Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.

WRITING PRACTICE

Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.

TEACHING WRITING

I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.

 

Reprinting My Plymouth Rock Has Become a Thanksgiving Tradition

I originally wrote My Plymouth Rock for Thanksgiving, 2007. It’s becoming a Thanksgiving tradition to republish it, because I think it’s important for all Americans to remember how most of us arrived here.

My Plymouth Rock

The Statue of Liberty greeted all four of my grandparents when they sailed in to Ellis Island in New York Harbor.

I first learned about the Pilgrims in 1963, when I was in second grade and Columbus’s discovery of America was still considered an unqualified success that logically led to eating turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. It would be years before I learned that the natives provided the first Thanksgiving dinner, and a few years more before I realized that my grandparents hadn’t been there.

 

My Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock. My grandparents didn’t land there.

Gradually, I became vaguely aware that my grandparents came to America on a boat that wasn’t the Mayflower and that they hadn’t come from England, but from a country that no longer existed. I was not sure how countries could disappear. As a seven year old, I still believed maps were drawn with permanent ink.

I knew that my grandparents and the Pilgrims were all old, but that three hundred years separated them was beyond my elementary reasoning.

My grandparents and the Pilgrims were all immigrants. That John Winthrop left behind landed wealth and my grandparents hand-carried their two silver candlesticks didn’t diminish the fact that they all abandoned their birth lands for America.

Like the Pilgrims, my grandparents sought religious freedom. That Puritanism and Judaism are different religions didn’t concern my second-grade mind. My focus was on the basics – like Palmer script.

We ate turkey and cranberry sauce and thought about the long-suffering Pilgrims in their tall hats and buckled boots (as we had been taught in school), but we were really celebrating the endurance of all Pilgrims, including my grandparents. My grandparents had ripped themselves up from European soil just before they would have been weeded out. They transplanted themselves like seedlings in clay pots, to small, Brooklyn apartments, with narrow windowsills, and they raised their children on pavement.

My grandparents survived the transatlantic passage and crossed the threshold of America at the immigration station on Ellis Island. They climbed the stairs into the Great Hall, where they stood for inspection by the six-second doctors in the glow of electric lights, which they had probably never seen before. Under the great, vaulted ceiling, they each waited in the hot press of travel-worn pilgrims—all hopeful, all stinking of excitement and fear.

My grandfather Jacob arrived in 1914. He sent the money he earned as a shoemaker to my grandmother and uncles, who joined him in 1921.

Both my parents were born in this country. They are Americans, but I think of them as pilgrims too, like all the rest. Their pilgrimages took them to ivy-covered halls and on to pioneering professional careers and a house in the suburbs, where they cultivated my three brothers and me.

The four of us have scattered across the continent, on pilgrimages of our own. And it’s this tradition of seeking freedom and meaning that we celebrate on this uniquely American holiday.

At Thanksgiving in my house, we eat turkey and salute my grandparents who stepped ashore on Ellis Island, my family’s Plymouth Rock.

This essay was broadcast on the stations of Vermont Public Radio on 11/22/2007. You can listen to the broadcast here.

alternate headshotDeborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, radio commentator, public speaker, educator and blogger who posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com.  

What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

Mark Rothko

What I Saw on My Artist’s Date

It was completely irresponsible to drive to Boston and spend the Monday of a packed week at the Museum of Fine Arts, but that’s just what I did yesterday.

 

My husband had the day off after a week of being on-call at the hospital, and at first I couched the sortie as something he needed before returning to the clinic today. But it turns out, the expedition was a good reset for me, too.

What I Saw

One of Takashi Murakami’s huge paintings.

Neither of us wanted to look at Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics. My resistance to viewing the busy, cartoonish paintings of this contemporary Japanese artist was all the red flag I needed to force myself to go. Reluctantly, Tim joined me in visual discomfort.

What I Saw

Japanese scroll hanging in the same gallery.

 

The best way I know to make sense of challenging art is to play a game of “I see,” naming the different elements in the painting. Both of us quickly fell into the first giant canvas, and our prejudices fell away as we looked and learned. It’s a spectacular exhibit that juxtaposes Murakami’s contemporary work with Japanese masterpieces from the MFA’s collection. I saw the connections, learned a bit about Japanese culture, and expanded my own store of metaphor. This was hard exercise for the visual processing part of my brain. My overworked linguistic muscles appreciated the rest.

Is rest the same as stillness? I think not, especially after viewing Seeking Stillness,  another exquisitely curated show of meditative pieces in different media. I was drawn to the abstract paintings of Agnes Martin: white canvases with lines, like a piece of paper waiting for words.

These paintings contrasted sharply with the dark, color block work of Mark Rothko, hung in an adjoining room.

