this isn't a writing class, it's a class on compassion that uses writing as a way to practice it - towards ourselves and others.

But the fact is, we are writing.

It's not that I am teaching anti-writing, anti-aesthetic. 

And, increasingly, my students are needing detailed feedback, seeking critique groups, working towards editing and finishing and possibly publishing, which takes us out of process and into the realm of critical understanding of product.

Mental detail and clarity is a significant portion of any critical writing. Lyrical writing (poetic, sensory-oriented writing) is emotionally expressive. It uses sensory details and direct experience in order to express an experience.
To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.
Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Lyrical writing is used usually to express emotional content. However, it can be fitted into cerebral content, as is often the case with lyric essays.
How to Meditate, from Seasons of the Body by Brenda Miller
Day 1
On arrival, huddle in the Volkswagen with your friends and eat all the chocolate in the car. Chocolate chips, old Kit-Kats, the tag-end of a Hershey bar--do no discriminate. Feel deprived, then light up your last Sherman, pass it around. Watch your fellow retreatants flow into the meditation hall. Note how elegant they look, even in sweatpants and black Wellingtons. You'll wonder where they got such nice sweatpants. You'll look down at your baggy jeans, your dim T-shirt and say, I'm not dressed for this, let's go home. Look beyond the meditation hall to the Navarro River, the cattails, the red-winged blackbirds. It will be raining, just a little.
In fact, Miller, who is a big part of the Lyric Essay and Creative Non-Fiction movements, says the following: "The body knows a language the mind never wholly masters." She is an advocate of working with what are purportedly facts and using experience to express them. Especially, as one can tell from the title of this essay collection, she leans into the body to let direct experience show us (that writing class word) what the mind would prefer to tell.

Sense perceptions are, in fact, a part of our mind. But we also have thoughts that blurt out, splurt out all over our writing, especially when something remains relatively less processed. Though this kind of detail can seem quite telling, it in fact details quite a bit by showing us how the mind operates. While it may not make for the kind of writing one would find eventually published in a magazine or memoir, this kind of detail - mental landscape or texture - is very significant to me as a teacher. Maybe it isn't beautiful - often it isn't. Often it's the kind of stuff we are sick of hearing, or think we are sick of hearing, or wish we didn't think. 

However, we can use poetic writing to evade these thoughts, as well, which is when writing becomes neurotic - an escape rather than real contact. A student last week wrote in one of my classes that she "wanted to write a fantastical fiction story," "didn't want to write about my family, again," and yet, she couldn't help but go back and depict her brother, father, mother - talk about some of the same stories that have been told again and again. She didn't go into any kind of traditional detail in regards to her story, but she covered a sense of the space of her ongoing stories. Without that kind of knowledge, we don't know what we are "up against" and we don't have an awareness of what is already established. She didn't understand why she was writing about it, insisted that it's not something that bugs her that much anymore. And yet, there it was. Clear as day.

In Miller's essay above, she uses her neurotic mind to humorous effect. Instead of actually telling us how to meditate, she tells her own narrative about what she experienced heading into a ten-day Vipassana retreat. She vascillates between setting the scene ("It will be raining, just a little."), revealing her naked mind ("You'll wonder where they got such nice sweatpants.") and confessing ("On arrival, huddle in the Volkswagen with your friends and eat all the chocolate in the car. Chocolate chips, old Kit-Kats, the tag-end of a Hershey bar--do no discriminate.") - all in the name of "instruction." In other words, Miller uses her mind - the mind she has, she had on that retreat, all the lurid and un-pretty details. She does not lyricize the details themselves - there's very little wordplay in the paragraph above, very few "poetic" comparisons, metaphors or the like. The lyricism comes in her structure - where she twists her "ordinary" mind and presents it as an instruction manual.

In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, we are taught to not reject anything. All thoughts are simply that - thoughts - in fact, they are more than that. They are energy. Locked up in those thoughts are very useable (workable, in Chogyam Trungpa's language) energies. Rather than trying to replace details that reveal uncomfortable modes of thought, personal confessions or "boring" "ordinary" issues (me-tails, I call them), we can re-structure them, work with them like any other energetic experience. Turn them into poetry, humor, essay or fiction. Explore them.

As Thich Nhat Hahn says, "No mud, no lotus."