Go to that hard place

Yesterday, the Wife and I spent the day in Barrie, attending the Writers’ Community of Simcoe County (WCSC) Luncheon.  This month, the guest speaker was Sue Reynolds.  The woman has an impressive list of achievements behind her, so let me just point you to the WCDR Board of Directors page here and the WCSC Guest Speakers page here.

Sue was there to speak about the art of writing memoir, and she also graciously provided a free memoir workshop to the luncheon attendees, which I had the pleasure of attending.  While I got a lot from her talk, it’s more the workshop I want to focus on.

Before we go on, let me state for the record, I’m not someone who writes or even typically reads memoir.  I respect it, but it just ain’t my bag.

That being said, I’m always ready to learn something new about writing and everything Sue talked about can just as easily be applied to so-called “regular” writing as well as memoir.

Sue talked about the Four Essential Factors of Compelling Memoir.  They are

  1. Show up
  2. Be present
  3. Tell the truth
  4. Be unattached to the outcome

So let’s talk about them each a little bit.

Show up: This one’s easy.  Write regularly to get your brain trained to the flow.  Regular writing (that is, daily writing), will help the events flow and spur memories that may not normally surface.  Sue’s suggestion was to set a minimum time each day to write–and this sounds an awful lot like what I talk about in the first class of my own Creative Writing class–using some sort of timer to help you out.  Give yourself as little as ten minutes to write.  At the end of that time, if you’re not feeling it, well, you tried.  On the other hand, if the words are flowing, then by all means, keep going.  After doing this for some time, you should then be able to examine and answer two very important questions

  • What makes it easier for me to write?
  • What keeps me from writing?

Be present: For this one, Sue suggested paying attention to what grabs you (my words…I believe she said, “Pay attention to what has heart and passion for you.”) and then go where that energy is.  Now, here’s something interesting.  Going where that energy is means you’ll likely need to go fearward.  That’s not a misspelling.  You’ll likely be pulled toward that which you don’t necessarily want to examine or write about.  But if you’re going to write something compelling, something that stirs the emotions, you’re going to need to delve into emotional areas.  And you’ll likely re-experience those emotions.  That’s okay, go to the hard places.

It was at this point that Sue had us do an exercise.  She got us to essentially centre ourselves, shun the outside world, focus on our breathing and let everything else fall away.  Then she set a very loose scene for us.  Remember a time when we were in a moving vehicle of some sort…a car, a plane, a train, whatever.  And to feel with all our senses everything in that memory.  Then we were to start writing with the words, “I am.”

Here’s what I wrote, completely raw and unedited.

I am in my dad’s car, we’re heading south down Ritson Road toward Adelaide, though I couldn’t know that then.  The car is hot with the summer sun, but the windows are open and the breeze is wonderful as it buffets my face, snatching at my breath and ruffling my hair that my mom always wants cut shorter.

My dad is driving.  He’s just picked me up from mom’s where we live in a small apartment since the divorce.  This means it’s a Saturday.

We’re heading to downtown Oshawa, likely to a movie and then to Pollard’s where dad will buy me a model to build later while he drinks himself into unconciousness and his sister feeds me and gets me to bed.

But now, right now, he’s speeding up to the intersection.  The light is yellow, then it’s red and he’s still speeding and he goes through the intersection and it’s all noise and squealing tires and horns as I watch a car flash buy just across, but never hitting, the front of our car.

My dad drives on, oblivious, or maybe not, not slowing, speeding down Ritson.  He’s cutting between and around cars, not slowing until he finally has to.  I sit on the pale blue bench seat, no seatbelts, my hands knuckle-white gripping the leather, my heart thudding, breath coming fast and shallow as he turns his too-handsome grinning face to me.

And, asking as though I shouldn’t be, he asks, “You scared?”

Yes, before you ask, that’s a real memory.  When I got home, I told my mother I didn’t want to see my father anymore.  And I didn’t for many years.  Then next meeting, though much less life-threatening, was more traumatic to me.

My point is, this is what came out of me…a memory I hadn’t thought of in years, and yet I could pinpoint the streets, the colour of the car seats, the name of the shop where I got my model cars and planes from…and the exact look on my father’s face as he turned to me with his movie star grin and his sociopathic outlook on child-rearing.

When we stopped writing, seven minutes after starting, my heart was thudding just as I described, my breath was coming just as I described and when I moved to set my pen down, I noticed just how much my hands were shaking.  I hadn’t just written it, I’d relived it.  I’d gone to that hard place, but I’d pulled back something from it that I could look at later.

That’s a gift.

After the exercise, Sue then talked about the last two points.