All these canvases showed me how paint can have texture, pattern, rhythm, line and color. Some paintings told stories; some were intellectual challenges; others simply/complexly emotion.

Tim and I walked and talked, rested our feet at the museum café, and returned for more, more ,and more.

Art Changed How I See

This building looked like a work of art after a day at the MFA.

We finished with a stroll through an ongoing exhibit of modern paintings, before stepping outside in the late afternoon, where the sky looked like a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, and the fenestration of a building across the fen looked like a Mondrian.

I highly recommend an artist date, especially if you don’t have the time; and I encourage you to look at art, especially art you think you don’t like.

Have you been on an Artist’s Date lately? Where did you go? What did you see?

Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WALKshop participants at Chaos Junction.

Here’s a photo of Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom last Saturday,  where we learned tools to nurture and listen our wise, inner voice.

You can learn more about what I write and the professional services I offer at Deborah Lee Luskin.

Advice From Famous Writers: Less is More

Advice from Writers

I’ve just finished cutting 40,000 words from a 200,000-word novel that I’ve been working on for years – proving the following advice to be so true.

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
— Blaise Pascal, mathematician and physicist.

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
— Henry David Thoreau, writer and philosopher.

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, philosopher and statesman.

“You know that I write slowly. This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length.”
— Carl Friedrich Gauss, mathematician and scientist.

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher.

“The more you say, the less people remember. The fewer the words, the greater the profit.”
— François Fénelon, writer & theologian.

“No one who has read official documents needs to be told how easy it is to conceal the essential truth under the apparently candid and all-disclosing phrases of a voluminous and particularizing report…”
— Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States.

“If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today.  If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
— Mark Twain, writer.

Writing and Walking

Writing is an act of discovery. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a girl; it’s how I access my inner voice – and quiet my mind to hear my characters speak.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, public speaker and educator.

There are still a few spaces left for Women Walking & Writing Toward Wisdom with Deborah Lee Luskin and Kate Lampel Link on Saturday, November 4, in southern Vermont. In this WALKshop you’ll learn how to turn the everyday activities of walking and writing into listening posts through which you can hear and heed your inner voice. Learn more.

writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17

Reply to Readers’ Comments

I no longer remember which of my colleagues at Live to Write – Write to Live first advised me to reply to readers’ comments, but it’s been great advice, so I’m passing it on.

Here’s why:

  1. It’s easy to send stories out into the world; it’s harder to know if they ever get read, and harder still to know if they hit home. When a reader comments, it’s like an out-of-the-park homer. Replying is simply cheering for the home team.
  2. When a reader’s comments offer me a new perspective, I thank them for widening my world-view. I live a somewhat solitary life, and I appreciate other’s opinions, life experiences and wisdom.
  3. When a reader reveals uncertainty about their writing, I reply with encouragement. I know both how easy it is to become discouraged and how important kinds words can be. Everyone has stories to tell; not everyone has the courage or wherewithal to write them down, let alone send them out into the world. Everyone benefits from kindness.
  4. Humans are a narrative species. We need stories. Stories are a way to build empathy, trade information, and resolve conflict. I want to do what I can to promote such peaceful behavior.
  5. Sometimes, this somewhat solitary writing life gets lonely, and hearing from readers has led to some on-line friendships. I’ve been in love with letters and intrigued by letter writing since I was a kid, and I like epistolary relationships. I still love snail mail, but email is easier and faster.
  6. Recently, an acquaintance I made through my blog turned into a face-to-face visit. Last week, this reader from England stopped by for coffee. (Read about it here.)

The chance to comment on a blog and reply to a reader’s comment is a gift of the internet. Yes, I received fan mail when my novel, Into the Wilderness, came out. No question, it was terrific. But I write novels slowly; I post blogs about six times a month. The frequency allows me to reach more readers between books, and these readers’ comments sustain me. So replying to comments only makes sense.

Thanks to all who read my posts both here and on Living in Place. This post is a special shout-out to those who respond with a comment.Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, public speaker and educator who lives in southern Vermont. There are still a few spaces left for the WOMEN WALKING AND WRITING TO WISDOM WALKshop on November 4th. Learn more here.

Walking My Way Back to My Desk

Walking & Writing

Walking my way back to my thoughts.

I’d been working full-time revising a novel from August twentieth until September twenty-first. Those were four glorious weeks of concentrated work, during which I never had to wonder, What am I going to write today? I worked on the revision morning and afternoon, completing all other assignments as breaks.

I love working deeply in a book, where I have its alternative universe to keep me company during the activities of daily living, from weeding the garden to hanging the laundry and other necessary chores. I’m particularly pleased about how I juggled this delicious revision task with the interruptions for the kitchen renovation, which demanded my irregular attention.

