“To create art (not just story), go into The Cave by yourself. Be brave enough to write in the dark without other people’s opinions until you feel you’ve found your voice.”
~ from Tammy Lynne Stoner’s essay, “Making Feral Creatures,” in Brave on the Page
It takes great courage to sit down and face the blank page, to put down on paper those stories close to you, to share those stories with others. Writing is not for the faint of heart.
While we may tackle first drafts alone, success often results from time spent in community with other writers — in critique groups, in workshops, or in those simple moments when we meet for coffee and talk about the frustrations and the freedom in writing. This is the crux of Brave on the Page, a book full of shared insight and advice. Edited by Laura Stanfill, this book blends author interviews with a collection of short essays on writing and offers readers a variety of perspectives on the craft.
Today, Jackie Shannon Hollis, one of the authors featured in Brave on the Page guest posts. She shares on how solitude may inspire us, but community helps guide us through our writing.
Writers as Witness
I write on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on Wednesday afternoons, I take those pages (five, ten, fifteen) to my critique group. Each of us in turn hand out copies of our work and read it out loud. What I can’t hear or see when I read to myself is revealed around the table, with these witnesses. Awkward bumps in language, over-reaching, missing details. We talk about the story, anything from where a sentence break or comma should be, to deleting or moving or reworking paragraphs. We write notes on the pages. Sometimes the notes applaud the grace of the words, the humor, the courage. A note that says, “Damn, this is so beautiful, I kind of hate you.” Or, “The dishes can wait, the email can wait. You’ve got work to do. Keep going.” I learn as much from listening to others’ work as I do from reading my own. I take my pages with those notes and go home. Alone to revise, and to write another section.
A few weeks ago I went to the beach for six days of writing. I’m working on a memoir about being childless, about how a marriage survives when one partner wants a child and the other doesn’t. I had lots of sections done, and many notes of what was left to do. I needed the solitude to get a sense of the whole, how it would all work together. The first few days were slow going and I worried I wasn’t getting enough done.
When I’m stuck in my work, I like to move. To drive or work in the garden or take a long walk. I took a lot of walks that week. Manzanita beach is my favorite shore with its long stretch of flat sand. Birds, a few people, a few dogs.
One morning, after a long walk, I stood and watched the ocean. The waves, the morning sun, the clouds. A line of birds (cormorants? frigate birds?) trailed each other low over the surf, a ribbony kite string of birds. I listened to the ocean, that constant shush and roar. I listened for the sentences, the ideas, the shape of my project.
A surfer carried his board across the sand. His board was old and white and stained. He stepped into the water, pulled up the hood of his wet suit, shifted his board, and pulled the rope from the fin and wrapped it on his wrist, then flipped the board, turned it around, and let it go.
It was a rhythm. The way he took himself to the water.
He walked with his arms raised, trailing the board behind on that rope. He had to get past the breakers to the flat water, where the big waves would come. When the water was high on his chest he climbed on his board and paddled. The rise and fall of the breakers pushed him up and over, up and over.
He’d done this many times.
When he reached the far water, he joined three other surfers already there. They greeted him. They paddled, bellies down, on their boards. One rose up and caught a wave; rode the curve just ahead of that horizontal curl of white. The others watched. When he was done, they called out and spoke in the sign language of surfers. Another caught a wave. The others watched and called out. And so on.
I am in another writing group. One that meets a few times a year. Alone, we read a whole manuscript. We come together for one evening and talk about that manuscript. What is working, what is left to be done. It is intense and overwhelming and full of care for this big work.
In both of my writing groups, I have a deep respect for what each of us bring to the table. Not just the writing, but who we are as readers. We bring something particular, something that is needed. One person tracks the fine details, another looks for where tension goes slack, another notices where the voice is lost. We stir the creative in each other. The discussion is rich and deep and the critique always helps the writer delve further, dig more into their work.
We are like those surfers, gathering in deep water, we compete, we show off, we fall. Each of us know a special thing, how to move to standing, how to find balance, how to judge which is the best wave and where to meet it.
We are writers.
Alone, we make our way. We gather out there, in the flat beyond the breakers. Between the waves.
Jackie Shannon Hollis lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines including, The Sun, Rosebud, Slice, High Desert Journal, and Inkwell. She has completed a novel and is working on a memoir. You can see more of her work at http://www.jackieshannonhollis.com. You can find her flash essay “Move” alongside other writers (including some from her writing groups), in Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life.
About the book:
Brave on the Page is a craft book, a how-to guide, a catalogue of successes and failures, and above all, a celebration of what it means to be a writer in Oregon. The 200-page collection, edited by Laura Stanfill, features forty-two authors and their views on creation, revision and the publication process. Brave on the Page is available made-to-order at the Espresso Book Machine in the purple room at the downtown Powell’s Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Portland. It is also available online at ondemandbooks.com or at any Espresso Book Machine around the world (see the list of locations here).