Tell the truth: Not the truth as a dispassionate observer would describe it, but the truth that you feel in your gut.  Telling your own truth allows you to begin to understand how you fit into the world and helps you make sense of the past.  Besides, as Sue emphatically stated, “No one’s interested in perfection.  No one’s interested in a perfect childhood, a perfect marriage, a perfect job.  We’re interested in the broken places, the healing and the transformation.”  She’s absolutely right.  Look back at that piece I wrote above…definitely a broken place.  How compelling would it have been for me to write about my father and I going for a simple drive down a street and through a green light?  Yeah, exactly.

Be unattached to the outcome: This one is also quite simple to grasp.  Don’t get all caught up in trying to be the next bestselling author, or ebook sensation.  Just worry about the writing itself.  Just worry about telling the most honest and compelling story you can write.  Just freaking write.

Is any of this earthshakingly new?  God, no.  But is it good advice for any and all writers?  God, yes.

What made it more compelling was that it was delivered by the incomparable Sue Reynolds.  Her warmth and caring come out in every gesture, every phrase.  She’s achieved what many of us dream of (when we are momentarily attached to that outcome), but she remains humble and committed to paying it all forward.

This is the first writing workshop I’ve ever done with Sue, and based on this alone, I’d recommend her to anyone considering trying to get their writing to the next level.

Thank you, Sue.

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15 thoughts on “Go to that hard place

  1. Yesterday was one of the best days I’ve experienced not only in the writing community but simply as an individual. Thank you for doing this tremendous write up that by the power of modern technology I can simply forward. Great and heartfelt post Tobin!

    • Right below the “Thank you, Sue.” line you’ll see “Share this:” with a drop down. You can choose the Facebook link to share it out through FB. Not sure, beyond a cut and paste job, to get it shared with Blogspot…Any suggestions from my other readers is welcome.

  2. That is so true that people want to hear about the Broken Places in someone else. We all have them and tend to deal with them differently and can digest it emotionally when we read words from another person.
    I can see so clearly what I have in my head but can’t get it out, whether personal or work related. There is a block there that is stopping me from writing about my Broken Places and is holding back everything else. WTF it is I am not sure that I want to know, but now I understand what it is and that there is a “name” for it.
    Thanks for sharing Tobin!

    • “I can see so clearly what I have in my head but can’t get it out, whether personal or work related. There is a block there that is stopping me from writing about my Broken Places and is holding back everything else.” The write about why you can’t write about it. Seriously.

  3. Excellent post, Tobin. I was right there with you in that car. And bonus! It took me to my own terror-in-the-car-with-Dad-driving moment. 1961 red T-Bird, top down, white leather interior. 4-way stop. And we did hit the other car and I hit the dashboard.

    So how fascinating is that? Power of Sue, once removed, still can fire up the brain and reach inside for treasures.

    Thank you for sharing your work in this way: frank, simple and without emotion. Moving and evocative. Well done.

  4. Oh yes yes yes… that is the magic of the method, the magic of getting out of your own way, the magic of not editing, the magic of going “fearward”, the magic of Sue Reynolds. I’m an addict myself and proud if it. Great post, Tobin. And such a vivid relived scene. Thank you for this.

  5. I have been exceptionally blessed in my journey towards writing. I`ve had a plethora of not average teachers, not good teachers, but truly inspiring teachers. Dorothea Helms, Ruth Walker and James Dewar and Sue Reynolds. Each have their own special qualities.
    You`ve experienced Sue`s. I have no idea how she does it. Maybe it`s the Ting Thing or maybe she telepathically manipulates our minds creating a race of exceptional writers and… oops. Don`t want to give away too many secrets…shhh. 😉

  6. What great advice. Thanks for sharing, Tobin. It was almost like being there–both your post and your piece.

    I followed the same prompt with Sue another time. I’m not much into memoir, but the prompt transported me to a wonderful place in my novel. It was dirty and bloody and painful. Most importantly, it was somewhere I might not otherwise have ventured.

    There’s immense power in accepting the task at hand and following where it leads. Lucky you for being there to tap into it. Lucky us for having Sue to send us there.

  7. I think that amazing piece you wrote (oh he who doesn’t write memoir) is a true validation of how wonderful this method works. I loved this piece, Tobin.

    I also love Sue, and have had the honour to work with her often. She is an amazing teacher and writer, and she just allows and encourages you to go to those dark places. I second your recommendation!

  8. Thanks for this post, Tobin. I’ve had the pleasure of working like this with Sue for the past year (Novel Approach Memoir) and can tell you that those broken places can find healing!

  9. Pingback: Dad « Left to Write

  10. Pingback: Bleeding onto the Page « Kate Arms-Roberts

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