Story Jam

Last week I participated in a Story Jam, an event where local writers read their works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry around the theme, “You give love a bad name.”

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That’s me reading about First Love

Sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (the original WNBA), and organized by local author, Rae Theodore, the Story Jam drew about thirty-five people–ten readers and twenty-five listeners. The owner of a local coffee shop,  Brewed Awakening, was gracious enough to open late for this special event.

As I listened to these brave souls share their work, I was struck once again by the amazing power of a prompt: give ten people–or twenty or fifty–a word, a phrase, some theme to write about, and you will get that many diverse responses. I see this every Tuesday morning at our Just Write writer’s group.

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Our ten brave storytellers

Look closely at this picture of all the writers who read their stories that night and you will see we are looking in all different directions–indicative of how we write–with unique views and unique voices.

Some of the varied takes on our theme involved First Love, Free Beer, Psycho Alcoholics, Ice Cream, and a Vengeful Wife.

As a reader, I experienced the power of having an audience, a mirror for your work. This is a lesson I am grateful to have learned at the Women’s Writing Circle. There is magic in oral storytelling, an alchemy that transpires between speaker and listener when written words are given voice. I can’t explain this in scientific terms, but I’m convinced there is research out there somewhere that would corroborate my claim.

wnba story jam flyers 2016What’s in a name? I tried to have a “reading” last year, but I couldn’t muster any interest. There was no theme, no exciting name like “story jam” or nifty flyers to pass around. My vision of a reading was of a sedate group of listeners pretending to be interested in hearing us read our stories. Having a theme brought cohesiveness, fun, and energy to the event, and having the backing of WNBA lent extra weight and officiality. I will put this in my “lessons learned” category.

These lessons could be applied to other arts as well. Imagine putting out a call for artwork surrounding the theme “You give love a bad name.” Or any theme. Perhaps a combination of arts.

Can you envision a room filled with works of art based on a theme, with authors reading, musicians performing, dancers dancing?

Can’t wait for the next Jam.

Artistic Legacy

I am writing this week’s blog in honor of my mother and her musical family. This family of nine siblings did not have an untalented one among them. Raymond, with never a lesson or practice, could pick up any instrument and play like a master. He also had a spine-tingling tenor voice. George, a.k.a. Red, was lead singer and guitarist in his own band.

My mother, Louise, her twin, Lorraine, and their older sister, Margie formed a trio at a young age and were performing publicly (with their father as chaperone) by the time they were fourteen.

The Redbirds, a.k.a. The Nelson Sisters

The Redbirds, a.k.a. The Nelson Sisters

My Aunt Margie (in the middle with the guitar) passed away a few weeks ago at the age of ninety-three, and her granddaughter put together a video collage with a few rare recordings as the soundtrack. I have listened to it repeatedly, tears streaming down my cheeks, as their voices reached to the depths of my soul–because of who they are to me, but also because of the shear beauty of the sound they created.

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Their three-part harmony–voices blending like the colors of an evening sky–strikes a deep, rich chord in me. They gave me my love of music, my ear for harmony, even though I can’t sing it.

And so I write this to honor them for sharing their gifts, but also to remind myself and others that we are not here forever. We do not have an infinite amount of time to use our gifts and talents. My mother and her sisters chose family and a conventional life over a creative life. Am I judging them for it? How could I? They sang when they were young. They traveled, they had a radio show, they devoted themselves to their art when they were young. Then they moved on. But those experiences were a part of the women they became. That creative spirit never left them; it became a part of their legacy.

They sang whenever they were together, but those times became few and far between. Eventually, they were spread out over three different states, hundreds of miles apart as age and illness made it increasingly difficult to travel.

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Singing at a family reunion

My point is, some of us pursue our art when we’re young and then move away from it for one reason or another. If we’re lucky, we may migrate back to it in later years. I have a high school friend who revived his music career after retiring from his job. Kudos to you, Dan! I also resurrected my desire to write after I was “over the hill,” as we used to say.

Or maybe we never got to live those dreams as a young person, due to a lack of confidence or time or any myriad reasons.

I want to say it’s never too late. But eventually, it will be too late. What if that insidious disease, Alzheimer’s, steals your mind? (Although, I do believe being actively creative can forestall that.) Or arthritis robs your dexterity? Or illness consumes your energy?

What I’m saying is, do it now. Sing, dance, write, paint. Give something of your creative self to the world, or at least to your family.

What about you? Who marked you with their artistic legacy? Will you leave your own mark?

 

 

 

Journal Mining

Day after day, month after month, year by year, I scribble my thoughts in journals, sometimes faithfully, at other times skipping whole chunks of time. I will call them journals, although most are Morning Pages–three pages daily of stream of consciousness handwriting, as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Scribble Stix

Scribble Stix

Many days I wonder what purpose this serves, dumping my thoughts onto the page, as I rarely go back to read them. Recently, though, I committed to contributing a piece to an anthology themed “Life Unexpected.”

