Holy Mother of Writing

Slowly, I am coming out of the fog of being immersed in a different world. Family helps by asking where their socks went, how come we are out of cereal, arguing about brushing their teeth, and forcing me to plan the next meal. It feels like a "whose life is this? whiplash" and I am hard-pressed to tell you which one I am most in at the moment.

I went to one of these workshops in Tomales Bay as an early 45th birthday present to myself and this is the sort of gift that will keep on giving.

Two months ago, I found a great person, Zach, who agreed to help me develop a new website for myself. We connected on a lot of levels, the main one being that he doesn't think my ideas are crazy.  But he has other jobs like I do so the work is slow going and as a result, I have been a bit out of sorts. Per typical me, I am all or nothing until Zach suggested ever so gently that it was ok to keep writing here. Blog sites are forever in cyber world and the when and how of the transfer happens doesn't matter to my writing.


And then I met Dorothy Allison, my Art of Memoir instructor and literary legend, who nearly slapped me when I told her how long I'd not been writing.  It would be easy to suggest that my reactions to my time there came from what my chosen topics were because there were so personal, but it was more than that. I have been ignoring for months that I am a writer. I am a writer the way others are teachers and bakers and photographers and doctors and activists and mothers and musicians and soldiers. It is a very large part of who I am and I feel compelled, almost dictated, to tell stories and to sort through life through my words on a page.

I have been setting it aside for things that seem to have an easier defined sense of purpose. I teach public speaking to students and they learn and I get paid, I cook for my family and they do not go hungry, I wash our clothes to avoid embarrassment, and I take out the garbage so our home doesn't smell. But writing does nothing for the rest of the my family, little for others if I can't share it, and so it is easy to let it slide.

The other point she made on a daily basis is that when you are a writer who cares, who has an expectation for excellence, it will be painful but not for all the reasons you might expect. Good writing is not therapy. We can all expel our stories. We can write from the heart and it can fall flat, but to write and take the reader with you, have them engage with you in a way that makes them want to stay with you takes craft and guts and it is hard. Good writing is not an after school special (Dorothy's words, not mine).

I got busy on Dorothy's watch and I had the chance to read out loud. We were required to read a piece that started in the classroom from one of her prompts. We had to write three pages on our own time, read it to the class the next day, survive the execution of commentary, and then take it back and re-write the same piece from a totally different perspective. This served many purposes. She talked a lot about how we read, the gift it can bring to your writing if you read what you've written out loud, we talked about how getting into a story can feel different depending on how you choose to have it told ( first, second, close third, or third person). We talked a lot about being believable. "I don't believe you!" she'd chirp after a reading. Or in a case or two, "Wow." I got one of each.

And dear Dorothy swore. A lot.

Not at us, but in a way that made it clear it was part of her daily life. Fuck me! was among her favorite phrases. Bitches! out of her mouth is a term of endearment. We laughed and she held us close. She would easily call bullshit on any one of us trying to get out of something, but then hug us fiercely when we needed it because she knows and understands the difficulty of our task.

Writing done well, or even in my case, mediocre, is hard. It's hard because we care about the story, we care about the reader, and we care about the craft. We go into it often not knowing where it will lead us while trying to honor all that we care so deeply about and the process offers no guarantees.

And still, we do it.

I do it because I can't not.  It feeds me in a way that everyone I met understood. We nodded in unison at Dorothy's words, "Not writing almost killed me....and writing (that book) almost killed me."

It seems ridiculous that anyone might enter such a pursuit, but in doing so we set who we are free. And when we don't, we are ignoring the essence of who we are.

As she pointed out over and over and over again, it is the work that will test us and feed us more than the end product. We have to go into it for the work because the work is who we are.

It will be weeks before this all settles in, but my hope for now is to keep the work of daily life moving just enough to do my real work.
Legendary Dorothy Allison and Me
 Tomales Bay
October 2013


  1. Oh this makes me so so so so happy. All wonderful and brilliant and inspirational and soul enriching. It sounds like a transformative week and I'm glad someone kicked you in the ass a little. You are a good writer and you do have that care for the craft and the eye on the reader and your writing is important. Someone just recently reminded me of a George Saunders quote from that NYT interview: "I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person." No matter what else happens, that seems reason enough to me to continue to write. And to call yourself a writer with purpose. You ARE a writer with purpose. Screw the dirty laundry and write. :) (Can't wait to hear more details.)

  2. Hi Lisa. This is wonderful! I'm glad you had a productive time at WXW. From all the FB posts I saw praising it, I wish I could have gone.

    I'd love to meet and visit with your about your memoir project, about mine, about writing, etc. We Southern Minnesota girls have to stick together!

    Maybe we can "meet in the middle" somewhere for lunch, coffee, dinner, wine?

  3. Welcome back! I have missed you.

  4. Great post, Lisa. I just linked to this post from today's Quote of the Week post on my blog. It was fun to be in Dorothy's workshop with you.


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