Amtrak's Vermonter

Editing the typescript on the train.

I pushed myself to have a typescript finished and printed in time to read it on the train to New York City for a weekend visiting friends, and I managed to proofread this version on the train ride home.

But back home, I didn’t have the anchor of this project to keep me grounded, even though I need to update the document before sending it to my next set of readers. It’s finish work, just like the kitchen, where I needed to make frequent decisions. In fact, the finish work of both the kitchen and novel are similar, demanding decisions about smaller and smaller details – a chapter heading, paragraph break, comma usage for one, and a door stopper, cabinet pulls and knobs for the other. Not just which ones, but where. The details seem endless.

And then there’s family life: my youngest and her partner returned from nearly six months hiking the Appalachian Trail, which they finished on the heels of a hurricane. They returned home tired and hungry. It’s been fun to feed them and hear their stories while they’re still fresh.

The upshot of this break in routine and concentration was first a sense of delirium – so happy to have completed the revision! How wonderful to meet an adult child for dinner in Manhattan before spending the weekend with friends! So relieved the hiking kids are safely off the trail!

But the delirium ended as it always does – with a crash.

Walking and writing.

Walking helps me find my writing voice after any hiatus. (photo courtesy of Leadership ‘n Motion)

I didn’t resume my routine. I didn’t check my planner. I didn’t reign in my mind, and my life wobbled out of control. I missed deadlines for two posts. (This one should have appeared last week.) I went to the grocery store without my list. I spent hours, it seemed, looking for my phone.

After four days, I’d had enough. I returned to my desk, I sifted my emails, and I went for a walk. It was on the walk that the word “Scattered” came to me, and I knew that wobbling from lack of routine and losing my focus would be the subject of a post. And that’s how I found my way back to work.

What’s different from the thousand other times this spinning off-center has happened, is that this time, instead of beating myself up for what I didn’t do, I’m congratulating myself on knowing how to pick up the fragments of my scattered concentration: Go for a walk, return to my desk, and start writing.

For me, the best way to regroup is to go for a walk and listen for my voice.

It works every time.

How to you regain concentration after it’s been disrupted?

writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, walker and educator. She’s hosting Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom WALKshop with walker and life coach Kate Lampel Link on Saturday, November 4, from 9 am – 4 pm in Newfane, Vermont. Early Bird registration ends October 7. For more information and to register, click here.

Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WRITING
Writing and Walking

Writing is an act of discovery. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a girl. Photo courtesy of Leadership’N Motion

My colleagues here have written eloquently about the value of journaling. Lisa describes journaling as A Method for Creative Discoveries, and Jamie lists 10 Ways Journaling Makes You a Better Writer.

Like both of them, I’ve been journaling since I was quite young. As an only girl in a household of boys, writing was sometimes the only way I could make myself heard. It’s still sometimes the only way I can hear myself.

WALKING

But now that I’m a professional writer, I sometimes need a break from my desk; that’s when I walk.

Walking is a lot like journaling. Instead of unspooling my thoughts in ink, I hike over the uneven terrain of my mental uncertainty. Before long, my footsteps shake my ideas into place, and I return to my desk with mental clarity.

writing and walkingSometimes, it’s emotional upset that blocks the words, and walking helps calm me. Being in nature changes my perspective with a long view. I’m reminded, “It’s not about me,” one of The Four Agreements that I find so helpful since reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s book about personal freedom and Toltec wisdom last February.

I read The Four Agreements in preparation for attending two-day “aWALKening to Personal Leadership Retreat” that deepened my understanding of how walking aids my writing and my life.

The Retreat was sponsored by Leadership’N Motion, co-founded by two dynamic coaches with international experience: Kate Lampel Link and Marjine van den Kieboom.

MOVING FORWARD

The retreat affirmed how walking literally and metaphorically helps me move forward.

One of the unintended consequences of that retreat was connecting with Kate – with whom I’ve crossed paths for years, usually on local cross-country ski trails.

Since February, we’ve been walking side-by-side in a deepening friendship. Our walks through the forest have led us to understand better the synergy of walking and writing, two activities that reinforce our personal leadership and help us to live mindful, fulfilling lives.

A WALKING & WRITING COLLABORATION
writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17. Photo courtesy of Leadership ‘N Motion

Kate’s a coach and I’m an educator. We both work primarily with women pursuing self-empowerment, whether pursuing a dream of entrepreneurship (Kate) or reframing the narrative of their lives (me). We hadn’t walked very far together before we started collaborating on a way to bring our knowledge and skills to others.

So it is with great excitement that we’ll be offering Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom, and all-day WALKshop on November 4, 2017.

Please note: Space is limited and Registration is required.

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

When she’s not walking, Deborah Lee Luskin is writing and Living in Place.