A couple of fitting experiences came immediately to mind, so I looked to my journals to refresh the details. After retrieving nearly ten years of notebooks from various places I’d stashed them, I stacked them in chronological order, isolated the time period I wanted to focus on, and started reading.

IMG_1531Memories, and the accompanying emotions flooded back. I sensed that I was holding the feelings at bay, like viewing events through a telescopic lens. Was this because I have achieved a level of detachment that only time can provide? Or are those emotions still locked away, trapped in the pages of the notebooks?

I told myself, I’m just skimming now–strip mining, so to speak. Strip mining is a practice used to remove overlying soil or rock, waste material that covers up the rich minerals underneath. The reference seems appropriate here; I unearth a gem now and then, like this quote from Mona Eltahawy:

“As a writer it is my duty to poke the painful places.”

IMG_1537My journals are where I “poke the painful places.” Revisiting those rough times–the life unexpected–I extract the lessons learned and, through the alchemy of writing, transform them into gold.

At least that is my goal–to transmute my experiences into stories  others can identify with and benefit from.

 

Do you journal or write Morning Pages? Do you mine them for material or keep them, and the stories they contain, locked away?

 

 

Creative Breath

A few years ago while listening to Native American flute music, I realized that, with headphones on I could hear every breath between the notes. At first it seemed to detract from the melody. But the longer I listened, the more the breath sounds became part of the music.

It occurred to me that we each have something that gives breath to our creativity, something that powers our art.

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Breathing new life into my art

I have long been fascinated with this particular instrument and often listen to it while I write. So last week I finally bought myself a Native American flute. Exquisitely hand crafted from cedar, it is a work of art in itself.

The simplicity of the design makes it relatively easy for even an amateur like me to play. From the haunting sound of the low notes to the joyful flight of the highs, it centers me and lifts me up.

This type of flute is one of the oldest instruments known to man, along with the rattle and drum. It was used to imitate the sounds of nature, primarily birds.

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I am not a musician, but I believe that creativity thrives on experimentation. Are you a writer? Pick up a paintbrush or a camera. Are you a painter? Write a poem. If you are right-handed, try sketching with your left hand or vice versa (a technique used in art therapy).

Breathe new life into your art.

I was surprised to learn while playing this flute that the higher the note, the more breath that’s required. The highs are closest to the source, and yet more strength is required to reach them.

What is the breath that powers your creativity? What have you tried in order to increase that force flowing through you, reaching for the higher notes?

I Dream of A Writer’s Room

I have a vision in my head of a large room filled with writers, each with a private desk and comfortable chair, the perfect blend of privacy and camaraderie. Heads bent over laptops, fingers tapping, muses dancing in the air, stories being born. A creative haven–the Writer’s Room.

No, not the BBC-TV version.

BBC-TV, The Writer's Room

BBC-TV, The Writer’s Room

More like the New York and D.C. versions.

NY City Writer's Room

New York City Writer’s Room

DC Writer's Room

DC Writer’s Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How cool is that? A dedicated space just for writers. Published and emerging writers. Novelists, memoirists, and poets, oh my!

In this era of telecommuting, shared office spaces are springing up all over the country. Working from home sounds like nirvana until the loneliness sets in, or the laundry starts calling, or the phone won’t stop ringing with nuisance calls. It can provide a wonderful sense of freedom until you start to feel stagnant from lack of interaction with other humans that aren’t inside your head.

For these very reasons, Writer’s Rooms have existed since the 1970’s. In addition to providing a place for writers to go to get out of the house, a Writer’s Room is a community, a place where collective creative energy will invite the Muse and inspire great writing, (If more seclusion is needed, a good set of headphones can shut out distractions while you stay surrounded by community.)

Some comments from the DC Writer’s Room explain it best:

“Many writers, even writers with workspace at home, are finding that a totally distraction-free environment can do wonders for their focus and productivity.

Another often-mentioned benefit, interestingly, is the presence of other writers. Motivation and seriousness are highly contagious. Some writers also ­value the chance to talk with fellow writers in a social space like our kitchenette.” 

Writer’s Rooms generally have a tiered membership pricing schedule–a pay-as-you-go, monthly, quarterly, bi-annual, or annual fee for use of the space. For just over a year, I have tried what I call a seed experiment. For the price of coffee and breakfast, our writer’s group, Just Write, has reserved space at a local coffee shop every Monday morning for three hours. There might be as few as two or as many as ten writers on any given Monday.

 

Just Writing at Java's Brewin'

Just Writing at Java’s Brewin’

Novels have been written here, memoirs drafted, blogs posted. It is an atmosphere of focused intent and warm camaraderie. It is my dream to create a space where this atmosphere can thrive on a daily basis. My vision also includes a creativity room for brainstorming, workshops, classes, and coaching sessions.

It is a big dream, and I worry that it will remain just that–a dream. But I know that big things can happen with consistent small steps, so I will continue to put one foot in front of the other. Next steps: 1. Find a space to meet more frequently. 2. Impart the dream to more writers.

Where do you do your best writing? Do you have a writing community? Would you take advantage of a Writer’s Room if one were available in your area for a reasonable cost?