write here, write now

Journal THAT

A Guide to Writing

cynthia gregory

Once upon a time I belonged to an amazing clutch of writers who met every week to explore writing through timed exercises. It was one of the best writing experiences I ever had, and it did more to develop my skills as a writer than almost anything I’ve done since. Twenty years later, I still miss meeting with that group of women. We shared a very important time, you might even say a sacred time, two hours each week, supporting one another and learning to develop our writing voices. Few things were allowed to interfere with our commitment to meet. We gathered faithfully each Friday at an outdoor table at the Bear Street Café in Orange County, California. We parked our individual cares at the door in order to be fully present and nakedly honest during our journaling session. We wrote furiously, read aloud with quaking voices, listened respectfully, and grew as writers.

Now that I live in another state, I maintain virtual relationships with several of these fabulous women, and we see each other when our travels coincide. But the thing that remains one of the greatest gifts of my life is that even though what we mainly have in common is our passion for writing – no matter what, we support each other. We celebrate each other’s success, and provide insightful comments to help make each other’s work the best it can be. Writing groups are an excellent way to develop as a writer. You can find or form  a group by taking classes, getting to know other writers, and then meeting outside of the classroom setting to give yourself more honest writing time.

Back in the day when we met at Bear Street, we maintained a strict routine that goes like this: write nouns or phrases on a slip of paper, and drop them in a cup. One by one, the words are extracted from the cup, and the group collectively writes a timed exercise based on the prompt. After the time is up, we go around the table and read our work. At first, it isn’t easy. But in the right group you soon learn that it is a safe place to expose your heart. Writing is like a slice of your soul, a trickle of blood. You put it out there and your bravery is rewarded a million times over. One unbreakable rule is that no one is allowed to comment on anything anyone reads. Ever. This is not about opinions or feedback; it is about expression. But I will tell you one thing: our writing got stronger and better and more deeply creative by just listening to each other.

I think we secretly tried to out-compose each other, but the result was that we pushed each other to spiraling heights of creativity without so much as one critical word. It was amazing and illuminating and a huge lesson in the art of paying attention.

The exercises were sometimes fun; and just as often downright grueling.  But the important thing was that it pushed us to write beyond “inspiration.” If you wait to write until you’re inspired, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter. By pushing yourself to write for a set amount of time about a set subject you learn to write beyond the boundaries of comfort and the results can be profound. Sometimes, as we filled out those slips of paper, one of us would throw in a ringer and add the words “one sentence.” This meant that when we wrote our journal entry, it has to be all one sentence.

This might sound about as hard as a second slice of your favorite chocolate cake, but it’s more challenging than that. To jettison periods flies in the face of every eighth grade grammar drill you ever sweated through. It’s right up there with cutting your own hair – or wearing your painting pants to church. It’s simply not done, my dear. But oh, the freedom! You can’t even know .  Have you ever been hiking on a deserted mountain trail and taken off your shirt to expose your skin to all that pure alpine air? The freedom is exhilarating. . .it feels like skinny dipping in a pond of oxygen.

This is what eschewing periods can do for you: it can open a door into your essence that you didn’t know existed.

Now you are probably afraid that if you drop the period out of your writing it will be pure gibberish, but this simply isn’t true and in fact, I suggest it  will open you up to possibilities or maybe an indulgence like a dirty little secret, oh say, like those grapes you sample before you buy them because you want to know if they’re really sweet even though you’re paying for them by the pound but it’s a big grocery store anyway not like that wonderful little farmers market where they hand out samples of pastry and cheese and rich, ripe strawberries, and oh the onions were so beautiful today that I almost bought a pound of them and put them in a vase they were just that purple and shiny with skin so tight you just wanted to lick it and I really really need to plan my grocery shopping a little better so that I can come to the farmers market and listen to the man playing the guitar and think about the million little ways we are connected and what really matters and a meal prepared with love is better than sex and if you don’t believe me just go out and rent Chocolat one more time and imagine what it would have all meant without a little slice of mango and chipotle and bitter, bitter chocolate.

See? Writing is about pushing borders and you will never get to where you want to be as a writer if you don’t do something you have never done before, at least once, the end.