Like anyone who has the blessing of a writing community, I have friends who write every morning, friends who organize their writing stretches with set coffee breaks in between bursts and friends who go on writing binges. They research their subjects, spend hours on their couches with volumes from Dickson Street Books, read books and books on craft.
Lately, I write a little and give up when the work comes out stilted. A man I trust very much said to me recently that I can let everything else I do be completely undisciplined, so long as I practice discipline as a writer. Instead, I fulfill obligations.
I struggle to push one word after another onto the page. I write with my students, and sometimes I find a groove and follow it and what emerges has strength. But I have a manuscript to tend to, and right now it’s gnawing at my gut.
I think there’s a pulse outside our own, and if we put our ear to it we can begin to operate according to its rhythm. Discipline is simply the act of quieting ourselves enough to hear the beat. I write this now and hope to hear that pulse tomorrow, and the next day.
The discipline of writing in a group every week can yield beautiful vignettes. Iris Shepard wrote this piece in response to the following prompt: Write a tiny story about something that happened to you when you were 14.
By Iris Shepard
I lay on my stomach on the trampoline, leafing through the new issue of Christian Rock Today. I had finished my homeschooling lessons for the day — Act 1 of “Julius Caesar,” a chemistry chapter I hadn’t really understood, memorizing the first 20 lines of The Song of Solomon — and I’d grabbed up the glossy magazine and rushed outside before Mom could check my work or assign more chores. My dog, Geordi, a Welsh Corgi, flopped out under the trampoline, wheezing on his belly in the dust pit he’d just dug, his front and back feet sticking straight out.
I kicked off my sandals and opened the magazine. The black barn cat, Mimosa, who’d been curled in the afternoon sun, slipped up beside me and curled on the feature article about the difficulties Christian bands were having finding producers. I tried to push Mimosa off, but he tore his claws into the pages and took half the magazine with him. I picked Mimosa up and threw him high up into the air. He bounced when he hit the trampoline, and then, ears back, darted off the trampoline towards the barn. The ripped magazine was opened to the classified section, and I read: “Vocalist wanted for Christian rock band in greater Houston area. Please send vocal recording and brief bio to Tatum Jones, P.O. Box 2781, Houston, TX.”
I rolled over and let the cat (he’d come creeping back) have the magazine. A few buzzards were playing on the wind currents above the mountain. Wisps of white cloud streaked the sky. I imagined myself on stage in front of crowds of cheering people. I thought about the yellow dress in my closet, the one too informal for church but too good for everyday.
I sent Tatum a letter that next week along with a cassette tape my brother and I made; we’d recorded it on a portable tape player. Luke strummed the acoustic guitar, and I sang about my part-time job walking dogs at the vet clinic, “Blue and green intertwining. Black and brown combined. Warm sunlight shining. Happiness inside.”
Make a collage of a character’s mind. This character can be made up, or he or she can be yourself or someone you know. Use magazines, and rip out images as quickly as you can, aiming to bypass your thinking brain and access your intuition, your unconscious. Just flip through and tear. Then arrange, again trying not to think. Work fast. You might want to do this to crazy violin music or the sound of the beating of a drum. Let your eyes fall on images, on colors, on shapes, and fill a big piece of poster board or a cut and spread wide paper bag with torn images, their edges ragged. Next, use tape to lock them in place. Your finished collage might completely cover its backing from edge to edge, or it might work like a horizontal stripe. However it looks, stare at it for a little while. Let the visual you’ve created of your character’s mind settle into your own. Finally, write a 400-word piece that tells the reader who that person is, through some incident that happens outside. Send it to me at email@example.com and it may be printed in a future issue of TFW.